June 13, 2024
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Nobody plans or wishes for a balagan. It is not intended or desired, though it can be predicted. In fact, just about any situation can devolve into a balagan. Once a balagan ensues, stopping it is harder than stopping Jews from leaving a dance floor to partake in a soft-open smorgasbord.

A balagan usually is defined as a “disorderly, confusing, and/or overwhelming situation.” Such a definition is technically correct but does not fully capture the nuances or effect of a true balagan. When a balagan unfolds, those caught in its wake usually drown in disarray. A balagan typically creates a climate of confusion and miasma of messiness so stupefying that it leaves heads spinning like a dreidel. A balagan is like a dizzying drama that entropically descends into perpetual chaos with no intermission and no final curtain.

In some ways, a balagan is like obscenity; when you know when you see it. For example, a sit-down catered event will obviously and inevitably become a balagan if there are no table seating assignments. In other words, general admission seating is a balagan just waiting to happen.

Sometimes a balagan can be a useful excuse, like when you are (i) being audited by the I.R.S. and you claim that you cannot find certain receipts because your files are a complete and total balagan, (ii) running late for a first date and you claim that you got caught in traffic, which was a horror show of a balagan or (iii) explaining to your spouse that you forgot to pick up one of your eight children from school because having eight children means that you are living an inherently balagan lifestyle.

Jewish history is filled with plenty of balagan moments. When Noah filled his ark with animals, two by two, that, on some level, must have been a balagan. When the Tower of Babel was built, or at least when the builders started to speak in different languages, that surely was a balagan. The Exodus from Egypt was a tremendous miracle and blessing but, to some degree, it also must have been a massive balagan. Wandering in the desert for forty years arguably was, at least on the surface, the longest balagan in Jewish history.

Nowadays, Israel’s Machane Yehuda marketplace is the epitome of a beautiful balagan, one to which Jews from around the world are drawn. Machane Yehuda can be such a balagan, especially on a Friday, that when you walk through it, you will feel like a delicate article of clothing caught in a washing machine’s most unforgiving spin cycle. But, just as the clothing eventually comes out clean and fresh, so too you will exit the balagan of Machane Yehuda feeling spiritually laundered.

Another classic balagan is the whole notion of parent-teacher conferences. Parents race from table to table, trying to cram all of their questions and concerns into their designated five-minute time slots, an unrealistic structure that is doomed from the start. Invariably, some yenta-ish parents will overstay their welcome with particular teachers. This leaves some irritated parents standing and waiting while others monopolize a teacher’s time and cluelessly continue yapping well after the bell or buzzer. All of this causes an irreversible domino effect that ripples throughout the room, turning what should have been a convenient one-hour set of mini-conferences into a three-hour balagan of epic proportions.

Sometimes a balagan is a good thing, or at least relatively harmless. One could argue that at every Jewish wedding, the dance floor turns into a balagan, with bodies colliding in chaotic molecular fashion. However, such organized menschy chaos does actually feel like a balagan, probably because we have come to expect it. Indeed, it is not as if Jews on the dance floor are striving for the structure or etiquette that line dancing would provide. At a Jewish wedding, we want a fast-paced whirlwind of insane activity that constantly flirts with disaster and continuously places the chatan and kallah in nearly precarious situations (e.g., chair lifting) and on the verge of true physical exhaustion. Indeed, if a chatan and kallah are not sweating profusely, suffering from dehydration and experiencing what feels like a non-fatal mini-heart attack or stroke, then some might question whether the event is merely a dress rehearsal.

Final thought: How can you tell if a balagan is about to begin? That’s easy. If three or more Jews are vying for something (anything) and other Jews (any other Jews) are responsible for supervising the situation (any situation), then assume that a balagan is in the offing.

By Jon Kranz

 

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