It’s called Asher Yatzar. I might regret this…
So I’m sure that my remaining 1 1/2 readers know that I’ve been off the face of the earth for like 3 years and now I’m back 4 more aka I went to a shul last night and I remembered why I probably will never go again.
So when I moved to Boston like 6 months ago obviously it wasn’t on my mind or anything but enough nights getting drunk and listening to matisyahu really got to me and I finally decided to try out the Tremont St shul in Cambridge because they had a cool 20s/30s group and usually shuls are for olds so that drew me in and stuff.
SOO last night I took the goddamn hour long train ride over there with my siddur and whatnot and the guy on the steps was like “Shabbat Shalom” and I was like one minute early so of course the whole place was basically empty. So I just stood there awkwardly pretending to read the brochures and suddenly I was hit with vivid memories of all my times in nyc just standing around waiting for someone to talk to me. Of course usually no one ever does. But since then I’ve become way more assertive about being actually social, and surprisingly people are usually pretty open to talking to you. Not so in shul for whatever reason. So at this point I’m used to atheist 20-somethings who are bikers or musicians or whatever, and being able to talk to them like a normal person, but I was reminded how intimidated I am in the shul environment.
So anyway finally it was time to start and everything and…well, there was singing. It started out slow and I was like “ok well sometimes it’s slow” but then ten minutes later, even though my Hebrew is way rusty now, I realized they were still on page one of kab shab. They were singing like literally every word then “ay ay ay” at the end of every single verse. So like ten minutes later they got to page two. I was getting kind of uncomfortable because I’m used to the yeshivish get-in-get-out approach so I wasn’t ready for it. This was modern orthodox, by the way. So of course I started getting antsy after like 30 mins and not even getting to kaddish yet. So I was kind of looking around and stuff and I realized all the girls were wearing skirts. There were a ton of girls actually, I’m guessing since it’s Boston and it’s like 90% college students, and secondly it’s in the MIT area so I guess it’s all MIT people or something?
Here’s what I hate about orthodoxy. This kind of sums up everything I hate about it. A lot of the girls were either wearing short sleeves or sleeveless, and some were wearing really, really short skirts. But I was wearing pants and a button up shirt (honestly at this point I don’t have any ‘nice clothes’ anymore, let alone a skirt). And I was getting the total side eye from these fuckers. I was the only one wearing pants. And like, they weren’t exactly tznius but it wasn’t about that, it was about the fact that wearing a skirt means you’re in the in group, like under the guise of tznius. That just makes me really mad for some reason. Like I get that people need to look like they’re part of their group, but to be under the guise of tznius is really gross. And like, a couple of the girls, in usual orthodox fashion, were talking and walking around and not paying attention and stuff, which is like whatever, but I wasn’t singing the songs or doing the movements and stuff (because I’m a jerk), and I know people were like “who is that freak” But again, like all these other girls were like kind of singing and not paying attention and looking around and talking but since they were half assedly mouthing the words, they looked like they belonged so it was ok.
I was just hit with a wave of the same self-consciousness and sense of insecurity as I was in new york. Outsider again. But you know, there was an “open house” afterwards which basically just means free food so I wasn’t about to leave afterwards. I mean I’m never going to see these people again probably so I might as well take advantage of the challah and alcohol. So everyone went downstairs to the kiddush thing or whatever, and there were like six long tables (it was pretty well attended), and I just sat in a corner because at this point I was getting kind of disoriented by the fluorescent lights and coming down from mild adderalls so I didn’t really care if anyone talked to me. Well, no one did. They thought I was so weird. So a couple people ended up sitting at my table; two guys, two girls, and a married couple. So there was wine on the table and the guy and the married husband started talking about the wine and how it’s from australia and somehow they turned that into a whole convo for like ten mins about the australian aspect of the wine. So the two guys went to do something and the married couple was like “So are you new here” and I was like “yeah I just came for the challah” and they looked at me like “I can’t believe you said that” and I kind of laughed because it was so fuckin stupid…
So I went to do net yad and as I was walking back this guy with some kind of developmental disorder kept trying to get my attention, and like any man trying to get my attention I was just like “thanks” and avoided eye contact. I came back and we talked or whatever and the guy decided to come back, get my attention again, and said “Welcome!” and LIKE ANY MAN TALKING TO ME FOR THE SECOND TIME IN ONE NIGHT, I said “uh thanks” and avoided eye contact. But the stupid girl at my table looked at me like “You fucker” and that’s when I started to get really annoyed because I don’t want to talk to ANY fucking man who tries to talk to me twice in one night. Because when you DO that, they will FOLLOW YOU AROUND and try to talk to you all night. I HAVE EXPERIENCE IN THIS. But that stupid girl was like “You bitch, being mean to a guy with a developmental disorder.”
So we had some lame convo or whatever and the whole thing just kind of sucked and I ended up having two cups of the wine and leaving.
Ugh. Well that’s why I didn’t do THAT for three years…
Oh, and Boston does the seltzer water thing too.
