Thursday, November 26, 2009

Growing Up Different

Growing up in the Yeshivish world, it seemed that Europe, the alte heim remembered warmly in stories, the land where the pious Judaism of our forefathers once flourished, was an area that extended from Russia in the East to Lithuania in the North, Hungary in the South, and Poland to the West. (Not that I had a great grasp of geography as kid. Far from it.) The stories that were told, from those about the great tzadikim we were to emulate to those about the simple folk we were to identify with, all took place in small patch of Central and Eastern Europe. The names of the towns, the Yiddish the characters spoke, the social structure, all had their roots in the shtetl.

I identified with none of it. I heard no stories at home about Poland or Russia. No family tales of the poretz, the czar, the bitter winters and rapacious peasants. Nor was there any reason I should. My family was from farther west, from a place that, when it came up at all, was the source of the smart-aleky Maskil in older stories and of unspeakable horror in those from the mid-20th century.

All four of my grandparents grew up in Germany, in places like Berlin and Frankfurt-am-Main. I have photographs of my great-grandfathers in their uniforms, circa 1914. I know very little about their service, and it’s likely they were drafted rather than volunteers, but they fought for Germany. More than one of my great-great-uncles died in France in the Kaiser’s service, fighting for a country he thought of as his own. One, a doctor living in California, voluntarily returned to Germany to serve his country.

When WWI ended and Germany was forced to cede its eastern lands to the newly reconstituted Poland, one of my great grandfathers, who had been living just across the new Polish border, moved west to Berlin rather than trade his German citizenship for a Polish one. Unlike the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe (and Poland, Hungary, etc. which I’ll throw in with Eastern countries for simplicities sake), German Jews saw themselves as full members of the German nation.

The Jews of Eastern Europe were, for the most part, poor, oppressed, and not very patriotic – often because they weren’t allowed the privileges of citizens. Western Europe was a very different place.

These differences expressed themselves in ways other than just patriotism. Jews in the West tended to be wealthier and better-educated than their Eastern brethren, a difference which accounts for the popularity of cholent in Eastern Europe and its absence from the West. This dish, which many frum people today consider their Shabbos incomplete without, was unknown in Germany. While cholent today may be expensive, it was originally a relatively cheap stew made with potatoes, beans, and a bit of meat and bones for flavor. Tasty and filling, it was the perfect Shabbos dish for people without a lot to spend. The richer Jews of the West had chickens and meat for Shabbos. My father first tasted cholent when he went away to yeshiva for bais medrash.

There are also differences in hashkafa and minhagim. In general, most of the kaballah-inspired minhagim prevalent among Eastern European Jews are not part of the German experience. My family doesn’t make upsherins, we don’t wave a chicken over our heads before Yom Kippur, and we don’t wear a kittel at the seder. At my wedding (and my parents’ and my siblings’) I didn’t wear a kittel, I didn’t wear a torn coat, and I didn’t untie my shoes or take off my gold cufflinks. My wife and I stood under the chuppah wearing a tallis over our heads and facing away from the audience.

Most of my classmates were descendants of the Eastern Europeans who have come to dominate American Orthodoxy. (So much so, that one is either a chassid or a litvak. In common usage in the yeshivish and chassidsh worlds, there are no other categories.) I was different from them. Not very different – we were all from middle-to-right-wing Orthodox homes. But I was different in that I didn’t personally identify with stories of Eastern European figures. To my classmates, these characters were their alter zaides. I didn’t even have a zaidy. I called my grandfather “Opa,” German for Grandpa. Underscoring the difference even more, my family did things differently than my friends did, differently than I was taught in school.

Like all yeshivish kids, I learned the Yiddish sing-song about the Seder. “Tatty comes home from shul and puts on his kittel…” Mine didn’t.

I learned to say the Ma Nishtana in Yiddish. My mother’s parents, at whose home we spent Pesach when I was little, spoke fluent German and could understand Yiddish, but no one in my family spoke Yiddish.

Before Yom Kippur I learned in school how we shlug kaporos. At home, I heard how we didn’t shlug kaporos, and could you imagine actually taking a chicken and swinging it over your head?!

Then there’s the best one of all. You must wait six hours between milchig and fleishig (always said that way, even though no one waits between milk and meat, only between meat and milk). This minhag is taught as part of hilchos kashrus. Except my family only waits three.

For me, the illusion of a monolithic mesorah promulgated by the Yeshivish world never had a chance to take hold. Sure, everyone knows that there are people out there who only wait three hours, or who wear taleisim before they’re married. But for most it’s not something they notice. It’s one thing if one or two of your friends do things a little differently than you do. It’s another when nearly everyone does things differently than you do.

I think this may be another small ingredient in my path to religious skepticism. Seeing what I was taught as normative in school disregarded by my family in practice – disregarded because no one in the family had ever done these things - taught me that not everything I learned was a tradition stretching back to God at Har Sinai.

