Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas to the Members of the Shul

Recently, a synagogue newsletter wished a Merry Christmas to interfaith families. As a member of an intermarried family, I was upset. As a member of a synagogue, I was upset. By definition, a synagogue is a Jewish institution and as a Jewish institution it does not wish congregants Merry Christmas. It is not what a synagogue is about. We are Jewish: period. Clearly, in our personal lives, we wish people Merry Christmas and that's great; however, the synagogue does not celebrate Christmas. The greeting also presumes that because one of the spouses or partners isn't Jewish than the family will be celebrating Christmas. Not all interfaith families celebrate Christmas. I said, earlier, we are an intermarried family and we do not celebrate Christmas. Most importantly, I work very hard at making my child feel comfortable in a world where everyone else celebrates Christmas. I don't want to have to feel like I'm fighting against my synagogue as well.

Of course, I wrote this all in a complaint letter. The answer I received basically stated that it was really meant to be a Christmas greeting to the families who do celebrate Christmas. Huh? It's still okay to wish the interfaith families who do celebrate Christmas a Merry Christmas from the synagogue? Because, while I'm worried about my child--the bottom line is that we are synagogue and we don't wish our members Merry Christmas. What members do in their personal lives is their personal lives, but we are a synagogue. If we wanted to be welcoming to Christmas, we'd be a Unitarian Church. We can put Christmas in all the secular glory and Santa Claus that many Americans see it as, but it is Jesus' birthday, and we are in not in the business of Jesus.

I know I sound harsh, but this whole conversation worries me. (this is something I've been thinking about for a long time.) We spend so much time worrying about including everyone that we forget that we are first and foremost a Jewish Institution and while our members come from diverse backgrounds--we can't forget our Jewishness. Other institutions exist out there, like the Unitarian Universalist Church, that were created to be an all inclusive organizations--we aren't them. We are open to having intermarried families; however, we exist to give them a safe Jewish place where they can learn to express themselves Jewishly. We are there to lend extra support to families when they feel that having only one Jewish parent doesn't give the foundation their child needs. We are there to teach the non-Jewish partner about Jewish culture, Jewish celebrations, Jewish history, Jewish prayer, and Jewish spirituality. We are there to welcome into our Jewish arms inside a Jewish context. While we understand that the non-Jewish partner or family has other faith traditions and we are happy to learn about those traditions outside the synagogue--our synagogue is not the place to celebrate those traditions. We wouldn't expect a church to give up Jesus for the day to make the interfaith families at a church feel more comfortable. Being progressive and liberal and open doesn't mean we make ourselves less Jewish in order to make people feel more comfortable.

This conversation extends far beyond Christmas. Reform congregations all over American are constantly looking at their ever-changing demographics. They are looking for a way to make the synagogue an open, progressive, and diverse community. They are opening their arms to interfaith families. Their intentions are good and noble and just. However, I worry that somewhere along the way; we've lost perspective about who we are. Somewhere along the line we've forgotten that we aren't just creating a safe community devoted to making this world a better place, we are a safe JEWISH community committed to making this world a better place through our Judaism. If we want to keep the Jewish part of ourselves, we cannot be afraid to draw lines. We welcome interfaith families as members, we have Jewish weddings where one partner isn't Jewish, we welcome the non-Jewish partner on the bima during their child's bar or bat mitzvah. We welcome them at services. We bless them. However, the water starts to get a bit murky when our desire to be open starts to break away at the Jewishness of the organization. I can't say I know exactly where that line is. Do we let non-Jewish partners serve on the board? Maybe. Should we be open to welcoming children of intermarried families into our religious schools even if they already attend a Christian Sunday school? I would argue no. Do we continue to fight for Jewish weddings for intermarried couples? I say yes; however, those weddings aren't a gateway into a mishmash religious life. They are a gateway to a Jewish life. Clearly, as a Jewish community we do not proselytize. By asking the non-Jewish partner to participate in Jewish events, we aren't asking them to become Jewish. However, families need to know that if they are choosing to join a synagogue—they are choosing to be part of a Jewish community. If we don't clearly define that community in Jewish parameters, then as our Orthodox brothers and sisters warn, we will lose ourselves.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thoughtful Justice

On Tuesday night, it was my turn to write the d'var Torah for my synagogue board meeting. Since I haven't written in a long time, I thought I'd share it:

In Judaism, our belief in God is not enough for us to be good Jews. A recitation of the sh'ma does not grant eternal salvation. Our actions underscore our faith. Our actions hold us accountable, bring us together, guide us, and even pull us apart. As the High Holidays draw near, we are reminded over and over again on the importance of action. Today, in fact, marks the beginning of our preparations—Rosh Chodesh Elul—the start of the month of Elul is when we take stock of our deeds, both good and bad, and decide how we are going to move forward in the coming year. Tradition tells us that during the month of Elul, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai to receive a new set of tablets after destroying them in anger over the Israelites building of the Golden Calf, which we find in (Ex. 32; 34:27-28). Some sources think Moses went back up the Mountain on Rosh Chodesh Elul and came back down to the Israelites on the 10th of Tishri, at the end of Yom Kippur, when repentance was complete. Others feel that during Elul, Moses prayed to God in behalf of the Israelites, so that God would forgive the people for their actions.

The Torah portion for this week, however, is not Exodus 32 or 34. The portion says nothing about Moses, or the Israelites, or the Golden Calf. Yet, this week's Torah portion connects to the concepts of repentance and action presented in Exodus. Famous for the lines, Justice, Justice shall you pursue. (Duet 16:20), Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) not only asks the people to pursue Justice, it provides a structure of Justice: the appointing of magistrates and officials for the tribes, providing rules against cult worship, organization of courts, laws of the king, rules for the Levites, rules for prophets, rules for unintentional homicide, rules of settlement, rules of blood avenging, rules for waging holy war, and atonement for an unsolved murder.

