Shabbos Dinner

On cleaning out some files, I found this account of a memorable Shabbos dinner with some disaffected Jews, originally published in the now-defunct journal Response in 1999 or 2000. Given the recent publication of Unchosen, I thought it might of interest for some. I know you're not supposed to publish long blogposts, but I couldn't figure out what else to do with it. This is exceptionally long, though; my apologies.

I should also say that I wrote this a number of years ago; I'm posting it unedited, because it's beyond editing. I wouldn't write the same thing now, and I probably wouldn't even have the same opinions.

Let's meet some disaffected Orthodox youth.

I've been invited to a Shabbat dinner in Brooklyn Heights by my visiting friend Yosl, an ex-Hasid, nigunim instructor, and occasional pizza boy living until recently in Omaha, Nebraska.

Although language is more often context than cause, you can say that I got to know Yosl through Yiddish. I was introduced to the language in high school, when my senior English teacher – a brilliant diabetic with thick glasses, little tolerance for fools, and a limited interest in pedagogy – suggested I study Yiddish, which she knew from home, as a filler for one of my free periods. She didn’t instruct me per se, but her suggestion was enough to get me started. Some of my most productive hours of high school were spent in the back of Ms. Donsky’s German class (she knew a half-dozen languages, I think), reading the Yiddish Forward while my recalcitrant contemporaries broke their teeth on German verbs. I’m not sure what everyone else thought I was doing. (I don’t know what Ms. Donsky is doing now, either. The last I heard she was living in Ohio with her sister. I don’t think of her enough, considering the importance of what she introduced me to.)

Thus I started up the slope, wanting to learn a little bit more, then learning that extra little bit and finding that the unknown extended even farther than I had thought. I read Yiddish books voraciously through high school and college (although my academic studies were not in Yiddish). I started writing Yiddish poetry, which has been published in most of the depressingly small-circulation journals that still exist in the secular (non-Charedi) world. I am active in Yugntruf, a Yiddish-speaking young people’s organization. In short, Yiddish-language promotion and creativity is a large part of what I spend my time on.

I am not one of those who became attracted to Yiddish as a means of escape from the religious community. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and there – in comfortable suburbia, away from the infighting and unreflective extremism that characterizes New York Jewry – I was exposed to a self-confident if unpunctilious brand of Conservative Judaism. My parents, themselves quite proficient in Hebrew and very knowledgeable Jews, gave me the grounding I needed pursue my Jewish education on my own.

Since high school I have become considerably more observant than my parents; in the inaccurate and obsolete taxonomy favored by mass-market Jewish publications, I am “Conservadox” – that is, on the right edge of the Conservative movement. Some might call me a “baal teshuvah” (a “returnee” to the faith), but I avoid the term due to its unpleasant connotations of blind religiosity. If I might be allowed a more flattering self-description, I try to remain within halachah – the system of Jewish law – while recognizing its inconsistencies and remaining open to necessary, modifying challenges from personal intellect and modern morality.
And that’s why I’m so involved with Yiddish. Not because the language itself embodies any exceptional qualities: Yiddish is no funnier than, say, Portugese, with all due respect to the popularity of Leo Rosten and his ilk; and it’s no guarantor of peace and love, either, having been used as a means to intolerance on both the left (Stalinist) and right (ultra-Orthodox) ends of the spectrum. But Yiddish and Yiddish-language creativity have in modern times been inextricably associated with those wrenching historical transformations which have most indelibly affected the soul and the society of the Jew: from all-encompassing religion to all-challenging urbanization; from certainty to radical doubt; from “God, Israel, and the Torah are one” to a smorgasbord of competing ideologies.

As I make my way as a Jew, I find in the history of Yiddish and Eastern European Jewry a mirror – the old kind, with a decorative frame and mottled glass – of my own doubts and internal conflicts. Knowing Yiddish also affords me an appreciation of those Jews who are modern, but in a different mode – those dissatisfied Charedim who must pass from one sort of self-denying modernity, heavily accessorized to pass for what some imagine to have been 19th-century Eastern European Orthodoxy, into another modernity, broader and more confident, stripped almost bare of myth and religion.

So I follow with eager attention the goings on of Charedi society, and the often labyrinthine tales of those who pass from it into the wider world. (Charedi is a less pejorative and foreign-sounding term for “ultra-Orthodox,” the word often favored in the press. “Chasidic” is inaccurate, since many Charedim are not adherents of Chasidic philosophy and teaching.) That’s the passage my friend Yosl is traversing. He was born in Williamsburg, studied in a number of yeshivas in Brooklyn and Israel, got married – and decided, as the culmination of many years of theological doubt, that he did not want to have kids, because he did not want to raise any children as Orthodox Jews. He left the marriage and Charedi society, moving to Omaha.

I met Yosl at a Yiddish conference in New Jersey which was held (need you ask?) on the grounds of a Catholic college. I was fascinated by his personal history and drawn even more by his flouting of the rules of polite society. At this conference there was a book fair, and a certain newly-published volume on women and Yiddish was being offered for sale and autographs by the authors. Although I ended up buying the book, I expressed to Yosl some (I thought) subtle and quiet reservations about one of the essays. Yosl turned to one of the women and said in a loud voice, “Sholem says this book is bullshit.” There are more examples.

