25 July 2007

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

...as my father has been known to say. In this case, speaking out against ostracizing those who intermarry has, as one might have suspected, drawn the trolls who live under the bridge of I Must Defend Traditional Judaism Against Apikorsim and Apostates.
So here's what I had to say, continuing on from this earlier post:

Nothing you have written above, and nothing Noah Feldman wrote in his article, indicates to me that Feldman is "anti-Orthodox" -- and nothing in Rabbi Boteach's article suggests to me that he finds Feldman in any way anti-Orthodox either.

The question is not whether the Maimonides School or Orthodox Judaism "recognizes" Feldman's marriage -- it's what it does in reaction to the fact of that marriage. Not listing his simchas is one thing; taking him AND his then-fiancee out of a group photo, and pretending neither one of them exists, is quite another.

Not to mention that it's incredibly chutzapadik and lacking in derekh eretz (respect for other people) to presume that
1) because the woman with him is Korean-American, she's not Jewish
(I know Asian-American Jews of all sorts: raised Jewish by Jewish parents who are of mixed ethnic descent; raised Jewish after being adopted by Jews; Jews by Choice);
2) his children, when he announces their birth or milestones, are not Jewish -- even if it's known that their mother is not
(some families choose to convert their children at birth if they are not halakhically Jewish; whether or not the mother converts is not immediately germane, as long as she is supportive of the creation of a Jewish household and raising her children as Jews: see JOI's The Mothers Circle for more information and support for non-Jewish women who make this wonderful choice!).

Presumably the marriage depicted in his article, like the marriage of my Jewish mother to my non-Jewish father, does not constitute kiddushin and is not a marriage that takes place within the Jewish legal structure. But I am not convinced that therefore the relationship has NO standing in Jewish law, since there are means of acquiring a spouse other than via kiddushin ( e.g., through cohabitation, etc.): if he wanted to marry a Jewish wife, I think that halakha and not just the laws of the land would demand that he divorce his current one -- and if that's the case, then it's being "recognized" as a marriage for at least some purposes. A non-permitted relationship may be prohibited, but it still exists!

Marriage with someone who is not Jewish has always been a fact of Jewish community life and history --look at the marriages in Tanakh/the Hebrew Bible for countless examples, both positive (Tamar, Asenath, Zipporah) and negative (the "son of an Israelite woman" in Exodus, who abuses the name of God in a fight with another Israelite; he's understood to be the son of a non-Israelite, otherwise why say "son of an Israelite woman"?).

It doesn't sound to me as though Noah Feldman turned his back on Orthodox Judaism. The Orthodox Judaism of that particular community, and his school (or at least its administration), seems to have turned its back on him. I think that's a shame -- but I also want to invite him and his wife to come with us and find a home in a Judaism that opens its arms to them instead. (Hi guys--remember me and my husband Mike W. from Oxford?) My Jew-by-choice husband and I are part of traditional egalitarian Conservative communities -- in fact, I was raised in one here in the DC area by my Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, and never felt ostracized or strange -- where they would be very welcome. I have friends in the Reform and Reconstructionist and Renewal movements (several of whom are rabbis) as well, and know that there too they should find a warm welcome and the encouragement to be involved in any way they choose!

Asking the Right Question

It's about time someone did!

I'm definitely in the camp that thinks "Why Be Jewish?" is a much more compelling and important question than "How Many Jews Will There Be In 30 Years?" or "Who is a Jew?" ...and so, apparently, is Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, given this New York Jewish Week article:

We Must Have Answers For ‘Why Be Jewish?’
Eliyahu Stern

Demographers are locked in a furious battle over whether American Jewry is at five million and dangerously dwindling or 6.7 million and growing strong. But either way one looks at the numbers, counting heads is a poor means of evaluating the strength of Jewish affiliation and identity. Both sides of the demographic debate are overlooking the biggest question facing Jewry today, which is not “How many Jews are there?” but rather, “Why would one want to be Jewish in the first place?”

The misplaced emphasis on demographics has led us down a path of making intermarriage the central issue in Jewish life. Though important, encouraging Jews to marry within the religion will only go so far. The Jewish community forgets that the people who brought us to the demographic quandary we are currently facing are the children of fully Jewish couples — fully Jewish ethnically, but barely Jewish spiritually or intellectually. An unengaged Jew married to an equally unengaged Jew does not translate into Jewish children; it translates into children who will probably not identify as Jewish.

If we want to answer this generation’s real questions, we must move beyond initiatives rooted in marriage questions alone. We must be ready to engage Judaism in its entirety, through its ideas, practices and texts.

Are we confident enough in our tradition to promote mitzvot such as prayer, Shabbat and kashrut in meaningful, unapologetic and original ways? Are we ready to invest in cultivating a religious leadership that could make Jewish ideas and wisdom touch peoples’ lives? Are we prepared to welcome those of different backgrounds and even different religions into our homes and institutions to experience the love, care and joy that a Jewish community provides?

Most importantly, we need to convey that Judaism adds a palpable higher value to our life experience. A strong and enduring Judaism must be able to provide answers, supply meaning and address issues that affect the way we live. A Judaism based merely on survival questions will produce at best short-term survival answers.

My own personal answer to “Why be Jewish?” is clear but complex: it involves the search for meaning, the love of study and the heightened sense of self-awareness, consciousness and choice that result from engaging the world of mitzvot. Such an emphasis does not exclude deep-felt feelings of peoplehood, nationality and community. In an era of choice, these latter feelings are still relevant, but they will most often emerge as the outcome of an engagement with Jewish convictions, practices and ideas, rather than vice versa. My answer to “Why be Jewish?” includes Israel as well, of course, but support for Israel will diminish if Israel cannot convince the Jewish people that it welcomes all types of Jews within its borders.

For centuries, questions such as “Why be Jewish?” trumped Jewish survival questions in communal conversation. We stand up at synagogue for the reading of the Ten Commandments, not for a head count of the 12 Tribes. From Maimonides to Mendelssohn, Judaism’s spiritual energy derived not from demographic polls but from the quality and depth of Jewish life and thought.

While modernity, the Holocaust, the American Jewish experience and threats to Israel’s existence have forced us to confront serious demographic concerns, oftentimes we use such issues as a veil to cover our ignorance of our own tradition. As the Hebraist Simon Rawidowicz described in his classic, “Israel: the Ever-Dying People,” it’s easier to kvetch about one’s grandchildren needing to be Jewish than to give them a reason why they should be.

It might be heretical to ask, “Why be Jewish?” The results are unpredictable: we run the risk of failing to provide a convincing answer, making matters worse. But it is a timely and genuinely Jewish question. If we do not pose it, we face the even greater difficulty of promoting a Judaism that we are not sure we believe in ourselves. n

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is director of “Why Be Jewish?” a conference convened by Adam Bronfman in Park City, Utah, July 29 -31 under the auspices of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Let's talk about God, baby...

More discussion growing out of a religion thread on That Message Board -- I've said things like this before, but not sure if I've posted them here, so for what it's worth here it is!

My advice to you, Jewel, is to focus on how you would like to live your life more than on abstract questions of belief, doctrine, or theology.

The joke version of Reconstructionist Judaism is "There is no God, and Mordecai Kaplan is his prophet."
But there's an element of truth there, and it's pretty close to what I "believe" (i.e., the model that works best for me in terms of intellectual honesty and my understanding of the world) about God -- that God has no independent or transcendent existence, but is valuable to me as a conceptual and poetic embodiment of our highest and noblest ideals, a divine force that represents the best in us. Kaplan called it "the Power that makes for salvation," among other things -- but he didn't "believe in" God as an anthropomorphic SuperPerson.

You could call this "belief" of mine a species of atheism. I don't believe in the God that many theists believe in, and "God" doesn't mean to me what it means to them.

And yet you'd be hard pressed to look at me and see what people think of when they say "atheist," or even "secularist"/"humanist" (which are terms I would embrace in some contexts, though not so much in opposition to religious identifiers). I work at a synagogue, I'm a leader in several different member-led (not clergy-led) Jewish worship/study communities, I keep kosher, I keep Shabbat, I wear a kippah most of the time now...

I live a life in which "our God and of our ancestors"--words that open the Amidah, the central prayer that traditional Jews say 3 times daily as the core of the prayer service--has a meaningful presence. I've said those words twice today (afternoon & evening services--I skipped the morning, and the only day of the week I regularly make it through all 3 of the prayer services I'm "supposed" to do is Shabbat...), while fasting in observance of Tisha B'Av (the 9th of Av--commemorating the destruction of the Temples and other historical disasters).

I hope that the spiritual preparation of this practice of prayer, and my engagement with the ethical teachings of my religious tradition, contribute to making me a better person, one who will make her world a better place -- which is, in my book, an act of godliness.