Why does God need to lay out the rules of Justice? If we look back at the Golden Calf incident- we see a group of Israelites feeling fearful and alone in the wilderness. Remember, the first time Moses went up the mountain; the Israelites had no idea where he went or when he was coming back. "Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him." (Ex 32:1)The Israelites made the god out of fear. They felt alone in the wilderness, possibly abandoned by their leader at the bequest of a faceless bodiless God. They wanted something to hold onto. The Oxford Jewish Study Bible, says, "Although most commentators believe that they mean "god" literally, it is more likely that they mean it as…something that would serve as a new means of securing God's presence." (JSB, 183) They even say, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." (Ex 32:4) God tells Moses the people are making a calf. He runs back down the mountain, to find the Israelites worshipping the Golden calf. "As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain." (Ex 32:19). God wants to punish the Israelites by destroying them, but Moses pleas with God, and after many pleas, Moses goes back up the Mountain receive new tablets. "Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered." (Ex 34:1) What do these tablets give the Israelites? They give them rules to live by, so they aren't standing in the dark, so they aren't living by fear and ignorance. Moses repented for the people, so that they could gain knowledge of how to act.

Shoftim continues that concept—giving the abstract idea of Justice a concrete definition. It not only tells the people that they need magistrates, or kings, or even war—it lays out how those magistrates, kings and even witnesses should act. For instance, it tells us that the punishment for praying to another god is death. However, while the punishment of death for praying to another god seems harsh, the rules speak to more than the punishment. We don't simply kill someone because one person says they prayed to another god: "A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness." The same goes for any crime. "A single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more." (17:15). Again, Justice isn't simply about the wrath of a vengeful God or vengeful people, Justice is about being thoughtful. Justice also does not lie in the hands of any one person. Judges and magistrates are also not above the law. "You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes if the discerning and upset the pleas of the just." (16:19) Even when it comes to the power of a King, the king's power is not absolute. He cannot have too many horses, or wives, or gold and above all—he must follow God's teachings. "When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows, or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left…" (17:18) Thus, the king is never above the law.

Above all, Shoftim recognizes the danger of absolute power. It deals with corruption head on, so that Justice is thoughtful and action is meaningful, and the people are not constantly living in fear. Thus, when we prepare for our own repentance, our repentance is for actions or words we know are unjust. We aren't apologizing out of fear. Our repentance, like our justice, should come from a place of thoughtfulness.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Musings on Direct Encounters

How many hours have I been here? I've written nothing! Nothing! I'm finding it impossible to pick a Jewish American writer. I'm surrounded by Allen Ginsberg Journals, Howl, Kaddish, and some dude who wrote a narrative beat poem about Allen Ginsberg. Of course this dude was a Guggenheim Fellow and received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Whatever. It makes my stomach take a nose dive. I keep reading bits and pieces---unable to synthesize the information in a meaningful manner. In the Introduction to Howl, William Carlos Williams compares Ginsberg to Christ. Damn. This is thesis material—maybe? One line does not make thesis material. One line. One line. Ginsberg's use of words like copulate and snatch, and granite cocks make me squirm and cringe like a prude. Words I might use under other circumstances to make other people cringe. And then, and then I turn the pages to a Supermarket in California. " I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing grocery boys." I love it. I wrap my fingers round the tiny poetry book and sigh. Maybe it's not Ginsberg that makes me so uncomfortable. Maybe it's the words of others. Maybe, just maybe, I need to, as the Cultural Historian said me, have a direct encounter. Ginsberg--can I write about you without writing about your life? Can I write about you by simply reading your poetry? I'm fearful if I write my thoughts alone, I'll miss some vital component by some legendary beat writer or philosopher or literary critic. I'm fearful, I'll miss the point.

I seemed to have more courage a year ago when I wrote of Y.L. Peretz's encounter with God. Anyone who read his work or knew him personally said he was Godless poet: a man who wrote simply for the people. When I read his work, I saw God in every crevice and corner. I saw God in his politics. I saw God in his short stories. I argued that he felt God deeply. It worked. And now, a year later, hundreds of pages of writing later, I cannot seem to gather such arguments. I can't find what to write. Is it Ginsberg? Is it Adrienne Rich (a non-Jew, whose father was Jewish, yet she wrote about Jews.)? Is it Dani Shapiro who fits neatly into the path of the confused assimilated Jew who desperately wants to find her Jewish place in the world? She seems like the perfect place to start. I've read her memoir Devotion and two of her novels in one week. I devoured them and looked at them with skepticism. Then, I looked at her website. Every time I clicked on a link a new picture of her beautiful face popped up. It seemed so self-indulgent. Her memoir seemed so self-indulgent. And yet, is she any more self-indulgent than my own writing? Can I blame her desire to travel on a spiritual journey in search of God and a sense of peoplehood? Her novels are intense fast reads; however, her novels are simply extensions of her life with different scenarios: one Jewish parent, a crazy selfish mother, a worshipful husband, an only child, a frightening medical condition, glimpses of New York City, and crumbling houses in New England. I can't remember which scenarios are fact and which scenarios are fiction.

Why can't W.H. Auden be a Jewish American Poet? Instead, he's the whitest guy ever. At least, he was gay. "He was my North, my South, my East and West/My working week, and my Sunday rest." That's poetry I can cleave to. Ginsberg talks about Auden in his journals, "Description of Auden's apt. Clutter and dirt…Liked Auden's Nones…." Quite frankly, if you read Ginsberg's journal you can't even tell if he's writing about a conversation with William Carlos Williams or Auden or both. Back to Ginsberg. Back to something.

