January 7, 1999
My Dinner at the Rabbi’s House
When an important local rabbi invited me to his house for Shabbat dinner to discuss my column -- which he doesn't like -- I was appalled. How patronizing, I thought, to summon me to his home so that he can tell me, with home-court advantage, to change what I do.
For days, I stewed. Aren't there more important problems in the world than my little column? After all, Rabbi Yitzhak Adlerstein is director of the Jewish Studies Institute at Yeshiva of Los Angeles.
My resentment slowly gave way to curiosity. The rabbi is not the only Orthodox Jew who has had a problem with my column. Several months ago, a young Orthodox man, recognizing me from my picture in the paper, confronted me and informed me that he was starting a petition to have me fired.
"Why?" I asked this man, who had approached me in a synagogue just after services.
"Because you're not Jewish enough," he replied.
While the vast majority of the feedback I get is positive, that's easy enough to ignore when you're me. I like to focus on the negative, which isn't a way of life I recommend, nor would it be a good title for a motivational speech. Still, it's kind of a habit of mine.
I called Adlerstein to accept his invitation.
"You've heard I'm Orthodox?" asked the rabbi.
"Yes. And you've heard I'm...not?"
"Yes," he answered, chuckling. "Don't worry, this will be harder for me than for you. After all, you're a good writer, and writers are always jealous of each other."
With the compliment, and an incredibly avuncular voice and tone, the rabbi had changed everything. He might still be a sexist who would prefer I cook and mate and not have opinions, but he had a voice like a soothing old story. How bad could he be?
When I arrived on Friday night, the house was lovely and the table crowded with four of the rabbi's seven children, his wife and his daughter-in-law, a Yale student in a perfectly coifed auburn wig. Over potato kugel, gefilte fish and the best challah I've ever tasted, the rabbi and I talked about everything from Woody Allen to the meaning of life. By the time the dishes were cleared and the single malt Scotch brought out, I was really starting to like the guy.
And then the criticisms began. The rabbi doesn't like The Jewish Journal. He also doesn't like the Orthodox newspaper. And he isn't fond of the so-called "Modern Orthodox," who make too many compromises and sometimes let their children watch television.
"Rabbi," I said, gingerly, "allow me to submit that the Jews are a critical people, and you are a critical guy who probably wouldn't be happy with anything."
"Yes," he answered. "That's true. I am critical."
After five hours of talking, I finally got to the heart of what's bothering the rabbi about me. Not only have I eluded to having premarital sex in my columns, but I'm also not married, a disease my columns might spread.
"Do you think God cares if I'm married?"
At this question, the rabbi winced, as if in pain. His fingers tensed and his head fell backward. "Of course. God cares about everything," he said.
It bothers him to see me searching, he told me, because Judaism has all the answers. If you follow the guidelines and live according to God's wishes, you will have a happy and fulfilled life. It's that simple.
"That sounds great," I said. "But isn't that what they would tell me over at the Church of Scientology, or at a cult?"
The difference, he said, is that Judaism is time-tested. It works. Not only that, but the guidelines aren't as strict as they seem, allowing for interpretation and questioning.
Looking around the table, it was hard to argue with Adlerstein's logic. His family is loving, his children sweet, patient and intelligent. His life, at least from the outside, seems complete.
Studies show that religious people, on the whole, tend to be happier. Their marriages are more durable, their sense of community stronger. But that's not me, I told him. Judaism is important to me, but I wasn't raised Orthodox, and I have other priorities right now. Marriage just isn't something I'm rushing to do.
And I didn't tell the rabbi this, but the only guy I've ever seen myself with for life saw himself with a tall blonde named Carolyn. The premarital sex thing I can hardly do anything about now, nor would I take it back if I could. Where does that leave me with the big guy upstairs? Not exactly on his A-list, apparently.
To the rabbi, I am like a person on fire, and he has a bucket of water called Orthodox Judaism, which he thinks can extinguish the flames. If I, and others like me, would just settle down and follow God's wishes, we wouldn't be struggling with the meaning of life and with our relationships.
Before I left, I asked what would make the rabbi happy, other than my becoming Orthodox and getting married. Three things, he said: study Judaism in a class or with a tutor, speak at a youth convention and come back for Purim.
The class? Learning is always good; I agree to that. The speaking? I hate public speaking. Purim?
"Only if you're breaking out the good Scotch," I joked.
"Of course," he said.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.