So if the God-who-does-not-exist-independently-of-us-all speaks to me through my involvement in the tradition, through the love I feel for friends and family and the love they feel for me, through natural beauty and music and art... is it really accurate to say that God has no place in my life, because I don't "believe in" God?

I would say not. But I would also say it doesn't matter. I know what my God, who does not exist, wants of me, in the words of the prophets of my tradition (not because they saw God, not because they were especially holy -- but because these words are true and beautiful and right):

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

(Micah 6:8)

24 July 2007

Tisha B'Av

On this Tisha B'Av , let us recall that the Second Temple was said to have been destroyed because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred, among the Jewish people -- and let us move in commitment and in joy toward the visions of comfort, reconciliation, and a redeemed global community of love and peace that dominate the afternoon of this fast day and the weeks that follow.

A friend has blogged most eloquently about this day. Read it here!

Here's what I said in response:

Indeed! As usual, I agree with you wholeheartedly, and it's a pleasure to read your extremely articulate unpacking of both the pains and the attendant positive realizations (pleasures would be pushing it!) that accompany the holiday itself and our contemporary struggles with it.

Last night, for the first time since we became observant, we didn't go to Tisha B'Av services. And I think I had a much more meaningful Tisha B'Av evening because of it!

Instead of going to ma'ariv (perfunctory) and to sit on the floor of the shul social hall for the reading of Eicha (not inspiringly done) by candlelight (inadequate for reading from the small-print books), what did we do?

We fasted and observed the rest of the prohibitions of the day, so we weren't listening to music or watching silly TV or movies... I sat and talked about Jewish topics with a friend who had come over to our place for the pre-fast meal. When she left, I caught up on reading some e-mails or websites on Jewish topics that I hadn't had time to attend to, including several that were specifically about Tisha B'Av (like the Shefa Tisha B'Av Archive ). And then I went to bed!

In about 15 minutes I'll go to mincha, and I'll put on my tallit and tefillin and join with other Jews at this turning point in the holiday, as we move from gloom to the glimmer of redemption.

That much Tisha B'Av I can handle!

Shmuley Gets It!

Now I've also read the piece by Shmuely Boteach that was also linked to on the IFF blog.

Here it is, with my comments following:

Stop Ostracizing Those Who Marry Out

Posted July 22, 2007 | 09:04 PM (EST)

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This column would not have been written had its subject not first described himself and his predicament in this week's in New York Times magazine.

Noah Feldman was a brilliant, orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar who arrived in Oxford in my forth year at the University as Rabbi in 1992. He and I quickly hit it off. For one thing, there was scarcely a subject - Jewish or secular - upon which Noah did not have some profound knowledge. We studied Talmud together several times a week and I made Noah a kind of secondary Rabbi at our L'Chaim Society, such was the range of his Jewish erudition and his phenomenal capacity for teaching. His resume easily made him one of the most accomplished young students in the entire Western world. He was valedictorian of Harvard, a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and completed his Oxford doctorate in about eighteen months, which may or may not be a University record. It was a source of great pride for me that Noah was observant and wore a Yarmulke. A student that gifted was a natural leader to others and was looked up to by so many of the other students. We all marveled every Shabbat at Noah's incredible ability to lein (read with its proper notes) any section of the Torah for our student Synagogue.

After graduating from Oxford, Noah went to Yale where his observance began to wane. I heard from some of his class mates that he was now dating a non-Jewish girl. Hearing that he was quite serious about her, when his girlfriend came in turn to Oxford as a Marshall scholar, I made a point of reaching out to her and inviting her to our Shabbat dinner. My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her.

Sadly, however, others took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours who was a Rabbi in Noah's life essentially told him that if he married outside the faith he would have to sever his relationship with him. Apparently, many of Noah's orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was only his family if he made choices with which we agreed.

I took a different view. Of course I wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance in his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make. Before he got married I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we are friends and that my affection for him would never change. I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children were Jewish would never change his own personal status as a Jew and that, as a scholar of world standing, I knew he would do great things with his life and that he would should always put the needs of the Jewish people first.
Till today we remain good friends. I admire and respect Noah and my wish is that perhaps, some day, his brilliant wife might see, of her own volition, the beauties of our tradition and how family life is enhanced by husband and wife being of the same faith and practicing the same religious rituals.

True to my prediction, Noah went on, in his thirties, to become one of the youngest ever tenured law professors, first at NYU and then at Harvard, and was chosen by the American government to serve as the constitutional consultant for the Iraqi provisional government in drawing up their constitution. Today he ranks, arguably, as the youngest academic superstar in the United States.
How tragic, therefore, that his article in the New York Times magazine is a lengthy detailing of the alienation he has experienced from his former orthodox Jewish day school and friends, who even cut him out of a class reunion photograph in which he participated.

For more than two centuries now, since the emancipation, Jews have been debating how to deal with those who marry outside the community. The conventional response has been to treat them as traitors to the Jewish cause. We are all familiar with the old practice of sitting shiva on a child who marries out, as if he or she were dead, made famous in Fiddler on the Roof. The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.

There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately fifty percent of the Jewish population! Worse, the practice is a lie insofar as it propagates the false notion that our Jewishness is measured only in terms of our being a link in a higher chain of existence, and that our Jewish identities have meaning only through our children. This absurd notion would deny they idea of Jewish individualism and how we are Jews in our own right.

I am well aware of the fact that intermarriage is a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people. But that does not change the fact that those who have chosen to marry out are still Jewish, should still be encouraged to go to Synagogue, should still be encouraged to put on tefillin and keep Shabbat, should still have mezuzos on their doors, and should still be encouraged to devote their lives and resources to the welfare of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel.

And as far as their non-Jewish spouses are concerned, do we really believed that by showing the most unfriendly behavior we are living up to our Biblically-mandated role of serving as a light unto the nations? Is there any possibility that a non-Jew who is married to a Jew would look favorably at the possibility of becoming halakhically Jewish if they witness orthodox Jews treating their husband or wife as pariahs?

I am proud today to call Noah my friend. I do my best to reiterate to him the message that, amid marrying out, we are proud of his achievements and need his participation in Jewish organizational life, especially given the immense clout he carries in academic circles. And it is my fervent hope that, given the love and respect that we show him, he will choose to show his wife and two children the glories of the tradition he knows so well with a view toward impressing upon them a desire to have them join in our eternal faith.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who served as Rabbi at Oxford for 11 years, is a national TV host and the author, most recently, of 'Shalom in the Home' (Meredith). www.shmuley.com

And my comments:

Yasher koach (well done!), Shmuley!

I knew you were a mensch when I met you at Oxford (my husband M. and I were Rhodes Scholars from '95-'98, and saw you again at Shmully Hecht's son bris in New Haven after our return to the U.S.--you'd know me as Becca B.), even if my Jewish involvement was primarily with the Oxford Jewish Community (including its then-nascent Masorti minyan, which has now been going strong for over 10 years) rather than with the L'Chaim Society (where I did sometimes show up for dinner and at least 2 of your debates, w/a Reform rabbi & a 'Messianic Jewish rabbi').

I was pleased to hear that you'd made sure that the Torah got 'round to the women's side during Simchat Torah festivities at the L'Chaim Society -- that when others tried to keep it away from or take it back from my fellow North American female Rhodes Scholar (she's now a rabbi in NYC, as is her wife--who is a Jew by Choice), you made sure she got to hold on to it.

I was impressed when I heard that you'd written a recommendation for another female friend in her (successful) application for rabbinical school at Leo Baeck -- the story (you can say if it's true or apocryphal) was that, when challenged by someone who couldn't see how you, an Orthodox rabbi, would support a woman's application to a liberal rabbinic seminary, you'd said "What, I should prefer that she be a cocktail waitress?!"

I found both your article here & Noah's essay via the Interfaith Family (IFF) blog. I have a vested interest, even though I'm not intermarried myself: I was raised as a Nice Jewish Girl by my Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, and dated and got engaged to a Nice Non-Jewish Boy who could handle being a supportive part of a Jewish family as my father had done.

Then he decided to become Jewish, surprising us both (we'd known each other for 10 years, we'd been a couple for 8; nice to still be able to have surprises!) and enriching our lives immensely.

In his year of studying for conversion we couldn't have been luckier in our companions: we learned from amazing friends who were exploring their own Judaism, intellectually, ritually and spiritually.

3 are now rabbis; one is a Jewish studies professor and co-founded the Hadar independent minyan in NYC; another is a professor of philosophy at a prominent university and has 2 adorable daughters with his non-Jewish wife, whose Jewish wedding (with chuppah and ketubah) we joyfully attended.