I could write more on Shalom Auslander. I tried to find out why so many NPR hosts and reporters are Jews. I wish there was some Jewish American writer who wrote about his/her encounters with orthodox boys. If I've gleaned any bit of information this semester on the Jewish-American- American-Jewish cultural experience it is through those boys and their youth and their new found love of God and rules. If I've learned anything about the Jewish American experience, it's that sometimes Jewish schools just need warm Jewish bodies so they can continue being Jewish schools. And sometimes those same Jewish schools are filled with brilliance. I've watched an Orthodox boy give a presentation on the Marx Brothers and neglect to mention their Jewishness. I've watched a 612er give a presentation on Hassids who don't even live in America and then bring Hassidic Hip-Hop in at the end. Why didn't he just stick to Hassidic hip-hop? Why not just stick to all 613 commandments or at least all the ones that don't involve Temple ritual. These boys are my direct encounter with Jewish Culture. I'm not sure you could have written a better script…

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Crying for Allen Ginsberg’s Mom

I cried in class last night: tears streaming down, ugly face crying. At least I didn't make any noise. It was awful. My only consolation is that I didn't cry because of some self-righteous orthodox argument. I didn't cry because of their stupidity or meanness. In fact, the boys were on their best behavior. Black Hat spoke to me for the first time and Crazy Chaim followed me around like an overly excited puppy. I was half-surprised he didn't try to follow me into the bathroom. And Curious George—who knows. All I remember of him last night was his confused comment to the Cultural Historian that he'd read for the wrong week. His lack of sachel is almost starting to concern me.

Frustration 1- Work: I walked into class already filled with frustration. Earlier in the day, I had conferences with my writing students. For the first time in many semesters, almost all of my students are great. They come to class, they ask questions, and best of all, they write well. Of course, one student is the exception. He's missed many classes, he's always late, and he's changed his topic three times! Any piece of work he hands in completely wrong. It's not that he can't write; He simply refuses to follow directions. The beauty of the class is the straightforward directions and endless examples. He has every excuse in the book—I'm hindering his creativity (it's technical writing—there's no creativity in Tech Writing), the writing center was mean to him, he was taught in the French and British school system (what that has to do with following an example, I'll never know), on and on and on. After missing his conference because "he had to take a test or study for a test or whatever," he brought me his "paper" (and yes, I mean to put quotations there). It was professional, a bit out of order, and well-written. However, it wasn't the assignment. I gave very strict instructions (instructions, by the way, created by the college), and I gave example after example. I read through it rather quietly, trying to decide if he plagiarized. I say nothing about my suspicions. I need proof before I can have that conversation. Beyond completely ignoring the assignment, the order is all wrong: Introduction—Results—Research—Conclusion. "Why is research after results? I don't get it." I ask him.

"What do you mean? How do you not get it? You hate me. You're always singling me out. I try and I try and I try for you, and you're so mean to me. I've been educated in so many places. My dad works for the UN…" (oh, then by all means, if you're dad works for the UN, then do whatever you want)

Frustrated, I stare at him. I feel like I'm talking to a brick wall. Nothing I say will make any difference. He will end up failing. He will make a huge stink. I will have to speak to my boss, and then the Dean…

I want it to stop. He spends more time complaining then he does listening. If he just followed directions. GRRRR. Semester after semester frustration follows me. It follows all of us. They use up all their energy complaining. They expect to be passed along. They expect that looking busy automatically gives you an A. It doesn't! The final product gives you an A.

I carry this frustration on the long drive (in the pouring rain) up I95 and through the city streets of northeast Philadelphia. I carry it with me as I get out of the car and walk onto campus. I carry it with me as I set my books down and get out my computer and listen to Crazy Chaim bark happily in my ear.


Frustration 2- Hypocrisy: Surprisingly (to me at least), women want to talk about this blog: Jewish women. Women with their own frustration. My ortho boys have hit a nerve. Suddenly, women are telling me stories. Most of their stories revolve around sex, not just any kind of sex, but sex (or at least heavy petting) with confused orthodox boys. Sex with a man they met in Israel. Sex with a man they met at study group. Sex with a boy they met at Chabad on their University Campus. It is sex filled with guilt, and tzittzit, and black hats. Sex in emails, text messaging and phone conversations. It is secretive. The women are Jewish, but not religious. Thankfully, the men are (at least in these stories) single. In every other way, they follow Halakah (Jewish law). They pray when they are supposed to pray. They eat kosher food. They wear the right clothing. They follow the rituals. They won't pray with a woman. They won't shake a woman's hand. They won't speak gossip. However, they simply cannot help themselves when it comes to sex. They fall down the endless ladder of redemption over and over again. Do they think their God does not care? If you can't be virginal for God, who can you be virginal for? Usually, they place their guilt on the laps of the women. They beg them not to tell. They harp about ruining their reputation in the Jewish community. They hang up phones, they walk out on secret dates, and they keep coming back for more. I'm all for people having sex with whoever makes them happy. However, the hypocrisy is ridiculous. These orthodox men scream from their soapboxes about the impurity of women, but what about their own impurities? What would they do if they knew their future wives were having secret trysts with men? What would they do if they found out their wives weren't virginal? Would that be forgivable? Now, I admit, I have no idea what would happen to these boys if the community were to find out about their sexual misdeeds. Nonetheless, I'm guessing the old Jewish men with their long white beards and big fury hats, might just pat them on the shoulder, wink, and say, "Good job."


