Order & Destruction: An Autobiography

I was walking with a friend the other day when he saw my Ahavas Yisrael pin. 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 started in community college in 2010, when I wanted to be a philosophy major. 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. 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 (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 (an unashamedly traditional school). I was still planning to convert to Orthodoxy. I changed my major from philosophy to religion to Jewish studies. 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 the holidays, annoyed at the singing, annoyed at Orthodox Brooklyn.

And then my annoyance disappeared and was replaced by disappointment. The “Orthodox culture” everyone had told me about was appearing all around 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 the problem or to require celibacy. 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 used to think that order was a sign that God existed. But there is so much disorder within 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. Facing that new void scares me. The sense of order that I got from being religious gave way to complete bewilderment. 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 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.

It seemed religion couldn’t stand up to that after all.

Jews and Marriage Equality

 

 

 

You can’t really see it, but from left to right it’s:

All Americans, Jewish, Unaffiliated, Non-Christian, White Catholic, Hispanic Catholic, White Mainline, Black Protestant, Mormon, White Evangelical (interesting choice of groups that is)…

I mean, even accounting for the fact that most Jews are, well, liberal and/or Liberal, that’s still 4% more in favor than “Unaffiliated.”

Correlation?

And, in the spirit of things, here is a quote:

“You’re saying, no, the state said two kinds of marriage. The full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage.” -Ruth Ginsburg

 

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Studio G-dcast 2013 Summer Residency!

I wanted to apply as a coder but I’m not good enough. :(
So with a sad, sad heart, I’m passing this along to everyone else.

What is Studio G-dcast?

Studio G-dcast is the opportunity to spend six days working at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco to adapt some of the funniest, wildest, and most fascinating stories in the Jewish tradition as animated shorts or interactive multimedia experiences.


Residents will work either in animator/storyteller pairs to create their own three minute films, or in hacker/illustrator pairs to create interactive applications. The week is filled with storytelling, animation and coding master classes, studio recording sessions, and expert panels. It’s a turbo-powered growth spurt in filmmaking, app design and Jewish learning. On the last night of the residency, artists will share their works in progress at a public screening at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.

By the way— did we mention the residency’s FREE?

Who Can Apply?

We’re looking for emerging Jewish animators, coders and storytellers currently enrolled as college or graduate students. Storytellers—if you’re a singer/songwriter, novelist, slam poet, playwright, screenwriter, one-person show, or three-ring circus, we’re excited to meet you! Coders-We’re looking for crackerjack hackers who love a pretty algorithm and clean code as much as the next nerd, but still know how to get a job done under pressure. Animators—we’re looking for artists who work in any style (hand-drawn, digital 2D, stop motion, claymation), as long as you can bring your gear with you to San Francisco and can work quickly!

This year, we’re also looking for one coder and one illustrator to pair who will create an original mobile app from their story.

*NOTE: You definitely DO NOT have to be an experienced with Jewish learning or ritual to apply. We’re looking for all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. After all, if you already knew it all, what would be left to learn?

When, Where, and What Else?

This August 11th-16th 2013. That’s Sunday through Friday morning. We’ll be working onsite at The Contemporary Jewish Museum and staying at a nearby hotel. We feed you three kosher meals a day for the duration of the program, and offer a $350 travel stipend to get you to San Francisco from wherever you may be.

Deadline to apply is March 22, 2013.

“I had no idea you were so Jewish”

Basically, there’s one thing that really annoys me…the fact that everyone knows about LGBT discrimination in the religious community but no one really seems to acknowledge religious discrimination in the LGBT community. When I came out during Orthogeddon 2012, I got two reactions. My straight friends thought I should still stay connected to the Jewish community. I mean heck, I even had a couple of Orthodox friends who didn’t want me to give up. But the reaction was pretty unanimous among my gay* friends: “I’m so glad you’re over that stupid phase! Never go back!” They often then continue with a whole rant about how Judaism has “so many stupid rules” etc.

