Metaphysical Musings

I wrote several columns over the last two weeks. But you won’t see them (except for this one) because the others never progressed beyond mental drafting and redrafting. I never hit a single keystroke.

It’s not that they weren’t good ideas. They were — or at least I thought so. But those columns, about important, serious issues dealing with Orthodox Jewish feminism and with politics (national, local, and shul), just didn’t click. I knew where to start but could never figure out how to end. And some of the surrounding circumstances kept on changing, making my path so muddled that I became lost in the weeds. I therefore put them aside for another day — or, perhaps, forever.

But leaving my computer screen blank wasn’t an option since I could feel and hear the Standard, and my editor, beckoning. Heeding those silent calls and putting aside my initial ideas, I turned to a metaphysical — or perhaps, philosophical — question; one like “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” My question is simple: Can a retired person ever truly go, or be, on vacation?

I actually asked this very question twice in recent weeks. The first time was when Sharon and I, following years of tradition, spent a glorious week at the lovely Berkshires house of a dear friend. When there, I happened to mention to another friend in an email that I was on vacation in the Berkshires. And that off-hand comment led to the question raised in this column.

The second time was on the last day of the spring trimester of the Beit Midrash of Teaneck. BMT is a program geared to retirees, and when we finished our very last Prophets class with Rabbi Hayyim Angel (a particular favorite of mine and many others) and were saying our good-byes to those we might not see until the program restarts in mid-October, a common comment was “Have a great vacation.” “Really?” I thought. “Vacation? Most of us haven’t worked in years — and we’re going on vacation??”

To cut to the chase, I’ve concluded that yes, retired people can go or be on vacation. But the meaning of vacation differs between the two circumstances that raised this question in my mind.

When I was in the Berkshires, I was actively on vacation. I wasn’t in my Teaneck home, where I follow a relatively regular routine. Rather, I had relocated to a vacation area, and was living in a vacation house, doing vacation-like things. I stood on the deck off the kitchen and watched the sun set over the lush green carpet of Monument Mountain; went for a stroll down Stockbridge’s Main Street and later, at the Norman Rockwell Museum, saw his painting of that very same street as it looked on Christmas, 1967; drove along the Housatonic River and watched it ebb and flow with the rains; spent early Friday afternoon at the Clark Institute in Williamstown (a Kaplan Berkshires custom), exploring a superb Edvard Munch exhibit and learning that his oeuvre is so much broader than “The Scream”; and took in a Mac-Haydn production of “42nd Street,” which was as much fun as the original, which we saw in a vastly larger Broadway theater in 1980. Well, almost as much fun, that is; we still miss Jerry Orbach. I love living in Teaneck, but none of this would have been possible there.

And there was more. The house we stayed in is blessed with an inviting outdoor heated pool, which, during some beautiful weather, I eagerly used. We spent hours talking with our host about matters small and large, family and international. That’s something we miss; because she lives in Newton and we live in Teaneck, we rarely have a chance to chat easily. And we watched two excellent movies (“CODA” and “Tetris”) and binged on two complete television series — the depressing, indeed horrifying (especially for Sharon and me, who know the villain) “The Shrink Next Door,” and the poignant and deeply moving “A Small Light.” Both are available on streaming services that our host subscribes to but we don’t. Again, I love living in Teaneck, but none of this would have been possible there.

My BMT vacation is very different. It won’t be about experiencing new and exciting places, events, and people; rather, it means stopping doing something very special. For more than three months my fellow students and I will no longer have the opportunity to spend an hour and a half a week learning books of the Prophets from a master teacher; to be exposed weekly to our many Teaneck rabbis and educators expounding on parshat hashavu’ah; to study Jewish history with teachers as outstanding as Rabbis J.J. Schacter, Yossie Levine, and Daniel Fridman (who is also BMT’s director of curriculum), and Drs. Ari Mermelstein and Ronnie Perelis; to be taught the intricacies of Jewish law and thought by a seemingly never-ending stream of leading and learned Jewish scholars like Rabbi Mordechai Willig (a college classmate and long-time friend), Dr. Miryam Wahrman, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, and Shuli Taubes (a favorite of mine whom I always try to listen to when given the opportunity); and to participate in classical limud Torah in classes on Talmud and Minchat Chinuch.

Being on vacation in the Berkshires is very different from being on vacation from BMT.

Upon reflection, however, the latter has benefits as well. Being on vacation from rather than in is an opportunity to relax and rethink, to shift, if only briefly, our priorities and interests. Our circuits clear a bit, and we can concentrate on things we’ve put off because our quotidian activities and concerns have so occupied our time and thinking.

The pile of books, articles, and newspapers that we set aside “for another day” can finally find that day; the closet or room that needs to be uncluttered or rearranged can finally be spruced up; the backlog on our DVRs can finally be reduced. It’s easier for us to have a sleepover with our delicious 2 1/2-year-old grandson (as I’m actually doing as I type away), who is awaiting becoming a big brother in the coming weeks — boy, he really doesn’t have any idea how life is about to change for him!

We’ve returned from the Berkshires, and after the summer fades away and the fall holiday season concludes, I’ll be back at BMT. Vacations are an often-helpful respite from our everyday lives. They allow us to explore new places and meet new people. But they also help us appreciate the reality that we’ve made for ourselves and return to when our vacation ends.

Being on vacation is a chance to recharge. Just like our computers and smartphones, we too benefit from an occasional rebooting.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.