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Reconstructing Judaism

 

My synagogue belongs to a small branch of Judaism called Reconstructionism. I think there are something like a hundred Reconstructionist congregations, and three hundred and fifty Reconstructionist rabbis, in North America, so it is a small, but not invisible movement. I’ve never quite considered myself a Reconstructionist Jew, though, the way some people identify as Modern Orthodox or Reform or Conservative. I’ve only belonged to this synagogue for six years now, so it’s more that I like my congregation in particular. I still just consider myself Jewish, without a specifier.

I like that the Reconstructionists emphasize that we can make our own choices, about what to believe and how to practice, instead of having to go to the rabbi for his or her dictum. I like that the Reconstructionist movement ordained one of the first female rabbis (way back when), and celebrated the first official bat mitzvah (even further back), two things that are now common place in liberal Judaism. But I get overwhelmed by the social activism, or Tikun Olam, that is emphasized daily at my synagogue. It’s hard to watch eighty year olds go on protest march after protest march and retain any sense of self-respect when I say that I can’t go, or don’t even want to.

I was not educated by Reconstructionists as a child. I went to a Conservative day school and sleep away camp, and then to a Modern Orthodox junior high and high school. Pressure came from every direction, to fit in, rather than to choose for myself or think for myself. And it took a long time for me to find a synagogue, as an adult, where I felt comfortable just as myself. I like that I can choose to get involved in the things that fit me, like Friday night services and discussions, and avoid the things that don’t fit me, like committees, or getting on a bus to Albany to try to convince politicians to change laws. And really, until they accept dogs on these marches and trips, why would Cricket ever let me go without her?

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“Don’t leave me!”

My graduate program in social work has a (very) activist bent as well, so I get a lot of pressure from certain teachers to pursue societal change, rather than to focus on individual people and hearing their stories (which is my favorite part of social work). The fact is, I don’t want to convince people of things; I want to know them, and I want them to know me. And if that changes something for each of us, so much the better.

All of this came up recently because a couple of speakers from the Reconstructionist movement came to speak to my congregation on a Friday night. I was hoping for some wisdom and inspiration, but instead they talked about branding, and the need for more resources from us (money and time, two things I don’t have). It was exhausting, and alienating, and I had to work very hard not to walk out. Cricket would have been barking her head off if she’d been invited to the service, which may explain why she, and her doggy cohort, was not invited.

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mommy. I’m a good girl.”

For legal reasons that I still don’t understand, the leadership of the Reconstructionist movement had to change its official name this year, and they came up with Reconstructing Judaism. One of the speakers told us, defensively (because they’ve heard a lot of pushback), that it’s a great name because it’s a verb and implies action. And I felt like she was saying that being a Reconstructionist is an activity rather than an identity.

We are Jew-ing instead of Jewish.

But, what if I’m not up to Jew-ing one day? What if I’m tired and need a nap, does that mean I lose my identity? I don’t want to be told that my belonging to a community depends on the activities other people want me to do; that’s the same kind of rigidity I experienced growing up with Orthodoxy, just with a new set of rituals.

So maybe I will just remain a Jew, without a specifier. The fact is, I don’t mind doing the daily work of reconstructing my own version of Judaism, at my own pace, and based on my own feelings and beliefs. I just don’t want to be told that we all want, and think, and do, the same things; or that we should, if we want to belong. That’s not reconstructing Judaism, that’s reconstructing me to fit into Judaism. And I’m not okay with that.

Cricket thinks it’s ridiculous too. No one tells Cricket who to be.

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“No one tells me what to do, Mommy. No one.”

My Life as a Jewish Woman

One of my blogging friends suggested that I write about my life as a Jewish woman, and it scared me, because writing about being Jewish always scares me, just like writing about anything else people might judge me for scares me. I worry about anti-Semitism; I worry about people feeling alienated from me for being different; I worry about being rejected, and looked down on most of all. The image of the Jew as vermin has always stuck with me. I was born long after the holocaust, but it has never felt that far away.

“What are you talking about, Mommy?”

