Aug 24, 2009

Inauthentic: Laughing Off My Judaism

The more observant I become (i.e. the more mitzvot I take on), the more I find myself saying something interesting to non-Jews and Jews who are less mitzvot-driven. People tend to respond to a lot of the things that I do with a "Seriously?" or "Really?" or "That's so out of date." I find myself, more and more, thinking to myself "These people think I'm crazy, and I get that I sound crazy." As a result, I end up saying things like, "I know, right? It's nuts, isn't it?"

The thing about this, is that I don't really think the things I'm doing are crazy. I understand them, I do the mitzvot because I know and feel in my heart that they're right. But the more I talk with people unlike me in their observance, I find myself needing to defend how I approach Judaism in a sarcastically awkward way.

"You know, it's sooo weird, and like, I don't really get it, but it's what I do because, you know...!"

Could I be more inauthentic? Could I be more inaccurate? I sat down with some friends recently (all non-Jews, save for one who is a self-described Reform Jew), and I explained to them how I got to where I am and some of the things that I do on a day-to-day basis, including some Shabbos details. These are all good friends of mine, and they're all people I knew in college when my path in Judaism was the Reform path and it wasn't completely outward that I was trekking in the direction that would lead me here, in Orthodoxy. They wanted to understand, and I wanted them to understand. But I didn't want to sound nuts.

We have this Shabbos lamp, a Jew can't help me on Shabbos, but a non-Jew can -- but only if I don't ask! I have to hint, only hint. Why? Well ... it's sorta nuts, but ... 

I do think, however, that it's more comfortable explaining my observance to non-Jews than it is to Jews. There's something particularly difficult about describing my observance to Jews, born Jews, who don't always understand or want to understand how someone could be Orthodox. It's archaic, it's ridiculous, it's stupid, it's unnecessary. We all suffer the fate of being different in Judaism. From one person to the other. It's just hard when you want someone to understand and end up downplaying the importance, significance, and beauty of the things that you do.

Is this normal? Do you find yourself sort of laughing off why you have to wait several hours between meat and milk? Or why it's 90 degrees outside and you're wearing a long-sleeve shirt? Do you find yourself talking to people about your Judaism as if it's not nearly as important as it truly is, simply because you don't want them to think you're nuts? That you've flown off the deep end? How do you reconcile this social quirk, this behavior that -- in my case -- leaves one feeling sort of empty and fake, inauthentic, and ultimately sad.


le7 said...

EXACTLY! I do it all the time!

Even with other observant Jews. I'll try and "justify" my nuttiness by laughing it off...

Jack said...

At one time I thought that I might become MO, but I have since reconsidered. It is a very personal thing, observance that is. Not sure that it is really fair for people to laugh things off.

We all have our shtick. said...

My husband was a US Army chaplain and so we often were the only observant Jews in our community. I was constantly talking about our practices to people who were curious, both Jews and non-Jews. What seemed to make sense to them and made me not feel a bit defensive was to tell them that I find these practices meaningful, both as I observe them and as I think of how it links me to my people, my history, and my land. I talk about how what I do affects how I think and how I see the world and that mitzvot are reminders of a relationship I have with G-d just as wearing a wedding rind is a reminder of the relationship I have with my husband.

I hope this helps, at least a bit.

Anonymous said...


Recently in a work meeting someone raised a topic which has been in the news lately

An orthodox couple moved into an apartment and the landlord changed the lights in the corridor to sensor lights. so they asked if they could pay to install a switch for shabbes and yontif and they would pay the extra. the landlord refused because of the other tennants. so they took him to court.

not sure i agree with taking it to a goyisher court, but anyway....someone asked me about it randomly in a work meeting - i work for the goverment, and although I wear a beard, tzis tzis exposed, kapple etc at work, nothing this specific ever came up.

it was interesting!

I didn't feel comfortable discussing it with him and told him that without knowing the whole story I couldn't comment, but that for sure it would raise a major problem that would need to be investigated.

afterwards I thought it was a cop out...

yitz.. said...

I'm definitely guilty of this as well..

working in a large hi-tech company in Jerusalem, almost all of my co-workers are Jewish but it runs the gamut from american olim who aren't at all religious (but think they know what it is they're rejecting---they don't) to secular israelis who know almost nothing about what it means to be Jewish. (and every religious variation in between)

Sometimes I will downplay my chassidic/kabbalistic minhagim to other religious Jews just to avoid making a big deal about things that don't necesarily apply to everyone -- but when it comes to those who really don't know very much at all; they are usually fascinated to hear about Judaism. (especially the unusual sides to it, midrashim, kabbalah, amazing subtleties of halachah, -- kind of the same things you would teach smart children to pique their curiosity)

In fact, I started a practice of sending off fellow co-workers who are moving on (to other companies) with a dvar Torah; (at their farewell party -- the only time i ever volunteer a dvar Torah in this mixed work environment) I make sure to catch them off guard and teach them, the religious Jews as well, something they never knew about Judaism.. Give them a new perspective.

There are soooooo many beautiful things about Judaism that most people don't know, it's a shame when all that gets discussed is chareidim/kashrut/tzniut.

I think you will find that if you find the right metaphor, almost any aspect of Torah you'd usually try to shrug of with a "i know! it's crazy.. but that's how it is.." can be given over in a convincing way.

For example, one dvar Torah I haven't gotten around to giving yet is about 'debugging' mitzvot, we're used to using computers and figuring out what's wrong or finding an alternate solution when the computer doesn't work the way we want. But people don't realize that mitzwah performance also has built-in feedback -- when you perform a mitzwah you should feel closer to HaShem, which means you should try out the prescribed way to do a mitzwah first, see how it feels, then see how to improve on your experience until you really start to feel something..[not change the mitzwah, but rather change your approach to it] the mitzwot were not given so that we could walk around feeling like anachronistic robots. [A lot of a person's success in using a computer is the same, adapting one's ways of attacking a problem to the limited ways a computer provides to solve it.]