That’s cool. I know that these people have totally been bullied by religion, especially if they’ve grown up in religious families. But it still frustrates me how hard it is to explain to people that you can’t just throw things away like that. And it’s kind of disappointing to hear that my friends are practically embarrassed for me by my “stupid phase.” Explaining to people that 1.) Although I can’t be Orthodox anymore, 2.) Judaism is still a part of my life, 3.) Which I don’t really feel comfortable with, since its entire structure is based on married, straight life.** Add all that to having to be the spokesperson for Judaism to friends who say things like “And you can’t even use the lights on your Sabbath? I mean, come on! So you’re definitely over that, right?” and it become a pretty…complex experience. What do I say to that? “Oh yeah, it’s totally stupid”?


I am still a Jewish Studies major. I still hang out with my rabbi. I still have a gemara checked out from the school library. How do I explain this to the non-Jewish girl I am talking to without sounding like a fundamentalist? How long do I spend telling her the obligatory “I don’t really care that much about my Jewish Studies major, don’t worry”?

And so with this I direct you toward this article [PDF] in the Shma from November 2012, which says it better than  I did:

There seems to be a threshold of how “Jewey” a prospective companion can be. In fact, asking, “What do you do?” is almost always a problematic question, because the revelation that one is a Jewish professional conjures up a set of assumptions that are rarely complimentary: He must be some sort of religious fundamentalist; no one would “willingly” work in that field. These perceptions present an even more difficult challenge when it comes to observant LGBTQ Jews who feel rejected by their communities and Judaism. Finding little room for reconciliation between the Judaism they identify with and their sexual identity, many choose a more accepting secular lifestyle that is, at most, only culturally Jewish. It can be difficult to understand why someone who is LGBTQ would choose to be so deeply involved in Jewish life, both professionally and personally. It appears counterintuitive and could be mistaken for self-loathing. And it is most definitely not sexy.

*I secretly dislike the term LGBT, because although “gay” or “queer” might exclude people too, everyone knows that LGBT usually means “gay men,” and unlike the other terms it’s just rubbing salt in everyone’s wounds with the so-called inclusion of LBT. I don’t use “queer” very often myself, just for the aesthetic reason that it seems to have weird political/radical connotations which I don’t necessarily always want to be there, you know?

**You know it’s true. Everything from niddah to yichus to tznius to shomer negiah to mechitza and the importance of marriage and family is based on the structure of straight married people. Sure, you can fit yourself in there as a gay person, but you try listening to “we have sinned, we have sinned” on Yom Kippur and not feeling totally fringe.

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Men being “nice”: Another look at partnership minyanim

“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

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, 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” (222) 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 what tefillah ought to look like.

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The Purim Superhero is temporarily out of stock~

In case you didn’t know, there is a new Jewish children’s book out about a boy with two dads. As you might imagine, it has received both positive and negative reviews.

The positive:

“Our kids have regular kid problems. Just as there are Purim stories other than the Book of Esther, there are kid-in-a-gay-family stories that aren’t about a classmate or teacher’s homophobia.” (Jewish Week)

The negative is basically for the reasons you might imagine:

“Our culture is being systematically deluged with visions for ‘alternative families’ and there are dozens of foreign funds that encourage every form of sexuality other than the conventional one.  Parents need to be on the lookout for this type of content which can spring up in the most unexpected places.” (Jewish Press)

Then my eyes glazed over.

 

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How much does it cost to be Jewish?

I grew up thinking Jews should work in social change,
but only investment bankers can afford a Jewish life
.”
-Jewish Women Watching

I was at the Blue Ribbon food store on Ave. J in Brooklyn the night before Rosh Hashana.

“Store closing! Store closing!”

blue_ribbonI 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: 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.

Judaism: An Inconvenient Mistress

Knowledge is the beginning of action, and action is the completion of knowledge.”
-Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529)

“I went to the Bulgarian Orthodox church the other day,” I told my friend. (Once in a while, I’m dragged to some esoteric church or other by another friend of mine who’s Spiritually Seeking (TM), and I humor her.) That’s all I said. That’s how this all started.

“I’m into yoga and Buddhism and astrology or whatever. I can’t really get into formal religion,” she replied. “I don’t even know why anyone would be Jewish, like choosing to be Jewish.” I told her, of course, that I probably wouldn’t have had the stamina myself if my dad hadn’t been Jewish. This is usually how I’d mollify such situations; you know, the old “Yeah, you’re right, but what can I say?”

