Culture, Israel, Justice, Religion

"Dear Judaism" Redux

Yalla Journal is back after a two great issues! If you are thirty and under, they want your short stories, poems, photographs, personal narratives, visual art, music, songs, and short essays about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yalla is intended to create dialogue, and as such doesn’t stop short of accepting pieces from the extreme right and extreme left, only that pieces do not call for violence. Such a raw yet interfaith journal doesn’t exist anywhere else — and frequently runs short on Jewish submissions, so spread the world and submit something.
A year ago, I wrote this piece below for Yalla and read it at the Havurah Institute for shits and grins, useful here as an example. Read the full journal online here.
Dear Judaism
Yalla Journal ’06
Dear Judaism,
I know it’s not been that long since we saw each other last, since I donned my tzitzit and said my morning benedictions in the after-shower cool of my shuttered bedroom. And when I walked outside today, it hadsn’t been long since I blinked at the sunlight and said shehekhiyanu for the first warm day of spring, “Blessed are You, O Divine One, who keeps us alive and brought us to this season.” It’s hardly been a long time since I stood on the subway platform and watched the myriads of ethnicities hustle and bustle in New York City, often fervently, on their ways to work—a sea of uniqueness all coined in the image of your Original Source.
But matters deserve this letter anyway, something it’s taken me a long time to muster. So as my friend, I think we need to talk, I think you need to realize some things.
Dear Judaism, I went to the Holy Land to learn a little more about you, about myself, about our people, but I didn’t like what I found. Not two weeks into my stay, I took a tour of the West Bank and I didn’t like it one bit. The next four months are a blur to me, a whirlwind of turbulent reeducation—security guards at grocery stores, checkpoints at roads, walls between houses, graffiti saying kill the Arabs, graffiti saying kill the Jews, towers with flags, flags everywhere.
Dear Judaism, you lied to me. You told me that I could be good and right and just. But in Israel, in Palestine, I couldn’t. There was no escape, no innocence.
Dear Judaism, you have a dark side you never told me about. You never told me that Jews could be vile, never told me about Hebron. There, I saw the bricks and bottles thrown from rooftops onto the Arab street, saw the turrets and glinting guns everywhere. Outside of town, I saw the scour marks and holes in walls left by Kiryat Arba settlers who violently evicted a family for a night in order to celebrate Sabbath, all under the guidance of you and their rabbi. These aren’t like the Jews of Sunday school, of Grandpa’s shtetl in Poland. I never thought you could be a part of the problem like this.
But more so, I saw you abused. I watched people use you. I watched them scream your name as they rallied—“Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel!”—never mind that they stood across the line, the Green Line. I watched orange bands encircle tanned forearms, ballpoint pens scribble serial numbers, while demanding what God gave to them—someone else’s trees. And you did nothing. You let them use you. So I think it’s time you learned something about yourself.
Dear Judaism, the pages of our sages talk a great deal about treating our neighbors as ourselves. You once spoke to me about universal dignity, each person coined in the image of our Creator, and “He who saves a life is as if he saved the whole world.” But there is a discontinuity of your words in the Holy Land. Now you’ve lost the innocence you never had, and with it all the power except the power you shouldn’t want—of want and wanton violence. All the teens who explode in anger and shrapnel on crowded streets are worlds which our goodwill failed to reach. All the teens in orange rallying for the redemption of the land, that power could be wielded for a just end. See, we could be there, you and I, in the camps and the Arab street—and the yeshivas too—forging partners.
See, you’ve lost the emphasis on goodness for legalism, you’ve lost the love of God for the fear of breaking kashrut —because it never meant “fear” anyway but “awe” and I don’t see your people in awe of much. Spiritual purpose is supplanted by shallow pride and you’re losing a whole generation to Heeb and hip t-shirts. What good is a shirt when what’s underneath it is hollow? Me, I’d rather be hallowed and than hollow, but that message doesn’t ring with young Jewry. They’re losing touch because you aren’t touching them where it counts. You’ve allowed yourself to be about too many limits. In Hebrew school, we’re taught that the word for holiness comes from “separation,” but we’re so holy now all we have are split hairs.
Dear Judaism, in fact, I’m tired of lines and borders and exceptions. I’ve had enough. I’m not a little boy anymore. And neither are you. Eternal souls that we are, we grew up together, since the Big Bang and before. And now God is the child, looking up at you and me, asking, “What are they doing to each other? Why won’t you do something?” So enough is enough. Because you haven’t, I’m drawing the line.
It’s time you stand up. Stand up—stand up!—against those who treat land as more valuable than life. How many more must die before you take a stand, before you draw the line. How many Biblical justifications are you going to let slide past before it’s one too many? How many rabbis are you going to let invoke your Eternal Mover’s name as they wield a weapon?
You need a hero. You need a new hero. Your old hero is a man with a shaved face with a sharp rifle with a spade, bringing yiddishkeit into the land. Your older hero is a man with a beard with a book with a beshert, bringing chasidut into the home. But what good is your chesed if it stays in the home? And what good is the land if you must pay lives to posses it?
You need a hero who will take up arms, who will fight fiercely, who is willing to give his own life — for forgiveness. You need a hero who will marshal up an armada to march to the front lines, be they Green Lines or blue lines or red lines, and deliver a blitzkrieg — of charity. You need a soldier of tzedek, a hero of chasidut, a captain of kavanah. You need a yeshivabucher of the beit midrash of the olive branch, in the model of the forefathers: “Who is a hero? One who makes an enemy into a friend.”
There’s only a few Jews willing to do it, to draw lines, cross lines. A Rabbi pushed down by soldiers and kicked because he was brave enough to cross the line—the tear gas line. At the Bedouin summer school a few go every day ostensibly to teach English, but really to prove that not all Jews carry guns—the lines of assumption. A cadre of Torah-starved students who dare to study Talmud as applied to occupation—the lines of political correctness.
Breaking the rules is part of growing up, and there is a whole new generation aching to do some breaking. Judaism, you could be a new revival, a new paradigm, in the lives of a bored and distracted youth—a deep connection between the heart and the hands, a power for prosperity. Faith heroes and heroines are waiting in the wings for you to prove that Judaism can stand for more than land and law, but also passion and compassion.
Dear Judaism, heroes are parts of fairy tales, and this sickly world is reality. But in the absence of heroes and heroines, who else will stand up for you? It is time those of us who have felt the thunderstorm, who have crossed the lines, who have wept in compassion for both sides, inaugurate a change in you, dear Judaism. It is time to inaugurate a new Judaism, a new Jewish hero: the peacemaker and a Judaism without borders.
Submit your writings, whatever they may be, to Yalla Journal here.