I was walking with a friend the other day when he saw my Ahavas Yisrael pin, which I happen to cherish dearly and it’s the only blatantly Jewish pin on that particular jacket. I had just told him I was a Jewish Studies major. “Wow, you must be really into it,” he said. “Not really,” I said, “not really at all anymore.”
I explained it to him and he was the only one so far not to say , optimistically, naively, “You can still be Jewish!” He said something very interesting. He said: “Maybe you were looking for a sense of order.”
It makes sense. It makes so much sense. It makes enough sense to possibly qualify as real closure. It started in community college in 2010, when I wanted to be a philosophy major. I wanted objectivity. I was really against Continental philosophy. I wanted to be against something. I liked the raw logicality of analytical philosophy, and I hated anything that threatened it. I liked my logic classes; ethics I found wishy-washy. Interestingly, that was also around the time when I started thinking I wanted a different way of life…I had just come back from art school, after a failed relationship (if you want to call it that), a failed music career (if you want to call it that), and a failed freshman year of school (literally…I dropped out). Music–what I had always assumed I would do since age ten–had failed me. Being gay had certainly failed me. I had originally enrolled in community college wanting to be a business major (!), but ultimately chose philosophy. By the end of my two years there, I was hooked on Judaism. It was only natural that I would end up choosing Orthodoxy.
This need for order–along with my new goal of becoming a philosophy professor–led me to get something like a 3.9 so I could be accepted to William & Mary (a decidedly traditional school, which was exactly what I wanted). I was still planning to convert to Orthodoxy. I changed my major from philosophy to religion to Jewish studies. I was going to go to Hadar when I graduated, or Drisha. I had it all planned out. And by the end of my first year at William & Mary, I was basically on an inevitable path. Why stop at Modern Orthodoxy? I took an Aish course online, and considered joining their women-only BT seminary. Never mind that I wasn’t technically Jewish. It was painful to think about. It disrupted my order.
That was just the beginning of my growing sense of disorder and liminality. But I was still ignoring it at that time. I withdrew from my classes at W&M and transferred to Brooklyn College. I bought my food from Pomegranate and my undershirt shells from the Shell Station, and not without tons of stares. I didn’t care. Soon I would fit into the framework, if I would only try. I was talking via email to a BT rabbi who lived in Brooklyn, and he was giving me so much encouragement. “I know how you feel, since I felt that way too,” he’d say. I found a minyan and a rabbi who would convert me, and I filed a conversion application with the RCA. Everything was going really perfectly, and of course I considered it a sort of divine will, although I never would have admitted it except to other very frum, religious people.
But then things started changing. I started noticing the stares more. I started getting annoyed by them. I started getting annoyed at other converts, people who seemed too religious, too by-the-book, annoyed at the texts, annoyed at Orthodox Brooklyn.
And then my annoyance disappeared and was replaced by disappointment. Everyone around me seemed to be doing just what their parents did. The “Orthodox culture” everyone had told me about was appearing all around me, suffocating me. I noticed that people were just as religious about having seltzer water on the table as they were having challah on it. I noticed people didn’t finish birkat hamazon sometimes. I noticed that gemara had gaping holes in it, and I noticed that people didn’t seem to mind. I noticed that people were forming their own pathways to get around the inconsistencies. And I noticed that those pathways were called “customs.” Judaism wasn’t being held up by a timeless and flawless system; it was being held up by people.
And, just like that, my sense of order was shattered.
That is what I try to tell people when they insist that I shouldn’t have left Judaism after coming out. I was accepted by the community that I had formed around me. Sure, that encouraging rabbi had stopped emailing me. But my real friends were still there. It wasn’t that. Homosexuality proves to me that Judaism is a flawed system; a human one. Its only answers were to either ignore it or to require celibacy. It took me a long time to get over this, obviously. I felt deceived. When you think you were brought into a situation by some kind of divine imperative, told the system has no flaws, and you find one, and the very people who told you there were no flaws have no answer for the flaw, of course you are going to feel deceived.
I don’t know whether to decide that I need to find my order elsewhere, or that searching for order will ultimately fail us. I used to think that order was a sign that God existed. But there is so much disorder in order that I am not sure anymore. If God exists, it is certainly not in the ordered way that books describe. I used to be completely fascinated by the idea of God, and now, frankly, thinking about it makes me nervous. I lost my sense of ego to my idea of God for two years; and now facing that void scares me. The sense of order that I got from being religious gave way to complete bewilderment. It was really like going from having everything–all the answers–to having nothing at all. I felt as if I had lost everything, and all I could do was pick up the pieces. I had built up trust in this thing for two years, and it was gone within a month.
I’m not sad, though. I was sad at first, and really just mortified and embarrassed for quite a while. I’m not really embarrassed to talk about it now, because I think that everyone goes through something similar. But now I still have to tell people I am a Jewish Studies major. “It’s a long story,” I say, although I am getting a little tired of the story. I am feeling more and more distant from my summer in New York, although it seemed so real and immediate and important at the time.
