For the past ten days I’ve been a participant in a “Nourish Your Soul Telesummit.” Each day I’d get an email, and a posting in its corresponding Facebook group, that a new interview was up and available for listening. Each day one interview would broadcast. The interviews were conducted over the phone by professional storyteller Devorah Spillman and broadcaster Joelle Norwood. They featured ten inspired and inspiring Jewish women. Each morning on my daily walk I’d click over and listen. Today was the last one and the interviewers became the interviewees.
The guest post that appears here was a very difficult one for me to post. I don’t like to share negative information about the Orthodox community with those who are not Orthodox, because the laws of lashon hara (gossip) teach that you should share negative observations only with those who are most likely to effect constructive change. Airing it to others is purposeless and damaging.
as a girl
in the in group
happy in my class of 20
opportunities to shine were plenty
Hungarian grandmother to give me esteem
never experienced anything mean
approval, encouragement was mine for keeps
in the loop
in the heart
in the midst
Venturing out as a grownup
OTHER as an Orthodox Jewish woman
she of the skirts
she of the crew neck shirts
she of the long sleeves
she of the covered hair
no matter what
a shameful other
those with disdain
on my parade
first time ever
Me? on the outs? Never.
That others would whisper about me
when they thought I couldn’t hear
that others would ascribe subjugation
to the clothes I chose to wear
like an uncomfortable pair of shoes
that pinched and chafed
and made you wonder
why you insisted on buying them.
mother of a Special Needs Kid
another kind of other
one that everyone knows
you have to respect
after all there are laws about things like this
aren’t you enlightened in the 21st century
get with the lingo
you can’t use words like retarded anymore
or you will simply look like an
Don’t you know to withhold judgment from those who are different from you?
To keep your mouth from whispering your little mean whispers?
Isn’t that called manners?
Why is this
a different kind of other?
Quick poll: how many of you are fascinated by the Amish? I used to think it was my Orthodoxy and my identification/feeling of “otherness” that drew me to the Amish, but then realized that many of my fellow MOTs, Orthodox and otherwise, feel the same way.
I know how I feel when I read a book or see a documentary about my culture through the eyes of others (unfortunately, there is no documentary about the Orthodox, made by the Orthodox). Icky, that’s how. They never really get it right. So I’m wise enough to be skeptical when I see or read such stuff about other cultures. I know they’re not hitting the nail quite on the head.
A couple of months ago, my husband and I were in Amish country checking out a bed-and-breakfast for a possible retreat weekend with our organization, and in the room was a book called “Growing Up Amish” by Ira Wagler. I flipped it over and saw that it was a memoir written by a man who tried, multiple times, to remain in the Amish faith and ultimately left. I wanted to plop right down in the rocking chair and read it, but couldn’t, so I made a mental note to READ THAT BOOK.
Why? I could tell, just from skimming that:
It was a first-person memoir.
It was about someone who, while he ultimately left the fold, did so without extreme anger or bitterness.
It was a beautiful portrait of the faith without a “tell-all” expose, tabloid feel.
And at the same time, it was honest about the struggles inherent in the culture.
So when a friend sent me a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble as a gift (props for people who know just what to get!) I straight up and ordered the book.
And finished it in two days (and was an ineffectual mother during said two days).
I can’t possibly convey all that I loved about this sad and beautiful story, but I will say this. The whole time I was reading the book, I was comparing Amish life with Orthodoxy, and actually more, Hasidic life, which has more in common with Amish life. There similarities and so many stark differences. I’m not qualified to comment on Hasidic life since I’ve never lived it, but I do know more about it than your average Jew, so I’ll go out on a limb.
(A word about the writing. It’s sparse, even plain, like the Amish life it describes. But that’s good, because the writing itself gets out of the way and is a transparent window. The world of the Amish comes straight through the writer and is almost untainted by his own experience. That in itself is a thing of beauty.)
The similarities are obvious, at least the external ones.
Distinctive dress for both men and women.
Restrictions in terms of modernity and mixing with outsiders.
A special, insider language.
Regular religious services.
Clear roles for men and women.
Tight-knit, supportive communities.
Variations in rules and customs depending on individual community – where some are considered too strict and some are considered too lax.
Stigma toward those families where a child has “left.”
Clear expectations and protocol regarding dating and marriage.