That's something I thought about speaking about last year before sukkoth, because there are so many ritualistic mitzwot that someone unaffiliated would find totally weird -- but ta'amu u're'u ki tov HaShem.

[sorry for such a long comment]

Child אִישׁ Behavior said...

I recently posted a quote from Rosenzweig that addresses this same issue. Franz Rosenzweig, after considering converting to Christianity, became a Jew by choice. The main part of the quote is this,"There is one recipe alone that can make a person Jewish and hence because he is a Jew and destined to a Jewish life-a full human being... Our fathers had a beautiful word for it that says everything: confidence."

Basically, in choosing to become truly Jewish you need confidence in what you are doing. It is something you have accepted, embrace it. Even the quirky sounding Mitzvos.

Mottel said...

Laughter is a defense mechanism - I often tell some corny joke when after telling a lady that I can't shake her hand.
The end of the day, however, Judaism is far more palpable when it is analyzed by in its totality, and not by its parts. Let them see a Shabbos or the like, and it will be far more clear then telling them about not ripping toilet paper!

Chaviva said...

Wow. I'm so glad I'm not alone on this one.

@LE7 Still loving your Avatar, btw.

@Jack When I'm laughing it off, it's that uncomfortable "gee whiz" kind of laughter. Have you blogged about your not going MO? It does help! I have to work on making it translate, not on how different it might be.

@Yitz Love, love, love what you wrote. Especially the bit about "built-in feedback" following mitzvoth performance. If you don't manage the built-in feedback, then something's not working right! It looks like you've found the perfect way to make your Judaism translate to those around you. Yasher koach :) And no problem about the long comment -- every last bit of it was meaningful.

@Child(ISH)Behavior It's so weird how I feel sometimes. I feel conflicted about my confidence. I think I'm pretty darn confident in my Judaism and how I practice, but I'm also way too worried about people thinking I'm nuts. I know it's about me and my relationship with HaShem, but the world we live in is imperfect, and along with that comes all those questions and uncertainties. I'm okay with the paradox, but it's frustrating sometimes. Thanks for commenting!

@Mottel Amen to that. I never thought I was a laughter-as-defense kind of a person, but as time goes on, I realize I'm using it more and more! But I agree -- seeing the experience tends to mean more than explaining the finer things. I realized this when I was in Vermont. I tried explaining things to people, but once they joined us for Shabbos for Kiddush or Havdalah, they really saw the beauty that was there.

Anonymous said...

As a person in the process of conversion, I feel this is often something I impose on myself -- I am hyper-aware of my emerging differences. And as I become more comfortable, as I take on mitzvot, I worry about seeming "overbearing" to people about my religiosity, or even imposing on them. And so when I talk about my process, it is so tempting -- and temporarily comforting -- to downplay or justify what I'm doing.

I think we'd be surprised to find out how much people respect us for what we do. Im usually pleasantly surprised by the responses I get when I speak openly, although it is still hard.

Maybe that's why we blog? ;)

Anonymous said...

Explanations may not make everything better. People say that they want to know the truth, and they look so earnest when they say it. They don't, though: they want to be accepted and cared for, despite religious differences. I tried so hard in explaining touchy subjects (negiah, wine, homosexuality), and I still hurt my relationships with all but my very closest college friends.

Perhaps it is unavoidable. Still, it hurts that I haven't gotten invited to any of the weddings of people in my college circle, for instance. When I go to reunions, everyone is so impressed by how outgoing I've become (yay kiddush!), but I also get the sense that they are also watching to see if I say anything "crazy."

EYR said...

If I had a penny for every time I had this problem, I could finance your trip to Israel and still have money to spare... For the year-plus that I was in the IDF, and in all the subsequent years during reserve duty, I found myself many times on 4-8 hour shifts with someone else from my unit, and many times religion became the topic of discussion. When you are put in this position day-in and day-out, it is very frustrating.

I think there are two causes for this phenomenon. The first is that Modern Orthodox people (and others as well, but I"m talking about you and I now) have the "liability" that they really can understand the other side. By trying to create a synthesis between Western culture and Judaism, we invariably get exposed to other opinions, and understand that others might not be able to understand US because their frame of reference is different from ours. So by being sarcastic we can make a talk, that deserved an hour, into one that lasts 5 minutes. To take the hour long approach would also feel to me, many times, as if I were a missionary.

Additionally, I can usually tell if someone is asking because they really want to know and understand, or because they think it is funny and can't believe people actually believe in these things. When you sense this second type to be asking the questions, you almost have to be sarcastic in order for them to think that you are "normal" - in other words, like them. If you try to give the hour-long talk to these types, you won't make it through since they don't have the patience or the interest to begin with.

My remedy over the years has been to get my Jewish juices flowing again after such a discussion by immersing myself in reading or discussing a topic with the right atmosphere. Read an article by a Rabbi you like, perhaps about the topic you just discussed that got you frustrated. If you did not know the answer to something, look it up. Mostly, these things remind me once again, in the deepest sense, how natural and right Halacha is for me.

Chaviva said...

I see that all of us, no matter where we are on our journeys Jewishly, experience this awkwardness. I like how EYR points out the two types of people who ask -- I think you're absolutely right. I've noticed these types, and I think addressing them appropriately helps. Thanks :D

On a sort of related note, I posted a photo on Facebook about a beautiful cloud I could just eat. My brother, who seems to be sarcastic about my journey, said he doesn't think it's "kosher." Maybe that's a whole other blog post. Sigh.

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