7:50. First day of school. I step over the metal threshold, gripping the shoulder strap of my ragged backpack. A wonderfully amicable, yet firm handshake – what is to be the first of many over my subsequent four years – greets me there, along with a smile and a name: Barry. A fine beginning. Still nervous, though. I hurriedly scuttle across the entrance hall, glancing upward only to avoid colliding with the menacing and frightful builds of juniors and seniors. I continue down the hall, through the double doors that lead beyond the business and academic offices. That is when it happened. Collision. Not with a junior; not with a senior. No. With the one, the only, Dr. Stein. See, in my ignorance I was unaware of the door that leads from his office directly into the hallway. He was pushed back a few inches by the impact; but nothing compared to the blow my self-confidence took. There I was, looking up at a grimace, a scowl, the likes of which I had not encountered in my short life. No words, just that hair-raising, blood-curdling facial contortion. I tried every formulation of “I'm sorry” I could recall in that moment of terror. Then I wandered off, keeping my head down as if he would a bore a hole in my skull if I dared turned back.
That was my first day. And then I thought potentially my last day. And yet, I stand before you on this stage preparing to graduate from The Frisch School with one of the most wonderful cohorts of people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. So, I think it is safe to say I am in the clear. Nevertheless, I will take this final opportunity to apologize to you, Dr. Stein, for that incident that has been weighing down on me all these years.
With that out of the way, I can proceed with my talk.
In my freshman year, I was certainly a different person. One of the most distinctive features of freshman Akiva was his attire. Each and every day, nearly without exception, I would walk into school sporting a red fleece zip-up sweater. To demonstrate to you just how devoted I was to this red sweatshirt, on the night of Shiriyah I chose to wear it over my t-shirt. So, yes; pretty devoted. Which is why, when I discovered that Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, would often don a red hunting cap, I immediately fell in love. I was so excited, that when I got home, I ran to my desk and began reading...the Sparknotes online summary. It was marvelous. It was insightful. It was perfect for passing the upcoming test. And, as you are soon to discover, it would do just fine for a graduation speech.
Sparknotes highlights three major themes in the book: alienation as a form of self-protection, the phoniness of the adult world, and the painfulness of growing up. Tonight, I will focus on only the latter two. On the phoniness of the adult world, Sparknotes provides the following insight: “Phoniness is Holden's catch-all for describing the superficiality, hypocrisy, pretension, and shallowness that he encounters in the world around him. Phoniness, for Holden, stands as an emblem of everything that’s wrong in the world around him and provides an excuse for him to withdraw into his cynical isolation.”
This is a sentiment that I think resonates with any 21st century individual. In this era of social media, ipads, iphones, etc., one finds himself inundated with “superficiality” and “shallowness”, if not lasciviousness and immodesty. As William Wordsworth observed over two centuries ago,
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
So consumed in its consumerism, so indiscriminate with its indulgences, society has become a breeding ground for phoniness. What then are we to do? How then are we to respond?
Holden provides one model, that of “cynical isolation.” This is an atittude that has come to expression in one stream of Jewish thought. In the words of Saul Berman, “[it] starts with the assumption that the two worlds [of traditional religion and modernity] are so radically opposed that the only way to safeguard the Orthodox worldview is to maximize separateness.” In this Weltanschauung, the outside world is so polluted with superficiality and materialism - “phoniness”, so to speak – that it has become completely unconducive to spiritual life. As such, Judaism must become a cloistered endeavor. While this is certainly an answer to the above questions, it is not the only one. As Modern Orthodox Jews, we must take a different stance in the face of the “phoniness” of the world. We must recognize that the world is not compromised by pervasive phoniness; there is still much the world has to offer, and we should engage it so that we may enhance and enlighten our Judaism. Modern Orthodoxy is not easy. It requires constant attentiveness to the maintenance of Jewish wholeness in the face of the distraction of material excess and pure self-gratification. It necessitates struggle, duality, dialectic, tension. It asks for commitment to an often times complicated life. It is easy to be Holden Caulfield, to shrink into oneself. Not so, to be Modern Orthodox. But we must, in Shakespeare’s words, head “once more into the breach, dear friends. Once more” – for though the struggle is immense, the spoils are innumerable.
Let’s turn now to the second theme – ‘the painfulness of growing up’ – a topic I imagine to be near and dear to the hearts of all those sitting upon this stage, myself included. Holden, as Sparknotes perceptively notes, “is an unusual protagonist for a bildungsroman [a coming of age narrative] because his central goal is to resist the process of maturity itself.” In Holden, we might see something of ourselves. As we stand at the edge of the rye, graduating from the Frisch school, perhaps we don’t wish to leap into the vast unknown. Perhaps we hope to be collected by the warm embrace of the “catcher in the rye,” letting us delay our departure for a little longer. Understandable. Yet, it is not to be. Time, indeed, waits for no one. So tonight, we must not turn inwards and deny change; rather, we must recognize the truth in the words of Remy of Pixar’s Ratatouille: Change is nature. Frisch has been a wonderfully nurturing environment – a glorious rye field, if you will. I know that much of who I am today is due to the faculty, and more importantly, my friends, at the Frisch School. But the time has come for us to leave the rye and embark upon the journey of life together.
I close with the words of Walt Whitman:
Forever alive, forever forward,
We go! We go! I know that we go, but I know not where we go;
But I know that we go toward the best – toward something great.