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?