You Know It’s Hard Out Here For A Jew*

*in the spirit of my favorite kvetch, one should sing the title of this post to the tune of Three 6 Mafia’s Oscar-winning ditty.

mickve israelIt probably doesn’t come as an surprise to you that this Yenta finds life in Savannah somewhat understimulating, at best. (At worst, I have a big, bad bag of obscenities that unlocks itself and spills onto the table after I’ve had a few cocktails.) The ironic absence of African dance and drum culture, the bizarre pride in the mediocrity of the public school system, the ubiquity of fried food — I’m not finding a whole lot to keep my spirits juiced. Even my Jewish experiences thus far have led me to the edge of becoming a Reform shul dropout.

But I got a flyer in the mail for an all-day “learning experience” at Mickve Israel hosted by Rabbi Arnold Belzer, and even though it probably wasn’t going to be the iconoclastic, “new Jew revue”-type event like the lucky kids in NYC get, I just couldn’t spend another Shabbos staring at the cold, flat ocean.

Twelve hours at temple…with the rabbi?” shrieked El Yenta Man after I had lured him into the car with intimations that we were going on a long date. Of sorts. “I thought we were going to a cheap motel! Let me out! I’m going fishing!” Thank you, Lord, for child-proof locks.

We arrived to a fairly packed sanctuary, which I’m guessing is rare for a non-b’nai mitzvah Saturday, in spite of the synagogue’s generous weekly Kiddush brunch. Rabbi Belzer presided on the bima, explaining the differences between the traditional Orthodox, modern-but-observant Conservative and anything goes-Reform movements of Judaism, which he broke down as “crazy, hazy and lazy.” (I’d never heard that one before; I think I laughed the loudest.)

My eyes did their usual wandering around the room with its classic nave structure and breathtaking stained glass with inscriptions from the 1800’s, but was distracted by the sound of pens scratching on paper. I saw that some people were listening very attentively and taking notes. I had my pen out, too, of course; I’m always scribbling stuff to collect for this blog, and perhaps one day, a book. Since when do Jews listen to the rabbi, let alone write it down? I thought. Could it be that I am not the only Jewish blogger in Savannah? Then it dawned on me: These people weren’t Jews.

It seems the rabbi’s Judaism 101 talk is immensely popular among Christians looking to find out more about our religion, for various reasons, some earnest, some scary. Not that there weren’t a good number of congregants there, too; I recognized several senior Yentas from my weekly lunch with my mother-in-law. The rabbi, who I’ve always liked a lot but many find to be a little showy for the third oldest congregation in the country, unapologetically framed religion in marketing terms, and admitted that Judaism has pretty lame PR: We don’t seek converts, we don’t believe in original sin and we don’t promise eternal salvation.

I started to get down with the basic explanations of Judaism, learning what I must’ve slept through in Hebrew school. Did you know that Reform Judaism was developed in the 19th-century South in keeping with the Protestant aesthetic so popular in America at the time? Or that the Southern Baptists fund Jews for Jesus? (Rabbi B. invoked meshuggeneh pundit Dennis Prager when one of the non-Jews asked why one couldn’t be a Jew for Jesus: “It’s like being a vegetarian for meat.”)

I was enjoying the learning so much that I was jarred back to reality when it came time for the Shabbat service. This synagogue in particular exemplifies that benign Protestant aesthetic and feels so much like church that I find it kind of creepy. Yarmulkes are the exception rather than the rule. The 1950’s prayerbooks are small, black, read left to right and look like something a Franciscan priest might carry while riding his horse to the next mission. Common prayers like the Sh’ma and Sim Shalom are sung by a choir in weirdly unreachable melodies rather than the easy, familiar tunes that prevail from Scottsdale to Jerusalem to Buenos Aires. It bothered me also that there is no exhuberant carrying of the Torah around to receive a kiss or a touch — where is the joy, people?

Rabbi B. made up for some of this crusty WASPyness by changing references to “mankind” to “humankind” in the service and maintaining moderate liberal viewpoints during the following discussions on all the touchy subjects like abortion, homosexuality and the Apocalypse. He also told a quite a few decent jokes: A Liberal Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew are discussing when life begins. The Liberal Protestant says: “At birth.” The Catholic disagrees: “At conception.” The Jew trumps them all: “When the kids leave for college and the dog dies.”

We spent most of the afternoon discussing Maimonides 13 Articles of Faith, comparing Judaism to Christianity and Islam, which rose some hackles when we came to #9 — that whole “the Torah is complete, don’t add to it with say, a new testament.” Rambam’s (Maimonides nickname) levels of tzedakeh were also on the curriculum, as was the basic rules of kashrut, which the rabbi taught are not so compulsory. I had to ask: Why is chicken considered meat when it would be impossible to cook it in its mother’s milk? Have you ever had chicken milk? The rabbi’s answer was that many of the tenets that we think of as essential to Judaism are actually religious interpretations ingrained into culture; i.e. the old rabbis thought someone might mistake chicken for lamb meat (uh, only if you cooked the kishkes out of it) and it was just easier to include it in the fleishig category, so it became law. I don’t know if I buy that, and I suspect the rabbi might’ve dumbed down some of this knowledge for the gentiles present.

