Saturday, March 7, 2015

800 Words: Why Schmuck? Seriously Unserious Judaism

So, ultimately, Why Schmuck?

Every time I start a new project, I feel a manic, massive, messianic overflow of confidence that this is what my truest self yearns to express, only for the rapture to come crashing down to earth in a hail of logistical difficulties. Eventually, it always seems to happen - defeat, shameful, ignominious.

Every time I begin anew, I come up with an idea that speaks to me, and tells me ‘I was born for this.’ But this one feels the truest to myself yet. It is a mission deeper than the simply musical. And that mission is…

To tell the truth, unadorned, to people whose world and customs I have less good to report about than they no doubt would like to hear. I have no idea whether it will be successful in any regard, but in my mind, Schmuck is both a parody and a satire of Jewish music, and therefore of Jewish culture itself. Like all parodies, it comes from a place of love - you have to love and care about the source material enough to devote so much attention to it. Like all satires, it comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction and anger. No community that has so much so easily mocked, and is so ripely deserving of mockery, should ever emerge unscathed.

The Jewish community my parents have tried their lives long to preserve does not exist, and the reality runs almost completely contradictory to the ideals with which they raised my brothers and I. I’ve watched my lifelong as a community into which they’ve put so much effort has done so little to reward their efforts. They would never say that, they might not even believe it ultimately, but I will say it, and I believe it....

What are those ideals? I’ll use my father’s phrase to describe it: Seriously Unserious Judaism. Or to put another of his syllogisms in place: There is no God, and He gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Our religion is a religion without religion: a religion of doubt, of hedging bets, of questions rather than answers, a religion that trusts science on questions of science and God on questions of God, a lifestyle that can take ecstatic enjoyment in the traditions and customs of Judaism but understands in the face of overwhelming modern evidence that religion can never be used as an answer to any of life’s problems. A religion that accepts in the face of the Shoah and the Doctor’s Plot that whether or not we ever wish to identify as Jews, the world will ultimately always remind us that we are Jewish. We are a Judaism of conscription, which accepts that complete assimilation is never an available option. It rejoices in the benefits of Judaism: the cultural achievements, the music and especially the writings, the maintenance of Yiddish and Hebrew, the rituals that bond families together, and the endless discussions of the meaning of Jewish history. Such a life has its drawbacks, I have never agreed or appreciated my parents belief in a Jewish life so cloistered in Pikesville from goyisher influence, but it is nevertheless the most fundamentally sound orientation toward life I have ever come across. Perhaps I'd feel differently if coming from a different family, but I'd like to think I'm more than aware of my family's limitations in other areas...

My parents made me understand, sometimes through terrible trials, that to chase after a life outside of religion is usually to chase after religion itself. Whether your God is Hashem, or Jesus, or Capitalism, or Social Justice, or anything else, it is worshipped with exactly the same sort of fanaticism. And ultimately, there is no evidence verifiable enough to elucidate that any of them is the correct way to live a life. So in the face of so much reason to doubt, it is best to live life according to the modest consolations which a religion you don’t much believe in allows for you. At least we know the paths we’re treading, it’s been handed down since the God who doesn’t exist knows when, and at least we’re not straining our hearts to chase after gods which our brains know are false.  

The implications for this sort of religion are too numerous to document thoroughly, but what is easy to understand is how pathetically inadequate modern Jewry has been to this modest ideal by chasing after ideals so much more ambitious than it.

The Judaism in which I grew up had three main branches: not Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, but three separate Jewish religions, one committed to religious fanaticism, one committed to social justice, and one committed to hyper-achievement. There is a smaller fourth branch committed to neoconservatism, but that branch is the current establishment - the ground level Judaism beneath which all three of the other branches grew their roots. It is so well-known, well-documented, and disproportionately influential that it there’s little reason to comment on it. It will suffices to say that it is stuck in the liberalism of fifty years ago, and never knew what to do with a world that long since moved into new eras. It sees moral relativism as a crime, and any talk of diplomacy as weakness in the face of a world that still wants nothing better than to see us all dead. It has preserved Judaism’s unimpeded growth in success and influence in America, but the future will reveal that it came at a terrible price.

