Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Jewish Culture’ Category

As a ger (גר), a Jew by Choice, a convert, or a “righteous goy”, it is often difficult to figure out where you fit in to the whole ethnic side of judaism. Many born-Jews have told me that being Jewish in contemporary America is both an ethnicity and a religion, and that for me, only religious Judaism is available. As a sociologist, I have never found that completely convincing, mainly because it has echoes of racism in it, as it essentializes jewishness, making it an in-born quality rather than a learned ethnos.

Clearly, I will never have ancestors who were Jewish or have a tradition of familial connection to the Jewish people (at least, not that I know of—there is always a possibility of a Jewish ancestor, but at the moment I don’t know of any). And clearly I will never repeat my childhood and grow up Jewish with Jewish parents. But I remain firmly social constructionist about ethnicity: It is a quality of human interaction and human production, not of birth or essence, so while I will never be the same as someone born into a Jewish family, I don’t think that my “ethnicity” can help but be transformed and “judaified” by the conversion process.

Assimilation (or integration or acculturation or whatever term you prefer) is a difficult and controversial topic on many levels for many different minority populations; and it occurs in both directions, between the subordinate (minority) and dominant (majority). In our modern, pluralist societies, we have come to treat ethnicities as ends-in-themselves, and have created a whole culture of expectations about the “autenticity” of cultural identities and practices, how they should remain unchanged, and the imperative to “preserve.” Historically, I would argue that in today’s pluralist societies we are experiencing not a difference in kind, but of degree or intensity; that is, ethnicities have always had processes of boundary formation, assimilation, blending, and conflict, but now because of the frequency and scope of global migration combined with the rights discourses of democratic institutions, we live in a world of intense and constant ethnic conflict.

In addition, I think that Judaism, because of its particular history of outsiderness and persecution, has had intensely policed ethnic boundaries since about the time of Ezra (with the notable exception of a period of about 300 years during the Hellenistic diaspora around the Mediterranean where Judaism welcomed and actively proselytized converts). Even during the most open times, Jews had to maintain a communal distance from the dominant culture (e.g., in caliphate Spain). That has meant that, historically, Judaism has been perhaps more conscious than most of its ethnic boundaries.

As I have mentioned before, I have been wondering about the relationship of a ger to Jewish ethnicity (actually, there are multiple Jewish ethnicities, but for the sake of clarity here, I’ll pretend that it’s a singular, unitary thing) and what my own conversion means to whatever ethnicity I will eventually be and my relationship to the ethnic attachments I already have (American, northern European, Mormon). In a scholarly mode, I understand that empirically, humans tend to blend ethnicities as a matter of course, almost unconsciously, and in contradiction to their feelings or beliefs that their ethnicities have remained unchanged and remain “pure”.

In personal terms, in this process of exploring judaism over the past year, I have changed, even without being aware of it. I have developed habits of mind, habits of practice, habits of speech that are (American, liberal) Jewish, even if I’m not aware of them. I find myself identifying with Jewish characters and Jewish figures on the news (e.g., Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. who was shot last week), without even realizing it (but I have also not lost my identification with my other ethnic commitments). Yesterday I was walking from my car to my office when it occurred to me that I was humming a Yeminite sh’ma that I particularly love. Without even meaning to, I have blended my ethnicity already.

For me, though, there is a deeper level of identification that I have never experienced. I always feel like an outsider at shul, not because anyone makes me feel that way, but just because I’m hyper-aware of my difference. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In fact, one of the things that attracts me to Judaism is that it’s a religion of outsiders. And given my personality, it’s probable that I’ll always feel like an outsider, even after conversion.

In reading a brief history of Jewish liturgy this morning by Rabbi Sacks (head Orthodox rabbi of the UK), I came across a brief passage where he explains how the Jews who were taken into exile to Babylon had to contend with the loss of their primary religious practice, the avodah or sacrifice (burn offerings). He notes that it was in Babylon that the exiled Judeans (Israelites?), separated from their holy city and knowing that their temple had been burnt to the ground and sacked, dealt with their loss and grief, and their subordinate status as exiled outsiders in Babylon, by gathering to read Torah together and through three-times daily prayer, corresponding roughly to the times of daily avodah/sacrifice (except the evening prayer).