While I liked what the rabbi had to say much more than I expected — he certainly kept everyone’s attention for 12 hours, which is more than anyone in Hollywood could ever do — there were a few moments that the “we’re just like you, except for the Jesus part” schtick kind of got to me. Rabbi Belzer makes no secret that he thinks Chassidism and its missionary arm Chabad is for nutjobs, and he used the example of how some Lubavitchers carry around beepers so they can be notified the very second the Messiah comes. The room broke into giggles, but I’m positive there were a few in the Mordecai Sheftall Memorial Hall that would camp outside Wal-Mart if they started selling beepers for Jesus.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from Rabbi Belzer and this day of learning for Jews and people who want to know about them is that I have nothing to be ashamed about as a falling-far-short-of-kosher, rarely-attend-synagogue kind of Jew (sheesh, at least I don’t eat bacon.) His inclusive, changeable, “not written in stone, except for the parts that are” interpretation of Judaism falls closer to my own than I figured, yarmulke on his keppe or no. (Even El Yenta Man took away plenty from the day, though I had to promise a cheap motel night sometime soon.)

This notion that we have free will and autonomy as Jews, that we do get to choose how religious, how cultural, how kosher we want to be, is liberating and empowering to those of us finding our way in this Jewish life. All too often I abdicate my own self-respect to those more religious, as if they are better people simply because they read better Hebrew (to note, I surprised myself at my remembered teenage skills — those little goyishe prayerbooks had no alliterations.) I consider myself a creative kind of Jew; while I suppose some may critcize me for “picking and choosing” my mitzvot, I do what feels right out of love, not obligation.

So while the Christians got a crash course, the rabbi gave me the gift of affirmation and inclusion into Savannah Jewry, even if I don’t know the tunes yet. Perhaps one day I’ll rock my idea for future t-shirt of the week: “Jewish by birth, Southern by the grace of God.”

14 thoughts on “You Know It’s Hard Out Here For A Jew*

  1. “Crazy, hazy, and lazy” is pretty funny. Joke I told my Modern Orthodox ob/gyn in between contractions during my 23 hour labor:

    A Jewish businessman becomes successful and decides to treat himself to a new sports car. He buys a Lamborghini, which is such an extravagant thing that he decides to have it blessed. He first goes to a Lubavitcher rebbe and asks for a barucha for the Lamborghini. The rebbe says “I’d love to help you, but what in the world is a Lamborghini?” He then tries a Conservative rabbi, who also cannot help him with a barucha for the car. Finally, he tries a Reform rabbi, who scratches his head and says “I’d love to help you, but what in the world is a barucha?”

  2. Okay, I’ve stopped laughing enough at that joke to write (and I’m a Reform Jew, or was until my kids dragged me to the Conservative shul). I’ve been lurking for a bit and I’m unlurking to say that the rabbi wasn’t dumbing the chicken as meat explanation down at all! It really is that dumb. I’ve been taking this adult ed course that really digs deep into Judaism (Melton school and that is the reason. The rabbis of old were constantly throwing up what my teacher called ‘fences’ around laws, layers of them, to stop anyone from accidentally breaking one. So, no leavened bread on pesach? Better toss in all grains just to be sure. Don’t boil the kid in the milk of its mother? Okay, then don’t eat milk and meat at the same meal either, or even in the same few hours, or even milk with anything that might be confused as meat.

    Cautious guys, they were.

  3. Perhaps doing something out of an obligation is a higher level than doing it out of love. Its easy to do something when you want to, but it is a greater challenge to act out of obligation regardless of your feelings. Someone once summed up the obligation to keep the mitzvot like this – its like gravity, the reality exists whether or not you believe in it.
    PS GREAT post.

  4. N ~ Thanks for the clarification. See? I really should trust my rabbi.

    Bridgitte ~ When I say “love” vs. “obligation” I guess I mean “authenticity” vs. “because I want my neighbors to think I’m a good Jew.”

    I used to feel more that I should keep kosher and be a “better” Jew because the Torah says so, but since I grew up without any of the education around observant Judaism and have never been remotely attracted to Orthodox life, I’ve always felt like kind of a phony. Especially now that I know that some of the laws are actually interpretations. I look to the 10 commandments and try to bring lovingkindness into my interactions, keep the lashon hora (gossip) to a minimum (not so easy, give my line of work as a yenta) and make sure my children receive a Jewish education by our family Shabbat. I do like to learn and I do keep certain mitzvot, and I pray regularly in the most casual of ways.
    I have a bit of envy for those who do have the structure of the laws in their lives, yet the will to keep them myself has not appeared in my soul as of yet.
    Thanks for the props!