“I mean, I don’t support Israel,” she went on, saying that although she didn’t really know all the facts, she did know such cold hard facts as “people are dying” and “the US shouldn’t be giving money to Israel.” I didn’t really know what she was getting at, but I’ve heard these conversations turn into “the Jews stole the land” more than enough times to know this wasn’t just going to be about fiscal policies.

“Israel is huge, and more people on the other side have died. Unless something has radically changed since I was last updated.”

“I don’t want to talk about Israel,” I said.

“Once I saw this stupid Israel group shouting stuff about Palestine, like how it’s not really a country,” she said. “How can you be such a vile piece of shit? I wanted to spit on them.”

And I don’t like how Jewish people automatically side with Israel as if they are Israeli,” she went on. “Do you really think they care about you stupid Americans over here, just because you’re Jewish?”

“It’s not all Israel’s fault,” I said. “That’s all I’m gonna say.” I have this rule where I don’t talk about subjects like this when neither party has enough information to have a real discussion. She had just told me she didn’t know much, and I’d be the first to admit I don’t know anything about Israel or Palestine, to say nothing of the basics of politics. It’s pretty tough to learn anything anyway when your only options are either Aish or the lone book in your library’s Israel section, “Israel: How to Handle This Fascist State?”

“Well, you’re biased because you’re trying to be Jewish,” she said. “You’re personally invested in this because of the Jewish element. You can’t be objective, and that’s sad. I can’t believe how people can be so closed-minded.”

I didn’t know what to say. I really had nothing to say. I don’t know much about the “conflict” either, except for what I learned in my History of Zionism class, which is basically this:

Somehow I suspected that wasn’t going to change her mind.

Israel was beside the point, though. I realized this as she continued, telling me that “Jews think they’re better than everyone,” “Jews are so elitist,” and “It’s racist not to intermarry.”

Sure, when I lived in Brooklyn, I heard this sort of thing on the bus and waiting for the subway, but only when I’m back home in Virginia do I hear it from friends. When I told her afterwards that I didn’t like being called “elitist,” she told me I was taking it too personally, and that she didn’t see why she would have offended me.

I’d try to crudely analyze such a frustrating situation if I thought it actually needed analysis.

The truth is, it’s exhausting to be the “spokesperson” all the time to people who will never fundamentally understand. Of course someone who’s raised to believe that “it’s racist not to intermarry” is going to think that “Jews are elitist.” I’m not going to change that. But I thought that when I got disillusioned with the details of the process of my Orthodox conversion and left Brooklyn after five months there, I’d just leave behind the Jewish community and religion and it would all work out, and that I wouldn’t mind the inevitable barrage of “Jews are like X” jokes, because I was over it. I actually thought I could do this, I thought I could avoid all of it, as long as I acted right, said the right things, diverted the subject…right up until I heard “Jews think they’re better than everyone.”

And it just wasn’t happening.

So thank you, anti-Zionist friend, for getting me out of that lie before it could get any deeper. Thanks for now believing I’m elitist and probably ultra-religious too, just because I disagreed with you. You made me realize that this goes far beyond anything I could do to avoid it. Now I won’t have to pretend to laugh at your jerky Jewish jokes anymore.

Language at Drisha (and beyond etc.)

Words are pretty cool. Sometimes they stay in one place, and sometimes they cross state lines. Sometimes certain types of words spread like wildfire. I don’t mean gossip; I mean words like “cat” or “bank.” For example, I was born in Connecticut, so I still say “pocketbook.” I brought “pocketbook” all the way down to Virginia, where my “pocketbook” encountered everyone else’s “purses.” It was barely a fight. I haven’t traded my “pocketbook” in for a “purse” yet, and it’s been years.

Still, in other environments, some words enjoy an almost guaranteed takeover. When I was at Drisha over the summer, nothing in the kitchen was free for the taking. Lots of things were hefker, though. “Ownerless.” It seemed that as the summer wore on, more and more things were hefker. And kal vachomer, if we were saying hefker we were definitely saying davkaDavka was thrown around like a baseball at Drisha. Once it showed up in our sugya, and once our gemara teacher started saying it, everyone in our class started saying it. Heikhi, how does this happen? Well, for one thing, our class wasn’t picking up much from Talmud 3 down the hall. Our class was together three and a half hours a day, and words tend to spread that way. I don’t know what the other classes talked about but we, Talmud 1, were learning ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son, and that’s where our vocabulary came from.

