THE AGONY OF THE BENCH WARMERS

Dr. Miriam Adahan, January, 2008–01–19

 

Imagine that tomorrow morning, there is a decree that everyone in the frum world must wear the same shoe size –let's say size 8. Those who wears size 8 feel great – but those with larger or smaller feet suffer. The same is true of the pressure we put on people to fit into a one-size-fits-all way of life. 

The dream of every Jewish parent is to have a brilliant child who will study Torah with joy and diligence. Every Bais Yaakov girl is taught to think, "G-d forbid that my husband should work!" But what is the reality? Is every boy capable of sitting and learning full time? What happens to those who cannot? Most of these boys fall into three main categories:

A:  The learning disabled. There are some 350 different learning disabilities which have been identified thus far, affecting between 25-50% of any classroom. After going through the school system, which lauds the brilliant ones, most of these boys live with a deep feeling of failure. 

B. Boys suffering from anxiety or depression. People with either problem function best when they are physically active and involved in tasks which distract them from their anxiety-ridden thoughts and painful feelings. To build self-worth they must feel successful, in control and competent. If they are not feeling successful in their learning, at least earning a living might bring them a degree of self-esteem; and then they can fix hours for learning Torah with a sense of pleasure.

C. Bright boys who need action.  These are the boys who would like to be involved in business, agriculture, construction, hatzolah, medicine, engineering, technology or travel. A mother once told me that her eleven-year old had told her, "I will commit suicide if I have to go back to cheder one more day!" This bright child had learned all the names of the fishes in the waters around Israel. He was extremely curious about nature and loved to build things. I told her about a small yeshivah which had recently opened, where the boys were learning part time and also building their own classrooms themselves, doing the electricity, wood-working and plumbing on their own. There were also animals to take care of and vegetables to grow. Before long, she called to tell me that the boy was thriving in his new environment.  

Few parents have the courage to make such decisions, especially when flexibility might ruin the family name. Instead, boys learn to always assure the kallah's parents that their greatest wish is to sit and learn forever.  

After the sheva brochos, the truth begins to emerge. Perhaps, he does not get up to daaven. By the time he has had breakfast and done a few errands, it is time for lunch. Perhaps he goes to the kollel for a few hours of socializing and some "light" learning. When he returns home, he has no words of inspiration to give her. Instead, he is focused on food and fun. Because he got up late in the morning, he is up half the night, shmoozing with friends or going out to see if there is any action in town. Soon there are children. The wife drags herself out of bed at 6 a.m., gets the children ready for school by herself because he is still sleeping and races off to work, knowing that he may not get up until 10 or 11 a.m. Meanwhile, she works around the clock, barely sleeping, dropping her baby off to some care-giver a few weeks after birth, unable to nurse because it is too stressful and comes home after an exhausting day to another full time job - laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping and children's endless demands. If she were supporting a talmid chacham, she would gladly sacrifice her children, her time and her health, but as it is, her resentment grows, which has a terrible impact on the marriage. She cannot help but wonder, "Why am I doing this? What kind of role model are the children seeing?"

Some young men are happy with this arrangement; to them, this is the "good life," being treated like a prince and having a wife who does all the work and provides all the services. Others feel that they are living a lie, ashamed that they are just warming the bench, that they will never have sharp minds like the brilliant ones in the kollel and that they "learn" without any real pleasure or sense of accomplishment. They feel anxious and depressed, but are afraid to let anyone know. Daavening is a sham, something they must do to keep up appearances. They may want to work, but can't risk shaming their families. They have no useful skills and have no idea how they would manage outside the protective kollel walls. Low-paying, manual jobs are a blow to their ego. Some are willing to work in the family business, but only if they can start at the top at a high salary. Some young men borrow money from a gemach and buy lottery tickets, hoping to make a quick buck. Within six months of marriage, one young husband I know of was already $50,000 in debt. Pregnant with their first child, his wife had to work in a factory for a very minimum wage in order to pay the rent; he had already lost the money that was given to buy a flat.  He cannot work without besmirching the family name – or having to go the army.  

Women who work long hours and are married to bench warmers will admit, with little prompting, "Is it my job to wake him up and to make sure he learns?" After a few years, most will admit, "I cannot respect someone who is a lazy do-nothing. When I'm exhausted and he won't lift a finger, I am so enraged and so hurt." There is no shalom bayis without respect. And no man can respect himself if he does not feel that he is moving forward in his learning or at least earning a living and contributing to the building of a family and the development of his own potential.

Maybe Hashem bless us with the courage to be honest and to find solutions that fit each person's personality and talents.

 

[My new guidebook for people in abusive relationships, FROM VICTIM TO VICTOR, can be purchased for $15 from THE ADAHAN FUND, 2700 W. Chase, Chicago, Il. 60645 or 13/5 Uzrad, Jerusalem, Israel. All proceeds go to help those who are in such tragic situations. I can be reached in Israel at 011-972-2-5868201 or at emett@netvision.net.il.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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