Bad Jews.

If I am nothing else on this earth, I am a Jew.

If ever I doubt that, I have only to observe my reaction to, oh, say, finding a vat of pulled pork on my front porch (it was a block party!) or consider the goosebumps that unfailingly prickle my forearms every single time that the Torah is returned to the ark and the congregation starts to sing: “Torati al ta’azovu – etz chaim he…” (“Don’t abandon my Torah – it is a tree of life…”).

I’m a Jew.

And if I am any kind of Jew, I am an Israeli Jew. Israel is where I became Jewish, after all, having been born an American Protestant of some sort of vaguely Presbyterian lineage (and having then become a born-again Christian [I was 10. Cut me some slack]). I went through a spiritual whoops-di-doo, discovered where I was meant to be (where I was, the rabbis would say, all along), and joined my life to that of my people.

My conversion doesn’t come up a lot because it doesn’t mean very much to me. I’m not a convert – I’m a Jew. I’m not a Jew-by-choice – I’m a Jew. I’m not a former Christian – I’m a Jew. I’m just, you know – a Jew. When God presented the Israelites with the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and the souls of all Jews past and present were there to hear and receive it, mine was in the crowd. So we’re taught, and so I believe.

So there I am in Israel, I discover that I’m really a Jew, I become one, and there it is. Done.

Or so I thought. It never occurred to me that I might one day find myself living in the galut (exile). It never occurred to me that American Jews would find my conversion of material interest (Israeli Jews — or: the kind that I hang out with — mostly don’t). It never occurred to me that in becoming a Jew in Israel, I learned some very specific ways to be Jewish that don’t apply in the galut. It never occurred to me that there might be anything wrong with the powerful Israeli sense of superiority about the way that they are Jews — and it never occurred to me that there might be something wrong with American Jews agreeing with them.

And yet. Here I am. And the longer I live here in the galut, the more of an American Jew I become — and the more pissed off I get at the Israelis.

There is a sense — a nonsense, really — that Israelis are better Jews. That they, by-definition, know what they’re doing better than the Jews who don’t live their lives in Hebrew. Israeli Jews are often treated by their American brothers and sisters with a truly odd kind of reverence, or deference, both of which greeted my husband and me when we first arrived on these shores. This is true even if (and this is the exceptionally odd part) the Israelis in question are not in the least observant. I’ve been told (to my face!) that some people in my shul are willing to accept that I can’t be all bad, despite my politics, because my husband is Israeli-born.

Do they know that he’s an atheist? That he’s nearly an anti-Zionist? That if the kids hadn’t been there, he would have dived straight into that pulled pork and not come up for air?

And now, dear reader, I come to my point.

Not only do Israeli Jews, as a rule, behave as if they know better than their Diaspora counterparts how to be a Jew, not only do American Jews, as a rule, accept this as a given — but the Israeli government itself is complicit in furthering this series of assumptions, and regularly acts to codify them into law.

Most American Jews are Reform, secular, atheist, Reconstructionist, Conservative — in short: anything but Orthodox. And yet everything about the Israeli handling of religious issues within Israel’s borders is predicated on the assumption that there is but one way to be a Jew, and that is Orthodox. My Conservative wedding? Unacceptable. My friend’s Conservative conversion? Unacceptable. Burial in anything but an Orthodox fashion? Literally impossible (unless you take the body to a friendly kibbutz).

This fact has served to anger me since before my (Orthodox) conversion, and the years have not lessened that anger one iota. It is simply wrong to dictate to the citizens of a democratic state how they may or may not conduct matters of faith, who they may or may not marry, who (in short) they are. You may think you’re a Jew, they seem to say, but you’re no Jew. And I have a law passed by the legislative body paid for by your taxes to back me up.

In recent days, though, my anger has turned to full-on fury as I have considered a fact that long escaped me: These same people? This Israeli government so anxious to hand me and mine over to the tender mercies of the Orthodox rabbinate — the, let’s be honest, ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, peopled by men who follow dress-codes set in (if I’m not mistaken) 16th century Poland — this bunch of secular, nationalist, opportunistic politicians for whom matters of faith matter not in the least? These people?

They are the very same people who tell American Jews, over and over and fucking over again, that they had best be all about official Israeli policy regarding the conflict. They had best be all about the occupation and the settlements and the constant war-footing and the refusal to accept any (any) responsibility for the results of the refusal to actually resolve the conflict. Indeed, American Jews must not only be mentally and emotionally behind all of this — they must also send their money east, to support it, and dog their Senators and Congress members to do likewise.

Else they are very bad Jews indeed.

To summarize: The Jewish State is happy to take American Jews’ money and stir us up to create political pressure to support endless war — but our prayers?

Ashes.

This was brought home to me the other day when I learned that a Knesset committee had passed a new conversion bill, ceding all control over the approval of conversions to an Orthodox body, and again when I learned (the same day!) that Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman had been arrested for carrying a Torah scroll at the Western Wall — but it had been stewing about in my heart for a good couple of weeks beforehand.

I was glad to read that some American Jews have begun to complain, and that some Israeli Jews agree. But why American Jews as a whole are not out-and-out incensed by this two-faced behavior is just beyond me.

Who are they to tell you that you are not a good enough Jew?

Who are they?

