Monday, December 18, 2006

Purging This Secular Jew - Take Two

This is take two because take one was an awful, incoherent rambling mess which did nothing to answer the question I am currently struggling with – what should I do now?
As I explained previously my Jewish heritage is haunting me, and as a result I realize that I had better do something about it pretty quick, but I really do not know what to do, or rather, maybe I do, but I’m just frightened of what may happen. Anyway, I wanted to take the time and try to figure out how I got here, and maybe that will help me understand where I should go from here. So this will be an autobiographical post in which I will try to recall and describe the encounters with Judaism that have stuck in my mind and apparently shaped my attitude towards it, starting from my childhood up till now. Finally, I will try to conclude what the future must bring – what I should do now.

Childhood Judaism
As you know I grew up in a secular family in the states. I remember that we would celebrate Passover and that it was a big deal, and I also recall that on occasion we would go to synagogue (in a car of course), but I don’t really remember why. I went to a public school and I know that I had catholic friends, but that didn’t matter to anyone – as far as I knew we were all Americans. That had to change when my parents decided to return to Israel. It took me a while to learn Hebrew and get acclimated to a society that was a lot rougher and brutal than the timid suburb I came from but after that I became a proud secular Israeli. I remember that for a while my father would say the Kiddush on Friday evening. I don’t why he did that – he never explained and I knew enough not to ask either. I know my mother didn’t like it – she was always fixing the table or bringing food in when he said it. Anyway, eventually, soon after we came to Israel he stopped.
All we had left, as I recall it, was Passover to remind us of our Jewishness, and I also remember developing a healthy secular-Israeli hatred for all things “Dati” – religious. We did have one religious boy in the neighborhood but we picked on him a lot and for some reason he stopped playing with us. I wonder why… also anyone who grew up here knows the familiar taunting chant that secular kids apply when necessary: “Dros kol dos – Hashmed kol hared” which means “run over every dati, destroy every haredi”. Not exactly what you would expect to hear in the so-called “Jewish” state, but that was so normative I never gave it a second thought until recently.
My parents did not have religious friends and the only religious people we knew were my father’s vast orthodox family – except that we didn’t get to know them. We never went to family events and we only saw his father – my grandfather- once in a year or two. We would get into our small car and make the tense, angry drive from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv. We would walk up the stairs to his small apartment in a dreaded silence. We would kiss his rough cheeks and then we would sit at the simple table with him. His wife (our step-grandmother) would serve cheap soda in plastic cups and then we would sip in silence for a few minutes. Soon the grownups had stopped talking and everyone was looking down at their sweaty palms, staring at the bare walls or at the empty shelves – empty except for a few religious books. Nothing in that room was familiar to me, and from the way my parents behaved it was clear that something was very wrong with this man with the plain black kippah on his sweaty, naked head. I think that was the only religious person I ever knew as a child.

One summer while in high school, I had the opportunity to go on a six week Jewish Agency project that had American Jews and Israelis traveling and living together. For me it was great – six weeks away from home were the best thing that could happen to me at the time (and anytime). Anyway, I remember that we had one activity where the councilors that were guiding our group asked us whether we feel more Jewish or more Israeli. In my mind there was absolutely no question – I was an Israeli guy through and through. It was clear to me then, after living almost ten years in Israel, that I had nothing to do with Judaism. The thought was ridiculous, although perhaps not as ridiculous as having that thought while living with people whose only connection between them and me was our common Jewish identity… which by that time was utterly repressed in me.

Judaism as a Grownup
Judaism did not concern me during my army service. After the army I joined a kibbutz, and there too Judaism was not on the menu, although I do recall having interest in the kibbutz movement’s project of re-interpreting the Jewish tradition to fit into our way of life – that’s how I became interested in Dr. Eli Ben-Gal who I mentioned in a previous post “Why Is It So Difficult to be A Secular Jew in Israel?”.
I do remember that one Passover I made an effort and tried to give a Jungian interpretation of the holiday – it went very well and a lively discussion followed at the seder table, but other than that I was way too busy with other personal problems. Judaism was still on the shelf.

