Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rediscovering the Native Language of Judaism: A New Year, and New Thoughts About Being a Jew

Following Rosh Hoshanah, but before Yom Kippur, a colleague sent me Mark Oppenheimer’s opinion piece from Tablet:

The title is more than a mouthful, and I expected all sorts of things from it, in part because I felt I would relate to it on many levels.  I was Bar Mitzvah'd and Confirmed at the same Temple and religious community where my parents still participate and pray.  My Mom, this past summer, had her own Bat Mitvah on the same bimah as mine.  I participated in Hillel in college and in graduate school, but since returning home, have become the sort of religious Jew that my family always looked upon with some degree of derision: the “High-Holiday Jew,” the “Twice-a-year Jew.”  The prayers are still ingrained, and many of the melodies still a pleasure, but it does feel strange, and for the past few years I've grapple with what that means.  I thought Oppenheimer’s

There are some good points in this, but rather than developing and contextualizing them in Jewish history, the article feels scatter shot. It's like he had a bunch of ideas for analogies about Judaism, and rather than develop one or two, he just decided to mix up a bunch of metaphors. We've got Judaism as language, art, musicianship, and sports, and not a single one feels particularly well thought out.

First, there's the discussion of Judaism as no longer "native language." The former seems to me a strange argument: he's writing about the diaspora, as though the non-native aspect hasn't been a fundamental part of Judaism since the destruction of the second temple 2500 years ago. And it seems an odd argument to make to talk about Judaism as language, when in fact there *is* a special language of Judaism, that aligns with all the points, but strangely is not part of the point he's making there. Hebrew, the actual native language, is only learned by the orthodox and some precocious conservative children. Of course a service, or practice of Judaism is hard if you don't understand the language.

But actually, Judaism has two distinct languages. First there's the language of the liturgy: Hebrew, with some occasional Aremaic. Next, there's the cultural language: Yiddish, spoken by the majority of Ashkenazi Jews from the 10th century up until the generation after the holocaust. Before Elizer Ben-Yehuda and others modernized Hebrew for modern use in Israel, Jews spoke Yiddish in their homes, read Yiddish newspapers, The next stop in his argument is that Judaism is "now" learned. Again, I'm not sure where he's seeing an actual change. Judaism only becomes a part of ones' nature through nurturing. And then same is true of any religion, and any community based on shared traditions.

The music analogy is apt in some ways, as after all, when Jews speak of other Jews they often will note whether the Jew is "practicing" or "non-practicing."  But beyond that, I don’t know feel that the analogy works. I played trumpet for many years. I practiced a few hours a week, and only achieved the most basic competency, but I still enjoyed the ritual of it, in part because of the challenge. It seems to me that Oppenheimer bases this part of his argument on two fallacies: 1) that if something is difficult, you probably won’t enjoy it or get anything out of it, and 2) that if you practice enough to become good at something, it naturally becomes a joy.  Andre Agassi has said in multiple interviews that he hated tennis, while I played tennis for years, just because I liked it, despite not developing any skills to speak of (I didn't develop the hand-eye coordination necessary for sports till my mid-20s).  Likewise,  while I’ve repeated certain blessings 1000s of times in my life, some are still difficult to me, either because of the tongue-twisting Hebrew words, or because I’m not sure I believe their message. 

It is a fact fundamental to Judaism that it is hard. It asks things of you, like the observance of holidays (such as the fast on Yom Kippur), the practice volunteerism and charity (tzedakah), and laws about foods you cannot eat. Maybe most important of all, Judaism is a community of learners. Studying the torah is considered a mitzvah (a good deed) on par with any of the things I just listed.   The Jewish rite of passage, the bar/bat mitzvah, requires the leading of a service.  Standing in front of an audience of all your loved ones and peers is hard.  Harder still is learning a Torah portion, and preparing a D’var Torah: a sermon, very much like an analysis paper on the Torah portion.

