No More Mrs. Nice Jew

art-tokabbalahSo sorry the Yenta’s late with New Year’s greetings, but ya know, it’s the secular new year, so whatevs…doesn’t feel all that different to me.

Why’d those weirdo Romans choose the dead of winter to ring in the new, anyway? I’m sure the Gregorian geniuses thought it was an improvement over the Jewish tradition of wiping the slate clean just as everything starts dying off in the fall, but ancestral origins aside, doesn’t it make the most sense to recognize the newness of life when green things start appearing again — in the spring? Look at me, five days into the questionably new year and I’m already digressing and blaspheming…

Speaking of blaspheming, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a statement about the state of Jewishness in the world of Yenta. Though it’s been decades since I’ve gone through the pointless ministrations of compiling New Year’s resolutions just so I could beat myself for not keeping them, I did make a quiet promise to myself just as that bold and beautiful Blue Moon passed over my head last week: I will no longer participate in Judaism out of obligation.

Many of you regular readers are no doubt snickering, thinking “Um, Yenta, you don’t attend synagogue regularly, you don’t keep kosher, you think jumping in the ocean with a thousand other freaks in 30-degree weather is as good as the mikveh…you’re not exactly a fount of observance. What other mitzvot could you possibly not undertake?”

Well, there are plenty. For example, I could feast on ciabatta at Passover (#121) or wear a fabulous dress made of linen and wool (#367), but I won’t — the former because giving up bread for Pesach helps me remember that my freedom was paid for by my ancestors and the latter because mixing up those two textiles in one garment is a little much even for a creative fashionista like myself.

It’s not so much that I want to stop being Jewish (as if that were possible), I just want to stop pretending that the external rules and obligations are nourishing me when they’re not. It’s about digging deeper to find what holds meaning for me; to not simply go through the rote service repeating prayers from a book, lulled into complacency by the responsive readings on Yom Kippur. Over the last few years I’ve experienced a palpable lack of deeper spiritual feeling in the many different synagogues I’ve attended close to home and in my travels, and I’m totally guilty of projecting my own dearth of inspiration onto the women chatting on their side of the mechitza or the rabbi droning on with such torpor I imagine he’s even boring himself. So with this attempt to be more exact about what I believe in and what I don’t, I’m not only trying to take responsibility for feeding my own spiritual hunger but to also be less of a self-righteous a**hole.

Of course for some of you, Judaism is less about religion than service or the culture we have in common. Thank you to those who find Jewish identity in supporting the Jewish Federation through financial donations and/or serving on the myriad boards and committees required to administrate all of its community activities. Bless the ones who bake up the hundreds of hamantashen for the Purim parties and those who organize the speakers’ series. I appreciate it all. But if you call me to help, I’m going to politely refuse, ’cause this non-New Year non-resolution encompasses not going to meetings when I’d rather be exercising or working on a book proposal or watching American Idol (but if you’re going to feed me, be sure to mention that since I can always be bribed into service with kugel, or even just donuts.) Selfish? Yeah, but you don’t really want me there if I’m there out of guilt because I’ll just scowl and kvetch. On the other hand, if you ask me to help plan the awesome Havdalah rave dance party and I agree, you can trust that I want to be there — I’ll show up on time and maybe even bring the donuts myself.

From here on out, I vow to be a more authentic Jew, even if it means being a bad one. This quest is more than an exercise in boundary-setting or an excuse to duck out of making phone calls on Super Sunday — it’s a balls-out jump smack into the middle of the mystical paradox, a reggae hora danced on the rickety fence between the sacred and profane, a beyond-denominational call for all souls seeking a genuine connection with what moves us. Will you join me?

7 thoughts on “No More Mrs. Nice Jew

  1. Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been feeling. You nailed it. My struggle is with the misplaced guilt of what you call being authentic. I would like to struggle through this with you. Now get your butt over to our place for some shabbat dancing Yo Yenta style.

  2. I love your blog, happened upon it in a websearch for other Jewish bloggers. Kudos to you on nailing the “guilt” factor for so many things we do because we feel we have to. I’d love to adopt your new found philosophy and do more for myself. Now, can I try your new philosophy with my mother- ha!

  3. You set me up to introduce a topic I’ve been germinating for years. I referenced you in my blog today. You have my utmost respect for saying out loud what many don’t for fear of being judged.

    Our Judaism needs to stimulate us and inspire us daily in order for the rituals and the whole calendar of observances to be relevant and meaningful.

    You can read my post at:

    Here’s to an uplifting secular New Year full of Jewish inspiration.


  4. I liked this post a lot, and agree with the other commenters that you put into words something I’ve been grappling with as well.

    The question, I guess, is to what extent is your (or anyone’s) Jewishness constituted by community? I hope this doesn’t come out as a guilt trip, because I don’t mean it as one, but if you feel that you don’t need anyone or anything else to experience Jewishness, then I can understand pitching obligatory participation overboard. The problem is what do you do if other people are needed to make it work?

    I struggled for a long time with this, but eventually I came to the realization that whatever my issues with “institutional” Judaism were, it was intellectually inconsistent to (a) admit that communal worship was sometimes nice but (b) not belong to a synagogue. In other words, once I allowed that I needed other people to experience Judaism, then by definition there were obligations involved.

    Anyway, just my $0.02. I like you blog, BTW.