It struck me in reading that, that my own personal experience of religion or spirituality, if you will, has been an experience of exile and longing; of trying to understand and create a meaningful spiritual life for myself after radical separation; of mourning the loss of a previous spiritual life and community; and of return or redemption. I suddenly found myself feeling intensely Jewish, of identifying with a lost and exiled people who longed for their spiritual home. In a fleeting moment, I felt for the first time that the Jewish story was my story.

As someone who is primarily rationalist (with an openness to the human (shared) experience of the sacred), I find that I can’t read the Exodus story as history, a recounting of actual events and people. The archeology just can’t support, for the moment, a literalist or historical approach to the text. But when I think of Exodus as the expression of a lost and exiled people in Babylon, it makes complete sense to me: The story of the triumph of their G-d over the local gods, the constant reassurance that they are G-d’s people, the catharsis in Pharoah’s punishment and learning, etc., all point to the story of an exiled people longing for home. It occurred to me (perhaps not an original idea or even all that interesting to those of you who are well-read in Jewish history and Jewish thinking about history) that what has been preserved in the Jewish story of the past 2500 years is the experience of being an exiled and scattered people who long for wholeness (שבת) and who find it through return (תשובה) with each other in community and in (ancient) tradition. This resonated at a deep level for me. The Jewish story is my story.

This new-found identification, however, is only one of two strands in the story of Babylonian exile that felt particularly salient to me this morning. The other half is an identification with those Hebrews who had been left behind after the exile, the Judaeans who remained in the land after the destruction of the temple. The exiled leadership, now what we would recognize as Jewish (probably the first time historically we can properly use this term), were freed from Babylon by the Persian empire and returned to Jerusalem. They found to their horror that those who had been left behind were radically different from them: they had a syncretic (blended) culture and religion, they had intermarried, and they no longer spoke Hebrew (sound familiar?). The returnees reacted with anger, indignation, moralizing, and violence to the new practices of those Hebrews/Judeans who had been left behind; and they exerted a culture of tight ethnic monitoring, tight control over practice, language, marriage, prayer, text, food—in short, of Jewishness, all backed by the power of the Persian Empire. The returnees’ practices, which had surely developed during exile, were transplanted and forced onto the remaining Israelite population.

Just as I felt an identification with the exiled, the Babylonian Jews, I simultaneously realized that I also identified with those who had been left behind, and who had made different choices vis-a-vis their religious and cultural alliances. I found myself defending the assimilated, the blended, the syncretic, and intermarried Judaeans against the orthodox onslaught of the returnees. Those who had been left behind had created new and vibrant forms of Hebrew religion in their syncretic practices. I cannot align myself in good conscience with the returnees who sought to “purify” and “correct” the “Bad Jews” who had been left behind. Everything from the new, strict rules of practice to the restructured Temple priesthood of the 2nd Temple to the forbidden practice of intermarriage and religious syncretism ring to me, from my 21st century ger-ische perspective to be unethical and a profound misunderstanding of how culture (ethnicity) works.

And so I ended up with a very broad sense of Jewishness and identification to an entire range of ancient Jews 2500 years ago in the breadth of their experiences, identifying both with the exiled and those who remained in Judea, the oppressed who became the oppressors and the “assimilated” who were perceived as a threat to Jewishness: Both were ethnic and religious innovators, both had survived an unimaginable (cultural) loss, and both ended up with a workable survival strategy: They were all Jews. Yes, the Jewish story is my story.

teku

edited for clarity

Read Full Post »

Warning: Rambling aimlessness ahead.

A big part of my journey has been struggling with my personal identity, my sense of who I am or will be as I move along this path. On one hand, I’ve pretty much embraced the label “Jew” and find myself thinking of myself as jewish already; the only caveat I find is my own ignorance. I feel Jewish, whatever that means; but I am a mere babe in terms of learning and practice. For me, that’s a good thing. It points to a road ahead of learning, exploring, growing, and moving toward a meaningful, ethical life. It seems clearer and clearer that I haven’t ceased being me, my ancestors and family haven’t disappeared, my aesthetics and morality and desires are still there; in short, I’m still me. Just me and Jewish.

There is a communal form of identity work, however, that is still troublesome for me. It is not unique to Jews, but I’m just having to deal with it in my new Jewish community.