It makes sense that I am newly interested in computer science, since about six months ago. It’s tiring that my interests change almost every year, but there is a common theme at least. Logic, order, reasoning.
And religion couldn’t stand up to that after all.
“Men come to the partnership synagogue for a whole host of reasons,
the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do with feminism.”
–The Men’s Section
Crossposted at Jewschool
The Men’s Section is about the men’s side of partnership minyanim in Israel–their reasons for joining and their difficulties after joining. The author was clearly distressed by her own findings, which even I admit were surprising. Partnership minyanim are generally seen as being the “next step” to equality and gender balance. Admittedly, her research is Israel-centric, but one thing was clear: men weren’t joining out of a sense of feminism. In fact, what we know as the ideal of feminism was actually one of the difficulties men had with the minyanim!
Many of the men interviewed reported that they didn’t feel a sense of community in their old shuls, or they felt an emotional disconnect, or that they felt constant pressure to be perfect (the “man-on-man gaze”), or that they were dissatisfied with the hierarchies. Note that none of this has anything to do with women. In fact, many of the problems reported by men were with the women–that they had their own incorrect “women’s trope,” or that they didn’t come on time. The fact that women were never taught the trope as meticulously as men were wasn’t discussed, and as Sztokman observed, women were expected to prepare meals for shabbos, and take care of the children, and still show up on time and stay throughout the service. She found that these men will let women into “their space” via the partnership minyanim only if they are willing to abide by the same rules by which the men were socialized. The irony is that these are the very rules and patterns that the men hoped to escape by joining these minyanim.
Sztokman shows they are replete with the same social hierarchies that one might find in any mainstream Orthodox shul. Feminist deconstruction of gender and manhood was not a concern, and it seemed as if the women were there as sort of an afterthought. In fact, when one of the members had a non-egalitarian member of his family come in for his son’s bar mitzvah, many of the members argued that they should rescind women’s leadership positions. As one woman said, “we all fix things up in our home before the mother-in-law visits. How is this any different?” It was obvious that, as strange as it seems, egalitarianism wasn’t a very pressing item.
Before reading this book, I, like many people, thought that giving women aliyot was an end goal in itself, and that partnership minyanim were an insufficient but ultimately good avenue for the eventual expansion of women’s roles. Sztokman’s research suggests that they could instead be actually self-defeating to feminism. In building these partnership minyanim, we are focusing on the male model of what shuls and tefillah should be, and the men who are joining these minyanim are implicitly rejecting this model even as they insist on retaining it.”The Orthodox synagogue,” Sztokman writes, “remains a men’s space based on the way men are socialized.”
Partnership minyanim seem to have become, at least in Israel (although half the men interviewed were originally from the US), an extension of this “men’s space.” Grace aux male participants, they are still pervaded by:
- Emotional disconnect (58): There wasn’t an emphasis on enjoying tefillah or singing and the like; rather the emphasis remained on punctiliousness and keeping services short.
- Absolutist language (80): “When forces of power preempt discussions, there is a control of ideas before they are even publicly aired.” In an attempt to continue being seen as halachic (“in the club,” as Sztokman puts it), there was a tendency to retain social boundaries using the “inflexible language of authority,” or halacha (regardless of whether the subject being discussed was strictly halachic or not). Couching an existing hierarchy in this type of language is effective because, one interviewee said, “people are afraid of what God is thinking.”
- Clericalism (90): On a similar note, the minyanim were (and are) being judged as “not halachic” because only “small-name” rabbis approved of them. That is, there weren’t exactly any renown rabbis who would publicly underwrite these minyanim. Having no real widely recognzied support, this caused an internal rift as members argued whether to call themselves “Orthodox” (instead of merely “halachic”) in order to appease critics. As someone wrote in the Jerusalem Post, “halakha does insist that each generation has certain leaders whose authority derives from their widespread acceptance. Particularly when attempting to break with established practice, the approval of recognized authorities is essential[…]An environment in which everyone ultimately makes his own decisions[…]may be democratic and tolerant[…]But it is not halakhic.” Of course, some of the men interviewed did wish to see a change in the monolithic nature of halacha. Still, participants sought outside approval from authoritarian structures even as they hoped to break those structures down, as evidenced by their petition to call their minyan “Orthodox” rather than “halachic.”
- Authoritarian control over discourse (161): When the vaad heard about this petition, they were not pleased. They had wanted the discussion to go through them first. They announced that “only emails that have been approved by the va’ad could be sent to the entire congregation.” This was the beginning manifestations of centralizing an authority that had once been more dynamic, going back to a centralized “Orthodox culture generally,” and forming a “culture of authoritarian control over communal discourse in Orthodoxy, beyond halakha.” It seems that this too is because of the fear that the group will be ostracized by other, mainstream Orthodox groups.