For a time I accepted Yosl’s unsubtleties with an ignorant tolerance: he’s an ex-Charedi, and must have “trouble adjusting.” He must not “be accustomed” to the rules that we follow on this side of the Williamsburg Bridge. In short, I made allowances for him (to myself) much as I would for an autistic child.

But not too long ago a friend pointed out the obvious to me: that’s just the way he is. “He gives the rest of us ex-Os a bad name,” said my friend. “He’s only drifting because he wants to drift.” Indeed, another ex-Charedi acquaintance of mine (who left that society at 16) is a rising young film-maker, well connected to just about anyone in the world of the Jewish culturally hip. Dislocation does not mean what I thought it would mean: sometimes it’s the perfect route to creative transformation; sometimes it amplifies the banalities already present; and sometimes it makes bottomless canyons out of little cracks in the psyche.

Why did I come to this dinner? I find the ex-Charedi crowd entertaining, and I think I might learn something about today’s Jews, a group close to my heart. In the circles I travel in, I know precious few people on the fringe of Jewish society – and observing the fringe gives a sense of what makes up the whole cloth. There’s a personal reason, too. I became more observant than my parents – what is Shabbat (or Shabes) like for someone who has gone in the other direction? The back-and-forth flux from O(rthodoxy) to C(onservatism) to R(eform) is what occupies the thoughts of many American Jews. What are the facts on the well-traveled ground between them?

(Yosl’s one of those who has made the cleanest break with his past, although he does maintain contact with his parents. I’ve changed the names of everyone else I’ve mentioned here, because for some of them being mentioned in an essay like this would have serious consequences.)

I arrive before sunset (so I don’t break the Sabbath by traveling) and bring a bottle of wine. Rachel, who's a non-Jew, a German student in the YIVO Summer Program, says by way of greeting, "I'm sorry, but I'm stoned." She learned Yiddish by listening to Kol Yisrael on her shortwave radio in Berlin, and now waits tables at Tavern on the Green to earn money.

I wait for the other guests to arrive. They all have a lot in common: ex-O (for Orthodox), Yiddish-speaking, versed in the texts of traditional Jewish study (and some in worldly learning as well), jobless, and disaffected. In Yiddish you'd call them apikorsim, that is, apostates. In English you'd call them slackers.

As the guests filter in, a few of us sit in the living room. The ketoyres (pot) goes around. Yudl, who is permanently high, talks with fervent enthusiasm about last night's Bob Dylan-Paul Simon concert. "'The Boxer' is a real Chasidic song," he avers. Through the segue music-entertainment-frum entertainment the topic turns to"Handl erlekh [Deal Honestly]," a Hasidic version of "Monopoly": "You're wearing a loud red dress. Pay fifteen dollars." "You're watching television. Go to hell. Do not pass Go."

The dining room fills up. Someone starts to sing "Shalom Aleichem"; a few join in, but there are some suppressed groans, and many eyes roll. Mendl, from a Vizhnitzer family and a former student at NYU, starts opening the wine for kiddush, while Yisroel Meyer, who works in the Brooklyn public library, says, "Oh, God, I can't take this" -- meaning kiddush, which he can't handle, along with all other appurtenances of tradition.

Why is Mendl able to appropriate the ritual for his own use, while Yisroel Meyer is not? I don’t know. But I do notice that Mendl – after he executes an imperfect opening of the bottle– takes hold of a strainer and begins to extract the bits of cork that have ended up in the wine. Suddenly I speak up: “That’s borer [sorting, one of the types of labor forbidden on the Sabbath].” And Mendl in response, respectfully, even chastened: “You’re right. I forgot. Maybe you should be doing this,” he says, gesturing with the bottle towards the kiddush cup. Why did I say anything? I am not that careful with that category of forbidden labor in my own kitchen, on my own turf. Why do I feel the need to emphasize my observance, when I bear no ill will towards these Jews for leaving observance altogether?

Caleb makes hamotzi, the blessing over bread. If you hang around with Yiddishists, you know Caleb. He dresses sharp, tonight in an outfit out of a 40s' movie (white shoes, white suit, thick, black-rimmed glasses), speaks and writes a fluent Yiddish, and is a goy gomer
-- a complete non-Jew -- on both sides. Nine and a half out of ten American Jews could not make hamotzi with his poise. He teaches Yiddish and earns some money (not an independent living by any means) as a Yiddish actor and public reader of poetry and short stories.

Berl arrives, tall, thin-boned, and with the remnant of a beard, and begins to spin a tale about his supposed profession: armchair terrorism, supporting despots, counter-revolutionaries, and all those who maintain the status quo. He is clever and cynical in the nihilst mold: "The Dalai Lama is worse than the Chinese, otherwise how could he stand by and let millions of people think he's a god?" He does not expect or receive any response to this claim, nor are there any cries of outrage at his choice of “profession.” It’s like a comedy routine without the audience, or any attempt to elicit laughter. The black humor is accepted as a matter of course as the currency of the evening.

