Born and Raised in the Ortho-docks

Today, while enjoying a tuna melt at Cool Beans Cafe, I finished reading The Men’s Section by Elana Maryles Sztokman. I’ve already cited her book in a few past posts as I was reading it, so this won’t be merely a review; rather, the third in a series surrounding the topic.

Just go with it.

The Men’s Section is an examination of Orthodox egalitarianism in the twenty-first century. Sztokman starts with her “Orthodox Man” box, and then goes into ethnographic interviews with her subjects and explanations of the mechanisms behind Shira Hadasha, her Israeli egalitarian minyan. At the end, she offers some conclusions; some far-reaching, others not.

Let me start off by saying that on the whole, I enjoyed the book. I felt like it applied more to Israelis than Americans, but having lived in Israel I could see both sides. There are huge differences between Israeli Orthodoxy and American Orthodoxy, and Sztokman covers it well. In American Orthodoxy, we tend to err on the right side – not right as in “correct” but right as in “conservative.” When a question arises, generally the stricter opinion wins out and becomes fact, which is why American Orthodoxy is moving in that direction.

As for Sztokman’s descriptions and arguments for the egalitarian minyan, I agree with some and disagree with others.

On women carrying the Torah: I agree with her that women can and should hold and carry the Torah. The reasons why they cannot are antiquated and need to be changed; there’s absolutely no reason why the Torah should be taken away from the hands of an Orthodox Jew. Women like my grandmother carried families over from Europe, and they carry families into the future, so being denied the privilege of carrying the Torah seems rather gauche and silly in those terms.

On women reading the Torah: Initially, I was taken aback by this, and when Sztokman shared the vignette about Lisa, the congregant who volunteered to read Torah but dropped out at the last minute because she had other things to attend to, I felt like maybe Sztokman was wrong. But then again, that only contributes to the pressure-cooker nature of leining, and sometimes men have similar excuses. On the other hand, I have heard some pretty impressive women leading services and some pretty unimpressive men. This is one I’ll have to experience before deciding upon.

On American vs. Israeli Orthodox levels: Sztokman brings up that being labeled as “Conservative” or “Reform” could be considered emasculating for some Israeli men, even more so than “secular” connotates, and how identification with American Orthodoxy can add to that sentiment. Americans, whether Jewish or not, have a tendency to be thought of as spoiled, since unlike the soldiers and kibbutzniks of Israel, Americans are Starbucks and iPhone wielding luxury car drivers who’ve never had to put their life on the line for their country, spending all day sitting in air-conditioned offices and sleeping comfortably without a care for the rest of the world. At least a secular Israeli Orthodox Jew has most likely done army service, had a bar mitzvah, and paid his dues religiously, physically, and financially for the state, and is taking a hiatus (whether temporary or permanent) from the derech. With “secular,” there remains that idea of “I can jump back in anytime I want,” whereas “Conservative” and “Reform” require changes in doctrine sometimes seen as “excuses” by the Orthodox. Because secular Judaism isn’t as much of a thing here as it is in Israel, I’d say that American Orthodox men have a much rougher time deviating at all from the mainstream.

But enough about Sztokman. This post is called “Born and Raised in the Ortho-Docks,” so let me transition from repeating some of the same information as in the two previous entries on this book and go a little further into the “docks.”

In one of the earlier entries, I mentioned a rabbi/teacher of mine who was incredulous at a Chabadnik’s proffering of tefillin on the streets of Washington, DC. One year, I had that rabbi for a tanach (bible) class, and we were studying the part of Genesis focusing on Noah’s Ark. We embarked on a class discussion about the story and the midrash (commentary) behind the flood. I mentioned a book that I had – actually, the delightfully illustrated and aptly-titled Stories of the Flood by Uma Krishnaswami – which told stories of flood mythology around from China to Liberia, and that we should look at other cultures’ flood stories and see how they compared. Several people in class were interested in the idea and eventually borrowed the book from me, but our teacher disapproved of this conversation. I asked him about it after class, and he said that it wouldn’t be worth our time. Curriculum notwithstanding, the fact that he wasn’t even interested in enriching the discussion with inclusions of other cultures – not to change our views, but to compare and contrast, and maybe even learn more about Noah and his ark – told me that he wasn’t interested in anything else but one way of seeing things. Another time, a rabbi said that feng shui is “avoda zara” which is a fancy way of saying sinful. When the yearbook interviewed a new rabbi at the school, when asked his favorite book, of course he answered “the Bible,” which almost makes me wish I hadn’t just used that Jennifer Aniston “what a load of crap” gif last week. Such a textbook, cop-out rabbi answer. I mean, would it kill your reputation to admit that you had other interests, by picking, oh, I don’t know…Eat, Pray, Love, Fahrenheit 451, Winnie the Pooh or any of the other bazillions of books out there that you AREN’T paid to teach, and that you haven’t obviously spent the majority of your adult life studying? And would it kill you to wear colors, or ANYTHING other than the interchangeable black-jacket-white-shirt-black-pants combination that makes you look like you only own one outfit?