A basic mode of community building that is relatively universal (I use that word advisedly) is that of working out meaningful boundaries, drawing cultural in/out lines. A common way groups do this is by building a kind of knowledge of the Other, the outsider, the Not-I. This knowledge of the Other is usually more mythical than empirical. Sometimes there are touches of experiential truth in this knowledge, but most often the experiences are already interpreted through the perspective of the Self, the We, and are often already inaccurate.

At its worst, this kind of identity work creates us/them distinctions that justify violence—pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts. At its most benign, it draws light social boundaries that can separate or distinguish at key moments and in key social spaces.

Although I know rationally that this is just simply something that human groups do—everything from Americans vs. Muslims (in the popular consciousness of the War on Terror) to internecine battles over arcane distinctions between death metal and lyrical death metal—I find that both my personal ethics and my education make it highly visible and highly vexing when I’m in a social situation where its actually happening. I understand this behavior in my sociologist brain and can see the behaviors with an interested detachment. In fact, I can even point to some important benefits of this kind of identity work, especially for minority groups.

But when I’m sitting in the middle of it, I get impatient with it very quickly. I realized tonight that I have two separate difficulties with this boundary drawing identity work: on one hand, it is usually anchored in ignorance of the Other (or reduction or oversimplification or willful misrepresentation, etc.), sometimes relatively harmless, sometimes full blown lies; and on the other hand, I have a deep ethical objection to it, as it’s hard for me to see an ethical way to exclude through misrepresentation, myth, or misinterpretation. Even as I write this, I am thinking of a hundred objections to my own objections, and maybe I’m not expressing this accurately, but I have a visceral ethical objection to doing identity work in this way. Even though I recognize that my lone objection is not going to change 6 billion humans’ behavior (and acknowledging that I may engage in it myself).

Part of this comes from growing up Mormon, in a community that, although it sees itself as essentially American, also sees itself as the set up against the rest of the world (Gentiles…yes, Mormons adopted this Jewish language in the 19th century from the Hebrew Bible).  And it comes from my rejection of the idea of a “chosen” people or a “special” individual of any kind in my early 20s. My own values revolve ideas of the value of human beings without regard to race, class, gender, religion, etc., and so I balk at efforts to make substantive distinctions. Having said all that, I realize there is some irony in my choosing as a spiritual home a religion that has been isolated and oppressed for nearly 2000 years, so community boundaries are often front and center in any conversation about Jewishness. And I should also stress that like everyone I often fail to live up to my ideals in this regard (e.g., I often get really pissed at all the straight people in the Castro).

The other part of impatience (and sometimes anger) comes from a character flaw of sorts: I do not suffer fools easily. I don’t mind people’s ignorance (and in fact am painfully aware of what I do not know), but I despise when knowledge (false) is used as a tool for social ends (boundary drawing). It makes me squirm.

Tonight I got into a conversation with a few friends about charity and chesed, something I’ve talked about here in a previous post (and a bit of a pet peeve of mine). The conversation was mostly fine, until it derailed into “Christians are…” and “Christians believe…” versus “We [Jews] are” and “We [Jews] believe”. I spent many years (a couple decades) immersed in Christian history and doctrine. Like any massive ancient culture, Christianity is diverse and complex and simple to be constructions just don’t work. My problems with the conversation were many, from simply false ideas to ideas produced through perception bias to the irritating need to build up Judaism by bashing Christianity. [Again, I know that this is a common social practice and nothing unique or bad about my friends, and Christians and Jews have been doing this to each other for a couple thousand years.]

Again, acknowledging that this identity work that my friends were engaged in is perfectly normal (statistically not morally) human behavior, I just had to ask myself, is this the best we can do? Is there no other way for we Jews to assert ourselves or to build a Judaism that we are proud of and that is meaningful to us than in this kind of Us/Them myth building? Is there no way to make a meaningful contribution to the world without making the contrast with a biased view of Christianity? To be honest, I don’t know if that can even exist, from the minority position, where Christianity is so dominant culturally. Yet I have to believe that there is a way to generate identity without othering the Other, without making shit up and repeating misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Are there ways of speaking about “us” in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not?

One of the things that I love about Reconstructionism is its exploration of a universalist strain within Judaism, the idea that YHVH is a universal presence and Judaism is just “our” way of relating to it, both ancestrally and in the present. That framing seems to be much more fruitful, ethical, and open, more appropriate and workable in a pluralistic, diverse, multiethnic world. A kind of Judaism dedicated to easiness with itself, knowing itself without having to define itself in the negative.