For that month, our life was the ben sorer u’moreh. Our jokes were ben sorer u’moreh-themed (maybe that was just me). On the last day of class, we bought OU Dairy bacon and grape juice, as an elaborate joke based on the fact that for someone to be a ben sorer u’moreh he must eat meat and drink wine…but only if he stole it from his parents first (both of whom must look and sound the same). We expanded this into a bigger joke, saying that his parents only owned one item, the clock in our own classroom. When the clock went missing one day, we said the ben sorer u’moreh had stolen it.

Drisha just worked like that. Most of the girls had just come from seminary, so it was an opportunity to re-enter an immersive “Torah everything” environment for them. But for people like me, this was a completely new concept. Of course you’re not going to ask if those donuts are free; you’re going to ask if they’re hefker.

I’m reading a book called Becoming Frum by Sarah Bunin Benor. It’s about the language of ba’alei teshuva; when, why, and how certain words or styles are acquired. Not surprisingly, her frumspeak hierarchy is: Periphery, Community, and Yeshiva. As BTs become more involved and invested, she explains, their way of speaking changes accordingly. This isn’t so surprising; after all, if everyone around you is using sav, eventually you will have to decide if sticking with tav is worth making you different. And vice versa. Some BTs enjoy emphasizing their differences from FFBs (she actually opens and closes the book with Matisyahu, naturally). Some want nothing more than to blend in.

It’s easy and linear when someone raised Modern Orthodox is joining a yeshivishe community. It’s a little more interesting to put people from secular, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Chasidishe backgrounds into a non-denominational place like Drisha. More than once did I respond to “Shabbat shalom” with “Good shabbos,” which violates all natural laws of language, seeing as I was raised far less observant than anyone else I knew there, and should have used “Shabbat shalom” like the child of secular Reform intermarriage I was. I didn’t start saying “Shabbat shalom,” but they didn’t have to start saying “Good shabbos,” either. Reading from Tanach was interesting. It didn’t default to Modern Orthodox/Israeli pronunciation as one might expect, but rather a mix. However, the exceptions prove the rule, as far as I’m concerned. Where “Good shabbos” didn’t bring us together, davka did instead.

It’s not limited to words, of course. When I read “the ‘hesitation click‘ is a feature of Orthodox communities,” I knew immediately what Benor meant, and I laughed. She writes that it is a feature of Israeli Hebrew, but as I hadn’t heard it until coming to Drisha, I thought it was just one person’s idiosyncrasy. It spread rapidly, though, and (as I delightfully noted) across denominational lines.

Drisha is one place where language isn’t necessarily correlated with ideological or denominational lines. It’s like its own microcosm.

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Do you need a last-minute $375 menorah?

Here is a list of five places unlikely to sell menorahs, but do anyway.

5.) Artful Home’s “Modern Menorah.” Price: $290. Not my cup of tea, but at least it’s modern:

4.) Unica Home’s artfully named “Cement Candlesticks.” Simply a steal at $120. The “cubes can be rearranged,” but I think the way it’s currently arranged could make for an interesting eighth night:

3.) The MoMA Store’s “Flexus Menorah.” You can find it under the ever-useful category Living>Candlelight. However, as MoMA customer Knit-Picker sez: “3 stars. This is a Hannukia, not a Menorah.” I dont’ think I’m pretentious enough to call it that quite yet, though, myself. $125.

2.) Crate & Barrel’s “Tovah Menorah.” Sounds like a good menorah. $32.95.

1.) Toys R Us’s “Mini Menorah Set,” for those (like me) who aren’t above using birthday candles. $7.99. Candles may or may not be included.

My vote for the most expensive menorah: This one from the Jewish Museum, $375.

For those of us who are just too busy, here’s an online menorah.

And of course, for those of us who just can’t seem to remember if today is a Jewish holiday, this is for you.

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