November 22, 2007
Changing the playing field
The first episode was during an Orthodox outreach event. About 100 young, mostly Persian Jews gathered at my house late on a Friday night, as part of Aish HaTorah's new effort to reach out to the Sephardic community.
After a Shabbat meal at the Aish Outreach Center, the guests walked the two blocks to my house for some "Oneg Shabbat" and an "Ask the Rabbi" session in my backyard. The rabbi, a hip and strictly observant Sephardic Jew who lives in Jerusalem, did a little stand-up routine to warm up the crowd, and then the questions began.
One of the questions was why we should bother with seemingly trivial details like which shoe we should tie on first. The rabbi didn't flinch and drew an analogy to other trivial details, like the dot in an e-mail address. If you forget this tiny detail, he explained, your message will never get through. God has a plan, and all the details are crucial parts of God's plan to get through to us, and for us to get through to Him.
So far, so good. But then, someone decided to ask the one question you never want to ask at a singles event: "Rabbi, how come we're not allowed to touch until we get married?"
Talk about an attention-getter. I think even the bartender stopped pouring drinks to see how the rabbi would get out of this one. What could anyone say to convince amorous young Jews mingling under the midnight stars that you shouldn't even hold hands or kiss your date goodnight?
Oh, the rabbi tried. But no matter how eloquent, witty or spiritual he got, it was clear that no one was ready to buy into such a radical message. Still, while some people "held their noses," nobody got so offended that they left (I'm sure the Grey Goose helped).
A couple of weeks later, I saw another example of sharp disagreement, this time with a less salutary ending. I was speaking at a salon discussion called "What's Your Story?" at Sinai Temple, right after their Friday Night Live event. The interviewer asked me about something I'd recently written about tikkun olam: "Can this grand love affair with repairing humanity become a runaway train that will take Jews further and further away from the binding glue of Jewish peoplehood?"
I elaborated and tried to be as delicate as possible -- but then I got carried away and said something a Jew should never admit in public: "I put my people first." Busted. I tried to soften it up and say "I love all of God's children, of course, but there's a special place in my heart for my Jewish family," but it was too late. I saw two people make that face you make when you say "feh" -- and walk out. Me and my big mouth.
At yet another event, a comrade from the political right chastised me because I have Jewish friends on the political left -- and asked how I could possibly defend a Jew whose views on dealing with the Palestinians were so different than mine.
And on it went. It seems that everywhere I go these days, I see Jews holding their noses -- at other Jews. Of course, the idea of Jews getting easily offended by other Jews is nothing new, but it still pains me to see Jews boycotting each other. In the Jewish community, love isn't blind -- ideology is.
Mutual tolerance sounds nice, but it's often a polite euphemism for mutual avoidance. That's why I think it might be a good idea, once in awhile, for Jews to take a break from the drama of ideological divisions and look for different playing fields that can help us reconnect -- like Jewish culture.
This notion dawned on me the other day when one of my "left-wing friends," UCLA professor David Myers, invited me to see his new initiative to create a world-class archive at UCLA relating to Jewish cultural creativity. As he put up slides that showed examples of Jewish cultural treasures -- and articulated a vision whereby this collection would serve as a "stimulus to ongoing and future creativity" -- my mind wandered, and I started dreaming about ... my neighborhood.
I imagined what it'd be like to have a Jewish Cultural Museum right here in Pico-Robertson -- a museum that would serve as a sanctuary of Jewish connection, where Jews of all stripes would admire the creativity of our ancestors throughout the ages.
I thought: Who could argue with culture? Great art isn't left wing or right wing or Reform or Orthodox. Ancient archives are not there to offend us with another opinion. Instead of telling us how to live, culture delights us, enlightens us and arouses our curiosity -- not to mention our Jewish pride. In the middle of our ideological arguments, while we all dig in our heels, culture is a gentle reminder that Jews have survived for so long not just by arguing, praying and sermonizing, but also by creating.
Culture is an integral part of the Jewish buffet, and for many young Jews disconnected from their Judaism, it might even be the most inviting door back.
Of course, we have great Jewish cultural institutions in Los Angeles, like one of my favorites, the Skirball. In my dream, I would see a mini-Skirball right in the heart of the hood, nestled among the shuls, food markets and falafel joints of Pico Boulevard. I love the idea that as people walk and drive through the neighborhood, they will see that Jewish creativity is part of the soul of Jewish life -- at least as important as a Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs or even a house of worship. In a neighborhood where many people stick to their own communities, the museum would be the place for all communities -- the place that would celebrate peoplehood right in the hood.
And if we find that all these good feelings about the museum are creating too much Jewish unity, well, we could always pick a fight over the location.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.