Virtually all of them have non-Jews in their Jewish family life -- as in-laws; as partners or spouses; as parents -- and only one grew up in a traditionally observant (Conservative, as it happens) Jewish home.

You're 100% correct that we're not going to enhance anyone's Jewish life or our Jewish community by ostracizing those who have non-Jews in their family (as partners, parents, what have you) or those who are non-Jews who have chosen to make their lives with someone Jewish.

Ruth said "Your people shall be my people" before she said "and your God, my God" (Ruth 1:16). Anyone who has committed his or her life to being with someone Jewish (a spouse, a child, a parent) is living Ruth's words: "Whither thou goest, I shall go; whither thou lodgest, I shall lodge." Our people ARE their people (but need not be their ONLY people!)--and we should acknowledge, indeed celebrate, that they have gone beyond their "mother's house" (Ruth 1:8) and the "land of your birth, and have come to a people you did not know before" (Ruth 2:11).

These wonderful people--whose Jewish family and partners treasure them, and who have cast their lot with those Jewish family members and partners--are living the commitment "your God, my God." They may mean it in its universalistic or metaphorical sense--"we share the same Divine Source and force, the same ideals"--but by the very lives they have chosen, whether they live as Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, agnostics, humanists, you name it, they are sharing their highest values and ethical selfhood with the Jews in their families. Their God is my God.

If some of them choose to make that statement a particular Jewish one rather than a universalistic one--to worship not only the same deity but in the same words, with the same texts, at the same seasons that the Jewish people do and have done; to embrace Judaism for themselves after having embraced it as the faith or background of someone they love--that's up to them. But our love and respect and welcome should never be contingent upon this choice.

I love my father and am glad that he is who he is. I love my husband and am glad that he is who he is. This Shabbat, my mother and husband and I, as adult Jewish members of our community, will be called up to the Torah (which both M. and I will read from); my friend K. and her 13-year-old daughter will hopefully be called up as well. My father, K.'s husband, and my brother's fiancee will be there with us at Shabbat services: some of them will read prayers in English on behalf of this community of worshippers. They are not Jews -- but they are part of our Jewish families, offering their prayers in Jewish space [the synagogue] and Jewish time [Shabbat morning] on behalf of this Jewish community, of which they are an important part.

They are not second-bests who should have been pushed aside for a Jewish partner but can perhaps be tolerated, now that they're unavoidably and permanently here.

They are not threats to Jewish community or Jewish continuity--in fact, they all have raised or intend to raise children who are exclusively Jewish in faith.

My people is their people; my God, their God.

In and Out -- Intermarriage, Modern Orthodoxy, Claiming Our Pasts or Being Rejected By Them...

So much to blog, so little time -- watch this space for thoughts on:
  • my new stealth tallit (which I love, and will use at mincha in 2 1/2 hours in a non-stealth Conservative egalitarian context: it was debuted on Shabbat morning at the Chabad synagogue in Cleveland for my cousin Noam's bar mitzvah),
  • Rabbi Strangeblood, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mikvah (really! I'm going tomorrow morning for the third time this year -- prior to that, I'd only been as part of the pre-wedding preparation 10 years ago--and I've been looking forward to it!)
  • 10 Years of This Jewish Life -- Saturday, Shabbat Nachamu, the 13th of Av, is the 10th anniversary of our aufruf; Sunday, the 14th of Av, we will have been married fro 10 years on the Jewish calendar. We have already marked this summer the 20th anniversary of the day M. and I met (June 26, 1987); 18th anniversary of the day we first saw each other again 2 years later/for the first time as a couple (June 24, 1989)... and of the day M. asked me to marry him (June 28, 1989); and the 10th anniversary of his becoming a Jew (the week of Parshat Pinchas in 1997--late July).
But for right now, I just want to make everyone aware of this amazing New York Times Magazine article by Noah Feldman, who deserves many props for it! We met him and his wife in Oxford; I would love to talk with him/them about their experiences -- because, as you'll see from the piece, they're very relevant to my family situation (both the one I was born into/raised in and the one M and I have created together). Thank you to the IFF Network Blog for making me aware of it!

I've re-bolded the section headers, etc., below -- but some of the formatting has no doubt been lost -- so you may want to follow the link above, or pull out your NYT Magazine (or borrow it from your neighbor or read it in the library) so you can put up your feet & read it...

Orthodox Paradox

R. Kikuo Johnson

Published: July 22, 2007

A number of years ago, I went to my 10th high-school reunion, in the backyard of the one classmate whose parents had a pool. Lots of my classmates were there. Almost all were married, and many already had kids. This was not as unusual as it might seem, since I went to a yeshiva day school, and nearly everyone remained Orthodox. I brought my girlfriend. At the end, we all crowded into a big group photo, shot by the school photographer, who had taken our pictures from first grade through graduation. When the alumni newsletter came around a few months later, I happened to notice the photo. I looked, then looked again. My girlfriend and I were nowhere to be found.

I didn’t want to seem paranoid, especially in front of my girlfriend, to whom I was by that time engaged. So I called my oldest school friend, who appeared in the photo, and asked for her explanation. “You’re kidding, right?” she said. My fiancée was Korean-American. Her presence implied the prospect of something that from the standpoint of Orthodox Jewish law could not be recognized: marriage to someone who was not Jewish. That hint was reason enough to keep us out.

Not long after, I bumped into the photographer, in synagogue, on Yom Kippur. When I walked over to him, his pained expression told me what I already knew. “It wasn’t me,” he said. I believed him.

Since then I have occasionally been in contact with the school’s alumni director, who has known me since I was a child. I say “in contact,” but that implies mutuality where none exists. What I really mean is that in the nine years since the reunion I have sent him several updates about my life, for inclusion in the “Mazal Tov” section of the newsletter. I sent him news of my marriage. When our son was born, I asked him to report that happy event. The most recent news was the birth of our daughter this winter. Nothing doing. None of my reports made it into print.

It would be more dramatic if I had been excommunicated like Baruch Spinoza, in a ceremony complete with black candles and a ban on all social contact, a rite whose solemnity reflected the seriousness of its consequences. But in the modern world, the formal communal ban is an anachronism. Many of my closest relationships are still with people who remain in the Orthodox fold. As best I know, no one, not even the rabbis at my old school who disapprove of my most important life decisions, would go so far as to refuse to shake my hand. What remains of the old technique of excommunication is simply nonrecognition in the school’s formal publications, where my classmates’ growing families and considerable accomplishments are joyfully celebrated.

The yeshiva where I studied considers itself modern Orthodox, not ultra-Orthodox. We followed a rigorous secular curriculum alongside traditional Talmud and Bible study. Our advanced Talmud and Hebrew classes were interspersed with advanced-placement courses in French literature and European political history, all skillfully coordinated to prime us for the Ivy League. To try to be at once a Lithuanian yeshiva and a New England prep school: that was the unspoken motto of the Maimonides School of Brookline, Mass., where I studied for 12 years.

That aspiration is not without its difficulties. My own personal lesson in nonrecognition is just one small symptom of the challenge of reconciling the vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity — of Slobodka and St. Paul’s. In premodern Europe, where the state gave the Jewish community the power to enforce its own rules of membership through coercive force, excommunication literally divested its victim of his legal personality, of his rights and standing in the community. The modern liberal state, though, neither polices nor delegates the power to police religious membership; that is now a social matter, not a legal one. Today a religious community that seeks to preserve its traditional structure must maintain its boundaries using whatever independent means it can muster — right down to the selective editing of alumni newsletters.

Despite my intimate understanding of the mind-set that requires such careful attention to who is in and who is out, I am still somehow taken by surprise each time I am confronted with my old school’s inability to treat me like any other graduate. I have tried in my own imperfect way to live up to values that the school taught me, expressing my respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition while trying to reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere. As a result, I have not felt myself to have rejected my upbringing, even when some others imagine me to have done so by virtue of my marriage.

Some part of me still expects — against the judgment of experience — that the individual human beings who make up the institution and community where I spent so many years of my life will put our longstanding friendships ahead of the imperative to define boundaries. The school did educate me and influence me deeply. What I learned there informs every part of my inner life. In the sense of shared history and formation, I remain of the community even while no longer fully in the community.

If this is dissonance, it is at least dissonance that the modern Orthodox should be able to understand: the desire to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously and to defy contradiction with coexistence. After all, the school’s attempt to bring the ideals of Orthodox Judaism into dialogue with a certain slice of late-20th-century American life was in many ways fantastically rich and productive. For those of us willing to accept a bit of both worlds, I would say, it almost worked.

