Get Back

When I first came to this school, I was a little disheveled for a while. I was upset by the fact that I suddenly had no posek (for all our domestic problems, at least my Conservative ex-rabbi gave basic advice). I realized I lived in a town with 13,000 people in it. I realized our Jewish students literally didn’t want anything but a superficial Jewish community at school. I learned that I could no longer, in good conscience, go to our Reconstructionist synagogue.

And my friends really brought me down. “You’re too strict!” they said. Even the rabbi. “No one else around here worries about halacha, why must you have a stick up your bits?” From every angle, the message was the same. “It’s not about the law. You gotta do what’s right.” So I decided to get spiritual. And I decided to listen to what the Reconstructionists had to say. And I went to the Interfaith Club meetings. I read Nachman. I even checked out The Journey Home by some Reform rabbi. “I’m Reform; I might as well know about it,” I told my friend as I spotted the book.

And it wasn’t working. In fact, it backfired. I hated my roommates for being too Christian. I hated my assimilated Jewish friends for not using the gift of Judaism that they’ve been handed so effortlessly. I started arguing back, this time on Orthodoxy’s side. I focused on Orthodoxy, but really I was arguing for law, and particularism, and not assimilating and not conceding.

And then the Orthodox rabbi came to campus. I remember the day he came. We sat on the couches on campus, four of us, and talked about Israel. That’s it. He was pretty slick since as soon as I mentioned Pardes he pulled the old “What if I said you could go to Israel for free” etc., but I realized later he apparently had a life-changing experience in Israel and now the whole thing’s his life goal.

I have to admit that it was nice to talk about such things after a month or so of pretending I was into universalism and sharing interfaith experiences and so on.

I was angry—I’d been told that it was good that I ended up here; that I could really learn from new perspectives; be a religion major; don’t be a Jewish Studies major; maybe the Jewish community here’s not so bad; maybe I’m the one who’s all wrong.

But I also felt like something new and exciting had just happened. A guy just walks in and says we ought to be different; we can learn from ourselves; it’s OK to want your own state and identity. I’d never heard that before.

Even in elementary school, people would always tell me that it’s a good character-building activity to hang around people who are different from me—of course when you go to public school that means hanging out with girls who enjoy makeup and boys when you like music and vandalizing the bathroom—but I always thought something was amiss. I’m always friends with people who are entirely different from me. My friends and I rarely share the same interests. I guess I have pretty esoteric interests, but I took it as a given that I’d always be around people who were “different from me.” That’s no great thing.

Did I learn from their perspectives? I don’t think so. Maybe. But I don’t think it built my character. Someone could argue that I had no one to reinforce my own self-selective bubble of ideas, because they could be destructive or wrong, but what about when I had the right ideas?

Was it worth it to be as alone and isolated as I was, to build my character and “learn new viewpoints”? No. You need to be grounded in something. I had friends whom I liked and who listened to me and whom I cared about etc., but I never had friends who I could really share things with, because they weren’t interested. I always conceded to them because they had normal interests; they seldom to me. And so I spent so much time “building character” and listening to what my friends liked that I never got to grow in my own interests and values and things important to me.

My friend Max once said “Jews shouldn’t act like Americans; they should act like Jews.” Why do we concede to what others want us to be? Is that what we tell our children when they’re the different one at school? Then which kids grow up to really be someone? What are we doing to ourselves?

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17 thoughts on “Get Back

  1. I forget who it was, but someone wrote (talking about feminism and ascetic spiritual practice) that when people talk about self-abnegation, and nullifying the ego, they speak from a position of male privilege: when you’re a woman and you’ve spent your entire existence being nullified, not being recognized, self-abnegating spiritual practices are more damaging than proactive. In other words, in order for you to reap the spiritual rewards of nullifying your ego, you have to have a healthy amount of ego in the first place.

    I think this same principle can be applied to your situation. In order for you to learn from other cultures, other viewpoints, other types of religious practice, you need to have a firmer idea of where you stand and what you want and need. You need to feel safe, and you need to do whatever it will take (within reason) to get you to that place. It’s only when you feel like you have ground to stand on that you be challenged by others’ wildly divergent ideas and have that be useful spiritually. You do need that reinforcement- of course you’re not aways right, but you are a lot of the time, and you need people in your life who will reify your ideas and ideals.

  2. I worry that it is so difficult for you, even when spiritually starved as you have reported to us, to find anything of value in the Judaism in your area. Maybe the problem is them, but it would be interesting to learn your reaction to full-fledged assimilation into Orthodoxy.