That changed dramatically when I met my wife. She was the first person I ever met who displayed an innocent, unshakeable belief in God. Up to then God was for me no more than a literary figure, but I was certainly ripe to hear the message – like many Zen practitioners before me I had reached a point where God not only made sense – He was a necessary stage in my spiritual development. This makes a lot of sense in Jungian terms, and I hope to eventually write that chapter in the neglected Repairing Israel Series.
On another occasion, soon after we met, we were talking about something, I don’t remember what exactly and my wife said “hagoyim” – the gentiles. I looked up in surprise, with a superior smile on my face: “what are you talking about” I said condescendingly. After all, I knew that there was only one kind of people in the world – human beings and that’s all. My wife had a different view of things: “there are Jews and there are Gentiles” she explained to me patiently. I didn’t buy it, but I also sensed that it would not be a very good idea to argue about it. We didn’t talk about it anymore but that episode got stuck somewhere inside my soul, and apparently, it began to grow.

Eventually my wife wanted to get married and I did not object, although I am quite sure that if she didn’t raise the issue we would be living “in sin” to this day. About that time I took the opportunity to do a very thorough and interesting paper for a sociology class on ”The Social Construction of The Jewish Marriage Ceremony” in which I learned a lot about Jewish marriage, and proved once and for all that the ceremony is sexist, chauvinistic, and utterly vile…so after arguing back and forth with my wife we went and did it anyway, and it was really beautiful – the most spiritual, graceful wedding I have ever attended, and many of the people present thought so too. It’s funny how life goes, isn’t it?

During my studies, and around this time, I landed a job that had me working in the Jewish Agency for over a year. That was a milestone for me, since it was, I believe, the first time in my life that I had daily contact with a group of people who thought themselves first and foremost as Jews, despite the fact that they were a lot of different things – some Israeli, some American, others French, Russian or Ethiopian. The people were invariably very nice and I think that experience went a long way towards making more comfortable with my Jewish identity. This was good but also bad – the more Jewish I felt, the less comfortable I felt with everybody around me, especially my family and the university – where I studied and worked for most of the time.
I think the one event that finally pushed me over to the other side and convinced me that I am actually a lot more Jewish than Israeli was reading Moshe Fieglin’s book “Where There Are No Men”.
Ordinarily I would be found nowhere near such a book or such a (religious) man. But the arrogant Ehud Barak had recently returned from Camp David, and brought with him a renewed terror campaign that was even more vicious than before. I don’t know why, but at that point I felt that my world was shattering – I had believed like every other Israeli leftist that I knew, that the only problem between us and the Palestinians was a territorial one and that the only thing we had to do was to offer them what is justly theirs and the war would be over and we could all go back to leading our normal lives. But this was not to be. For me the Camp David fiasco disproved that most basic assumption, and if that was not valid, then, I concluded, the whole theory is also not valid – the issue was not territory but something else – but what? I really had no idea. It was in this mood that I went to pick up my wife from a friend. We stood at the door talking a bit about “the matzav”, and she suggested that I read Feiglin’s book, which I did; quickly, in a one or two readings; I devoured that book. It spoke to my need like few books before had – here I had a theory that managed to explain everything that had happened in the past ten years or more in a perfectly reasonable fashion simply by stating reality in terms of our religious identity, and not the national one. Suddenly everything made sense. I was especially struck by the manner in which Fieglin explains the Oslo Accords as a result of the war between the Israelis and the Jews, a war which I had begun experiencing in my own soul. I went to one of Fieglin’s lectures, asked him a few questions – I was still very concerned about the status of secular people in the future state he envisioned – and after receiving convincing answers I joined Jewish Leadership – a group that is considered radically right to this day.
I went to a few meetings that were for me really weird – it was the first time I was in the same room with religious men, all with beards and wearing kippot, and looking serious and grave. It was pretty unsettling for a nice secular kid like me, but I managed to not only get through the meeting but to grow more or less accustomed to it.