This was my world. At least, my public world, my high school, my community. Stick to the formula and you’ll be fine. Even though I did feel the pressure, especially when I didn’t fit in with the “in-group” at my synagogue or my school, I knew that others were not as lucky as I was. At least I had television, secular music, secular books, and the freedom to choose my own interests outside of school. I had the freedom of going to college where I wanted and studying what I wanted. Had I not had access to those things, who knows where I’d be today and what I’d be doing. Though my parents grew up in different parts of Baltimore, both of them had life experience that mixed Judaism with secular life in a healthy way. They had no interest of imposing a TA/TI/Bais Yaakov environment on me and my sister; it wasn’t the way that they grew up. Both of my parents had been to religious schools, secular schools, private colleges, and big universities. Both have had jobs that have taken them deeper inside and further outside the Jewish community, and there were things that they liked and disliked about both oeuvres. Even my dad, whose upbringing was more observant than mine, attended mixers and socials that don’t exist Orthodox Jewish Baltimore today. He also got to dance on The Buddy Deane Show. To their credit, my parents allowed me and my sister to have non-Jewish friends, and took us to shows at the Mechanic and at CenterStage.

When my parents were out of the picture, however, Judaism could get stone-cold. Emotionless. Sometimes I felt less-than because in my family, we did use the telephone and television on Shabbat; the former, due to elderly grandparents, and the latter, because my dad resented not being able to watch Saturday baseball games growing up, and never the one to emit a double-standard, let the TV babysit us on Shabbat when we were not occupied by friends. Sometimes I felt less-than because my mom wore pants and did not cover her hair, like some of my female teachers and other friends’ mothers. Sometimes, I felt restricted because I couldn’t go to the theatre or play on the computer on Shabbat, like the rest of the world could, especially at times like when Cartoon Network held a Friday-night cartoon screening at Towson University or that Friday night when the seventh Harry Potter hit the shelves on a Friday night and bookstores went bonkers. Not being able to go to a fast food restaurant or have expensive, gelatin-laden candy was a bummer, although future me is grateful that I didn’t have those things.

Growing up American and Orthodox, there definitely is a “prove yourself” factor that Israelis have less of. In America, Jews are a minority, and Orthodox Jews, a minority within a minority; in Israel, it’s the opposite. Plus, the American spirit of competition urges us – yes, men and women – to compete with one another and the outside world to “prove” our Jewishness. This is where the masculinity element comes in as well. Even though it’s refreshing to hear that jerks who call out when the Torah reader messes up occurs in Israel, in America, it’s always been a huge turn-off for me. For some reason, I’m reminded of that line from the Salute Your Shorts theme song, “get it right or pay the price.” Only in this case, the price is temporary public humiliation in the name of correctness of tone and phrasing. I do understand that it is important; but how important is it? And why must the reaction be so visceral for the congregation? Well, there’s the masculinity element for you. Going over to another area, as I mentioned before, the shidduch market is all about status, and “proving yourself” to be the Jewiest of the Jews so that a girl/boy will want to marry you. People change, you know, in both directions.

On the flip side, there are things about Orthodox Judaism in America that whether by conditioning or personal preference, that I like. I do like the unity that it offers, and some of the strictness does have an effect in building the community. Speaking the same language and praying in the same way help affirm who we are both as individuals and in a group. Part of it is about being able to express yourself both publicly and privately, and part of it is the feeling of being welcomed in a circle. Rituals are a key factor in the survival of any group, and life-affirming rituals such as Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and a bar mitzvah are all ways that Jews can stand stronger together than apart.

I defend Orthodoxy because it’s the way I grew up, and I don’t want to be made to feel like the first 17 years of my life were a lie, regardless of how much society or anyone says otherwise. I stand by Orthodoxy because my grandparents didn’t come to this country at the risk of their lives for me not to embrace the freedom that they were denied. I can hate on Orthodoxy all I want in my mind and call for change and reconsideration of traditions, but it will always be a part of me that nobody can take away. I’d like to think that the Bible is undeniably a holy text written by divine hand but I’d like to think that it’s a skeleton, written to inspire humanity to breathe the same life into the words that God breathed into us, to provide us with the tissue, marrow, and muscle  needed to help us comprehend our existence, learn from the past, and model our lives not on indoctrination but on intelligence and inspiration. To me, Orthodoxy isn’t about the length of your sleeves or your skirt, how loudly you sing in synagogue or how many rules you follow; it’s a state of mind that Judaism is more than a culture, but as a way of life that connects past, present, and future. Judaism isn’t something that comes one-size-fits-all, and it’s definitely not something you can order from a catalog and get rid of when you’re bored with it. It’s not just bagels, matzo ball soup, and gefilte fish; it’s the challah that is braided every Friday before Shabbat to remind us of the elements that make up who we are as people. In my life so far, Orthodoxy has been the best avenue to capture those essential feelings of belonging, with room for individuality and striving for more.

Overall, I think that Elana Maryles Sztokman is on to something with her ideas, but her interview subjects are not that impressive. She could do a better job proving her points by casting a wider net, one that encompasses more Americans, the men for whom Orthodoxy has changed the most in their lifetimes. This article I found on H-Net by Yoel Finkelman confirms what I felt: the men in the study were all subscribers of the same egalitarian mindset, or had at least tried an egalitarian minyan. Then again, I can totally imagine mainstream American Orthodox men being unwilling to talk to Sztokman, so to her credit, she probably worked with what she had.

Also, welcome to Kuwait, who popped up for its first visit, as well as being my first six-continent day (If I can count Brunei/Malaysia as Oceania? Yes? No? Maybe?)

Works Cited

Finkelman, Yoel. Review. “Men of the Minyan.” H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews (April 2012) http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=34942

Sztokman, Elana Maryles. The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2011.