- Male model of performance (202): Although it seems on the surface that gender identity is being challenged, there is no discussion of punctuality, perfectionism, power structures, and how they shape masculinity. Instead, the minyan becomes a space in which women can practice their (always deficient) roles themselves, modeled on the already present male structure.
“The process of reaching gender equality is often interpreted as offering women as opportunity to internalize the practices of Orthodox masculinity in bits and pieces. Layn here, learn there, be a meticulous, emotionless, perfect performer[…]Orthodox men have not challenged the supremacy of this model at all. The partnership synagogue is a place where men are reacting to gender hierarchies by inviting women to share their space as objects of a male gaze, perhaps to relieve some of their own pressures. They are bringing women into their box, perhaps as a comforting presence.”
- A dependence on another’s servitude (221): In a way, partnership minyanim will always be an “incomplete revolution,” because the structure is so completely different from that which shul culture has historically been based on; namely, the assurance of having someone at home to take care of the business that must be attended to while the man is at shul (or yeshiva or elsewhere). If women want access to this type of freedom, there is of course the problem of having no one left at home to “pick up the slack.” Even further social strain was exemplified in Sztokman’s observation that women who came in with children weren’t welcomed, and in the particular minyan she attended, women were also criticized for breastfeeding. Women are expected to fulfill their “homemaker’s role” while still attending to the pervasive sense that they must also fulfill the role of a punctual minyan member. In other words, women are still criticized for coming late and leaving to attend to children even while they are simultaneously expected to cook/clean/take care of said children.
- Idealization of masculinity (224):
“The problem with Orthodoxy, I came to realize, is not just that women are forbidden from doing what men do. The problem is in the entire set of assumptions around men, the idealization of masculinity that, really, is not what I want in life. Orthodoxy is not really a place for women.
More than that, Orthodoxy is by definition a male construct. Orthdoxy is men. The way to be a complete Jew in Orthodoxy–from the bris to the bar mitzvah to giving a woman a ring and maybe giving her a get–is to be a man[…]I am not merely saying that Judaism is a patriarchal culture. What I’m saying is that Orthodoxy as a construct is male[…]a culture that rests on idealized images of human existence that can only really be fulfilled by men. As a woman, I can never really be truly Orthodox[…]I am never quite inside the culture. Because to be Orthodox in its full meaning ultimately means being a man.
[…]We have a nearly two-thousand-year-old Talmudic tradition that prides itself on such punctuality, precision, and perfectionism that the precise words of the Shema must be recited at a certain time. But, really, is that what makes us godly? Or is it just am expression of men seeking control in a world of chaos who measure, cut, and calculate every movement so as to avoid having to actually feel emotions such as fear, uncertainty, and pain?”
Partnership minyanim by definition need men to function–men who are not necessarily ready to give up their previous privileges of power and control. Naturally, these men in turn use what they know from their own male socialization to create more male spaces. Now, I hardly wish to say that this is true of all partnership minyanim, especially since the study was done in Israel, where the culture is very different. But the study shows at least that there is easily precedent for a tendency for these to slide into being copies of the men’s Orthodox culture that has always existed.
Because these spaces are created by men who are “allowing” women greater roles (222), men who are likely not motivated by concern for women (see quote), I would hardly call them feminist, and I don’t believe they will be until the culture of “men being ‘nice'” enough to give women a “corner” or a bit of practice in masculine performance is replaced by women creating self-functioning spaces themselves (which, of course, is already starting to be done). There is still a long way to go. Feminism is not only about giving women expanded symbolic roles, it’s not just about giving women aliyot, but in changing the entire atmosphere and breaking down the ultimately harmful paradigm of the masculine ideal of tefillah.
me: “they were talking about marriage and i was like really guys? i was the heckler.”
amy: “i knew when you left that you’d end up being the heckler”
It’s interesting. I’ve come back to W&M and in some ways it’s like I never left. I still have my gemara open in the middle of the dining hall (sitting by myself, usually). People still come up to me asking “what language is that?” or “is that a Bible?” At least now I know how to learn gemara instead of just reading the ArtScroll commentary (thanks Drisha!) and at least for now I’m a little nicer to the people who ask me what language that is.
But it’s also not really a pressing issue in my life that much. I think I’m having a quarter-life crisis because nothing is as clear as it was before I left. In fact, a lot of times I think I have nothing left. I think this sometimes when my friends from New York don’t text me back, so I think such things as “my entire time there was a lie” etc. I know it wasn’t, really. But in a way it was nicer having that idealized view of New York. I still like it. I just know I can’t be a part of it. So now what? If hadar doesn’t accept me, I don’t think there is anything left for me in judaism. (I mean, I could still go into jewish communal service if I wanted, but I wouldn’t have a true blue community or anything.) But if hadar does accept me I’ll have to reevaluate what I want from judaism all over again. Like, starting from the beginning. Either way, whatever I’m going to do next is a mystery to me.