I grew up in Jewish environments, getting a Jewish education (or a few different Jewish educations), so being Jewish always felt normal to me. It was only when I went to college that being Jewish became an issue. Most of the higher educational world, no matter how many students at a school are Jewish, is based on a Christian world view. It is assumed that when you mention the bible, and you will, you mean the King James Version, including the New Testament. In a discussion about history or biology, or, god forbid, art history, teachers would reference books of the bible I’d never heard of, and I felt like I needed Google and Wikipedia, before such things existed.

“Ask me, Mommy. I know everything!”

It wasn’t just factual references that I missed and had to look up, there were world view things I couldn’t relate to. So much talk of heaven and hell, and turning the other cheek, had never come up in my childhood. I felt like I’d need a PhD in Christianity before I could understand much of anything. So I did my honors thesis on comparative religions, and read the King James Bible, and the New Testament, and the Koran, and forty other books on various religions around the world. I can’t pinpoint what I did with all of that information, and I didn’t feel like an expert when I was done, but I did feel more grounded. I felt like I knew enough to get by.

Despite the adjustment period, there was something freeing about not being in a Jewish environment anymore. I stopped feeling like someone was looking over my shoulder all the time, giving me demerits for each non-orthodox behavior. No one cared if the sandwich I ate for lunch was kosher. No one cared that I wore pants. If I went to school on a Jewish holiday, no one even noticed. It didn’t matter to anyone how religious I was, or wasn’t. They noticed that I was a good, and maybe compulsive, student. They noticed that I talked back to teachers (sometimes too much, sometimes just the right amount).

Being outside of a Jewish point of view allowed me to see how many different world views there really were. I started to see that even the Jewish world was not as unitary as it had seemed. Not all Jews are orthodox and steeped in the Talmud, not all Jews were red diaper babies raised by union activists, all Jews are not from Eastern European shtetls, all Jews are not “New York liberals,” or Pro-Israel, or Pro-peace, or well educated, or small minded, or wealthy, or clever, etc., etc.

The only really Jewish thing about my life now is the fact that I go to synagogue on Friday nights. I don’t keep kosher (sorry, God), and I don’t take out a prayer book three times a day, and I don’t wear a Star of David necklace. I do have a mezuzah on my door, but I never remember to kiss it.

My life isn’t especially Jewish, but I am. It is a big part of my identity, probably as big as being female, or American, or a writer. Being Jewish is essential to how I view the world around me, how I watch the news, how I meet new people. I am probably more skittish about traveling to, say, Germany than the average American woman. I am probably more sensitive about how Israel is portrayed in the news (though some evangelical Christians have me beat on that one).

The fact is, though, that I felt like just as much of a Jewish woman during the fifteen years when I did not belong to a synagogue as I do now. The rituals, and the belonging, while comforting and satisfying, are not the source of the identity for me. I know people who were raised without much involvement in Jewish community life, and they too feel their Jewishness strongly. There’s a mix of pride in the heritage, and fear of being targeted, and shame at being different, that we all share.

My dogs remind me, though, that my Jewish identity isn’t all of who I am. They are deeply connected to the energy of the universe, and they could care less if I am Jewish or Muslim or Christian or agnostic. The dogs represent the connection I have to everyone, not just to one small group.

“Hi Mommy!”

“If you’re Jewish, are we Dogish?”

I went to the supermarket one day, and some kid with weird hair was standing outside. Normally, I wouldn’t ever think of stopping to talk to a strange teenage boy, but he had a bulldog puppy with him and that changed everything. I met the dog, I got kisses, I talked to the boy on the other end of the leash, and he was friendly and talkative, and grateful that I liked his dog, and we parted as friends, feeling better about the world and the other people in it. Dogs do this!

Who could walk past a bulldog puppy! (not my picture)

Who could walk past a bulldog puppy! (not my picture)

So yes, I am a Jewish woman, and an American, and a writer, but before all of that, I am a dog person. It’s not an identity, it’s just what’s there, under all of the layers of identity, and my dogs think it is the most obvious thing about me.

Me and baby Cricket

Me and baby Cricket