Frustration 3- Allen Ginsberg (or what sent me over the edge): When we finally started class, we analyzed Allen Ginsberg. We listened to him read from his poem America. I've never been a fan of beat poetry. My mind wandered as his drunken high as a kite voice filled the room. I think I may have laughed once or twice…Then we listened to:

A Supermarket In California by Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whit-
man, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees
with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images,
I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of
your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole fam-
ilies shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives
in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you,
Garcнa Lorca, what were you doing down by the

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old
grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator
and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed
the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of
cans following you, and followed in my imagination
by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in
our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every
frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors
close in an hour. Which way does your beard point
tonight? p
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets?
The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses,
we'll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming ofthe lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-
teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit
poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank
and stood watching the boat disappear on the black
waters of Lethe?

Berkeley 1955 (reblogged from poets)

I dug it a bit more. I loved the thought of wandering the aisles of the supermarket with my favorite literary figure. Of course, when I imagine great intellectuals that appeal to me, they start fighting. Usually, it's just one figure: Hannah Arendt in her later years- dark hair pulled back, cigarette in hand, judging everyone in the room. "That Peretz thinks his stories are so smart; He knows nothing of Politics my dear. He's too confused."

We moved onto a selection from Kaddish. I'd read it over the weekend. It deals with Ginsberg's mother Naomi.

She suffers from schizophrenia. She has hallucinations of the government out to get her. She bounces from one place to another. He must watch his mother fall deeper and deeper into madness. "The enemies approach—what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhadanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store? Uncle Sam in Newark, plotting deathly perfumes in the Negro district? Uncle Ephraim, drunk with murder in the politician's bar, scheming of Hague?"

When I read it at home, I wondered, "How did he survive such horror?" However, in class, I was struck by his physical description of his mother. It was…grotesque. I want to find an example that doesn't make me feel sick and uncomfortable. (even I have my limits) " dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers…"

To remember your mother like that and I don't just mean emotionally, but physically. To describe one's mother in such a sexual way was too much for me. I said, "I'd rather not be remembered than to be remembered like that." The older gentleman in my class (a psychologist in the prison system for over 30 years), turns to me and says, "But he can't forget."

Maybe it was my frustration from earlier. Maybe it was the fact I have a young son of my own, and I can't bear the thought of him ever speaking about me like that. It overwhelmed me. As the boys sat their staring into their books, tears started streaming down my face. There I was, crying over Allen Ginsberg's dead mother.

The boys kept stared at their books. The Cultural Historian looked over at me then looked down again. Stop crying stop crying stop crying. The tears kept coming. I had to get up and leave the room.

I'm a crier. I've always been. However, this was different. As the only female in the room, I hated exposing myself. I hated feeling like the GIRL—the silly emotional weak girl.

When I came back into the room they were still talking about Ginsberg. I jumped right back in like nothing happened. And no one said anything to me…

I'm sure their talking about me right now.

Now, I'm the punch line.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Running towards Stupidity

As I walked my giant oaf of a dog in a neighborhood much fancier than my own, I heard a giant swarm of bees. I looked all around me--buzzing around filling the air. The buzz buzz got closer and closer, until finally I saw them: a swarm of fifteen or so women running and talking  and talking and talking. Skinny legs and all flew past my ass and falling apart black boots. The oaf stood in one place gnawing on the long wet grass oblivious. "How do they do that?" I wondered aloud in both awe and utter annoyance. How does one run and talk and run and talk with such ease? After a few minutes, I pulled the oaf back to the car, dropped him off at home, and went back to my normal morning of writing and researching. I forgot about them...

However, at some point I decided to check facebook and my page was filled with running updates: 5ks, 3.5 mile markers, running music enthusiasm-- all from people who never used to run. College friends, law school friends, work friends, my husband's high school friends. In fact, all from women I placed at the top of my list of women who looked good without being skinny. I liked my list. It made me feel good. Not that they are wasting away to practically nothing, but they are doing the one thing I can't handle: running. I'm not anti-exercise, in fact, last semester, (stress on last semester) I was super in shape. I worked out at least four days a week. I could walk forever- up hills and down. I lifted weights, punched bags, did suicides, but whenever I actually started running I'd have a full blown anxiety attack. Hiccuping, crying, yelling--I couldn't get past it. Somehow, everybody else, people I never imagined in the whole world get past it!

Why? Now, I'm not looking for encouragement. The last thing I want to hear is- you can do anything you put your mind to. Comments like that make me want to punch you in the face. Comments like that make me want to be fat just to spite you. Or worse, you'll become a character on this blog. I just want to know if everyone else got some magic pill in the mail that I missed. Some would argue that this all stems from the fact I'm married to an avid runner (now you all feel you figured it out), but The Giant Gentile's running doesn't get to me. It's his thing. He's a super athletic crazy man who has never found a physical activity he isn't good at. He's not someone to compare myself to. I know how he gets past it--you could cut off his arm and he'd keep going. It's in his Giant Gentile genes mixed with Marine Corp training. It's the women who seem more like me that I don't get.


The Cultural Historian returned papers last night. Crazy Chaim spent the first five minutes I walked in the room bragging about writing the paper without reading the book. "I saw the movie; it's the same thing." Then he practically leaped for joy when he looked at his grade. "Look!" He screeched, tsit tsits flying with misplaced pride. For a moment, I thought I might be blown away by his brilliance. For a moment, I thought he pulled his tallis over the eyes of The Cultural Historian and managed to wow him with his astounding prose and bullshit insights. The moment passed quickly when he shoved the paper in my face (but not close enough to actually touch me). "C! Isn't that Great? I got a C." Atlanta turned to him and said, "I would have pegged you for an achiever."