Just like it was very weird to sit in the shul on yom kippur wondering whether I’d even be religious anymore at all in the next few weeks, it’s also very weird to learn gemara not knowing whether you’re going to give up out of frustration in a couple of weeks/months. You can only go so far by yourself, you know. And any time I’m feeling exasperated with my secular life/friends, I think “well I still have judaism” and then I think “well maybe I won’t still have judaism.”
Quarter life crisis.
There is something still brewing though and that’s the idea that the denominations are an illusion. I’m realizing that this whole thing…it’s all just me and judaism like david and goliath. It’s all just about that and what I want to do with it. There’s no orthodoxy or conservative or reform. Obviously, I think Conservative and Reform are especially an illusion, but I also am thinking more and more that orthodoxy is its own self-perpetuating box. It’s made out of people. It’s made by people. I mean, you do hear “we’re orthodox, so such and such” as often as you hear “we’re conservative, so such and such.” Things can be halachic but not orthodox. Things can be orthodox and have nothing to do with halacha. I know that community is important but sometimes some of these things that make orthodoxy what it is (and so stable) leave people out. And that’s how I know it’s not real. Orthodoxy leaves jews out and how can judaism leave jews out? Sure it can make demands and say that it’s possible not to live up to those demands. But judaism can’t just leave whole groups of people out in a ditch. That’s no religion; that’s just a social group.
And orthodoxy isn’t a democratic process. There are still authorities and hierarchies and structures. I’m realizing this. I’m still as radical as I’ve always been and I don’t really love all that. I can see how it’s necessary for the crazy world we live in, but I simply can’t abide by these structures.
This is where things got weird. People would tell me, “well you better stop trying because that’s non-negotiable.” People also told me, “you can become orthodox and then if you’re not observant after that, fine but you’ll still be jewish at least.” And I learned from that: you can’t go by what people tell you. I tried to abide by the structures. I went to aish classes (!) and I wore my long black skirt. But you can put all that external stuff on the outside and that doesn’t mean it’s gonna change anything that’s inside.
Being gay is not a choice and I know because it’s not very fun most of the time. So it’s not like I have this great homosexual “lifestyle” as they say to go back to when I’m rejected by judaism for being gay. It’s not like I’m in some great relationship where I can say “oh I don’t even care about judaism anymore cause I have this great thing in my life.” A couple of people who I really liked talking to stopped talking to me when I told them or when (presumably) they found out. They were both orthodox and very kind to me until (presumably) they realized WHO I TRULY WAS~
And that was pretty sad but then again, I had people tell me “you should just give up now it’s not worth it” and I had people tell me “you can still be jewish and gay it’s not a big deal.” And I learned from that: you can’t go by people who reject you. They have their own interpretations. But orthodoxy is one of those interpretations; one that is a whole system and as I said before if one piece breaks the whole thing breaks. And even though you shouldn’t worry about what people think it gets pretty grating when everyone and their mom wants to tell you that you’re single-handedly ruining the orthodox system.
And it’s for something I’m not really getting much enjoyment out of or anything anyways. I wanted to be orthodox because it seemed most genuine to me and I wanted the least haskala-influenced interpretation available. Whatever I was going to end up being, I knew it would be influenced by orthodox thought. But even orthodoxy isn’t purely jewish. It’s been influenced by other cultures and eastern europe and even conservative and reform. Orthodox is a very nice way to be but I can’t be it. I wish I could just learn gemara myself and know all the answers but I’m still not knowledgable enough to know whether there even was a time in jewish history when people just learned for themselves and didn’t rely on a rabbi OR custom. It’s the minhag that will get you sometimes.
The thing that was getting to me the most was the fact that only reform and recon accept patrilineal. I wasn’t thinking about the majority of jews who wouldn’t care. I was just thinking about denominational lines. And even though I never wanted to be any denominations, I couldn’t stop thinking outside denominational lines. This is why I would really like to know hadar’s position on the issue, which I can guess based on hearsay, but if they’re pro- then the whole linear denominational “well only reform accepts it so I can’t be halachic” thing would go out the window. Really, at the “end of the day” (as everyone at drisha would say) at the moment I really only care what hadar would say because that’s where I think my views align. Which is why I really need to go there and find out if that’s actually true once and for all.
I don’t feel like a convert and I also stopped living as if i’m trying to convert. Therefore I stopped feeling like I had to pick a denomination. It’s very freeing I suppose. It’s not something I could just CHOOSE to stop feeling but this whole brooklyn thing where I was unwanted for something I didn’t even choose was quite jarring.
See what happens when you play by the rules?
“I grew up thinking Jews should work in social change,
but only investment bankers can afford a Jewish life.”
–Jewish Women Watching
Crossposted at Jewschool
Original, lesser post here
I was at the Blue Ribbon food store on Ave. J in Brooklyn the night before Rosh Hashana.
“Store closing! Store closing!”
I wandered around, people rushing past me. Yogurt? Should I buy yogurt? Cheese? Tuna fish? There were no prices on anything. I had been putting off food shopping until the last minute, and I was paying for it. Blue Ribbon was the last place open that late erev Rosh Hashana.