Even the relationship Jews have with God is often difficult.  That difficulty is accepted as a part of being a Jew, and that difficulty is noted time and time again in the Torah. Jacob wrestles with an angel. Jonah is a reluctant prophet, who at first refuses to deliver God's message, and then argues angrily with God. Many Jews find value in this wrestling. It teaches critical thinking skills.

It seems to me a better way to structure the analogy might be around sports fandom:

If you're not really into sports, but your family is, you probably go through the motions. You may wear the jersey (star of david), and you'll go with your family to some games (services), but chances are you don't know the rules (torah/commandments), or the schedule of games (holidays). You may question the purpose of your fandom. Does it provide any benefits (free trip to Israel)? Is this the community you want to be a part of (JCC)?  When you move out of your parent's house, you probably lose all but a cursory awareness of the team. Chances are, you're still happy when your team makes the play-offs, because it’s important to your family.

If you were dragged to games (services) and didn't even enjoy the food at the stadium (challah, apples and honey), then chances are you resent sports, and won't carry on the tradition with your children. But maybe your reason for not carrying on the tradition as fervently as your parents is more due to apathy than resentment. Since it was important to your family, you give your children a taste of it (high holiday services), or you tell them a little about the team's history, and why it's important to your parents.  As with anything, your children are more likely to become fans if you're engaged, or you make the task of learning enjoyable, but sometimes they'll become bigger fans than you because of one small thing they like. Maybe you take them to a game (shabbat service), and they love singing "Dirty Water" at the end (Adon Olam).

I think the over-arching message of Openheimer’s article remains true.  Going more often to temple/synagogue will make you more familiar with the melodies and rituals of a service.  And belonging to a religious Jewish community is important, and always feels more important at high holidays, when the Rabbi, President of the congregation, and others present sermons and good-natured guilt-trips to the attendees about participating more in the community, paying membership dues, and contributing to help fix the roof of the table, or buy new prayerbooks.  But the problem with Openheimer’s analogies, the one I presented myself, and even these high holidays appeals is that they simplify Judaism, a rich religious and cultural identity, down to the participation in a particular liturgy. 

So, if you go to temple/synagogue only once or twice a year for the high holidays, yes, it’s likely you’ll feel a little uncomfortable, and coming to more services can help alleviate that.  But remember your violin/piano/trumpet: if you choose to practice, it may be a joy, but if your parent or guilt forces you, it will always be a chore.  Don’t make Judaism a chore: find what makes it a joy to you.  In the New Year, think about your Jewishness and what it means to you. 

Why is it important?  What is it about the high holidays that pull you back each year?  Maybe it’s certain prayers, the ritual of the Torah coming out the Ark to be walked through the congregation.  It may be time with your family, seeing community members you haven’t spoken to since the year before, honoring a Bubbe or Zaide for whom the religious community was more important, or just the time set aside to reflect.  It could be the foods: apples and honey, kreplach, lox,bagels, and kugel.  Or it may be the extra pleasure you take in comedians and writers such as Sarah Silverman (an alum of my temple!), Woody Allen, and Jon Stewart, because they’re steeped in the same culture as you, and sometimes make a joke that’s just for the Jews.  Maybe you can take pride in being one of “the people of the book.”  Yes, Oppenheimer refers pretty specifically to “religious tradition,” which is part of culture, but very different from these largely secular aspects of tradition, but in a time when more and more people are giving up their religious observance, these are increasingly important aspects of Judaism.

Whatever you find, remember it the next time you’re feeling uncomfortable at high holidays (or another holiday, like Simcha Torah, starting tomorrow night).  This is what makes you a Jew, whether it leads you to make a contribution to your Jewish community, in the form of money or time, to Friday night service, for religious observance, Torah study, book club, or away from more organized aspects of Judaism, but towards Tikkun Olam and Tzedaka; there are many ways, and many levels: how you practice is up to you.