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.