Read Full Post »

Tonight’s post is more practical than reflective: What to do between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25 as a Jew?

Since I haven’t believed in Christianity for over a decade, and since I was raised in an alternative religion that didn’t really observe the full range of traditional Christian holidays (really, most American evangelical religions don’t observe the vast majority of traditional Christian holidays anyway, so there are millions of Americans in that boat), I didn’t really think that my path into Judaism would bump up against anything important on the calendar. Anita Diamant’s book for people choosing Judaism spends a whole chapter on the dynamics of Christmas, which is such a huge piece of the American (Christian) psyche.  I read her book last Spring, and didn’t really think much of it.

Now I’m here on the threshold of winter holiday season and suddenly I find myself very upset about Christmas. In fact, I feel a deep powerful urge to sing Jingle Bells and smell pine boughs. I’ve been surprised at my born-Jewish friends’ antipathy toward Christmas. But I get it: From a minority position, it can feel like a massive imposition or assertion of the dominant culture’s privilege in the world around you. But as someone who was once a Christian, it just feels banal (not dangerous or imposing) to me; and as someone who is culturally curious and expansive, it just reads like a cultural practice to me. On an intellectual level, I understand my friends’ hatred of Christmas. But I don’t feel it.

Do I have to hate Christmas to be a Jew?

When I was in graduate school and was self-consciously trying to de-Jesus my life, I spent a couple winter breaks reading histories of Christmas, folklorists’ and historians’ best guesses for the origins of some of the practices. I was pleased to find a thoroughly hybrid, mish-mash of Roman, near eastern, and northern Germanic and Celtic, and even a bit of Persian practices all rolled into this mid-Winter festival. I found (and find) that I am for some reason strongly attracted to the old Germanic religions and old pre-modern, pre-monotheistic nature-observant practices. [In fact, one of the things that is so attractive about Judaism is that a lot of those pre-modern, agricultural, nature-worship elements are evident in the texts and practices; I love them.]  Over a few years between finishing my master’s thesis and passing my doctoral exams, I developed a set of personal practices for Midwinter (solstice) that included some deeply personal moments of reflection, more meaningful gift-giving, and symbolism of hope for a renewal of life. I had blended my personal practices easily with the dominant ones around me. And I had come to see the common experience of a winter holiday in many cultures around the world as a sign that living through the receding sun had inspired our many ancestors to celebrate in the darkest of days.

Now Hanukah is just around the corner (Dec. 1st this year) and suddenly I’m facing my first real dilemma in this process: What to do for the holidays? I don’t mean where will I go or what will I eat…I mean really what will my home practice and personal life look like? There are several interlocking problems, some easier than others to resolve.

First, my parents still expect me to show up for Christmas Eve and Christmas day, to exchange gifts, and eat a gigantic meal, and generally party with the family. This was actually the easiest part of the holidays for me to work out. Diamant suggests that mixed-faith couples simply celebrate Christmas at the home of the Christian side of the family. That seems fine, but in reading the Biale collection of essays about Jewish cultural history, I came across a really interesting passage about the Babylonian Jews. The rabbis in Babylon taught that Jews in Babylon were also Babylonian and that they should honor their non-Jew neighbors by celebrating their holidays with them, and then inviting them into their Jewish homes for Jewish holidays, so that their non-Jewish neighbors could celebrate with them. It was, in all, a message of not just peaceful coexistence, but of a conscious effort to honor the Other and welcome the Other into their lives. It makes complete sense to me, perfectly rational and multicultural, relaxed and hell, it gives you access to twice the feting. I’m a bit stubborn, so I probably would have done this regardless, because it’s just my personality to experience as broad a range of cultural and religious practices as possible.

So parents and family Christmas issue easily solved.