Fitting In

Since the birth of modern Orthodox Judaism in 19th-century Germany, a central goal of the movement has been to normalize the observance of traditional Jewish law — to make it possible to follow all 613 biblical commandments assiduously while still participating in the reality of the modern world. You must strive to be, as a poet of the time put it, “a Jew in the home and a man in the street.” Even as we students of the Maimonides School spent half of every school day immersed in what was unabashedly a medieval curriculum, our aim was to seem to outsiders — and to ourselves — like reasonable, mainstream people, not fanatics or cult members.

This ambition is best exemplified today by Senator Joe Lieberman. His run for the vice presidency in 2000 put the “modern” in modern Orthodox, demonstrating that an Orthodox Jewish candidate could be accepted by America at large as essentially a regular guy. (Some of this, of course, was simply the result of ignorance. As John Breaux, then a senator from Louisiana, so memorably put it with regard to Lieberman during the 2000 campaign, “I don’t think American voters care where a man goes to church on Sunday.”) Whatever concerns Lieberman’s Jewish identity may have raised in the heartland seem to have been moderated, rather than stoked, by the fact that his chosen Jewish denomination was Orthodox — that he seemed to really and truly believe in something. His Orthodoxy elicited none of the half-whispered attacks that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has already prompted in this electoral cycle, none of the dark hints that it was, in some basic sense, weird.

Lieberman’s overt normalcy really is remarkable. Though modern Orthodox Jews do not typically wear the long beards, side curls and black, nostalgic Old World garments favored by the ultra-Orthodox, the men do wear beneath their clothes a small fringed prayer shawl every bit as outré as the sacred undergarments worn by Mormons. Morning prayers are accompanied by the daily donning of phylacteries, which, though painless, resemble in their leather-strappy way the cinched cilice worn by the initiates of Opus Dei and so lasciviously depicted in “The Da Vinci Code.” Food restrictions are tight: a committed modern Orthodox observer would not drink wine with non-Jews and would have trouble finding anything to eat in a nonkosher restaurant other than undressed cold greens (assuming, of course, that the salad was prepared with a kosher knife).

The dietary laws of kashrut are designed to differentiate and distance the observant person from the rest of the world. When followed precisely, as I learned growing up, they accomplish exactly that. Every bite requires categorization into permitted and prohibited, milk or meat. To follow these laws, to analyze each ingredient in each food that comes into your purview, is to construct the world in terms of the rules borne by those who keep kosher. The category of the unkosher comes unconsciously to apply not only to foods that fall outside the rules but also to the people who eat that food — which is to say, almost everyone in the world, whether Jewish or not. You cannot easily break bread with them, but that is not all. You cannot, in a deeper sense, participate with them in the common human activity of restoring the body through food.

And yet the Maimonides School, by juxtaposing traditional and secular curricula, gave me a feeling of being connected to the broader world. Line by line we burrowed into the old texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic. The poetry of the Prophets sang in our ears. After years of this, I found I could recite the better part of the Hebrew Bible from memory. Among other things, this meant that when I encountered the writings of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I felt immediate kinship. They read those same exact texts again and again — often in Hebrew — searching for clues about their own errand into the American wilderness.

In our literature classes we would glimpse Homer’s wine-dark sea, then move to a different classroom and dive headlong into the sea of the Talmud. Here the pleasure of legal-intellectual argument had no stopping place, no end. A problem in Talmud study is never answered, it is only deepened. The Bible prohibits work on the Sabbath. But what is work? The rabbis began with 39 categories, each of which called for its own classification into as many as 39 further subcategories. Then came the problem of intention: What state of mind is required for “work” to have occurred? You might perform an act of work absent-mindedly, having forgotten that it was the Sabbath, or ignorantly, not knowing that action constituted work. You might perform an action with the goal of achieving some permissible outcome — but that result might inevitably entail some prohibited work’s taking place. Learning this sort of reasoning as a child prepared me well, as it has countless others, for the ways of American law.

Beyond the complementarities of Jewish learning and secular knowledge, our remarkable teachers also offered access to a wider world. Even among the rabbis there was a smattering of Ph.D.’s and near-doctorates to give us a taste of a critical-academic approach to knowledge, not just a religious one. And the teachers of the secular subjects were fantastic. One of the best taught me eighth-grade English when he was barely out of college himself, before he became a poet, a professor and an important queer theorist. Given Orthodoxy’s condemnation of homosexuality, he must have made it onto the faculty through the sheer cluelessness of the administration. Lord only knows what teachers like him, visitors from the real world, made of our quirky ways. (In the book of poems about his teaching years, we students are decorously transformed into Italian-Americans.)

In allowing us, intentionally or not, to see the world and the Torah as profoundly interconnected, the school was faithful to the doctrines of its eponym, the great medieval Jewish legalist and philosopher Moses Maimonides. Easily the most extraordinary figure in post-biblical Jewish history, Maimonides taught that accurate knowledge of the world — physical and metaphysical — was, alongside studying, obeying and understanding the commandments, the one route to the ultimate summum bonum of knowing God. A life lived by these precepts can be both noble and beautiful, and I believe the best and wisest of my classmates and teachers come very close indeed to achieving it.

The Dynamics of Prohibition

For many of us, the consilience of faith and modernity that sometimes appears within the reach of modern Orthodoxy is a tantalizing prospect. But it can be undermined by the fragile fault lines between the moral substructures of the two worldviews, which can widen into deep ruptures on important matters of life and love.

One time at Maimonides a local physician — a well-known figure in the community who later died tragically young — addressed a school assembly on the topic of the challenges that a modern Orthodox professional may face. The doctor addressed the Talmudic dictum that the saving of a life trumps the Sabbath. He explained that in its purest form, this principle applies only to the life of a Jew. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, were unprepared to allow the life of a non-Jew to be extinguished because of the no-work commandment, and so they ruled that the Sabbath could be violated to save the life of a non-Jew out of concern for maintaining peaceful relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

Depending on how you look at it, this ruling is either an example of outrageously particularist religious thinking, because in principle it values Jewish life more than non-Jewish life, or an instance of laudable universalism, because in practice it treats all lives equally. The physician quite reasonably opted for the latter explanation. And he added that he himself would never distinguish Jewish from non-Jewish patients: a human being was a human being.

This appealing sentiment did not go unchallenged. One of my teachers rose to suggest that the doctor’s attitude was putting him in danger of violating the Torah. The teacher reported that he had himself heard from his own rabbi, a leading modern-Orthodox Talmudist associated with Yeshiva University, that in violating the Sabbath to treat a non-Jew, intention was absolutely crucial. If you intended to save the patient’s life so as to facilitate good relations between Jews and non-Jews, your actions were permissible. But if, to the contrary, you intended to save the patient out of universal morality, then you were in fact guilty of violating the Sabbath, because the motive for acting was not the motive on the basis of which the rabbis allowed the Sabbath violation to occur.

Later, in class, the teacher apologized to us students for what he said to the doctor. His comments, he said, were inappropriate — not because they were wrongheaded, but because non-Jews were present in the audience when he made them. The double standard of Jews and non-Jews, in other words, was for him truly irreducible: it was not just about noting that only Jewish lives merited violation of the Sabbath, but also about keeping the secret of why non-Jewish lives might be saved. To accept this version of the tradition would be to accept that the modern Orthodox project of engagement with the world could not proceed in good faith.

Nothing in the subculture of modern Orthodoxy, however, brought out the tensions between tradition and modernity more vividly for a young man than the question of our relationship to sex. Modernity, and maybe the state-mandated curriculum (I have never checked), called for a day of sex ed in seventh grade. I have the feeling that the content of our sex-ed class was the same as those held in public schools in Massachusetts around the same time, with the notable exception that none of us would have occasion to deploy even the most minimal elements of the lesson plan in the foreseeable future. After the scientific bits of the lesson were over, the rabbi who was head of the school came in to the classroom to follow up with some indication of the Jewish-law perspective on these questions. It amounted to a blanket prohibition on the activities to which we had just been introduced. After marriage, some rather limited subset of them might become permissible — but only in the two weeks of the month that followed the two weeks of ritual abstinence occasioned by menstruation.

After that memorable disquisition, the question of relations between the sexes went essentially unmentioned again in our formal education. We were periodically admonished that boys and girls must not touch one another, even accidentally. Several of the most attractive girls were singled out for uncomfortable closed-door sessions in which they were instructed that their manner of dress, which already met the school’s standards for modesty, must be made more modest still so as not to distract the males around them.

Whatever their disjuncture with American culture of the 1980s, the erotics of prohibition were real to us. Once, I was called on the carpet after an anonymous informant told the administration that I had been seen holding a girl’s hand somewhere in Brookline one Sunday afternoon. The rabbi insinuated that if the girl and I were holding hands today, premarital sex must surely be right around the corner.