"Achiever!" He squealed back with glee. "A C is an achievement. Every time I've gotten a C or better I've been overjoyed."

Now, I'm worried about the credentials of the graduate school. If he's proud of a grad school C, then what does that say about his grades in college? Do they just let any Chaim Yonkel into the graduate program? How did he explain away his crappy GPA?

Just when I thought the IQ level in the room couldn't get any lower, when we finally looking at literature, Curious George says "I'm confused." We were reading Philip Roth's Eli the Fanatic about a community of Jews in 1948 30 minutes outside of New York City who cherish living comfortably next to their gentile neighbors. They don't want to be seen as Jews. They've worked too hard to blend in and are incensed when a Yeshiva of DPs (two men and eighteen children) opens its doors in their backyard. The traditional Jews fill them with fear. "There he was, wearing the hat, that hat which was the very cause of Eli's mission, the source of Woodenton's upset….Get the one with the hat. What a nerve, what a nerve." (Roth, p.920)*

The Jews in the community send Eli, a lawyer and member of the Jewish community, to speak to the head of the Yeshiva. Of course, as Eli said, "The trouble was that sometimes the law didn't seem to have the answer, the law didn't seem to have anything to do with what was aggravating everyone." (921) The Jews in the Yeshiva are greenhorns; they are obvious Jews. Thus, the community feels they reflect poorly on the modern Jews. "This is the twentieth century, Eli. Now it's the guy with the hat. Pretty soon all the little Yeshivah boys'll be spilling down into town…next thing they'll be after our daughters." (923)

In the midst of analyzing the story, Curious George raises his hand. "The story is about Jews? I thought it was just the town complaining." No dear, the whole point of the story is the tension between the assimilated American Jews and the traditional immigrant Jews. Fine, whatever, I should cut him some slack. Sometimes we skim stories and miss the whole point. My own students do it all the time. However, my own students are community college students. They take my class in order to improve their critical reading skills. They do not have the benefit of a four-year college education. Again, everyone makes mistakes. I used to think that if someone got five fouls in a basketball game they we're thrown out of playing basketball…but I digress

We moved on to Art Speigelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust—Maus II. Curious George pipes up again. "Dude, I'm so lost. I have no idea what went on in the story. The pictures are confusing." So let me get this straight: words confuse you and pictures confuse you. As I write this, I worry that I sound like a condescending Jerk. I admit, when the Cultural Historian asked me to add my own thoughts on Maus II, I had a hard time. My foot had fallen asleep and I was trying to talk and shake it awake under the table. Maybe Curious George's foot falls asleep a lot. Maybe he's got a really hot girlfriend who makes it hard to concentrate on reading. (doubtful) Maybe his cat died. Maybe he needs new glasses. At least he didn't scream, "This isn't literature—it's a comic book!"

Then, during break, Curious George tells me this strange tale of his friend in college who organized an Easter Egg hunt for the Jewish Student Union. They hid eggs around campus, and when the Jewish students found them, they were found with Jewish sayings. "What?" Chaim interjected with disgust. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Curious George looks at me for encouragement and understanding—convinced, I'm sure, that my Gentile husband and low-cut shirts make me very comfortable with going on a Jewish Easter Egg hunt. "Um, I have to say I'm with Team Chaim on this one." I said with my best talking-to-a-young-child voice. "Easter and Jews don't mix well." He gave me a look of confusion and then a bit of shame. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I told him it was dumb. I can't believe he did it."

Sure Curious George. Sure.

I should let it go. I should remember that my other grad school classes were filled with intelligent individuals. My other classes had rabbinical students, educators, lawyers, and even a nun. More than anything, my other classes were filled with adults not 22 year-old boys.

Maybe I should go for a run…

*Roth, P. (2001). Eli, The Fanatic. In J. Chametzky, J. Felstiner, H. Flanzbaum, & K. Hellerstein (Eds.), Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology (pp. 918-945). New York: WW Norton & Company.



Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ortholand Never Looked so Good

I may have failed to mention that there is a boy in my class who is not Orthodox. He's Reform and, quite frankly, wasn't worth mentioning because he barely ever said anything. Before this week, he simply struck me as young. Mostly, I forgot he was in the room. This week, however, he must have sensed my lack of attention; He made Crazy Chaim look sane and open-minded.

A Jewish landscape artist who lives in Philly but works in New York came to discuss Jewish-American Artists of the 20th century: artists like Mark Rothko, Larry Rivers, and Philip Guston. More than anything, he spoke of men in distress. They were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants who moved to this country to make new lives for themselves. Many of them lead destructive lives: women, alcohol, and depression defined their lives and many times inhibited and haunted their art. Like many 20th century artists, they sought to make a statement through their art about the importance of the inner struggle and path to spiritual enlightenment. Art was no longer what other people wanted them to paint, but what was inside their spirit. Painting the royal family or even every day scenes gave way to the internal struggle. As The Artist said, "they wanted to destroy the cult of the past. Originality is the new greatness." Their paintings pulsated with the inner workings of life and youth and shiny newness.

We looked at slides of the changes of art through time from impressionism to abstraction. We looked at Larry River's naked jazz musicians playing their saxophones. We stared at Phillip Guston's cartoonish self-portraits with their hanging light bulbs, shoes, cigarettes, and KKK hoods all seeped in an endless pallet of red paint. We watched as Mark Rothko's evolved from barbaric mythological imagery to abstract swirling shapes and colors to giant blocks of color. The Cultural Historian (my professor) noted that he'd seen a Rothko exhibited at the Guggenheim, and when he stood back and watched the paintings wind up the twisting walkway of the Museum-the colors emitted their own glorious light—saturating the building in brilliant colors. For the Cultural Historian, Rothko brought holiness to the Guggenheim.