But there are some pretty major differences.
One of the main ones is that it didn’t seem from the book that the religion had too many daily responsibilities. Meaning, it certainly impacted daily life from the way you dressed to the way you transported yourself and to your profession of choice (farming). But in religious Jewish life, you have religious things you do, on your own and not just communally, every day from the moment you open your eyes in the morning, to your meals that you eat, to what you eat, to prayer services (for men) three times a day.
It seemed from the book, and again, it could be the book just didn’t express it fully, that you had your prayers in the morning after breakfast, and then you were busy with your chores all day. Sunday was church to be sure, and there was the weekly “singing” which was religious in nature. I say a prayer the moment I wake up and every time I come out of the bathroom. I constantly choose kosher food. I monitor my speech to make sure it’s not disallowed for being mean or untruthful. I say “please God” and “God willing” in my daily conversation. I give charity every time I get paid for something. I pray myself whenever I can – and it was actually Ira discovering this personal, spontaneous form of prayer that ultimately saved his relationship with God. I’m not saying this is better or harder or anything. It’s just a stark difference that I noticed.
Also, there was a huge difference in holidays. The book didn’t mention Christmas or Easter or any religious holiday, even once. I don’t know why. But Judaism is pretty much always either recovering from a holiday or preparing for one. There are the famous ones like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, and also the lesser-known ones like Shemini Atzeret, Shavuot, Tu B’shvat, Rosh Chodesh, and what-have-you. There’s always a holiday, and it’s a huge part of our lives.
Schooling was another big difference. In Orthodox Judaism, and especially Hasidic Judaism, school is completely bound up with religious life. It’s daily, it’s long (dual curriculum) and it continues for a long time. In Amish culture, school seemed to be just school and not tied to the religious system or community. It didn’t seem as though the Amish attend school after eighth grade either, as they are needed for farming, but I could be wrong. In Orthodoxy, school is so inextricable from the religious system that if a child has a bad experience at school, it almost always creates a conflict in that child’s religious identity. And religious Jews are expected to always continue their religious studies, no matter how old they get – boys and girls. Whether it’s in the form of post-high school Israel programs, or less formal lectures available in one’s community, or lectures available online or over the phone, ongoing learning for all is a very prioritized value. Outside of church, I didn’t pick up on any of that in the book.
One very difficult part of the book to read about was the stoicism that the author describes in his community. When he experiences tragedy (no spoilers) and his parents experience the pain of their children leaving the fold, expressing one’s feelings is taboo. While all families operate differently in any culture or religious system, it was indicated by the author that this stoicism was definitely inherent in Amish life.
Orthodox Judaism, and even more so Hasidic Judaism, does have some degree of communal protectiveness where it’s taboo to openly admit your problems and failures, but I was struck by the contrast between Amish living and Jewish living in terms of dealing with tragedy. In Judaism, you have the broadest gamut of emotions built into the calendar and even into the prayers. There’s Orthodox funerals, where everyone is openly crying. There are Orthodox weddings where bride and groom are very likely sobbing in prayer under the chuppah. There’s the wildly ecstatic Simchat Torah celebrations and intoxicatedly joyous Purim parties. There’s Tisha B’av, where we cry for Jerusalem and for personal tragedies. There’s Yom Kippur, where we cry in repentance for our misdeeds. People get choked up when they speak at bnei mitzvah and weddings. We get together for impassioned and tearful prayers for Israel. Wow, it’s just so different.
On a sort-of tangent, one of the most depressing parts of the book was where Ira expressed his need to process his depression and about how therapy was absolutely off-limits. I’m pretty sure it was like this in Orthodoxy till recently (but that’s true of the general world). The stigma is receding in terms of accessing help, but probably not in terms of admitting that one needs help. And we still have a long way to go because one of the features of Judaism is perfectionism. Not just in the religious community but across the board – although religious and secular Jews perfectionize about different things. Secular Jews perfectionize more about academics and religious Jews more about who they marry, but either way it’s a Jewish trait, so being imperfect and experiencing depression and seeking therapy are still far more taboo than they need to be.