My Talmud teacher — the one who took the physician to task — handed me four tightly packed columns of closely reasoned rabbinic Hebrew, a responsum by the pre-eminent Orthodox decisor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, “in the matter of a young man whose heart lures him to enter into bonds of affection with a young woman not for purposes of marriage.” Rabbi Feinstein’s legal judgment with respect to romantic love among persons too young to marry was definitive. He prohibited it absolutely, in part on the ground that it would inevitably lead to nonprocreative seminal emissions, whether intentional or unintentional.

What Feinstein lacked in romantic imagination was more than made up for by Moses Maimonides, who understood the soul pretty well. He once characterized the true love of God as all-consuming — “as though one had contracted the sickness of love.” Feinstein’s opinion directed my attention to a passage in Maimonides’s legal writings prohibiting various sorts of contact with women. The most evocative bit runs as follows: “Even to smell the perfume upon her is prohibited.” I have never been able to escape the feeling that this is a covert love poem enmeshed in the 14-volume web of dos and don’ts that is Maimonides’s Code of Law. Perfume has not smelled the same to me since.

Difference and Reconciliation

I have spent much of my own professional life focusing on the predicament of faith communities that strive to be modern while simultaneously cleaving to tradition. Consider the situation of those Christian evangelicals who want to participate actively in mainstream politics yet are committed to a biblical literalism that leads them to oppose stem-cell research and advocate intelligent design in the classroom. To some secularists, the evangelicals’ predicament seems absurd and their political movement dangerously anti-intellectual. As it happens, I favor financing stem-cell research and oppose the teaching of intelligent design or creationism as a “scientific” doctrine in public schools. Yet I nonetheless feel some sympathy for the evangelicals’ sure-to-fail attempts to stand in the way of the progress of science, and not just because I respect their concern that we consider the ethical implications of our technological prowess.

Perhaps I feel sympathy because I can recall the agonies suffered by my head of school when he stopped by our biology class to discuss the problem of creation. Following the best modern Orthodox doctrine, he pointed out that Genesis could be understood allegorically, and that the length of a day might be numbered in billions of years considering that the sun, by which our time is reckoned, was not created until the fourth such “day.” Not for him the embarrassing claim, heard sometimes among the ultra-Orthodox, that dinosaur fossils were embedded by God within the earth at the moment of creation in order to test our faith in biblical inerrancy. Natural selection was for him a scientific fact to be respected like the laws of physics — guided by God but effectuated though the workings of the natural order. Yet even he could not leave the classroom without a final caveat. “The truth is,” he said, “despite what I have just told you, I still have a hard time believing that man could be descended from monkeys.”

This same grappling with tension — and the same failure to resolve it perfectly — can be found among the many Muslims who embrace both basic liberal democratic values and orthodox Islamic faith. The literature of democratic Islam, like that of modern Orthodox Judaism, may be read as an embodiment of dialectical struggle, the unwillingness to ignore contemporary reality in constant interplay with the weight of tradition taken by them as authentic and divinely inspired. The imams I have met over the years seem, on the whole, no less sincere than the rabbis who taught me. Their commitment to their faith and to the legal tradition that comes with it seems just as heartfelt. Liberal Muslims may even have their own Joe Lieberman in the Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress.

The themes of difference and reconciliation that have preoccupied so much of my own thinking are nowhere more stark than in trying to make sense of the problem of marriage — which is also, for me, the most personal aspect of coming to terms with modern Orthodoxy. Although Jews of many denominations are uncomfortable with marriage between Jews and people of other religions, modern Orthodox condemnation is especially definitive.

The reason for the resistance to such marriages derives from Jewish law but also from the challenge of defining the borders of the modern Orthodox community in the liberal modern state. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism addresses the boundary problem with methods like exclusionary group living and deciding business disputes through privately constituted Jewish-law tribunals. For modern Orthodox Jews, who embrace citizenship and participate in the larger political community, the relationship to the liberal state is more ambivalent. The solution adopted has been to insist on the coherence of the religious community as a social community, not a political community. It is defined not so much by what people believe or say they believe (it is much safer not to ask) as by what they do.

Marriage is the most obvious public practice about which information is readily available. When combined with the traditional Jewish concern for continuity and self-preservation — itself only intensified by the memory of the Holocaust — marriage becomes the sine qua non of social membership in the modern Orthodox community. Marrying a Jewish but actively nonobservant spouse would in most cases make continued belonging difficult. Gay Orthodox Jews find themselves marginalized not only because of their forbidden sexual orientation but also because within the tradition they cannot marry the partners whom they might otherwise choose. For those who choose to marry spouses of another faith, maintaining membership would become all but impossible.

Us and Them

In a few cases, modern Orthodoxy’s line-drawing has been implicated in some truly horrifying events. Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, was a modern Orthodox Jew who believed that Rabin’s peace efforts put him into the Talmudic category of one who may be freely executed because he is in the act of killing Jews. In 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 worshipers in the mosque atop the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. An American-born physician, Goldstein attended a prominent modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Brooklyn. (In a classic modern Orthodox twist, the same distinguished school has also produced two Nobel Prize winners.)

Because of the proximity of Goldstein’s background and mine, the details of his reasoning have haunted me. Goldstein committed his terrorist act on Purim, the holiday commemorating the victory of the Jews over Haman, traditionally said to be a descendant of the Amalekites. The previous Sabbath, he sat in synagogue and heard the special additional Torah portion for the day, which includes the famous injunction in the Book of Deuteronomy to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites on their way out of Egypt and to erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens.

This commandment was followed by a further reading from the Book of Samuel. It details the first intentional and explicit genocide depicted in the Western canon: God’s directive to King Saul to kill every living Amalekite — man, woman and child, and even the sheep and cattle. Saul fell short. He left the Amalekite king alive and spared the sheep. As a punishment for the incompleteness of the slaughter, God took the kingdom from him and his heirs and gave it to David. I can remember this portion verbatim. That Saturday, like Goldstein, I was in synagogue, too.

Of course as a matter of Jewish law, the literal force of the biblical command of genocide does not apply today. The rabbis of the Talmud, in another of their universalizing legal rulings, held that because of the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s policy of population movement at the time of the First Temple, it was no longer possible to ascertain who was by descent an Amalekite. But as a schoolboy I was taught that the story of Amalek was about not just historical occurrence but cyclical recurrence: “In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” The Jews’ enemies today are the Amalekites of old. The inquisitors, the Cossacks — Amalekites. Hitler was an Amalekite, too.

To Goldstein, the Palestinians were Amalekites. Like a Puritan seeking the contemporary type of the biblical archetype, he applied Deuteronomy and Samuel to the world before him. Commanded to settle the land, he settled it. Commanded to slaughter the Amalekites without mercy or compassion, he slew them. Goldstein could see difference as well as similarity. According to one newspaper account, when he was serving in the Israeli military, he refused to treat non-Jewish patients. And his actions were not met by universal condemnation: his gravestone describes him as a saint and a martyr of the Jewish people, “Clean of hands and pure of heart.”

It would be a mistake to blame messianic modern Orthodoxy for ultranationalist terror. But when the evil comes from within your own midst, the soul searching needs to be especially intense. After the Hebron massacre, my own teacher, the late Israeli scholar and poet Ezra Fleischer — himself a paragon of modern Orthodox commitment — said that the innocent blood of the Palestinian worshipers dripped through the stones and formed tears in the eyes of the Patriarchs buried below.

Lives of Contradiction

Recently I saw my oldest school friend again, and recalling the tale of the reunion photograph, we shared a laugh over my continuing status as persona non grata. She remarked that she had never even considered sending in her news to our alumni newsletter. “But why not?” I asked. Her answer was illuminating. As someone who never took steps that would have led to her public exclusion, she felt that the school and the community of which it was a part always sought to claim her — a situation that had its own costs for her sense of autonomy.

For me, having exercised my choices differently, there is no such risk. With no danger of feeling owned, I haven’t lost the wish to be treated like any other old member. From the standpoint of the religious community, of course, the preservation of collective mores requires sanctioning someone who chooses a different way of living. But I still have my own inward sense of unalienated connection to my past. In synagogue on Purim with my children reading the Book of Esther, the beloved ancient phrases give me a sense of joy that not even Baruch Goldstein can completely take away.

It is more than a little strange, feeling fully engaged with a way of seeing the world but also, at the same time, feeling so far from it. I was discussing it just the other day with my best friend — who, naturally, went to Maimonides, too. The topic was whether we would be the same people, in essence, had we remained completely within the bosom of modern Orthodoxy. He didn’t think so. Our life choices are constitutive of who we are, and so different life choices would have made us into different people — not unrecognizably different, but palpably, measurably so.