All of this still did not make me a practicing Jew. Yes I believed in God, and I also understood, finally that I was actually a Jew. But I had no inclination to start behaving like a Jew and doing all the traditional stuff like going to prayers and so on. I defined myself, and still do as a hiloni haredi – a secular god-fearing man, if such a definition makes sense. To me it does anyway.
That said, I really did want to learn a little more about Judaism. In the next few years I tried all kinds of things – I decided that I should read the weekly portion at home so that at least I would know the bible. (That is another thing that killed me – when I returned to my parents house after leaving the kibbutz I spent a lot of time in front of the TV – it had been years since I watched, and now there was cable and color TV. I loved it and I watched for hours on end. One thing that struck me was the gospel shows on METV. It amazed me even then that there was a Christian show that I could watch and learn the bible from and also the New Testament, but such a program would be unavailable in Hebrew on Israeli TV. That bothered me.)

Anyway – I started by buying the well-known, pink Rabbi Cook Institution edition of the Humash with very good explanations, so good that even I could understand what I was reading (I always had trouble understanding biblical Hebrew). Unfortunately it was too much for me, I had too much to do and could not keep up the pace and soon enough I gave up.
Then one day I saw a chabad pamphlet lying around – I picked it up and read it and liked it. I went to their site and asked to receive it in my E-mail. It has a summary of the weekly Parasha in plain Hebrew, and then a midrash. Half of the midrash deals with the spiritual aspect of the portion - this half always uplifts me, and the other half deals with all kinds of hallachic technicalities – this part never fails to depress me. Soon enough I gave up on this too.
I made an unsuccessful attempt at studying in Machon Meir – I just couldn’t stand it there – I think it was too big of a stretch for me at the time.

I also tried to make friends with the religious people I met in Jewish Leadership but this proved very frustrating. The main attitude of the people there was that I was an obvious canditate for BT, or else why would I even be there? I got some books shoved into my hands and invitations to Sabbath from people that did not even know my name. Seemingly, I had a lot to learn from them, but they, the religious people have nothing to learn from me or from the secular world. That not only angered me a lot, it is also proving to be the movements undoing. Eventually I became so frustrated and uncomfortable with the people and the movement that I completely abandoned it.

Another episode was when I saw that someone had posted a flier about lessons for beginners in my neighborhood. I called the guy and we met in a nearby yeshiva (it’s hard to live in Jerusalem without finding yourself near a yeshiva, no matter how secular you are). I was not really even at a beginners level but he was nice enough to bring someone from, I believe, Yeshivat Or Sameach and we started to study Torah, but the guy, and I think the whole situation, freaked me out. I wanted to learn about Judaism, to be Jewish in some way, but every attempt was repulsed – from within.
I still could not see myself being Jewish.

In hindsight, I now understand that Judaism touches upon more wounds than I had previously thought. As I explained in the previous post, every encounter with Judaism forces me to deal with any difficulty or bad experiences I have had with the group, Judaism, and the ideas of God and belief, but now I understand that it also forces me to deal with the question of male authority. I now realize that any encounter with authority, especially male authority is very frightening for me. And that is one reason why sitting to study with another male authority figure can freak me out.
That is of course quite unfortunate since Judaism is a very masculine religion, the women being exempt from most mitzvoth, and it is passed from father to son. However my father never passed on the secret of Judaism that he did receive from his Rabbi father. In fact, although my father was physically present, he was as good as dead spiritually speaking, and psychically. Living with him in the house was, for me, like living with a ghost. It was very unsettling, and frightening and disorienting, especially so since it seemed like I was the only one who was seeing and sensing what was actually going on in this family. Everybody else was, and still is, in denial, a very common occurrence in toxic families. (I discussed toxic parents a little in this Billy Elliot post). Basically, I felt like Cole Sears in the movie “The Sixth Sense”. Not a nice experience. Bottom line is that for me, any authority, especially male authority, is on the most basic level, a threat, something to be avoided, circumvented and opposed ferociously, because it really is a question of life or death.
Do not ask me how I managed to survive army service. I think I will never forget the words “Soldier, where is your beret!” shouted by the staff sergeant, and once even “Soldier, where is your uniform?!”. I had a tough time but I was very fortunate to have some excellent officers and a few good friends that really saved me from myself on occasion.