The boys commented on my silence. They were shocked that I'd barely said a word. I didn't want to speak. I was taken in by these artists: captivated by their subject matter, their lines, and their choice of color. I was drawn to their destruction and their seduction from perfect form to abstraction and back again. Their inner darkness wound its way around every line, every curve, and every brushstroke. These men struggled, had nothing, and then were worshiped by the art community. They were living breathing struggling examples of what it meant to change the cultural landscape of America.

At some point, Mr. Silent-all-semester (we'll call him Curious George because when I reenacted my class at dinner last night, I used my son's Curious George as a prop), looked at two abstract paintings side-by-side, one huge black brush strokes and the other multi-colored whose lines seemed to curve into the body of a beautiful long haired woman. I was quite taken with the painting, but then from the corner of the table, Curious George's nasal pre-puberty sounding voice sharply hacked through the air, "How is that art?" The Artist looked up from his slides and array of articles scattered across his table. "Well," he said thoughtfully searching for the right words, "Abstract expressionism is not concerned with subject matter. Instead, it is concerned with making a statement. Although, I admit, at times, the statement is usually much more obvious to people who've studied the artist than with the general public."

"Ach!" Curious George bellowed. "A kindergartener could paint that. What's the difference between those lines on a paper, and kindergarten refrigerator art?" (of course, as the mother of a five-year-old, I know that kindergartener's lack the fine motor skills make lines like that impossible to draw, but I digress).This was not the argument of a Talmudic scholar mind you. It was loud and abrasive. It was as if he'd heard nothing of the Artist's lecture. Were his eyes closed when we looked at each slide? "We could go all day, dealing with the merits of art; however, let's move on to learning about these men's lives."

The slideshow continued. The stories of drinking and philandering and suicides of fathers filled the otherwise silent room. Finally, we got to an instillation created by Mark Rothko at the end of his life for an ecumenical chapel in Houston, Texas. In 1964, John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Rothko to create a meditative space filled with fourteen giant paintings by Rothko.( Rothko did not live to see the chapel completed. He committed suicide in February of 1970.) While the Artist didn't have a picture of the actual chapel, he showed us a slide of the type of painting Rothko formed for the chapel: a giant rectangular wall-sized painting saturated in differing shades of red and purple. Three separate blocks of color stacked on canvas. Even from the slide, the painting emanated light. The Artist spoke about the wonders of the chapel, how people from all over the world come to meditate and feel the power of the paintings. I wondered if walking through the chapel would be like walking through a meditative labyrinth except instead of earth and trees, one would get mesmerized by color. The Artist played a composition by Morton Feldman written for the Rothko Chapel. According to the Artist, it was one of the loudest pieces created by Feldman. (to experience Rothko's paintings and hear the composition click here) As one reviewer noted, " Rothko Chapel is the most accessible of Feldman's compositions. It sounds like Debussy with spare lyrical strings, chimes, and an enchanting soprano." (reposted from review). I found the music haunting yet oddly calming. I imagine it is the perfect complement to Rothko's pieces.

I, however, was alone in my assessment of Rothko and Feldman.

"What kind of music is that?" moaned Curious George. "So depressing! That's not something you jam to." (because, after all, music you jam to is the only kind of music) "And, I'm sorry," Curious George squeaked and rasped at the same time, "but, that is not ArT! Those paintings are nothing. Anyone could do it. A child could do it. I could stare at the freaking door and come up with images. Does that make those images ArT? No. It just makes them something in my head. It goes back to the refrigerator. That's something that goes on a refrigerator."

The Artist said nothing for a long moment. My body temperature rose with my utter embarrassment. It wasn't the fact he didn't like the pieces I found embarrassing, it was the screaming at the top of his lungs. It was the way he ignored the entire lecture, and the way he went on and on and on. He kept harping on the horridness of the paintings and the music. He wouldn't stop. The room filled with the awful scratching of his voice.

While, I'd kept my mouth shut all day, I simply couldn't help myself. "It's about intent." I said quietly, shyly. "It doesn't matter whether or not you like the paintings or if they have shapes and forms you can pick out. What's important is why he decided to paint them in the first place. "

"Well," interrupted Curious George, "All these guys were insane. They should be in a padded room."

I looked down at my sloppy clothing choice of a t-shirt and workout pants, relieved for once I hadn't had time to change into my normal anti-orthodox attire. I took a deep breath, sighed, and did only thing a sane, lover of thoughtful discussion could do—I crawled under the table.

I don't know when I'm coming out.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

UnAdventures in Ortholand

I thought there would be big adventures in Ortholand yesterday. With the exception of Crazy Chaim getting yelled at for singing to himself while we were supposed to be talking about Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman (yet, again, he didn't even pretend to have the book), nothing exciting happened. We all got along…blah blah blah.

Is it wrong that I'm disappointed by such boring developments? I'm hoping that next week when I give a presentation on Shalom Auslander (an former ultra-orthodox Jew, who lives in constant fear of a non-existent all-mighty God and feels his parents theologically abused him) that the discussion will perk up. I've sent the boys a short story about Seth, an Israelite in Egypt who feels uncomfortable with God's plague policy and Moses' need for more desirable real estate. I also sent them an episode of the greatest radio program ever—This American Life. Shalom Auslander reads "The Blessing Bee" from his book Foreskin's lament, where a young Auslander attempts to lose a Blessing Bee at his religious school in order to put a curse on his hated father. Auslander is hilarious, irreverent, and vulgar. He will make them laugh and piss them off. I'm curious how these boys, with their newfound love of tradition, will react to a man who's walked away not only from tradition, but from God.