6 thoughts on “"Dear Judaism" Redux

  1. KFJ- I enjoyed your piece at ‘tute and reading it again here. And I empathize, unfortunately, with all the feelings kicked up by living in Israel. But I do sort of think you’ve conflated “Judaism” with “Israel” in a way that doesn’t necessarily warrant it (oddly, in much the same way that much of the anti-Israel Middle East conceives of all Jews as Zionist oppressors, unable to distinguish what goes on in Israel and the practice of Judaism. Though, granted, some people make it hard to untangle). I don’t think “Judaism” is the problem here. Maybe some Judaisms are, but not “Judaism.” I don’t think YOU have “lost the emphasis on goodness for legalism” or that “you’ve lost the love of God for the fear of breaking kashrut,” and I don’t think most of our circle have either. We need to claim our own brand of (good/legal/kosher-keeping/God-fearing) Judaism as a real Judaism, too.

  2. While enjoying your article, I can only marvel at those unlike me, converts who are ” Not Jewish” enough for alomost every branch, movement, whatever you call it this week. I lost the desire to go to Eretz Yisroel, because I fear that I won’t be allowed to enjoy Shabbat with more shomer friends, daven at the Kotel, even dress. Anything I do, SOMEONE is not going to like it, so why bother?
    I still believe we are all Jews, but others are not going to like THAT either.
    I thought Judaism was liberating, imagine, to discuss and argue ( okay, but with intellegence) thoughts of the Mishna, and Talmud, but all I see now is some woman in Kiryas Joel be damned because she wore a modest skirt….of denim. Liberating for who? The Haredi who throw rocks at women they feel immodest? Seems nothing happens to _them_.
    I do not regret my choice, I only feel for those who rather do their own thing instead of trying to share the traits and traditions which make us proud as Jews.

  3. Sarah Naomi-
    What aspects of Judaism interested you in converting. Was it about “liberating, imagine, to discuss and argue thoughts of the Mishna, and Talmud . . .”
    If so who gave you that idea and where did you see these qualities . . . ?

  4. RR —
    You’re right that Judaism and Israel are unfairly conflated, and my intent when I sat down to dump a little baggage onto the page was to fix a little bit of that in myself. This is not about the wider conflict — in which terrorism and counter-terrorism take the center stage. This essay was pure disgust at Judaism’s fundamentalists. The wider issues are just the context, the focus is cleaning our own house.
    It was simply a heartwrending shock to see that Jewish tradition — which was the source of my inspiration for my pantheon of liberal values — was also the source for a bunch of racist, violent thugs. It’s one thing to know that your own religion has fundamentalists. And it’s another thing to see it’s impact on other people. In Hebron especially, it was phenomenally soul-tearing to witness Jewish tradition bastardized so far. I’ve never cried so much in my life over something in which I played no part.
    And I totally agree with you about Judaisms. Some Judaisms are at fault, not all of course. You could say this is a personal manifesto in reclaiming my own Judaism. But also, I have no problem evangelizing these values. It’s not enough to claim my Judaism as legitimate and say that some of those Judaisms are ugly — those Judaisms like the ones in Hebron need to go. They’re a danger to Jews, but much more importantly they’re a danger to innocents, to the world at large. And I have no problem saying it. You and I understand them as separate, but others in the world, as you pointed out, make no such distinction. It behooves us to straighten business in our own house. It may indeed be the only proof that more than one Judaism exists.
    Thanks for reading.

  5. >>“Anything I do, SOMEONE is not going to like it, so why bother?”
    Do you believe that life is only meaningful if everyone is happy with you?

  6. Thanks for the additional background, KFJ. I also just got back from Hevron and it was horrific. I haven’t even done something half as productive as writing about it yet…

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