    David Brooks has been writing in the New York Times about learning from the experiences of older Americans. Today’s column brought you to mind, as a warning:

    “Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them. For a time, our culture celebrated the rebel and the outsider. The most miserable of my correspondents fit this mold. They were forever in revolt against the world and ended up sourly achieving little.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/opinion/brooks-the-life-reports-ii.html?_r=1&hp

  3. “Jews shouldn’t act like Americans; they should act like Jews.”

    You would normally point to diversity as one of the hallmarks of Judaism.

    There is no way to “act like Jews,” unless by that you mean Torah observance…but then you’re only talking about a minority of the Jewish people, historically speaking.

    Actually, if you think back through the Tanach and subsequent history…to “act like Jews” probably more accurately would mean to turn your back on G-d, adopt the religion and culture of the land you live in, and kvetch because you get the appropriate punishment handed to you by divine retribution.

  4. (For the record…my personal Jew-ishness comes from repetitive failed attempts at observance, not intentional non-observance.)

  5. Re: your first parahraph: I believe Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says something to that effect in her memoir, “Surprised by God.”

  6. As I was writing this I had in mind the birth of the Reform movement and the reforms in general, where it seemed to be that the “best” option was always the less Jewish one—you know, more organ, hymn-style worship, etc. I always had the idea that imitating other religious models is a way of implicitly saying yours isn’t good enough and needs outside, more decorous, more civilized, influence.

  7. . It’s only when you feel like you have ground to stand on that you be challenged by others’ wildly divergent ideas and have that be useful spiritually. You do need that reinforcement- of course you’re not aways right, but you are a lot of the time, and you need people in your life who will reify your ideas and ideals.

    That’s what I’m saying. And what other people aren’t saying…I remember reading in one of the first books I ever read about Judaism, how parents shouldn’t raise their children to “pick whichever religion they want when they grow up”…because there needs to be a baseline. I’m adrift without a baseline—but yes, I agree.

  8. It’s all good. I’m not Orthodox, just disappointed…I’m mad cause I say I’m a Jewish rapper* or whatever n other jewish rappers are Mac Miller or Asher Roth…also mad cause I feel like we got a bad deal out of the Haskalah…it really does hurt how assimilated American Jews are.

    *http://soundcloud.com/maxelsteink/gold-man-sack-demo TAKE THAT WALL ST

  9. When I was in school I was told to avoid “outsiders” and I was never involved in any Jewish community at University. So, I’m not sure I understand what you are going through right now. Though, my very good friends aren’t Jewish at all which on one hand is good because they would never tell me how to be a Jew but on the other, they can’t support me either because none of it makes sense to them.

  10. Maybe I missed it in the post, but what are you “getting back” to? Are you out of that school and into a new environment? Or are you just getting back to some basic tenet or spiritual/mental place even though you are in the same location geographically.

    As I’ve mentioned a few times here, I think you DO need to find a place you can retreat to (not run away, but fall back on, as in “go on a retreat”) where you can recharge before venturing forth once again into the world, your world.

  11. I wrote the title before deciding what my post would be about…originally it was going to be about how I decided to get spiritual but then I came back to my roots and started learning halacha again, only it’s happier now. Reading this blog is full of surprises, eh?

  12. “when people talk about self-abnegation, and nullifying the ego, they speak from a position of male privilege: when you’re a woman and you’ve spent your entire existence being nullified, not being recognized, self-abnegating spiritual practices are more damaging than proactive”

    Disagree x10. Perhaps true for some women, but not for all women. And I kind of hate when other women try and tell me what I should be doing or feeling spiritually as a woman. Psh.

    Had I not had an experience of “ego nullification” I would probably still be an atheist.

  13. The point of interfaith work is not to push assimilation and the creation one world religion – it’s to prevent isolationism and prejudice from taking root in a community. The Jewish community here /isn’t/ so bad, and you /can/ learn from different perspectives. If you limit yourself to only interacting with and learning from people who already agree with you and share your beliefs, you will do yourself a great disservice intellectually. (And Jewish and American are not mutually exclusive categories.)

    With that said, there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to pursue exclusively Jewish interests. Not everything should be interfaith. For example, I am not entirely comfortable with interfaith prayer services, personally…they feel fake and forced to me (probably because i’m not Christian).

    There’s also nothing wrong with pursuing interests and goals that /you/ like, even if no one else around you likes them. If I had done that in high school I would have never read any philosophy, and it would have sucked even more than it did. ;p I agree that people need to feel grounded and comfortable in their own skin, but I believe the ideal life is one which strikes a balance between what we do for ourselves and what we do for others/for our community.

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