Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury

In this article from the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Noah Feldman laments his exclusion from the Modern Orthodox Jewish fold. Specifically, exclusion from his Yeshiva's (Jewish day school) alumni events and letters. The school's reason, always unspoken, is Feldman's Korean-American wife. A shiksa: a non-Jewish girl. Hence his being cut, along with his wife, from the tenth anniversary reunion photograph. Hence the school's refusal to acknowledge the births of his children--a son and a daughter, luck any Jew would call a mitzvah--in the annual newsletter's Mazal Tov (congratulations!) section.

Feldman takes these slights as indications of Modern Jewry's struggle to exist in an increasingly modern, irreligious society. He is amazingly forgiving, continuing to send the Yeshiva lively updates from his life. The Yeshiva continues ignoring him.

Feldman writes:

"Despite my intimate understanding of the mind-set that requires such careful attention to who is in and who is out, I am still somehow taken by surprise each time I am confronted with my old school’s inability to treat me like any other graduate. I have tried in my own imperfect way to live up to values that the school taught me, expressing my respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition while trying to reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere. As a result, I have not felt myself to have rejected my upbringing, even when some others imagine me to have done so by virtue of my marriage.... In the sense of shared history and formation, I remain of the community even while no longer fully in the community."

Feldman, a law professor at Harvard, is measured in his arguments. He understands his classmates and teachers, their difficulty in reconciling faith with modern life:

"The reason for the resistance to such marriages derives from Jewish law but also from the challenge of defining the borders of the modern Orthodox community in the liberal modern state...It is defined not so much by what people believe or say they believe (it is much safer not to ask) as by what they do." (Italics mine.)

----

It is this final sentence--not what people believe, or say they believe, as by what they do--that enrages me. Feldman is a learned man who has made his decisions; he neither asks for nor needs pity. But why does he continue communicating with the Yeshiva? And what about his wife and children? How do they feel?

Not what they say, but what they do.

Feldman's story recalls the insular Jews of my childhood, people less interested in being frum (holy, clean) than being more frum than their neighbors. The families who walked to shul on Saturday morning, the man striding ahead while his wife, a step behind, shepherded numerous children. Orthodox Jews are Biblically encouraged to procreate. Now, with the Jewish birthrate in steep decline, so are the rest of us. Recently I saw an advertisement in an alternative newspaper, placed by a San Francisco temple seeking new members. Those of us with non-Jewish spouses were especially invited to attend, as were Gays and Lesbians.

On one level it's nice. Some Jews are like Feldman: they've married out, but still feel deeply rooted in Judaism. They want to attend services. As for the LGBT community, it's high time all doors opened to them.

I didn't go.

---

My first boyfriend was Jewish. In fact, like Feldman, he hailed from a New York Yeshiva. He was scandalized by my secular upbringing, my inability to speak Hebrew, my bluejeans. This while literally trying to get into those bluejeans and pulling a baseball cap over his yarmulke at MacDonald's.

Was he a bad guy? No. He was young, and uncertain about where Orthodox Jewry fit into his life. But he was certain of one thing: marrying me.

"I'm not marrying you," I'd object. "You're too religious. I don't want to wear a babushka and have ten kids. No."

"You'll change your mind."

"I won't." I said. Instead I went home and informed my mother I wasn't marrying a Jewish guy. "I'm telling you now," I said, "so you have time to get used to the idea."

I married a non-practicing Catholic. My parents, to their credit, were sanguine. But my mother's old friends from home remain scandalized. Fifteen years later, they are still waiting for my marriage to crumble.

---

There were numerous synagogues in my childhood community, from the ardently religious to the "see and be seen by the other machers." Membership cost varying amounts; the more you spent, the higher your social standing.

Synagogues are not like churches. You cannot just walk in. High Holiday services (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashonah), are like rock concerts, requiring tickets. Like rock concerts, High Holidays sell out. Only there are no synagogue scalpers. No tix, no High Holiday worship for you.

---

I work with a professor who considers himself observant. He keeps a kosher kitchen; he attends synagogue (sometimes). He once asked how I, being "so Jewish" (and I am, I look and sound like a Woody Allen extra), could "stand" being married to a non-Jew. He is not married, but has a longtime girlfriend, who is not Jewish. He wants her to convert. That way he can marry her and have children. Except...except Judaism is matrilineal. Is a child by a convert Jewish? There are two answers to this question. The first is it depends on who you ask. The second is no, with a caveat. Suppose the girlfriend converts, marries the prof, and has children. Every time she enters shul, somebody will whisper "she converted." Translation: shiksa in our midst.