Second, Hanukah itself feels a bit anemic and, problematically, just like Christmas, based on a few unhistorical myths that I find vexing. Without going into a long Jeremiad, let me just say that a lot of the dominant Jewish discourses about Hanukah today are about the anti-Helenizing maccabees, with thinly veiled ethno-nationalism at its core and then not even trying to hide the Zionist parallels. When Hanukah talk glides into Israel-Palestine politics and Zionism, I’m out the back door. Just can’t do it. But even at its core, the mythologized version of the Maccabees is pretty far from history itself: The Maccabees weren’t anti-Helenism, they were Greek speaking, thoroughly Helenized and bloody violent rulers. Further, the majority of the world’s Jews during that time were Jews living outside of Palestine and were Greek speakers living fully helenized lives. Politically, I’m generally against forced assimilation; sociologically, I also know that most people as they move around tend to transform their languages and practices to meet new needs and environments. Humans are constantly modifying their cultures and adopting from people around them. So whereas I’m sympathetic to arguments against cultural imposition, assimilation by force, I’m highly dubious of the moral position that cultural change is bad tout court, and that culture must be maintained over time (which is actually an impossibility). So they way Hanukah gets talked about pushes my sociological buttons, my historical buttons, and my political skepticism of modern Zionism buttons all at once.

The upshot is that Hanukah just doesn’t seem like it can fit the bill of a Midwinter holiday for me. One dear born-Jew friend said that for her Hanukah is about the lights; and I do love that idea. And the idea of the “miracle of light” fits in nicely with my own spiritual need for Midwinter. So I look forward to seeing what is there for me.

Hanukah is a minor political holiday that, due to pressure from the dominant culture, has grown into  Jewish consumer extravaganza not unlike the hot mess that is Christmas on Union Square or any mall in the country.

So third and finally, the real issue is what my personal Midwinter practice as a Jew will look like. My instinct is to add Hanukah to my current practice. But I worry about what born-Jews would say at a wreath on my door (evergreens, eternal circle, rebirth, hope) next to a mezuzah (shma!); or pine cones and twinkly white lights and candles on the 21st for solstice night. On the other hand, when I was attending the Wiccan circle at the UU a couple years ago, half the people there were born-Jews. So perhaps my worries are only because I’m a JBC? But I’m left with figuring out what pieces of Hanukah are meaningful to me (for one, the Klezmekah at shul with the Klezmer band is hot hot hot (it was my first service last year when I started this journey)) and how to deal with the Christian imagery which is so embedded in the season (which has never bothered me even though I haven’t believed in it for 15 years).

Suggestions? Ideas? Thoughts?

Read Full Post »

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that he didn’t think he could be a buddhist because he needed the sweeping imagination of hinduism or islam. At the time, I had only a vague understanding of what he meant: I imagined the brightly hued posters of hindu gods with animal heads, multiple limbs, crushing bodies under their feet; I imagined the erotic temple carvings of perfectly breasted women mid-coitus; and I imagined the poetry of Rumi and the away-carrying experience of divine union.

But it wasn’t until I started reading midrash and Jewish exegesis over the past couple of weeks that I have come to understand (I think) what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Rabbi Greenberg’s book Wrestling with God and Men about homosexuality in the Jewish tradition. After reading the introduction—which was quite moving to me—I thought it would be an apologia for homosexuality, similar to several I’d read in the Mormon and wider Christian contexts before. However, Rabbi Greenberg instead sets out to engage the foundational jewish texts—the Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah—in an exegetical and ultimately Midrashic mode.

I now understand the appeal and the joy in Jewish exegesis: It is anchored in a deep tradition of storytelling. In his journey through Talmud and a touch of Zohar, R. Greenberg recounts story after story, some of them fantastical (voices from heaven, angels, miracles) some of them mundane but deeply human (love and death, marriage and friendship). The book turned out to be less a legal argument, as I had expected when he started quoting Talmud, and more of an extended deep reading of various texts and stories, not just a scholarly pursuit of knowledge, but an exercise in imagination.  Not only creating a legal or halakhic apologia for homosexuality, but of imagining Jewish homosexuality into being.

Whereas modern judaism can sometimes appear to be almost protestant in its public face, Greenberg has exposed me to a narrative realm, a place of story-telling and imagination that I thought was only part of the Kabbalistic tradition. Moreover, his book exposed me to the more fantastical imagination of Kabbalah (which I had always experienced as textual and linguistic play, but which I now see as equally narrative and fantastical).

In sum, it’s like stepping into Judaism has opened up a whole new narrative tradition, a whole new world of myths, tales, stories, folklore, and imagination that I hadn’t even known existed.

And it tastes so good.

Read Full Post »