That being said, I'm beginning to think that only one of them (Crazy Chaim, no less) will really react poorly. A. the stutterer with black clothes and a beard, who kisses the mezuzah every single time he walks in any room (no matter how many times he's walked in that room.) is one beard length away from being a Torah Jew. While his stuttering probably has a lot to do with his desire to keep quiet in class, he's never said a word to me or even made eye contact. I'm sure I concern him, but instead of strutting around like a disheveled peacock (like Crazy Chaim), he chooses to stay away. Somehow, his desire for tradition is less bothersome to me. (maybe because he seems more authentic.)

M., the sweet boy from Atlanta, also doesn't strike me as a lifetime member of Ortholand. Chaim clearly rubs him the wrong way, but more than that, I get the feeling he's found community and structure in the world of orthodoxy more than a deeper sense of faith. While he does come out with odd comments like, "I think a little censorship is a good thing." He's willing to sit next to me, and share his book without getting out a spray bottle of mikva water to clear my impurities from the air. The constant attempt to make eye contact, smile, and wink at me doesn't strike me as very religious either. I may be wrong…

In contrast, as I keep harping on…Chaim uses his newfound religiosity as a self-righteous weapon: an excuse to think he's superior and an excuse to be misogynistic. I'm sure he won't read the short story or listen to the radio show, but he'll find a way to argue with me, and I'll argue right back. Because, as with most things, I simply cannot help myself.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Aleichem Shalom


As you can tell by my earlier post, the orthodox boy's comments stayed with me all week. It made me feel a bit like a crazy person. However, I simply could not drop it. I was determined to bring it up in class on Wednesday. My Professor thought it was a good idea.

Before class started, I ran into him in the hallway....(He needs a name. Whatever shall I call him? Crazy Chaim?). The week before, He'd told me that he hasn't read for class since his sophomore year of college. He said it with pride; I wanted to spit on him. I asked him if he'd read the two plays for this week's class. He looks at me, smirks with self-importance, and says. "Of course not, I haven't even bought the book." I wasn't ready to throw the dirty woman lecture at him, but I spit back, "I teach, I go to school, I have a kid, a husband, and a house. I read! You can't take time out of your life to read?" He smiles, starts walking away turns his head towards me and says, "What can I say? I'm lazy." What I wouldn't give to wrap my dirty female hands around his neck…

My annoyance grew when, ten minutes later, I sat in the classroom with HIM and M. very sweet ortho boy from Atlanta. M and I were playing Jewish geography, when A. (ortho boy #3.) walks into the room. "Shalom Aleichem." A. says to M. "Aleichem Shalom." M replied. "What are you doing!" Booms Crazy Chaim. He leaps up in his chair, Tzistzis flying everywhere, his too tight t-shirt immodestly shifting.( I wonder how long it would take to climb under the table.) "Whaa whaat?" .A stutters " We are greeting each other." M replies tightly, " We haven't seen each other today."

"Today maybe." Chaim loudly shouts, "You just saw him yesterday."

"And?" M questions, to my utter delight, clearly annoyed.

"But the Talmud says we only use Shalom Aleichem as a greeting when we haven't seen each other in a very long time. You saw each other yesterday."

I'm guessing this is what he's referring to:

" Shalom Aleichem is the name of a hymn chanted on Friday nights, upon returning home from the Shabbat-eve services. This song of peace, introduced by the Kabbalists of the 17th century, is based on the talmudic passage concerning a good angel and an evil angel accompanying every man home from the synagogue on Friday evenings. If they find the house in good order, the good angel says: "May the next Shabbat be as this one." If, on the other hand, they find the house neglected, the evil angel says: "May the next Shabbat be as this one":

Talmud - Mas. Shabbat 119b

It was taught, R. Jose son of R. Judah said: Two ministering angels accompany man on the eve of the Sabbath from the synagogue to his home, one a good [angel] and one an evil [one]. And when he arrives home and finds the lamp burning, the table laid and the couch [bed] covered with a spread, the good angel exclaims, 'May it be even thus on another Sabbath [too],' and the evil angel unwillingly responds 'amen'. But if not,7 the evil angel exclaims, 'May it be even thus on another Sabbath [tool,' and the good angel unwillingly responds, 'amen'.

7 If everything is in disorder and gloomy.

If every Jew is accompanied home by two ministering angels, then it is only proper that he greet them, bless them, and seek their blessing" (reblogged from headcoverings)


From what I can find, the rules regarding the use of Shalom Aleichem have to do with the hymn chanted on Friday night to protect oneself while walking two and from synagogue. I can't find anything about the greeting Shalom Aleichem. It seems to simply be a greeting (peace be with you. The same greeting, in fact, that Muslims use when they see each other).

But…what do I know? I'm only a dirty female. Clearly, the boy who doesn't read knows better than everyone else in the room. (If, by the way, someone does know if there are rules around the greeting—enlighten me!)

Class passed (of course he kept injecting his bullshit commentary when he hadn't read the play…but whatever). There was no appropriate time during class to bring up the Torah discussion. We were discussing what Clifford Odem's play Awake and Sing and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman have to do with being Jewish in America. Neither play has anything to do with Torah.

However, during break, the boys gathered in the student lounge mixing their cup-o-noodles. Chaim stood at the counter sermonizing the proper way to kasher for pesach. I stood quietly stirring my hot chocolate. Then, I simply could not help myself. I look at Chaim, opened my mouth, and said, "I wrote about you." I blurted out.