Studying under other people is also not easy when you mistrust authority and so, although I did study Zen, and for years in the university, I was mostly answerable to myself, becoming an autodidactic type, as well as uncomfortably rebellious and original. In short – this is a problem and the other day I realized how much this is affecting my relationship with my Jewish heritage, and that perhaps, the two are connected and becoming Jewish is also intended to solve, finally, this childhood problem. I already felt this before but now it is clear. This also fits the fact that I have been having a lot of dreams about my father in the past month or two. This is amazing since I hadn’t dreamt about him since I was a small child – and that was a long time ago…
This also leaves me wondering – is this the experience of other BT? Is becoming BT part of a re-socialization project for those who do it? The guy from Or Sameach sure acted like he was used to that and expected it – he freely criticized or praised my behavior in the short time we were together, which just caused me to freak out even more. I have had enough criticism from authority figures to last me a lifetime, and I have no urge to reenact past models of abuse. On the other hand – the childhood wound is still open, and clearly, in order to be whole, it must be healed and Repaired. Hendrix states in his Imago Theory (see this post for some more info) that we always can heal our childhood wounds, with the help of others, especially our spouse. In this case, I take this to mean that I can and should, repair my horrible and frightening non-relationship with my father with the help of a male authority figure, except that this time I get to choose the right “Parent” for me – one who will be supportive and understanding as opposed to alienated and critical and unavailable.
Of course, what I actually need, and what I am looking for, is a mentor for my Jewish studies. But I feel that a suitable one will still be able to help me a lot – we do not need to reenact our whole childhoods in order to heal our wounds, so that even a short episode, in one field, which is managed properly, can be very healing. I will still be, in a way, a helpless child seeking guidance from a grown-up male authority, except that this time I can arrange for a suitable mentor, I can speak my mind, and I can clearly state my needs and desires, and this time, I will not be ignored, or shut up or intimidated into a frightened silence. I will just be myself and hopefully that will work out fine, sooner, rather than later.

Future Experiences With Judaism
It took some while to write this, and in the meantime I have begun to do things. I decided to start contacting organizations that have some kind of program for people like me. I started by searching for “Jewish studies” but that got me mostly academic programs. Then I remembered that WestBankMomma recommended, in one of the comments, an organization called “Aish”. I called them but it seems they do not have programs for Hebrew-speakers, except the Yeshivat Hesder which is irrelevant for me. The English-speaking program is intended for full time students and deals with a lot of the basics, and really seems to me too philosophical. Searching and seeing what is available convinced me that I am not really interested in studying Judaism at least not in the philosophical and abstract sense. Actually, all I really want is to be like my brother in law.

I am thinking about an occasion a few years ago when they had a newborn son and they had a bris. For me this was the first I had ever been to a bris (other than my own of course, but my memories from that event are somewhat vague) so it was very interesting. What amazed me the most was how well my brother in law knew what to do – he knew the whole ritual, including the proper chants and the words and melodies to everything. In fact the only male who had no idea of anything was me. It was a little embarrassing. The thing is – he is as secular as I am, even more so – he has a TV, and reads the secular newspapers, he works in a secular job and leads a typical secular life, and basically – he is a typical Israeli secular guy, except for one thing – he knows how to be Jewish and he can switch to this other identity at will.
On the other hand I am only Israeli, and the Jewish identity is a riddle and a challenge for me, a spiritual journey yet to be determined. But that, I decided is exactly what I want.
I want to be able to choose, to be as Jewish as I am Israeli.

