January 29, 1998
Where the Action Is
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These are threeexperiences that have made me most hate being Jewish:
1. Living, in Jerusalem's Old City, among smugOrthodox holy-rollers, who are armored in their American-extractedmoney, their path cleared by the blood spilled by generations ofmostly secular Israelis, strutting around the clean square stones,spouting why God loves them best -- Country Club conquerors throwingtheir shadows on simmering Arab shopkeepers.
2. When the cowardly among our people say, "Idon't agree with the murder of Rabin, but I honor and understand themurderer's motivation," and I mull over what that portends for therest of us down the line.
3. The first time the word Hitler passed over my5-year-old son's pink, plump, innocent lips.
These are five experiences during which I'vemost loved being Jewish:
1. Landing in Bombay for a five-month ramble andnearly vomiting out my soul at my first drink of that writhing,scab-faced, leprous smog-choked swarm, and then calling a number fromthe Jewish Travel Guide and finding myself, that first night, at aclean Shabbat table, singing familiar songs -- a total stranger,totally welcome.
2. Witnessing the passion, intelligence andvariety of the congregants during the rousing Q&A sessionfollowing Shabbat morning services at my new shul.
3. When I bring in Shabbat with my family.
4. When I married my beautiful wife under aJerusalem sky.
5. Reading Jewish fairy tales to my son atnight.
These are my extreme love and hate moments; mostof the rest of my life, I'm Mr. In Between.
Never, ever, have I been a self-hating Jew. I havesome strong feelings about other Jews, but I've always felt glad andfortunate to be part of the tradition. I don't say "proud" -- a termthat has always struck me as a numbing Jewish cliché. I see"proud" as a way of sitting on the shoulders of others and callingoneself a giant. They tried to make me "proud" of being a Jew inHebrew School by pointing to Sandy Koufax. In yeshiva, they tried tomake me proud of being a Jew by retelling of how Ramban kickedCatholic ass in medieval disputations. Admirable fellows both, butI'm too much a child of America to take credit for theaccomplishments of others.
On the other hand, I wouldn't say I am thoroughlya self-loving Jew either. Whenever I jolt awake with a Holocaustdream; whenever I dwell on the loving memorial to Baruch Goldstein(and wonder what that portends for the rest of us non-zealots);whenever I remember holding that phone in my hand during the Scudraids on Haifa and my brother, there, saying, "Adam, I have to go putthe bubble over the crib and get the baby down to the bomb shelter"-- I wish I could cut and run and set up a surf shop in the furthestcorner of New Zealand.
Like most people, I have both positive andnegative feelings about the Jewish claim on my life. But unlike manyof them, and unlike myself for many years, I am committed to notallowing these conflicting feelings to cancel themselves out into adeadening indifference.
Nor will I give in to the temptation to settleinto one extreme or the other. In all corners of Jewish life andhistory, the admirable and the reprehensible live side by side,beginning to end -- and clinging to one side without the other hasdone me no good in the past. It takes too much effort to sustainagainst the empirical evidence. It is a kind of lie, closing down, aforfeit.
I have a friend, for example, who says that hewill have nothing to do with Jewish experience anymore, maybe evenskipping his son's bar mitzvah, because his big Los Angeles synagogueoffered no support -- didn't even call -- when his parents diedsuddenly.
As for me, my dashed hopes in what Orthodoxypromised it would give my 21-year-old self led to a disappointmentand bitterness that has caused me to be absent in my Jewish life for14 years.
At the other extreme, I know people who thinkJudaism is so much the cat's meow, did you hear that Buddha learnedfrom our sages, that Krishna is a derivative bastardization of Hashem-- don't even ask how the Egyptians designed the pyramids, much lessthe Mayans. For these myopics, everything good came from us (andaren't we proud!). Everything bad comes from outside influences.Those nasty goyim.
It has been my experience that both of theseextremes are very comfortable, the way a mule in blinders iscomfortable. The scope of vision is narrowed. The possibility ofupset, diminished.
Me? Right now, I want to be upset. In between iswhere the action is. Being in between is the opportunity forheightened experience. Because I listen to all kinds of music, I can.