In my thirty years of memory, a different person than me might call the revival of Ultra-Orthodoxy miraculous. But it is not miraculous, it is apiece with parallel revivals in fundamentalist Islam and Christianity. If Judaism had as many adherents as those religions, ultra-Orthodox Judaism would be just as dangerous. It views Israel not as a sanctuary from anti-semitism, but as the God-bequeathed land of Jews from biblical times. At Israel’s founding, it forged an uneasy partnership with Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists. It has now formed a much easier partnership with Israel’s almost perpetual right-wing governments, and with the American-Jewish establishment’s blanket support for Jewish causes, support which never questions if such causes are good for Jews. Within the communities is a veritable arms race of self-denying religious observance in which its adherents compete for who can most appease the ridiculous, and sometimes hilariously outdated laws of Hashem - delaying flights because of the men’s refusal to sit next to women, buying glasses that blur their vision so they can’t be tempted by women; finding the proper - God mandated - order to cut nails, sucking the penises of babies who were just circumcised (itself a disgusting custom that has no place in modern life), swinging live chickens around their heads; eating no food that is not blessed by Rabbis - including bottled water - in the extortion racket known as kosher food, paying upwards of $50 for matzoh and $100 for lemons deemed suitable by a Rabbi for a particular holiday; owning four sets of every dish - milk, meat, and a similar two for Passover, thinking that women who don’t take ritual baths after their periods are ‘unclean’ yet showing women’s dirty underwear to Rabbis for ‘inspection’; dressing in 18th century Eastern European winter garb all year long ,spending thousands of dollars on wigs since women must shave their heads so as not to tempt any men but their husbands; throwing bread in the water so as to cast away your sins, refusingto mix linen and wool  for garments; refusing to allow divorce unless the man consents, and blow torching parts of the house so that all bread crumbs can be eradicated before Passover. Some of this is evil, most of this is downright hilarious.

The second religion, the Religion of Social Justice, is no less ridiculous, and sometimes no less evil. Even at their most mock-worthy, they never fail bring to mind the famous quote from George Orwell: The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States.”

If one substitutes Britain with Israel, one has the nature of the contemporary climate among so many self-styled fighters for the greater good. Israel’s sins are numerous, perpetuated by the neoconservative establishments both of the United States and the country itself, and need no repeating here. What bears repeating is how selective their approbation is. How is it that the majority of the world’s human rights concern is focused on this tiny country, while so many countries accumulate far worse human rights records than Israel on its worst day. The only explanations for this can be anti-semitism, and the complete naivete of antisemites’ fellow travelers.

The Religion of Social Justice purports to have a Jewish edge in the concept of Tikkun Olam. But there is nothing more Jewish about it than any other religious fanaticism. It is an alternative religion that abandons traditional religious practice in the name of making a better society here on earth. But where is this better world? Its sole success is the dismantling of a liberal alternative to conservative rule. Since the left’s divorce from liberalism in the Vietnam era, liberalism’s gains have only been short-term and incremental. Obamacare, the greatest liberal American triumph in two generations, is perpetually on the verge of dismantlement from the American Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the bulk of leftist anger has not been focused on conservatives, but on traditional liberals, whose lack of militancy is considered nothing more than conservatism with a human face.

In the name of equality, it has wrecked the progress of cultural self-improvement, and purported to show that the aspirations of middle-class people toward greater learning is nothing more than stepping on someone else’s aspirations - usually because the culture we so appreciate was created by white men. The texts of our great books are no longer to be appreciated for what’s great about them, they mere pins onto which pseudo-profound thinkers deconstruct, anatomize, conceptualize, hermeneuticize, paradigmize, feminize, queer theorize, mythopoeticize, collective unconsciousize, poststructuralize, postcolonialize, semioticize, semiologize, intersectionalize, de-eroticize, and self-referentialize. If you don’t understand what most of those terms mean, don’t worry. That’s the whole point. Like religions of the past, it forms concepts so simple that enacting them can only result in fanaticism, and then disguises these basic concepts in a thrush of torrential verbiage so that its adherents don’t understand how destructive they are. Just as in the old religion, everything about this new, materialistic religion, is ridiculous from its core to its crust. Everything is the same as of old: the meetings at which you preach to the converted, the jargon which you have to be fully initiated to understand, the ostracization of heretics and unbelievers, and the sense of moral superiority with which it infuses believers. To police its adherents, it has all the same tricks. It uses the language of political correctness: terms like ‘microaggression’, ‘intersectionality’, ‘trigger warning’, ‘patriarchy,’ are not used as protection for the victimized - however well-meaning the terminology may have been formed to be - but as a means of inflaming mob rule among adherents and intimidation among non-believers. It’s a culture that even has slang terminology like ‘mansplaining.’ It utterly perverts the liberty which it claims it espouses.  This culture will be with us well into our future, and probably only gather momentum as the internet gains power. But the only real power its ever shown is to kneecap secularism from mounting a worthwhile challenge to religious power. And while it might seem unlikely today, who knows? In a century, or a millenium, it could be the ancestor of a culture just as much history of repression as religion itself. It replaces the perfect celestial kingdom with the perfect material kingdom, and its results are no more verifiable, and no less funny.