Binyomin -- a long-haired, shambling, gesticulating eccentric -- is fascinated by the work of Elias Canetti, the Nobel laureate in literature born into a Ladino-speaking family in Bulgaria, and in particular his book "Crowds and Power." In a high-pitched, excited voice, much like Yudl in ecstasy over Dylan, he starts making fun of the yeshiva students who have just returned from protest gatherings in Brooklyn or Jerusalem: "There were thousands of Jews there! Thousands of Jews!"

Says Berl about Canetti, "That's what all religion is -- a fear of dead crowds: the rebbeim, the gedolim. Men take that fear and call it tradition." This is a quintessentially Berl-like statement: cutting yet overgeneralized, dismissive, dismissable, but fascinating. What can be said against this by one whose relationship to tradition is more positive? “No, I disagree! Religion is not a transformed fear of dead crowds!”? If I were to say something like that, I would be laughed at: not out of scorn, but out of the irrelevance of an argument on the pros and cons of religion. Religion, to these Jews, is not a selection on the menu or a component of one’s ever-shifting moral autonomy, but a determinant of one’s entire surroundings. By accepting this dichotomy between “religious” and “not religious”, they are employing the worldview of the very Orthodoxy they have in greater or lesser measure escaped.

As if to underline the point, someone proposes a debate on the value of religion between the late Bertrand Russell and the late Lubavitcher Rebbe; this leads to a suggestion for an advertising campaign for Smirnoff Vodka, which the Rebbe did not live to endorse.

The conversation, whose coherence is already sorely taxed, breaks into fragments. Binyomin brings up the Kotsker Rebbe, the eighteenth-century Hasidic leader whose philosophy is considered a forerunner of existentialism. What happened on that night, the night before the Kotsker's twenty-year seclusion? Is it true that the Kotsker deliberately extinguished the Shabbat candles by throwing his hat at them from the other end of the table, crying “There is no law and no judge!”? In a long, uninterrupted monologue, Binyomin analyses the treatment of this story in the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel – a Yiddish poet, historian of Chassidism, theologian, and ideologue of the mid-20th-century Conservative movement – considers the story to be generally true, a reflection of the Kotsker’s growing internal unrest. Binyomin finds little support for Heschel’s belief.

I can’t help but see Binyomin as a gilgul of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Binyomin’s knowledge is clearly encyclopedic, and I have been told he is a marvelous writer, although I have not seen anything of his myself. He still lives with his father, in a separate room piled high with books. What sort of writer must he be? If I were to guess, I would not put him with the self-consciously rebellious, sex-obsessed “children of immigrants” (Roth et al.), nor with the modern generation (Goodman, Bukiet), surer in its Judaism but conflicted. He has the speech patterns and casts the brilliant sparks of a European master, of a Thomas Mann or a Canetti. If there were a Left Bank, a Vilna, or a Warsaw to support him, what monuments would he compose?

Or perhaps he is like Yosl, and does not wish to compose anything.

Berl says that if sleep is a sixtieth of death, and sleep is so great, then death must be a real blast. "All I need in life," he says, "is a place to sleep and some nicotine. All the stuff in the Talmud is nonsense."

Berl’s throwaway phrase (“all the stuff in the Talmud is nonsense”) means not at all what you might think it to mean out of context. “All the stuff in the Talmud” is not a dismissive wave of the hand from a college student who has taken a few “X in the Talmud” courses from the Jewish Studies professors, but a deeply felt if casually expressed declaration of rootlessness. “The stuff in the Talmud,” for much of Berl’s life, had been presented to him as “all” – and not long ago he realized that much of what he had learned did not make sense to him. It is this doubt that Berl expressed – a doubt that has been part of the Jewish makeup since Moses Mendelssohn.

I head towards the Brooklyn Bridge for the walk home to Manhattan, but somehow I get lost and fumble around in the dark byways near the bridge for the better part of an hour. By the time I get home and mount the nine flights of stairs to my dimly lit apartment (I don’t take the elevator tonight), I have lost all Sabbath rest.

I thought that Shabbat meal would be an entrée into a fascinating world of tortured, European-style struggle between the man on the street and the Jew at home. In my more self-centered moments, I even thought that we more secular-minded Yiddishists could light the flame of a Haskalah redux which would burn through the divisions between the Charedi and secular worlds. We’d produce Yiddish creativity on a par with the best of the past, lighting the way to a future both more modern and more Jewish.

It’s now been many months. Yosl lives in Moscow learning Russian and teaching some Yiddish. Mendl is back at NYU, and Caleb and I were among the teachers at a Yiddish program this past summer. I don’t know what Binyomin and Berl are doing, but I have an idea it’s about the same – working at regular jobs, finding no purchase for the traction of their intellects. I still write in Yiddish and promote the language, and I still try to follow what’s going on with the Charedim – not to enter into their world but to get a better handle on my own.

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