Years ago, I was coming back home from work late Friday afternoon. I was walking on a neglected side road near my home, when a religious guy wrapped in a tallit approached me and asked if I would be willing to complete a minyan. I told him that I had no idea what to do but he said that it doesn’t matter – I should just read along. I was in a great mood and I was in no hurry so I agreed. But it bothered me, and it still does, that I had no idea what was going on, and no way to participate. In fact I would probably feel more at home at a Muslim prayer session, which is something that I at least studied a little at school…than in a Jewish synagogue.
What I really want is to become Jew-literate. I want to be able to participate in Jewish life in a natural, everyday manner. I should be able to go to synagogue whenever I want and know what to do and when. I should be as familiar with the holiday procedures of my forefathers as I am familiar with using plastic money or driving a car. I can and should be able to do both, and there is no justification for not being able to, at least not anymore, not for me.

Does this mean that I am going BT?
I don’t think so. I doubt that I am capable of submitting myself to a set of rules that seem to me in many ways simply incorrect, psychologically speaking, or perhaps correct but for a certain age, or for certain people. I am far too freethinking for that, I think. On the other hand I am not one for doing things half way. If I am serious about becoming Jew-literate than that obviously means performing the various rituals many times over and once a man gets used to something – well, we are mostly creatures of habit, so who knows? I have already surprised myself so many times in this life that I dare not say “never”.

After striking out with Aish, I called a chabad center. For some reason I have fond associations of them. Perhaps I remember them handing out donuts on Hanukkah to us soldiers, and maybe a cup of tea. Sometimes small things like that can mean a lot. Anyway, chabad in Israel is ubiquitous, and simply unavoidable, and somewhat like coca-cola in beverages, it is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Judaism, and especially “ who can teach me something about Judaism”. For some reason I had no doubt in my mind that my plea for help would be welcome there.
Anyway, I am meeting tomorrow with someone from a nearby chabad house. The guy sounded very nice on the phone and he is himself a baal tshuva. That is very important – I doubt that someone who grew up orthodox can understand what this step means for an Israeli secular guy. I am very excited about tomorrow, and also peaceful and relieved – it seems like I have been waiting for this moment for years.

A few years ago my wife and I were walking from Palmach Street towards the German colony on a calm Saturday evening. Everything was still quiet; the Sabbath had not yet expired. Suddenly we heard a great burst of chanting from our right. Somewhere, not too far away, there was a synagogue and people were praying together, chanting in unison and perhaps even harmony, praying to their lord. I stood enchanted, listening attentively. My wife said, “ why don’t we go there?” and I answered that I simply could not – I’m scared stiff. I felt a yearning, a longing to belong to that group, but I also felt a palpable wall between them and me, a glass shield unseen and yet formidable that separated us. It was a very sad moment for me. It took me years to get out of that glass cage and gain the freedom to approach that place again. Today I feel that I am free and I have the key in my hands. All I am lacking now is the door – and perhaps tomorrow I shall find it.


westbankmama said...

Keep tasting Jerusalem Joe. Maybe Chabad will help you, maybe it won't. But you should keep looking. Someday you will find the right "fit".

westbankmama said...

You might want to get the book "To Be A Jew" by Rabbi Hayim Donin. It explains things clearly, but does not oversimplify (if you really want to know about the "what and how" in addition to the "why".

a mother in israel said...

Wow. What a thoughtful, introspective post. Other book recommendations: A Jew and His Home, and Book of Our Heritage by Eliahu Kitov. Both were translated from Hebrew many years ago. They explain the basics of Jewish practice. For instance the first one has a chapter all about the rituals of the brit, the blessings, the philosophical reasons, etc. It also explains kashrut, mikvah, etc. The second one does the same for all of the holidays.

As for Chabad, be careful because much of what they teach is Chabad chasidut and not, for lack of a better term, "normative practice." It's important to understand the difference. Not to mention their philosophy which is also "out there" sometimes.

Best of luck with your journey.

Jerusalem Joe said...

thanks for your comments and helpful suggestions. i'll respond to both comments in my next post.