Mistrust of the “outside” world is a theme that seems to be shared by both Amish folks and religious Jews, but there are important differences. The Amish in the book shunned the outside world and modern conveniences because it is their policy to be plain and simple. Anything fancy is by definition against their philosophy. Religious Jews and especially Hasidim believe that modern conveniences are awesome as long as they don’t compromise Jewish values (and you can afford them). Dishwashers? Great! Cars? Fabulous! But as soon as technology introduces concepts that are foreign to Judaism, that’s where we get wary – much warier than the secular community. (It is true that materialism in and of itself is a problematic issue in Judaism, but we don’t carry it anywhere near as far as the Amish.)
Smartphones are a perfect example. Smartphones afford unlimited access to the internet, with all the good, bad and ugly that that includes. We are very mindful about introducing that kind of technology into our homes and into the hands, particularly, of our impressionable kids. While smartphones have definitely made themselves comfy in many an Orthodox home (including mine), we are very conscious about its pernicious influence whether in religious philosophy, language, immodest images and themes, and music that is antithetical to spirituality.
So for us, it’s not modernity in and of itself that’s problematic, but rather where that modernity will take us in terms of Jewish observance, belief, and values.
In some ways I envied the Amish while reading the book. Their plain and simple life without cars and technology, while gritty, seems far less complicated than mine, with my carpools and constantly pinging phone. But the grass is always greener elsewhere. Would I really rather spend my time churning butter? Not so much.
More to discuss, for sure, like the marriage system, authoritarian parents, and kids who leave. Read the book, and weigh in below. I’d love to hear.
Ladies and gents of OOTOB, I present to you today a guest post from one Revital Belz, who lives in Israel. She blogs at ajudaica.com and is sharing her viewpoint of the current conflict in Israel. I know social media and the blogosphere have been abuzz with information and emotions, and here she is in her own thoughtful and inspiring words. Revital will be available over the next few days to respond to your thoughts and comments.
Although I left my native United States for Israel almost thirty years ago, I always felt a bit
separate from the “real” sabra Israeli society. The moment I opened my mouth, taxi drivers
would start speaking to me in broken English, proud to have identified me as one of those
crazy Americans who came to make Israel their home. My Brooklyn accent stubbornly
stayed with me, and living in my Orthodox community in Bnei Brak I sometimes felt as if I
was being cocooned, distant as it were from the true Israel.
Last year I moved to the southern port city of Ashdod to live closer to my married kids and
was pleasantly surprised as to the beauty of the city. It is actually the fifth largest city in
Israel, has a gorgeous beach and magnificent parks. The streets are lined with trees and
flowers, and the multicultural population co-exists peacefully.
Fast forward to July 2014.
Boom! Boom! WoooOOOOoooo! OMG ! My grandchildren were on their weekly visit to me
when the wailing siren went off. Calmly, with equanimity, actually holding on to their plates
of pizza and spaghetti, the kids filed into my shelter, as I frantically called their names one by
one, making sure they were all in. I realized that they were giving me funny looks, trying to
figure out what the big deal was. After all, this was a reality of their lives, something which
had been drilled into them since kindergarten and an integral part of life for them. Why
was Baba (me) making such a big deal? You just went into the nearest building, stairwell or
home, waited until the sirens and booms (missiles) stopped (10 minutes) and then went on
with your lives.
Then I realized. I was at the front! This battle was being played out in my home, on my street
and I was a soldier. If I let myself be intimidated by the neighborhood bully then I have given
him victory. Well, let it not be said that a Brooklyn girl enhanced by 30 years of acquired
Israeli toughness was going to let this get to her. I go about my life, commute to work, shop,
invite family, visit family, go to the synagogue, lectures, whatever. My life continues. I am
not going to sit petrified in my shelter room all day. Of course, I always have one ear open to
hear the siren, and as I go down the street I make a mental note which building I will jump
into if necessary. But I will not be bullied.
Accepting that I am at the front has done something for me spiritually too. Sure, I feel
vulnerable and scared and I speak to Hashem more fervently and more often. I know that
it’s OK to be scared. I guess the soldiers are scared too sometimes.
Every soldier has his job. My job as a grandmother soldier living in Ashdod is to go about my
daily life, to do my jobs and to carry on living. Yes, I am trying to be a better person. Faced
with so much evil down there in Gaza, I want to inject into the world a little more goodness,
more love for my fellow man, extra G-dliness in my daily life.
We are all soldiers at the front!