I had to think pretty quickly. This particular year, I was going to have three days to fill with food. Imagine coming up with a 3-day menu for one on a budget…when there are no prices on anything. And I had to buy something.
I hastily went over to my safe zone–the challah rack–and picked up a round challah and a pack of six rolls, deciding which would be a better buy. Could the round one really be cut into six equally substantial pieces? People were pushing up against me while the “Store closing!” character kept bellowing somewhere in the depths of the store.
I picked the rolls. They’d last me about two days. A $4 choice, cash only.
The fact that there were no prices said to me that I was the only one worrying about the cost of things. Figuratively, though, everything has a price tag. Who knew that Jewish living could have so many material trappings?
On Yom Kippur, I heard enough pledges to the shul in the amount of $613 (or “eighteen times three,” very clever, guys) to last me a lifetime.
And Sukkos made completely transparent what had been perhaps inadvertently hidden. My street was lined with people selling esrogim and tinsel and bird cages. There was a sukkah store competing with another sukkah store across the street. And of course Eichler’s was right there, too. You got the sense that if you wanted to participate, really participate, in Jewish life, you had to be ready to shell out a whole lot of money for the requisite commodities.
The 2001 NJPS study shows that the median income of Jewish families was about $54,000 (compared to the $42,000 national average), with over one-third of households having an income of over $75,000. I can’t be certain, but I think my own family’s income growing up probably hovered around $25,000. The basic line is that “the Jewish working class has all but disappeared,” but that’s not true. Unfortunately, the Jewish community seems to be set up as if it is. Of course there is aid available; yeshiva stipends and gemachs and the like. But being the recipient of such aid, just like in secular society, puts you in the periphery of Jewish life. In other words, if you’re constantly eating in someone else’s sukkah, you’ll never have a sukkah to call your own!
Most of the discussion has centered around the costs of synagogue membership and day school. Indeed, the required costs of day school etc. for a family with children is estimated to be about $30,000 a year. But the costs go well beyond this into everyday life–particularly where it can. You can wear a hair covering or you can wear a $2,000 sheitel. You can buy your clothes at department stores or you can buy them at the special fancy $30-per-one shell store. I’m sure there is community pressure, at least I sensed it by living off Avenue J and trying to walk down to the subway with my ripped denim skirt from Goodwill when everyone else got their nice new clothes from Tznius Princess or who knows where.
Same with food: I could buy it at Blue Ribbon aka No Listed Prices R Us, or I could go all the way down to the secular store in Union Square instead. Oftentimes, a regular, national brand would be missing from the kosher store in favor of its more expensive Israeli counterpart. I can’t afford a $16 lasagna just because it has a special hechsher from Israel. I can’t afford to be selective with hechshers! If that’s not some kind of community pressure I don’t know what is.
But I knew if I had wanted to participate, really participate, I’d be buying those Israeli brands, not going to Union Square.
So how much does it cost to be Jewish?* Here’s an answer:
Another dimension to be measured is the cost of Jewish living as a percentage of total income. The members of the Orthodox Jewish community, which comprises about 10 percent of the total Jewish population, have on average accumulated less wealth and earn less money than other Jews. Nevertheless, they remain steadfast in their commitment to day school education, trips to Israel far beyond the frequency of other Jews, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish camping experiences. At the same time, they have more children per household than other Jews, keep kosher with its concomitant higher costs, buy special clothing free of shatnes, and, for the Ultra-Orthodox, purchase wigs for women’s hair covering. Given all these additional expenses, the Orthodox or traditional practitioners spend 25 to 35 percent of their available income for Jewish living, often at a sacrifice of more adequate housing, a more comfortable lifestyle, and the acquisition of savings.
-“The Costs of Jewish Living,” 2008
The community sets the standards.
American Sociological Association: United Jewish Communities. 2003. National Jewish Population Survey, 2000-01. New York, NY: United Jewish Communities [producer]. Storrs, CT: North American Jewish Data Bank [distributor].
Bayme, Steven. Bubis, Gerald B. The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers. American Jewish Committee (AJC). 2008: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=322
*I know, “How Much Does It Cost to be Orthodox” is more accurate, but it doesn’t sound as good.
This is pretty US-centric.
Secular/Humanist/Cultural: Kinda self-explanatory, it’s basically the culture of Judaism without the religion or halacha. Personally, I don’t really like the attempt to start “official” Humanist Judaism congregations, because I think religion is a central part of Judaism. Still, I suspect that the majority of Jews in the US are this. When someone who is Orthodox becomes non-Orthodox or “cultural,” s/he may be termed “Orthoprax” (that is, going through the motions without believing).
Renewal: I don’t know exactly what this is, but I’m pretty sure it was started as a reaction against the legalism of traditional Judaism, and an attempt to inject more spiritual elements. There’s a lot of singing/music, especially lots of acoustic guitars. Spiritual feeling is key.