  5. “We’re just like you, except for the Jesus part”
    I guess this is true in that Judaism and Christianity are both religions. The changes “the Jesus part” made to Judaism are so extreme that the religions are so fundamentally different, they share almost nothing. It’s like saying that the desert is just like the ocean, except for the arid part. It’s the water that makes the ocean, not the sand underneath. I could go on with the metaphor, but I’m sure you get it.
    Luckily, we have a decent sized Jewish population in Houston, so if a shul becomes too “protestant” we can easily find another one. Luckily, my rabbi would never allow that to happen in our congregation. If anyone suggested bringing in anything that sounded like it had Christian roots, he would start to act like an insolent schoolgirl. He’s pretty funny, even if he doesn’t mean to be.
    I enjoy the blog, keep it up!

  6. Actually, I want to clarify my metaphor. Saying Christianity is like Judaism is like saying the desert is like the ocean. It wasn’t as clear as I would like. Isn’t it funny how you only notice these things after you post?

  7. Really stunning post. Funny, informative, observational…you need to keep this one. Or maybe polish it a little and submit it to the J or somewhere else. Drop me a line if you want to brainstorm.

    The joke about when conception begins? I’ve heard it with a different punchline. The Jew says: when the fetus graduates from medical school.

    As for chicken, the question is really “if chicken is meat, then why isn’t fish?” Both of those, not being milkable animals, should be in the same category, if you ask an Urban Kvetch.

    And least importantly, I’m totally flattered that you thought of me (and NYC) so much while writing and titling (and singing) this post. Glad to know you’re still reading and thinking of me, as I hope you know, I am reading and thinking of you!

  8. Southern Jews are a whole special breed because they had to keep their identity and not be too noticeable to the Klan. I find their history fascinating, esp. since many came with pushcarts and opened General Stores. Every southern town has a store to tell. rabbi belzer is keeping it going.
    Great blog!

  9. I could have sworn I learned in hebrew school that reformism originated in Germany — Wikipedia appears to agree with this. But perhaps it reached it epitomy in the American south. I must admit getting very weirded out seeing the depiction of the unrecognizable Judaism in “Driving Miss Daisy” while living in Israel where a normative jewish life is the rule.

    Love the ocean-desert metaphor, Johnny!

    Yentita, if you would like said t-shirt,say the word and I will design you one but I might have to put a – between the g and the d 😉

  10. Johnny~ I knew whatcha meant 🙂

    Esther ~ Maybe I will try and get this up somewheres else, when I have a moment…always good to hear from you!

    Mom ~ Thanks. You’re awesome.

    Jean ~ You’re right about Germany; I should have clarified “American Reformism as morphed from…”
    As far as the dash goes, I gave up doing that because as I understand it, the word “God” has nothing to do with God’s actual name, which of course we don’t speak, write, or even actually know. I feel like a poser every time I remove the “o” because again, I’m doing it because I want other Jews to think I’m more righteous, not because I think God cares if I’m symbolically subtracting a vowel. But I respect that you have your reasons for doing it!

  11. Just found your blog recently – you write really well. Comment on this post: The chicken thing is true and well explained by your rabbi. Interesting take on the differences between the denominations. I personally don’t love the “crazy, hazy, and lazy” even though I realize it is a joke. I don’t think it is fair, even in a joking manner, to depict the denominations like that especially to a crowd of non-Jews who won’t know better. I would be very offended if a non-Jew (or a Jew, for that matter) assumed I was lazy and didn’t take being Jewish seriously because I affiliate Reform (or “crazy” or “hazy” from the respective denominations). I think it just plays into feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that you very clearly articulated in your post. Many Reform Jews feel inadequate or not “authentic” because they were educated inadequately. The more you learn, the more you choose what you do based on content knowledge, the more confident and secure you feel as a Jew – whether or not you ever choose to keep kosher. Many (but obviously not all) non-observant Jews donate $$$ to or have artwork depicting Chassidim and Orthodox Jews because somehow on some level they believe that it those Jews are more authentic, or the “real” Jews. Everyone born of one or more Jewish parents, or converted seriously, is a “real” Jew. You obviously take being a Jew seriously, and are thoughtful about your choices. Sounds like an interesting day! Glad I found your blog. My husband is getting a hilarious birthday present from your T-Shirt of the Week link 🙂

  12. I forgot to add that the Reform movement has its roots in Germany as an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and emancipation of pretty much every non-Christian after the French Revolution. The original Reformers were reacting to what they thought were the “irrational” ways of shtetl Orthodoxy. They were making an attempt to bring the new philosophies and approaches of the Enlightenment period to revolutionize and modernize Judaism. The other movements (Neo-Orthodoxy and Conservative) were outgrowths of and reactions to the original Reformers. Reform Judaism really flourished and became a true ‘movement’, however, in America. Haven’t looked a Wikipedia, so I don’t know if what is written there is accurate, but see what you find.

  13. I heard on NPR an essay from someone who obviously had problems with his own Jewish day school upbringing when he presented one defies-logic “law” after another defies-logic “law”, a la chicken=beef, G-d versus God. With each example he said, “The Rabbis tell us the Sages tell us the Torah tells us…” Frankly, I believe that 95% of the stuff that divides one sect of Jew from another came from a bunch of guys who had way too much time on their hands.

    We’re all Jews. Anyone who disagrees in any way, please, get over it.

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