"Oh,really?" He smirked for the tenth time that day. "And what did you write?"

"I couldn't stop thinking about your comments on women reading from the Torah. There were so many things I wanted to say that I just didn't say last week."

"Like what?"

"Well, what about masturbation? How do you know a man hasn't masturbated before he touches the torah?"

"Easy," He stands up straighter preparing us for his greatness, "We can't know, but we just give them the benefit of the doubt." Huh? The benefit of the doubt? Do you know how many times a day people masturbate? Why are we giving people the benefit of the doubt? Oh right, because they're men.

"Why do you assume that a woman has her period then?" I question.

"Also easy, you can't ask a woman if she has her period" (because we all go around asking if people masturbate). "Thus, we assume that she does."

"But," I attempt to argue," Don't you think the woman knows if she has her period? Don't you think her husband knows? Wouldn't both of them make sure, she doesn't touch the torah?

"Ah," He rubs his beardless chin as if he is a great Rebbe, "a woman, can have her period at anytime."

I guess technically, she could, but that comment speaks to the heart of the matter. A woman is constantly on the brink of impurity. At any moment, she could explode with all her womanly grossness—damaging everything holy in her path. She is in a perpetual state of worthlessness.

(I think my sister said it best, when she commented, "Wait, is the woman reading from the Torah or is she using it as a tampon?")

No one actually touches the Torah scroll when they read it. They kiss it with their talis. The read from it with a yad. No one is lying naked with it. However, ritual impurity clings to a woman's entire body. She cannot escape it. I realized (as I should have realized the week before) that there is nothing I can say to make him change his mind. Dirty is dirty. Women are dirty; men aren't. Period.

I do wonder what he'll do with himself when he gets older and marries (bless the poor girl who marries him). Does he think with all his rules, he'll be able to escape her impurities? Does he think he'll be able to stay away from her for 14 days each month..every month? He'll need his own bathroom, his own bedroom, his own kitchen, his own couch. He'll certainly need his own trashcan.

I walked out of the lounge, and they continued their koshering discussion. When I reached the classroom, I was alone. I stood over his notebook and the one book he actually brought to class. I thought of my own impurities: the possibility of a period at any moment, my Reform Judaism, my marriage to the Giant Gentile, my immodest low-cut dress, my uncovered red-streaked blond curls.

So, I did the only thing I could do: I took my hand and touched his books.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Torah and the Dirty Woman

In my class filled with orthodox boys, where I am the lone female, we spoke about the role of women in Jewish ritual. One of my classmates spoke up. (A young guy, raised in a conservative shul now  modern orthodox with a kippah on his head and long Tzittzit hanging  from under his t-shirt, almost long enough to brush the floor or, at the  very least, his knees) "You know what bothers me most? When women read from the Torah on the bima."

"What?" I screamed in my head. Did he really just say that? You don't think women should read Torah on the bima?" I finally said out loud. I felt shocked and sick to my stomach even though I knew better. This boy is orthodox; to him, women and men have separate jobs in life. However, at that moment, I didn't know better. I felt like I'd been slapped in the face and spit on. "I'm a woman." I want to yell. "I'm a graduate student in Jewish studies, but I can't touch the Torah?" I want to yell louder and shake him: hard. Instead, I take a breath.

"Why?" I asked.

"Tradition." he answered.

"Tradition?" I thought to myself. Female genital mutilation is tradition in some cultures that doesn't make it right. " Is that it?" I asked him

"And niddah. Niddah is..." he starts to explain.

"Yes," I interrupt in annoyance, "I'm quite aware of niddah." Niddah is the time of ritual uncleanness for women. At least five days from the start of their period till seven days after a period ends. That means at least half the month a women is considered ritually unclean and cannot be touched by her husband. (orthodox women cannot be touched by any man who isn't her husband.)
I wonder, if his mother knows these feelings he has. He grew up a conservative Jew. His mother is in a klezmer band. He speaks highly of her, and yet, he cannot stand to watch a woman read Torah on the Bima. I can't help but wonder if that hurts her. I can't help but wonder if he knows how cruel his perspective is. He is, after all, placing women into two categories: sexual beings or ritually unclean objects. Women are not worthy of the scroll, not worthy of the aging paper, or the words carved slowly in ink by an ancient scribe. We are not worthy of the silver yad, or the echo of the rise and fall of the trope gliding in and out of the ears of the congregation. We are unworthy and dirty: dirty from blood or dirty from the mind of a roomful of men who have never learned how to understand human sexuality. Men who may very well be fucking their secretaries, or cheating on their taxes, or masturbating before they take the long walk to shul and then step on the bima, but their impurities can be rinsed away by the simple washing of hands. He does not seem to consider their impurities.

I left class before I could say any of this. The conversation moved on, but I couldn't stop thinking about his comments. They haunted me-- filling me with the kind of rage I usually reserve for jealousy. Don't you think that a woman would know if she was ritually impure? Wouldn't her husband know? So, why assume? Is she not to be trusted while every man in the congregation is trusted?

Is this how these orthodox boys in my class see their future wives or and daughters? An object of constant impurity? She can never touch the sacred scroll because her sex inhibits her holiness? A woman who will most likely bare them many many children? A woman who will give up her body and her time in order to raise these children? Her body is unholy? No matter her intellectual capacity; she is nothing compared to him.

But, women have a role, they may argue. They are mothers and wives. They can pray together. Is that not enough? Tradition is enough. They isn't a good enough argument for me. It shouldn't be a good enough argument for them.