I accepted his point as true — but for some reason I resisted the conclusion. Couldn’t the contradictory world from which we sprang be just as rich and productive as the contradictory life we actually live? Would it really, truly, have made all that much difference? Isn’t everyone’s life a mass of contradictions? My best friend just laughed.

Noah Feldman, a contributing writer for the magazine, is a law professor at Harvard University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

16 July 2007

Home... home again...

Another friend's LJ entry entitled Home? (written several months ago but only read by me just now) continues the excellent trend of intelligent commentary on and wrestling with the concept of home -- I recommend it highly!

And here's part of what I had to say in response:

I've always enjoyed saying I'm a one-quarter-Cuban Jew with an Irish last name. (Though now, especially in the wake of the recent Folklife Festival showcasing Northern Ireland as one of its 3 areas, I know that the preferred term these days is Ulster Scots, for what might previously have been called Scots-Irish.) How very American!

One of the toasts at my parents' wedding (from one of my dad's college roommates) was "Here's to hybrid vigor" -- and I think you, my dear Safiri, and yours truly (as well as my friends K, L, and M [really! those are their initials!] who were all at the Folklife Festival with us 2 weeks ago and who all have mixed Ashkenazi Jewish + British Isles WASP heritage like m'self and yerself) are delightful testaments to the efficacy of same.

But given that fact, and because I am a practicing Jew who is also:
  • a feminist who regards gender-and-sexual-orientation-egalitarianism as Completely Non-Negotiable in my Jewish life & Jewish community;
  • devoted to separation of religion & state and does not wish to live anywhere with an established religion, be it mine or somebody else's;
  • in love with the idea of America as a land based in a shared dream rather than shared blood or land, however badly we may seem to betray that idea;
...I don't think I'll ever feel "at home" anywhere other than the U.S., on a permanent basis (and only certain parts of it at that).

But I probably am most at home in the imagined community of People Who Love The Things I Love -- books and talking, mostly, but also music and good food and companionship, intellectual discussion and debate and beauty, engaging with traditions (literary, religious, artistic, textual, musical, social) and our reshaping of them --

one of the things I like about Diaspora Judaism is the treatment of texts and rituals as a portable homeland. They're my Zion much more than the geographical Mount Zion ever was or will be. I'm not in exile in the diaspora: I'm home.

I'm not pining to return to any patch of ground that was never my home -- however green and pleasant (Dad's dad's side, British Isles), proud of its golden century/siglo de oro of exploration and world domination (Dad's mom's side, Cuban & originally from Spain) or flowing with milk and honey (Mom's side, Jewish) it may be. I may acknowledge my ties of heritage and affection to them, and I'm grateful that they might in some cases acknowledge my familial connections to them in return--but they're not my home.

Women's Studies 101

Oops, I did it again...

It's a constant uphill climb, eh?

In response to a friend's feminist-dilemma narrative on Not Being Recognized as a Scholar In Her Own Right at a Conference In Her Field Because She Is Young and Female, I wrote:

Misreading of context is everything. You know that I'm often mistaken for being:
1) a student (used to be high school, now I'm at least up to college)
2) anywhere between 5 and 15 years younger than I actually am (and when I lived in England in my mid-20s, I was carded in London at a showing of Trainspotting...to make sure I was at least 16!)
3) Too Young To Be Married (let alone to be coming up on a 10-year anniversary)
4) Too Young to have known my husband for 20 years (we met on June 26, 1987)
5) attending an event as someone's daughter or other hanger-on rather than in a professional or independent capacity

Every now and again I get mistaken in the direction of More Experience or Authority rather than less:

1) once, and only once, when I was 14 and taking Japanese at the USDA night school (which is technically a graduate school, and made a fuss initially about my not being 18 or over, though I'm sure I don't know why that's really necessary to take a 2-to-3-hour-a-week language course as long as I pay them their $$$ and do my work!), have I been mistaken for being older (entirely due to my classmates' expectations in the context, not due to my amazing poise and air of maturity, which had never previously prevented anyone from thinking I was maybe 10 or 11):
"Where do you work?"
Oh, I'm a student.
"At which university?"
Um, I'm in 9th grade...

2)when I'm leading services or doing something else at synagogue (perhaps especially because I wear a kippah and tallit and not all the women there do):
"Are you the rabbi? Are you the cantor?" No.
"Are you a rabbinical student? Are you a cantorial student?" Nope!
"You do a wonderful job!"/"You have a lovely voice!" Thank you very much: I'm glad to be able to help out in our participatory lay-led minyan.

... the subtext of their comments being potentially not too different from the ones that caused you concern, i.e.:

Hey! You're a young woman who seems to be traditionally observant and know how to do things in synagogue--so you must be someone who does this for a living, because otherwise
1) females;
2) young people, especially if female;
3) congregants/non-clergy in the non-Orthodox Jewish world
have No Idea How To Do This Stuff and need rabbis and cantors to do it all for them!

Baby Got Back

Stop me before I blog again...

but really, when reading a local rabbi's LJ leads you to a YouTube video for a Gilbert & Sullivan version of Baby Got Back, how can you resist?

I can't!

So I wrote as follows:

"It loses something in the original"
--was the comment of a classicist friend of ours (who refers to himself as The Last Hellenized Jew), after we'd sent him the link to the translation of same into Ancient Greek.* He was puzzled, since although he's a decade or so older than us and likes AC/DC as well as classical music, his tastes in contemporary music apparently never extended to Sir Mix-a-lot, so he was unfamiliar with the song. When we sent him a link to it, he responded as above.

Whereas our Yiddish-rapping friend Avigayl (a.k.a. Abby) had been part of the crew of Yiddish Book Center interns who had translated it into Yiddish; I've got her transcribed transliterated version somewhere still, which begins with the spoken intro:

Oy, Rivke! Gib a kuk af ir tukhes! 's iz azoy groys!
Ver farshteyt di rap-maydlekh, say-vi-say?

'Khob lib groyse tukhesn, 'kh ken nisht lign

un azoy vayter (and so on)!

*See http://www.languagehat.com/archives/000909.php if you're interested, for links to Latin and Greek* (and Geek) versions as well as for kvetching about the translations!

Thanks for this amazing addition to the list of renditions that are an improvement on the original!

*Link no longer works, but Internet Archive has it here.

I can't seem to find an actual Yiddish version online, but I did find this"little ditty that ... [the LJer] first wrote about eight years ago, when the Yid-Hop movement was going strong...in the guise of Sir Mitz-vah-lot, who proceeds to tell the world which culture invented the concept of zaftig":

And just for posterity, here are those immortal translation efforts
(reproduction of same does not constitute or imply endorsement by MiriyaB of the translation efforts, grammar, sentiments, or mad rap skillz of the creators of the works found below):


ἡ παρθένος[1] καλλίπυγον ἐστί -- ὑπὸ[2] τοῦ Πόλλύ Μιγνύοντος, ὁ ἱππεύς

The maiden has a well-formed butt, by the Much-Mixing One, the calvaryman


μά τοῦς θεόυς

By the Gods

πρόσιδε τὴν πυγήν

Look at her butt


Superlatively large[3]

ὡς παρθένος τοῦ ῥαψοδού βλέπει

She looks like the maiden of a singer

τίς τοιουτότροπους ἐννοεῖ;

Who understands such people?