We Jews aren't like Christians. We don't want you to join the fold.

---

I realize how terribly bitter I sound. This after many years of watching my fellow Jews behave badly, and sometimes behaving badly myself. Growing up when and where I did, I divided the world into three groups: Jews (utterly recognizable), Goyim (non-Jewish, suspect), and Blacks (like Jews in many ways, marginalized, surviving by their wits, therefore less suspect). This worldview served me well until I arrived in California, where geography does not divide along religious lines, interracial marriages (at least in Los Angeles and the Bay Area) are the norm, and comparatively few people are observant Jews. Having never encountered Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, Hmong, Vietnamese, Native Americans, or Ethiopians, I lacked available stereotypes. My worldview was turned on its head. With great shame I realized I was nastily cavalier--and often racist-- in my assessments of people. It took a long time to change my thinking.

---

During my mid-thirties I experienced fleeting moments of longing: I wanted to believe. In God, or benign spirits, or something "beyond." But logic prevailed. I can no more believe in God, spirits, or an afterlife than I can believe I will grow wings and fly. Oh, if I could! I could join something! A church, a synagogue, a collection of hippie Universalist Unitarians. I would have, if not explanations, a sort of serenity. Logic is lonely.

---

I could go on ad nauseum about hypocritical Jews I've known. They draw their lines in the sand, some making genuine attempts at negotiating faith in the modern world. Some succeed; others don't.

---

We all make our way. I look Jewish, I sound Jewish, I am Jewish. I was raised by a mother who spoke Yiddish before English and a father who was bar mitzvahed. Ours was a culturally Jewish home filled with Yiddishisms and traditional foods. We lit candles on Chanukah and ate charoset on Pesach. But we did not belong to a synagogue. Being Jewish meant we were bookish, academically inclined, lousy athletes. It implied a sense of service: outgrown clothing and appliances were donated to Jewish Family Services. When somebody died, you made a donation to the Foundation for Jewish Retarded Citizens (in those days nobody was developmentally disabled).

All the pork in the world won't alter the fact of my birth. Yet stories like Feldman's only drive me--and many of my contemporaries--further from traditional Judaism. Who wants to be associated with people who cannot wish a new father mazel tov?

---

The Jews of Feldman's Yeshiva don't recognize Jews like me. Not only did I marry out, I failed to bear children. Therefore I am nothing. I cannot, technically, be buried in a Jewish cemetary.

---

Jews have been hated since the beginning of time. We understand what it is to be driven from home and killed en masse. if anything, this should allow us insight into the isolation and suffering of others. We should work to alleviate it when and wherever possible. Minimally, we shouldn't promulgate it on our own.

So Professor Feldman, mazel tov on your marriage. Mazel tov on your children. And shame on your Yeshiva.

"Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury" is a Michael Franti song from a CD of the same name: Island Records, 1992.

2 Comments:

Blogger prof said...

hello
write to great personnalities!
i post your letter on jewisheritage.fr
shalom
marcel

October 07, 2007 8:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a kindred spirit in some important ways. I grew up in a home that was quite Jewish and married a non-Jewish woman. Some of my fellow Jews cannot see the beautiful person beyond seeing a "goy." Some see me as a traitor or apostate.

Unlike you I have some faith. But I view Judaism as that which is passed down from father to son and mather ro daughter as opposed to that which is acquired by going to yeshiva or having the concepts impressed upon your brain as if being stamped with the official imprimatur in the factory.

My father is a simple and good man though formally uneducated. Each day he wraps tefillin and has been doing so for 70 years (except the few years he was in the Navy). He never had an unkind word to say about anybody and he is in my lights a prime example of a holy man.

That being said, we Jews are being assimlated left, right, and center. I am part of the reason for that assimiliation. I do not believe that I have a metaphysical responsibility to propogate the faith.

I try to do the right thing, be a decent father, husband and person in general. I do not steal or cheat thought I have my vices and am far from the perfect person.

If there is a G-D who judges I am confident that I will stack up well against King David who murdered and committed adultery.

November 25, 2007 4:29 PM  

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