But the Jews sane enough not to fall into either crap pile must face two religious tests. One is not to fall into old school Jewish nationalism, the neoconservatism represented so well by the Netanyahu administration in Israel, and men like Abe Foxman, Norman Podhoretz, Martin Peretz, and Malcolm Hoenlein in America. They don’t much believe in Judaism or Halakha, but when it comes to issues of Judaism’s place in the world, what they believe is simply Meir Kahanism with a more gentile varnish. It’s an irresponsible Jewish jingoismin that crows with provocation to the wider world during the first period of true Jewish security since King David. It borrows from the clearly unstable Jewish future for the sake of inflating present prosperity. It would have us believe that bellicose behavior - the bombing of Iran, the eradication of anti-semitism in the media, the unconditional support of Likud-era Israel, the use of the Shoah to justify any and all actions, ignoring the rights of a soon to be Palestinian majority on Israeli land - is the only way to ensure Jewish survival, when their views clearly put Israel, and Judaism, at calamitous future risk.   

But in some ways, even more alarming is the apathy of the most successful Jews - the apathy of my illustrious generation, who graduated Schechter and Beth Tfiloh and Pikesville High, in the separatist Jewish environ of Pikesville, only to desert their community at the first sign of more prosperity elsewhere. Rather than focus at all inward on the community that created them, the smartest, best organized, most capable Jews of my age group give nothing back, get out at the first opportunity, and leave the inmates to run the asylum. It would seem that it doesn't bother them at all that the community which birthed them is running so far off the rails. They got what they needed from the rest of us, and then they left the rest of us to rot. But what's worst about what they're doing is that nothing in their upbringing ever instructed them that such a mentality is morally wrong. Schools like Krieger Schechter and Beth Tfiloh were Potemkin Villages where normal kids were presented as though they were geniuses: designed to inflate their children's successes with projects that could never be done without parents help, and making sure that every single child had a bright shiny award for their college or high school application.

You’ll simply have to trust me on this, but I’m sure I’m hardly the first to think this. The result of this mentality is that my generation of American Jews is the first for whom literally anything is possible, and the most successful among my peers have used that success to be virtually valueless. Three thousand years of repression have taught them to chase their dreams perhaps as no one ever has before, but they are nothing more than their dreams and achievements, and long experience with them causes me to wonder how many of them have any idea why they covet what they covet. Too many of my Pikesville peers are utterly boring people - achievement machines who understand nothing about the world and care to understand even less. They move to Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even if they’re involved with a Jewish community, the communities are more boring for their presence. They can do calculus, write a coherent essay, play an instrument beautifully (but not expressively), and no doubt they’ll cause medical miracles and will one day argue before the Supreme Court, but if they didn’t do that, would they be anything at all?

We all have ambitions, we can’t avoid them. But long, painful, experience taught me that if at all possible, don’t be defined by your ambition. Whether the ambition is to be closer to God, or to effect an equal world on Earth, or to make Jews a light unto nations, or to rise to the top of society, ambitions can easily spoil into sacred beliefs. They are the most convenient pathway to future suffering, self-delusion, and humorlessness.

For these reasons and many more, modern Judaism’s become a ridiculous phenomenon. All the things which make this heritage great and proud have to be sifted through miles and miles of deluded, humorless bullshit.

In the face of hilarious self-delusion from people you care about, the only response that keeps you sane is to mock it, mercilessly. If you didn’t care, you’d just walk away and try to avoid it. Take it seriously enough to address it, but don’t take it seriously enough to give tacit approval.
I hope that every good childhood memory of the holidays, every deeply moving moment visiting Jewish sites and talking to older Jews about good and bad days gone by, every moment spent intellectually engaging with a tradition that did so much to challenge me in the best of all possible ways, will be reflected back to the audience. I also hope that every childhood memory of bullying, of boredom, of pettiness and bickering, of tyrannical overseeing, is reflected back as well. It will hopefully be my balance sheet after thirty-three years of being a Jew from Baltimore.

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