μόνον ὡς τὸ τὴς πόρνης βλέπη ἐχούσα αὐτῄ λέγουσιν

Only because she has the appearance of a prostitute do they speak with her

περὶ τῄ πυγῄ λέγω

About her butt I am speaking


Superlatively large

ὅτι μέγιστη εἴη οὐ πιστεύω

So large it is, I cannot believe

ὡς δῆλη ἐστί

For it is conspicuous





ὡς μέλαινα τό παρθενός

How black the maiden

την μεγάλην πυγην ἐρῶ[4] καὶ ψευδής οὐκ εἰμί

I love big butts and I am not being untruthful

ὑμεῖς, οἱ κάσιοι, οὐκ ἀρνοῦ

Y�all, the brothers, do not deny

ἔπει ἡ τὸν μέσον μικρότατον ἔχουση ἔρχεται

When the small-waist-having one comes in

τὸ δε τοῦ ἀμφιτόρνου βλέπη ὁρᾷς, καὶ μετέωρος γίγνῃ

And the round image you see, you get excited

ὁ προσορῶν πρίνινος ἐπιθυμεῖς

You desire to appear tough

ὡς εἰδῶν

For seeing

την τῄ σκευῄ συνάπτουσαν πυγην

The butt stuck to the apparel

συνήθης εἰμί καί οὐ παύω εἰσβλέπειν

I am accustomed and I do not stop staring

ὦ παρθένος, σοῦ ὅμορος ἐπιθυμῶ εἶναι

Oh maiden, having the same borders with you I wish to be

και τό ζωγράφημα σοῦ ποιεῖν

And make a drawing of you

οἱ ἐμοῦ φίλοι ἐμοί ἐπεχειροῦν προλέγειν

My friends attempted to warn me

ὅμος ἡ σοῦ πύγη ἐμέ ἐγείρει

Excited your butt makes me

ὦ λεῖος χρώς

Oh smooth skin

λέγεις ὅτι τὸ γερμανικόν ἅρμα ἐπιθυμοῖς

You say that you want my German chariot

ἐμέ μεταχειρίζε, ἡ γὰρ σύντροφη αὐθάδης οὑκ εἶ

Use me, for the normal fanatic you are not

αὐτήν τήν χορεύμενην εἶδον

I see her the dancing one

τοῦ ἔρωτος ἐν τῷ Ἅιδῃ ἔσεσθαι ἐλπίζω

I hope love is about to be in hell


She sweats



αὐτή ὡς ἡ πετόμενη ἐστί

She is like the flying one

τά αἰσχρουγά γράμματα ἐμέ πιέζει

The obscene drawn-things tire me

τό τάς πλατείας πυγάς ἰδεῖν νόμιμον ἐστί

The seeing of flat butts is normal

ὡς ταῦτα ἐρεσόμενος ὁ σύντροφος Λίβυς

Because the average African is asked these things

ἡ μέγιστη νωτιαίπηρα ἔχει

She has much back-bag

ὧ ἄνδρες

Oh men







ὡς τό ἡμῶν παρθένος τήν πυγήν ἔρχον ἐστί

Because your maidens are the butt-having ones




Shake yourself




Shake yourself



τήν ὑγιᾶς πύγήν σείε

Shake the healthy butt

τό παρθένος τό νῶτον ἔχει

The maiden has a back

back to top

Translation by me.
Inspired by this guy.
Original lyrics here.

[1] It's hard to say "woman" (or "man" for that matter) in Greek without some serious cultural overtones. This word basically means a girl who's of age, but is not yet married (and, implied, virginal). This is the best choice, as there is no generic word for "girl/woman," and the others either imply she's married or a child.

[2] This construction is used to describe the agent of a passive verb, so I think it works

[3] The superlative is generally the way one says �extremely� in Greek

[4] Without getting into too much Greek philosophy, there are basically four different ways to say "love" in Greek; this one emphasizes the physical aspects, hence I thought it was fitting here


De clunibus magnis amandis oratio
Mixaloti equitis

(By Hercules!)
Rebecca, ecce! tantae clunes isti sunt!
(Rebecca, behold! Such large buttocks she has!)

amica esse videtur istorum hominum rhythmicorum.
(She appears to be a girlfriend of one of those rhythmic-oration people.)
sed, ut scis,
(But, as you know)
quis homines huiusmodi intellegere potest?
(Who can understand persons of this sort?)
colloquuntur equidem cum ista eo tantum, quod scortum perfectum esse videtur.
(Verily, they converse with her for this reason only, namely, that she appears to be a complete whore.)
clunes, aio, maiores esse!
(Her buttocks, I say, are rather large!)
nec possum credere quam rotondae sint.
(Nor am I able to believe how round they are.)
en! quam exstant! nonne piget te earum?
(Lo! How they stand forth! Do they not disgust you?)
ecce mulier Aethiops!
(Behold the black woman!)

magnae clunes mihi placent, nec possum de hac re mentiri.
(Large buttocks are pleasing to me, nor am I able to lie concerning this matter.)
quis enim, consortes mei, non fateatur,
(For who, colleagues, would not admit,)
cum puella incedit minore medio corpore
(Whenever a girl comes by with a rather small middle part of the body)
sub quo manifestus globus, inflammare animos
(Beneath which is an obvious spherical mass, that it inflames the spirits)
virtute praestare ut velitis, notantes bracas eius
(So that you want to be conspicuous for manly virtue, noticing her breeches)
clunibus profunde fartas(*1) esse
(Have been deeply stuffed with buttock?)
a! captus sum, nec desinere intueri possum.
(Alas! I am captured, nor am I able to desist from gazing.)
o dominola mea, volo tecum congredi
(My dear lady, I want to come together with you)
pingereque picturam tui.
(And make a picture of you.)
familiares mei me monebant
(My companions were trying to warn me)
sed clunes istae libidinem in me concitant.
(But those buttocks of yours arouse lust in me.)
o! cutis rugosa glabraque! (*2)
(O skin wrinkled and smooth!)
dixistine te in meum vehiculum intrare velle?
(Did you say you wish to enter my vehicle?)
in arbitrio tuo totus veni
(I am entirely at your disposal)
quia non es mediocris adsecula.
(Because you are not an average hanger-on.)
vidi illam saltantem.(*3)
(I have seen her dancing.)
obliviscere igitur blanditiarum! (*3a)
(Forget, therefore, about blandishments!)
tantus sudor! tantus umor!
(Such sweat! Such moisture!)
vehor quasi in curru quadrigarum! (*4)
(I am borne along as if by a four-horse chariot!)
taedet me in diurnis legendi
(I am tired of reading in the gazettes)
planas clunes gratiores iudicari.
(That flat buttocks are judged more pleasing.)
rogate quoslibet Aethiopes: responsum erit
(Ask any black men you wish: the answer will be)
se libentius expletiores (*5) anteponere.
(Rather that they prefer fuller ones.)
o consortes (quid est?) o consortes (quid est?)
(O colleagues [What is it?] O colleagues [What is it?])
habent amicae vestrae magnas clunes? (certe habent!)
(Do your girlfriends have large buttocks? [They certainly have!])
hortamini igitur ut eas quatiant (ut quatiant!)
(Encourage them therefore to shake them! [To shake them!])
ut quatiant! (ut quatiant!)
(To shake them! [To shake them!)
ut quatiant illas clunes sanas!
(To shake those healthy buttocks!)
domina mea exstat a tergo! (*6)
(My mistress stands out behind!)


(*1) Any apparent connection with flatulence, even in this context, is purely coincidental.
(*2) The original doesn't make much sense either. Is it a cellulite reference? -- ADDENDUM Nov. 14, 2003 : The reading of the text here is a problem which has much exercised the scholarly community, with attempts to explain "rumpled smooth skin," or to suggest that it is a pun (a lame one, if you ask me) on Rumplestiltskin. The likeliest reading is "rub her smooth skin" (cutem glabram eius tere [or terere volo]). Now, there are ten pages of comments below, and a great many of them are devoted to this matter. Please familiarize yourself with the status quaestionis before making your own contribution. -- UPDATE 12/9/03: a reader tells us that Sir Mixalot's official site confirms the lyrics "rub all of that smooth skin." I am therefore willing to declare the matter solved, and wish to hear no more of it. Thank you.
(*3) Or saltare?
(*3a) I can find no obvious Latin expression that implies "romantic courtship." -- ADDENDUM 10/14/03: Amores has been suggested, but that can also be used for purely sexual liaisons, which is clearly the goal here, and so not to be thus dismissed.
(*4)All right, how would you say "got it goin' like a Turbo 'Vette"? And what exactly is "goin'" here? I have chosen to understand that the unnamed woman's extraordinary callipygy has inspired a primal response in the narrator, rather than that she "has got it goin' on," i.e., that she "is all that" -- although the later lines (not included here) concerning Fonda's Honda and the speaker's anaconda can, ultimately, be invoked in support of either interpretation. -- ADDENDUM 10/24/03: I have heard from several readers that the music video suggests that this line should rather be interpreted along the lines of "she shakes her posterior most vigorously."
(*5) Or uberiores? Although that's perhaps better reserved for a different fetish.
(*6) This line is not as succinct as the original, to be sure. -- ADDENDUM 10/24/03: I wish I'd said puella here, as domina suggests a power relationship different from the English original.

UPDATE, later that same day:
Thanks to Nepenthe for pointing out that the lyrics link I had up here (to letssingit.com, which avoid) led to multiple pop-ups that install software without informing you. I've found one that seems to be pop-up free: but then my browser didn't respond to the other ones, either.

(This means, of course, that I translated a different transcription of the lyrics, and it might not match. Yeah, that's a good explanation.)

Thanks to everyone for the positive feedback, which has been overwhelming.

UPDATE 10/13/03:

For the rest of the song, see [info]ukelele's version here.