    • Rogue Regime, I didn’t mean to imply that I didn’t need other people to experience Judaism — it’s actually more joy-filled gatherings that I crave! It seems like the atmosphere at some of the simchas I’ve gone too lately seem so forced, attended by people who wouldn’t otherwise hang out together. There are plenty of Jews here with whom I’d like communally worship, but I don’t necessarily agree that we’d need a synagogue at which to do that. I don’t mean any disrespect to “institutional” Judaism, only that I’m not finding spiritual fulfillment in it, and if I don’t, then what’s the point of participating? Thanks for responding – I’ll take another $.02 any time 🙂

  5. I find Judaism rewarding but all of the Ashkenazi tradition and American secular Judaism prevelant at my ‘gogue not rewarding at all. Yeah, my family came from Belarus but we don’t live in sthetels anymore and if I don’t want to eat the damned gefilte fish, I’m not going to eat the damned gefilte fish. Don’t look at me like I just sacrificed a pig to Jesus because I said “no thank you” when you passed the plate to me. Gefilte fish and bagels are things Jews eat but have little to do with Judaism. Eating bagels doesn’t make me any more Jewish.
    Also, being able to recite Sandler’s factually incorrect Chanukkah song doesn’t count as practicing Judaism.
    I try to find a happy medium between Orthodox and Reform. I follow as many laws as I can, just updated to fit our current society and stripped of Jewish tradition that has no meaning for me. (However, some of it does.) Walking is more work than driving, so I drive to shul on the Sabbath. Turning a key is not starting a fire. I eat cheese and chicken. Chickens don’t produce milk. Hell, I even think not eating beef and cheese may not be exactly what the Torah was talking about but I avoid it anyway. I do follow the straightforward laws. Shrimp does not have scales and fins so it’s a no go. By following as many laws as I can (and know about) I feel closer to Judaism and God, but I’m not going to judge anyone for being less observant than me as long as the focus is God and not eating at a “Jewish style deli” and saying “oy ve” a lot. Doing things to feel Jewish (even listening to the Sandler’s song) is fine but I think it should have a base in actual Judaism.
    As far as my shul, I guess I find the religion more rewarding than joining the Men’s Club. Those guys are jackasses anyway. I’m not going to join their organization just because I’m a male Jew, as they try to guilt trip me into believing I should. “Don’t you want to give something back to the community?” I’m a volunteer firefighter, ask me that again as I’m cutting you out of a car or holding in the back of your head when someone attacks you with a claw hammer (not that I ask to be recognized for this, I do it because I like helping people, but don’t act like I don’t do anything to help society because I won’t join the Men’s Club and participate in poker night).
    It sounds bad, but I pay my congregation dues but am not really interested in hanging out with the regulars in the congregation. Of course, there are quite a few I actually do hang out with but generally, active members annoy me. I’m sure it’s the same for every religious institution in the United States. People who want to be in charge of volunteer organizations are generally not the kind of people I get along with anyway. I also think we have too many social events and not enough religious events. It’s funny, most people in my congregation would probably feel I’m a religious extremist when I consider myself pretty liberal.
    Anyway, kind of a long post. I’m not sure how to end it. Um, San Dimas High School football rules!

  6. Being a ‘baal teshuva’ or whatever one may call it, one of the best things I was able to internalize was that a ‘mitzvah’ is not simply a commandment, but is related to the Aramaic word ‘tzavta’ (not a grandma, that’s spelled differently, lol) which means ‘connection’. Only after making a commitment to learn more about what lies deeper behind the commandments, laws, etc. (pnimiyut or inner aspects of Judaism, & I don’t mean becoming a kabbalists, lol) do you begin to see the ‘connection’ side of it. You’re right, without delving into this aspect of it, Judaism can feel like a burden, G-d forbid, instead of a blessing. Otherwise, we barely get to understand the details behind what a mitzvah accomplishes, how every single one relates to our everyday life, and how every verse in our Torah holds an golden message. However, it is true that we must also look at mitzvahs as obligations as well, because you have to have both love & fear in a relationship (not necessarily fear of punishment, but fear of not having that connection). To use one example of many, assuming a child loves their father, they would go out of our their way to do the things that the father asks them to do in most circumstances, because of the love. But what about the hard days when we’re lazy, tired, or just don’t feel the lubby dubby emotion…does it make it okay to ditch the relationship and say “Sorry Pops, but for today, i’m not your child…find somebody else to help out”…? Nah, that’s not cool. You could also say the same in regards to one’s own children. Point being, that’s where the sense of obligation, responsibility, and purpose must kick in. I’m sure you see the analogy I’m making here. And guess what, the ‘Father’ (G-d) bestows more blessings, reveals Himself more in our lives, and loves it even more when we push ourselves a little bit even when we’re not “feelin’ it” as much. Think about it, whenever someone goes the extra mile for you, your appreciation and desire to be there for that person increases with every deed. It’s a growing bond. Only difference with G-d is that the bond is already there, we just have to reveal it. So in regards to our lives as Jews, that’s when the relationship has the capability to grow so strong that you’ll never look at Torah as 613 demands again, but 613 ways that bring you and G-d into a connection you can feel. Will there be challenges? Heck yeah. But when you’re willing to take a step back and put your own preconceived notions aside, I can tell ya, it’s dang sure worth it. There’s no greater happiness. This is what we’re missing today. But that’s just 2 cents from ya fellow Jew. Respect & Stay Up my people!

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