Reconstructionist: This is a new branch started by Mordechai Kaplan’s followers. There’s not really an official credo out there to be found; you sort of just have to ask around. Basically, what you’ll hear most often is that it’s “what Jews do.” Halacha gets a “vote, not a veto.” That is to say that any law in Judaism can be voted down collectively by a community if they don’t want to do it. To use one example, Kaplan originally wanted to do away with Kol Nidre (an important prayer of Yom Kippur), but eventually the community decided that keeping Kol Nidre in the service was necessary to speak to their own condition. Similarly, individualism is rather important in Reconstructionism (a bit ironically, since its basic motif is “custom defines the law). If that Hebrew tattoo speaks to you, you can get it. The halacha that tattoos are forbidden in Judaism…gets a vote, not a veto (and it can get voted down!)
- Halacha (Jewish law) gets “a vote, not a veto.”
- Jews are only bound by the norms of the community.
- The “peoplehood” aspect is central.
- The view of God is very metaphorical and intellectualized.
Classical Reform: This is the Reform of the 19th century, which I’m pretty sure some older Reform Jews still follow today, whether or not they know it. ThePittsburgh Platform of 1885 outlines the basic beliefs. It was a product of the Enlightenment, and stood to do away with any “outdated laws” that would get in the way of full integration and acculturation, which was the main goal of the first platform. For instance, kashrus (keeping kosher) is now “archaic” and unhelpful.
- Judaism is seem as mainly a code of ethics; supported by reason, not revelation.
- Any practice that seems to get in the way of this should be discarded.
- The peoplehood aspect is de-emphasized, in an attempt to encourage integration.
Modern Reform: Compare to the 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism. This is an outline of what Reform Judaism is today. The underlying belief of “ethical monotheism” and “being a light unto the nations” (via assimilation) is still there. Jewish practice is OK so long as it can be backed up with modern sources (this is my cynical take on it, although it’s not inaccurate). Recently though, some Jewish practices are being taken up by some who are starting to see their inherent value. Still, practices such as wearing tefillin or davening (praying) daily are not widespread. There is still a sense of ceremoniousness, which can be seen in subtle ways such as the idea that a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah during his or her ceremony, as s/he reads from the Torah. There is often a Confirmation ceremony that comes a few years after the bar/bat mitzvah, and is seen as a complement to it.
- The main motif of Modern Reform is “individual autonomy.”
- The ethnic aspect of Judaism is all but abandoned, and the idea of Jews as “chosen people” takes on a new meaning: rather than being “chosen” to receive the Torah and follow the commandments, Jews have been chosen to be a “light unto the nations,” spreading moral values, or “ethical monotheism.”
- Practices long since forgotten since Classical Reform are now starting to be taken up again by some.
Left-leaning Conservative: Conservative Judaism is infamously seen as having two sides, the layman’s perspective and the rabbi’s/academic perspective.Conservative Judaism by Neil Gillman is a great book which (inadvertently?) lays out the building blocks of “layman’s” Conservatism. It looks a lot like Reconstructionism in thought; that is, “Judaism is what Jews do.” In practice, Left-leaning Conservative Jews (i.e. the majority of Conservative Jews) save their observance for inside the synagogue. This has been the case since at least the 1950’s. Women who would never cover their hair outside the synagogue do so inside, for instance. This isn’t surprising, given that the movement was founded around the “synagogue center,” with “ethnic solidarity” as its main focus. People gathered around the synagogue, and that was the ideal. (See Conservative Judaism by Marshall Sklare for more details.) In this sense, Left-leaning Conservatism resembles Reconstructionism almost completely.
- Women can participate in the synagogue, and are able to be called to the Torah and count in a minyan. (See “Women and the Minyan” by Rabbi David J. Fine for more information on this.)
- There is a concept called Catholic Israel, coined by Solomon Schechter, that is similar to Reconstructionism in that it defines Judaism as “what Jews do.” In effect, it replaced the desire for traditional rabbinics by the majority of congregants. With Catholic Israel governing laymen, rabbis and academics realized that the traditionalist approach was no longer respected. Therefore, around the 1950’s, a “responsa” ideal began, with key rabbis voting majority against minority, replacing the traditional Talmudic method. Importantly, both majority and minority opinions could be enacted for any individual congregation by its rabbi.
Right-leaning Conservative/Conservadox/Traditional: This is the other, more traditional face of Conservatism. It is the “rabbis’ Conservatism” or “academics’ Conservatism.” Which one is more “authentic” would have to depend on your view on whether “cult religion” or “official religion” is more authentic. Right-leaning Conservatism seems to be the ideal, according to Conservatism itself. While in reality, most Conservative congregants have a fleeting knowledge of Conservative ideals at best, Right-leaning Conservatives would like to see these ideals put into practice. They include:
- Modeling Jewish practice on the “science of Judaism.” This is a vague concept, more of a method than a real ideology that can be put into practice. it involves using Biblical criticism along with the historical value of Jewish practices to model the community’s practice on.