UPDATE 10/15/03:

Thanks again to everyone who has expressed approval, admiration, and/or promised sexual gratification; you're all very kind. I note that my "friend of" list has nearly doubled, and this is wicked cool, although I can't promise I'll have a chance to add you back immediately, as I like to read over other journals before adding them, and this takes time, and if your journal consists mainly of quiz results or Powerpuff Girls slash, I will probably pass; sorry. The above translation probably makes it seem as though I have an endless supply of time, to be sure, but sadly, it is not so. This also means that if you've added my journal in hopes for more of this sort of thing, it may be something of a wait, and you're more likely to get "this weekend I studied for a bit and then I watched a movie and it was okay."

NEW! [info]mishak, whose probably-not-serious request led to this whole thing, decided he wanted a t-shirt out of this. You can get one too on his Cafe Shop here.

[MiriyaB comment: clearly, the thing to get would be the boxer shorts or thong!]


Here is a little ditty that I found while I was cleaning my room. It seems that I first wrote it about eight years ago, when the Yid-Hop movement was going strong. I wrote this in the guise of Sir Mitz-vah-lot, who proceeds to tell the world which culture invented the concept of zaftig!
Anyway, I decided to update some of the topical references in the song for the new millennium. Of course, if you learned Yiddish with a different dialect than I did, some of the vowel quantities might seem weird to you. However, I think you can still appreciate the Yid-flow to it even if it sounds like it shouldn't rhyme to you. If I can find a instrumental track, I might actually produce an MP3 of this song or something...Without further ado, I present "Baby got Tuchus (2003 Re-mix)" by Sir Mitz-vah-lot

Oh my god, Gwen, look at her butt
It is so big
She looks like one of those yeshiva guys' girlfriends
Who understands those yeshiva guys
They only talk to her because she looks like a total JAP, ok?
I mean her butt
It's just so big
I can't believe it's so round
It's just out there
I mean, it's gross
Look, she's just so....Jewish!

I like gezunta tuchus and I cannot lie
You other bucherim can't deny
That when a maydel walks in with an itty-bitty waist
And a round thing in your face
You get sprung
Wanna pull up front
Cuz you notice that tuchus was stuffed
Deep in the kleyd she's wearing
I'm hooked and I can't stop staring
Oh, baby I wanna get with ya
And have you meet my mishpokhe
My rabbi tried to warn me
But with that tuchus you got
(Oy, me so horny!)
Ooh, rump-of-smooth-stein
You say you wanna get in my Benz
Well use me, use me, cuz you ain't your average tchotchke

I've heard my parents talk
The hell with a shiddach
She shana, kleyna, got it goin' like a Tupperware container.

I'm tired of magazines
saying that zaftig ain't tha thing
Take the average Hebrew and ask him that
She gotta pack much back, so

Boychicks? (yeah), boychicks? (yeah)
Has your bashert got the tuchus? (hell yeah)
Well shake it, (shake it,) shake it, (shake it,) shake that healthy tush

Baby got tuchus

(Newton face with Brookline booty)

I like'em round and big
And when I'm throwin' a gig
I just can't help myself
I'm actin like an behayma
Right up in all my beyner
I wanna get you home
And ugh, shmooze it up ugh, ugh
But I ain't talkin' about Tolstoy
Cuz War and Peace is so hoi polloi

I wann'em real thick and geshmock
So geshmock I eat it with a gupple
Mitz-vah-lot's in trouble
Beggin' for a piece of that bubble

So I'm lookin' at rock videos
Watchin' these shiksas walkin' like kurvahs
You can have them nafkas
I'll keep my women like Rivkah

A word to the zaftig Semite sistas
I wanna get with ya
I won't cuss or hit ya
But I gotta be straight when I say I wanna shtup
Till the break of dawn
Baby, I got it goin on
A lot of shaygetses won't like this song
Cuz them punks like to zetz and quit it
But I'd rather stay and play
Cuz I'm long and I'm strong
And it's a mitzvah to get the friction on

So maydels (yeah), maydels (yeah)
If you wanna taste my knaydls (yeah)
Then turn around
Stick it out
Even goyim got to shout
Baby got tuchus

(Newton face with the Brookline booty)

Yeah baby
When it comes to females
The shadchen got nothin to do with my selection
Only if she's not meshugge.

So your girlfriend rolls a Honda
Playin' workout tapes by Fonda
But Fonda ain't nuthin' but a big ol' shanda
My anaconda don't want none unless you've got buns hon
You can do side bends or sit-ups, but please don't lose that butt

Some brothers wanna play that hard role
and tell you that a shana tuchus ain't gold
So they toss it and leave it
And I pull up quick to retrieve it

So Dr. Atkins says you're fat
Well I ain't down with that
Cuz your waist is small and your curves are kickin'
And I'm thinkin' bout schtupin'

To the beanpole dames in Hadassah magazine
You ain't it Miss Thang
Give me a sista I can't resist her
Schmaltz and gribbenes didn't miss her

Some bulvon tried to dis
Cuz his girls were on my list
He had game but he chose to quit 'em
And I pulled up quick to get with 'em

So ladies if the tuchus is round
And you wanna fully kosher throw down
Dial 1-900-Mitz-Vah-Lot and kick them nasty thoughts
Baby got tuchus


Baby Got Rack
My tribute to geeky women. With apologies to Sir Mix-a-Lot. :)

Baby Got Rack

Oh my god
Becky, look at her laptop
It is sooo big
She looks like one of those geek guys' girlfriends
But y'know, who understands those geek guys?
They only talk to her because she looks like a total nerd
I mean, her laptop, it's just sooo big
I can't believe it's so square, it's like out there
I mean -- it's gross
Look, she needs some... sun!

I like big procs and I cannot lie;
You other coders can't deny
That when a girl logs in with a Gigafloppin' RISC
And solid state for its disk
You get sprung
Wanna pull up tough
'Cause you noticed that rack was stuffed!
Deep in the slots, it's RAID 5
And a T-3 just to stay live
Oh, baby I wanna log in ya
And scan your picture.

My yuppies tried to warn me
But that rack you got
Makes me so horny
Case paint of smooth tan
You say you wanna get in my van?
Well use me, use me,
So long as I get an I.D.

I've seen her typin'
On azithromycin.
She's a shrill pill,
Got it flowin' with the VapoChill.

I'm tired of magazines
Saying minitowers are the thing.
Take the average tech man and ask him that;
She gotta pack much rack.

So Fellas (yeah) Fellas (yeah)
Has your girlfriend got the proc? (Hell yeah)
Tell her work it (work it), work it (work it),
Work that beefy proc;
Baby got rack.

(Mini-Rap -- HP case with a liquid coolant)

I like 'em big, and square,
And when I'm throwin' an error
I just can't help myself
I'm actin' like my manager
(Now *he's* a scavenger!)

I wanna get you home
And mount, double-up, mount, mount!
I ain't talkin' Playstation
'Cause silicon chips are made to run!
I want 'em four to a module:
So find that MP backplane;
Stronae's had some eyestrain
Goin' for the shortest path endgame.

So I'm lookin' at users' woes:
Pointy-haired techs talkin' through their nose?
They can have Bill's Windows;
Unix better works our egos.

A word to the goth and geeky
I wanna get with thee
I won't demodulate thee
But I gotta be straight when I say I just need [video game explosion]
'Til a quarter past three
Baby gotta keep it real
Corporate Veeps won't like this peal
'Cause them suits just like to abuse it
But I'd still support your port
'Cause I ping, on token ring,
And I'm down to get you networking!

So Honeys (yeah), Honeys (yeah)
Wanna roll my Town and Country? (yeah)
Then hook it up --
Blow it out --
Even rednecks got to shout:
Baby got rack.

Baby got rack.

Yeah baby,
When it comes to females,
Cosmo ain't got nothin' to do with my selection.
Only if she's got a P-4...!

So your girlfriend wears green lipstick
Playin' songs by some grunge beatnick.
That maverick ain't got the bandwidth to support her toy NIC;
My Wingman joystick don't want none unless you got hubs, hon!

You can do installs or backups, but please don't lose that proc.
Some gamers wanna play it solo
And reject your parallel flow,
So they clock it, and unlock it,
And I pull up quick to resocket.
So Cosmo says you're weird
Well that ain't to be feared
'Cause your specs are large and your box is hummin'
And I'm thinkin' about comin'
To your home with UPSes
(The power's yours, my Miss!)
With an admin I can't react when
She privileges my login.
Some businessman tried to spam
'Cause his girls were on my LAN.
He had 'net but he sniffed their session
And I show 'em how to V-PN.
So ladies if the case is square
And you wanna dirty chat room lair
Hash s-t-r-o-n-a-e
And type them nasty thoughts
Baby got rack.

Baby got rack.

Pale in the vale but she got much rack...
Pale in the vale but she got much rack...
Pale in the vale but she got much rack...
Pale in the vale but she got much rack...