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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Raffi Bilek

The American Dream

During the infernal no man's land between camp and school this year I took my family on a short trip to New Jersey and back with a few stops here and there. The crown jewel of the vacation was a day at the American Dream Mall, which it turns out is, according to the Zohar, the nexus of all gashmiyus in the universe (at least according to one opinion).

Besides the endless rows of stores selling you beauty and self-confidence (which you cannot achieve without their products) and the myriad junk food outlets pushing sugar and fat, there is also a full-scale amusement park, a water park, and a ski hill, all indoors. It reminded me of the kind of opulence you hear about in Dubai (a land so wealthy they build their own luxury islands from scratch).

The amusement park was full of longests and tallests (claims I did not verify but I assume to be true until I hear otherwise from Dubai). I regret that I did not have the opportunity to check out the ski hill, and I also skipped the water park - although I was probably exposed to enough bare skin that day to more than make up for it. (It's been a while since I've ventured out into this kind of ritzy-glitzy environment, and standards of decency seem to have fallen even lower in the interim.) I did my best to avoid looking directly whenever possible (though the diabolical placement of one Victoria's Secret store across from the other was a real snare). I still felt pretty contaminated at the end of the day.

It wasn't just the unspoken ethos of the place though. At times it was perfectly explicit. IT’SUGAR, a three-story candy store filled with every confection you could imagine (and some you couldn't), touts slogans that appear to be personally authored by the Evil Inclination, such as “diets start tomorrow,” “less rules, more sugar,” “the answer is always candy,” and “we believe in asking for forgiveness instead of permission.”

In this frothing sea of hedonism aptly named the American Dream, there were a surprising number of kosher certificates to be found, among them in the kosher section of IT’SUGAR and at the decadent Cinnabon kiosk. In the days before I kept kosher I had patronized a Cinnabon store or two, and the deliciousness was easily called to mind. But oh, how technology has advanced in the years since! The menu sported an almost literally unbelievable confection called the Cookie BonBite, a chocolate chip cookie with a cinnamon roll baked inside. I have no idea how they got it in there, but believe you me, I got it out pretty quick.

The BonBite was kosher. I made a decent bracha on it before and after. But I submit, in hindsight, that in fact the hechsher might have been the most diabolical part of the whole edifice.

How easily do we fool ourselves that if we’ve checked the halachic boxes, we’re in the clear. How quickly do we convince ourselves that if there’s no issur, it must be mutar. We delude ourselves: the Ramban long ago warned us of the danger of becoming a naval birshus haTorah, a person who does only that which is permitted yet is still disgusting in the eyes of God.

Gluttony is not kosher, even if the food is. Avarice is repugnant even in the absence of choshen mishpat violations.

We are all composite vehicles of a spiritual soul and a physical body, and we are called to seat our souls firmly at the helm. The illusion of piety produced by a kosher BonBite is dazzling. But it is an incredibly dangerous indulgence in that it beguiles us to let our guard down, and, believing that we’re in line with the Shulchan Aruch, we chow down, swallowing whole the hedonistic mentality along with the gooey, creamy culinary opus. We are quietly yet powerfully influenced, if we are not exquisitely careful, to identify with our physical drives and satisfactions, and we lose sight of our true essence as a vessel for spirituality rather than a fat horse running pathetically after a carrot.

I hope it is clear that I am speaking to myself more than anyone.

I spent that evening doing a little extra learning in an attempt to cleanse myself of the insidious impressions that were made on me over the course of the day. I think it helped.

None of this is to say that there is no room for gashmiyus in our lives. Of course, we need to partake of the world and enjoy it. The question is whether it is a means or an end; whether it is a servant or a master. American Dream can be a part of a Jewish life (well, parts of it anyway), but there’s no question that it’s quite a bombardment of gashmiyus all at once; caution is advised.

I don’t intend to never visit the American Dream mall again; I just plan to be intensely aware of having my guard up when I go.

And maybe stick to just one BonBite.

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