- An egalitarian community, with women having not only rights but responsibilities. In a fully egalitarian community, women would commit themselves to davening three times a day rather than the traditional two. I believe this is the norm at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Women would also voluntarily assume upon themselves the obligation of tefillin, for example. Interestingly, the above are requirements for women rabbinical candidates, although I am not aware of any real, tangible push from USCJ for womencongregants to assume such responsibility, further widening the gap between Conservative theory and practice; congregants and rabbis.
***All of the above is considered “Liberal Judaism.”***
(Not to be confused with “Liberal Judaism” of Europe, which I *believe* IIRC is synonymous with a slightly stricter version of American Reform Judaism.)
What distinguishes liberal Judaism from Orthodoxy:
- Women and men are seated together (no mechitza), and may perform the same rituals in the synagogue.
- Women may be ordained as rabbis, with the exception of Traditional Judaism, which is a very small institution (UTJ) without much influence.
- Gay men and lesbians may be ordained as rabbis. The official answer to homosexuality in Orthodoxy is to “remain celibate,” as the halacha does not allow relations between men and does not look favorably upon relations by women (although it is not explicitly forbidden). Nonetheless, the culture in mainline Orthodoxy seems to be “don’t ask, don’t tell” until further notice.
- Only Reconstructionist and Reform allow patrilineal descent. They are also open to intermarriage, and rabbis may elect to marry interfaith couples if they wish to do so.
- With the possible exception of Right-leaning Conservatism, halacha is not seen as unwavering–it is seen as constantly changing and adapting with the times.
- Therefore, with the exception of Right-leaning Conservatism, the majority of congregants are not observant “to the letter of the law,” although this doesn’t mean that they don’t participate in the practices of Jewish life. This view of halacha is the main reason for the two “types” of Conservatism; for instance, driving a car to the synagogue on Shabbat is officially OK. However, on one hand most congregants will drive their cars not only to the synagogue but everywhere else, too. On the other hand, many Conservative rabbis still don’t drive on Shabbat. The fact that Conservative rabbis find their own halachic responsa too liberal says a lot about the movement (a lot of these decisions were made for pragmatic and historical, not halachic, reasons.)
- The Torah is, in general, not taken literally, and Biblical criticism is accepted.
- There is not an emphasis on rabbinical authority, and the idea of “daas Torah,” or rabbinical knowledge on all worldly matters, is all but unheard of.
Indy minyan/Trad egal: This is a newer phenomenon, harkening back to the havurah movement of the 1960’s. They are purposely not connected to any specific denomination, although the demographics most indy minyans appear to be made up of mostly ex-Conservative Jews. The practice could be placed along the liberal Orthodox spectrum. The other main camp of indy minyans seems to be more Renewal in practice. I’ll focus on the former. Some are egalitarian, allowing women to take part in all parts of the service, and others are “trad egal”–traditional egalitarian–and allow women greater roles than traditionally given them by Orthodoxy, though they are still bound by halacha (albeit liberal readings of it). An example of this difference might be: While a fully egalitarian minyan would let women lead Maariv, halachically speaking a woman cannot say Maariv for a man. Therefore, a trad egal minyan would likely have a man lead that particular part of the service.
- These are small, community minyanim not connected to any denomination.
- They are often characterized by egalitarianism and social justice.
- Many participants come from educated, day school backgrounds.
Open Orthodox: This looks a lot like trad egal in theory, with its main emphasis on greater women’s participation. It is a fairly new development, led by Avi Weiss et al. It is characterized by an “openness” to secular education etc. Biblical criticism is fairly well received, with organizations such as the Drisha Institute teaching it alongside traditional Jewish sources. Women are tentatively beginning to serve in official capacities resembling that of ordained rabbis, with the most “controversial” title being rabba, given to Sara Hurwitz in 2010.
Modern Orthodox: This is a slightly less “open” Orthodoxy, which is less insistent on more inclusive roles for women. Its flagship institution is Yeshiva University in Manhattan.
- Modern Orthodoxy is currently grappling with its place in the secular world. Two current examples of this are how to face the presence of the large amount of singles in a marriage-heavy culture, and how to face homosexuality.
- Secular knowledge and education is valued.
Yeshivish: This is a very traditional form of Orthodoxy, often known as “Black Hat.” Its emphasis is on traditional yeshiva education for men, and the role of wife and mother for women. Men often wear suits and women wear long skirts, although even within this subculture there is a large amount of variation. Halacha is strictly kept.
- Innovation in halacha or lifestyle are not seen as positive, with many refraining from reading secular books or listening to secular music.
- Secular education is less valued, although some may attend more Jewish-friendly colleges such as Touro College in Brooklyn.
Chasidish: I admit that I don’t know much about this. Chasidism is often seen as the more “spiritual” counterpart to Yeshivism, although compared to Modern Orthodoxy they are similar to each other. One main difference is that Chasidic Jews often follow a rebbe, who serves as a kind of spiritual leader. Within Chasidism there are many groups, the most well-known being Chabad Lubavitch.