Monday, November 23, 2009

V’shinantam L’vanecha…

My wife’s fourteen-year-old sister called yesterday.

“Are you coming over today?” She asked

“I’ll be over later this afternoon,” I said. “Why?”

“I’m having a history test tomorrow,” she said. “I need your help studying. I haven’t really been paying attention in class.” She laughed.

“All right. Sure. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks. See you. Bye.”

I arrived at my in-laws house later that afternoon. My daughter ran off to be spoiled by her other teenaged aunt, and I sat down at the dining room table with my sister-in-law, her notes, and her textbook. She opened the book to chapter three, “Ancient China.” She read from her notes, and I looked through the book and explained the material to her as best as I could. For a while we discussed ancient China’s geography, political system, and social makeup. Then we came to the section on religious beliefs. Specifically, ancestor worship.

“What does it mean, they ven-er-ated their ancestors?” She asked.

“In ancient China – and some people in China today – believed that their parents, grandparents, and other family members that passed away went to a different realm of existence where they continued to have an interest in and influence over their children’s and grandchildren’s lives.”

She looked at me quizzically.

“They davened to their dead ancestors for things.” I explained.

She grinned.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“They ‘davened.’” She said, making air quotes with her fingers.

“Yes, they davened, without the quotes.” I said. “They believed that their ancestors had influence in the world. The same way we daven that we should be healthy, our kids should be well, we should make money, they davened to their ancestors that they should be healthy, their kids should be well, their crops should grow and be plentiful, their animals should be healthy…”

She laughed. “Yeah, but when we daven its for real. Hashem answers us when we daven, and when He doesn’t, its because He says no because it wouldn’t be good for us.”

I wanted to point out to her that the Chinese were just as sincere in their prayers as she was in hers. I wanted to point out that in their belief system, their prayers were the ones that “real” and it was praying to an incorporeal monotheistic God in the sky that was silly. I wanted to point out the non-falsifiability of the claim that God answers all prayers – except for those He doesn’t. I wanted to point out that the same claim could be reasonably made about a rock, or a chair, or absolutely anything: if what you prayed for happens, attribute it to your prayer to the chair; if it doesn’t happen, its because the chair, in its infinite wisdom, knew that it wouldn’t be good for you, and so said no.

I didn’t point out anything. Instead, I let it go and moved on to the next section in the textbook.

As nice as my in-laws are, as kind, warm, and caring as they are, they would be very upset if I caused their fourteen-year-old daughter to have doubts. As it is, they’re not that happy about how much I’ve changed the way the daughter I married thinks. Nor are they happy about what I might teach their grandchildren.

Which brings me to the real problem, one that many in my position share. Educating my sister-in-law in comparative theology is not really my place. Nor do I think that it would be right at her age for me to deliberately and overtly change her worldview from the one her parents are trying to teach her. But educating my children and shaping their worldview is my place. More accurately, I want to make sure my children have the breadth of knowledge and the intellectual tools to decide for themselves what their worldviews will be. How do I this without making them pariahs in a community with a narrow definition of acceptable worldviews?

The first step is probably getting out of New York and away from the segmented sectarian communities that exist here. Moving to a more Modern community - one in which most ‘secular’ knowledge and an ostensibly rationalist epistemology falls within the bounds of community sanction – is another. As for where to go from there, well, we’ll see.

Monday, November 9, 2009

People Like Me in Entertainment Media

There aren’t any.

All of the characters on TV, in movies, in the books I read, are all different than me. There were never any characters that I could truly identify with, someone that looked and sounded like I did. I suppose that is what it means to be part of a minority.

Except that there are Jewish characters all over the place. It seems like every third TV character is Jewish. Whether this is a result of the American tendency to erroneously hold up Judaism as one of the great (demographically) world religions, or Jewish writers creating characters that are coreligionists, I don’t know. But even these characters weren’t people I could identify with. They are mostly “informed Jews” – they look and act just like everyone else, and only reveal that they’re Jewish in December each year so that Chanukah can be shoehorned into the Christmas episode. If they have any Jewish characteristics, they’ll be highly stereotypical ones, like eating bagels. If they are at all religious, they’ll be on the extreme left wing of the Reform movement – a rabbi will officiate at their wedding, but that’s about it. The few depictions of Orthodox Jews are always of Chassidim. After all, a character in a long black coat, a fur hat, and long curly payos is much more interesting than a guy in a business suit with a fedora or a yarmulke on his head. (The only exception I can remember ever seeing was in “It Could Happen To You” in which a yeshivish-looking guy in a white shirt and yarmulke is seen mailing a letter.)

I identified with none of these characters. As much as TV and movies are a fantasy, for me there was an added layer of distance from reality. None of the people depicted were even close to “real” because none of them resembled anyone I knew.

I think this underlines the cultural isolation of the Orthodox world. While some liberal Chareidim and the Modern Orthodox partake of what the general culture has to offer, we aren’t really a part of it. There is nothing in it with which we can identify. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view.