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23 Comments

  1. Thank you Emily for your heart-felt post.

    Joel Katz
    Religion and State in Israel
    @religion_state

  2. They are the same people that exist in the Roman Catholic religion, or the Muslim religion, or any religion, really. There is always some group, somewhere, that is telling you that you are worshiping wrong. In America, religion is used as a political weapon: the Jews by Israel, the Catholics by Rome, etc. When the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution the provision that the government could not endorse a single religion, it was in the hope that religion would not become politicized as a result. Little did they know how that would simply transfer control over religion to other groups outside America, and the disastrous consequences that would be incurred. America’s tacit approval of everything Israel does, the Catholic war on abortion, contraception, and family planning, the “Moral” Majority… all of these things are created by the idea that there is one, single way to worship, that one cannot be a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Christian unless they follow the strictest of guidelines. The profusion of sects in every major religion is a direct result of the re-drawing of the lines demarcating what it means to be a “real” [insert favorite religious group here].

    Religion has to return to being a very personal thing, a covenant between the individual and their creator, on the terms they feel most comfortable with. The constant marking of absolutes only seeks to create undue conformity, locking most fervent believers into mindsets best expressed two thousand years ago, not now. As so many other things have evolved over the ages, so too must religion, or it must be relegated to an anachronism.

    • dmf

       /  July 15, 2010

      when was religion “a very personal thing, a covenant between the individual and their creator on the terms they feel most comfortable with” as opposed to a communal/covenantal thing? i’m all for de-mythologizing/secularization but let’s be clear that we are asking people to give something up and not moving them towards some ‘deeper’ truth, and we should be very wary of replacing theological values with consumer choice values.

      • All religion is individual, despite what the major religions would want you to believe. Blind faith in every precept outlined in the Torah or the Bible or the Quran is a level of orthodoxy rarely obtained; we each apply our own experiences and knowledge to whatever belief system we practice, taking what we need to improve our spiritual lives. We may be part of a larger community, worshipers of the same general system, but we are each our own person, still. Each must make their peace with their creator as they see fit. It is when we are told there is one way, and one way only, to go about our worship, that we lose our spiritual connection and it becomes, instead, indoctrination. My rebellion from the Roman Catholic church came as I saw that no allowances were being made for the march of time, and that dogma that seemed reasonable centuries ago, now did not fit into how modern humanity worked. I did not reject all of my Catholic heritage — I am still a firm believer in the teachings of Jesus — but I ceased to feel the need to steep myself in the trappings of the religion. I don’t believe I will be judged on how often I went to church, or obtained confession, or any of the other things Rome would tell me are important. I believe I will be judged on how I treat my fellow humans.

      • dmf

         /  July 15, 2010

        yep very american/protestant, i think that you are making the case for the orthodox folks.
        but the broader issue is whether or not judaism can survive outside of the ghetto (even one as big as israel) or if it will be lost to assimlation. it’s an empirical/sociological question which could only be answered at some future date but as one of those who got lost in america i have some sympathy for this profound concern.

  3. Lord, yes. I have been struggling with this one for a long time; I think many American Jews needlessly impoverish our own spiritual lives by presuming that Israel is the only place where one can be “really” Jewish, and I wish we didn’t do that.

    But this mess around conversions, and now the arrest of Anat Hoffman, have made me incredibly furious and sad. Gevalt, Israel.

  4. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Each of my parents has, at one time or another, been married to a Jew so I sort of have this tangential experience of American Jewish life…

  5. Excellent. Huge clap. Very brave and moving post.

    Who decides who is a Jew in Israel? The rabbinate, always. And this makes me angry on so many levels. I wrote previously about this here: http://www.jewlicious.com/2009/07/jews-cant-marry-in-israel/ , mainly because Russian Jews are not recognized as Russians in Russia and, when they go through the enormous process of aliyah, they are not recognized as Jews in Israel, namely because many don’t have proper documentation.

    Sorry, but who’s going to give you documentation in Russia? Your rabbi? In a country where a dead cat was thrown on my family’s doorstep when people in our town found out my mom was Jewish? Please. And, as a result, normal Jewish kids who serve in the army and generally contribute to Israeli society in the way that most of the ultra-Orthodox who fit in the neat little boxes don’t can’t marry as Jews in the Jewish homeland.

    What scares me the most is that the rabbinate is gaining power in a way even Ben Gurion, in his bargain with them, could have never predicted. Horrible.

  6. Emily — You’re absolutely right, and your anger is wonderful. Purifying. Freeing.

    Go for it. Don’t let this drop.

    This post needs to appear in the Israeli press — and the American press.

    Start forwarding it, everyone!

    — Lesley

  7. sue swartz

     /  July 15, 2010

    For what it’s worth, here’s my theory: we American and/or non-Orthodox Jews let the wool be pulled over our eyes time and again because some part of us believes (or perhaps just wonders vociferously) that if we were real Jews, we’d be living in Israel. If we were real Jews, we would live more like our Orthodox ancestors (who of course changed over time, but who’s looking?). Guilt does us in. That, and more guilt.

  8. Susan

     /  July 15, 2010

    I am not Jewish.

    I cannot but be surprised, however, at Israeli attitudes. Without the support of America and American Jews, Israel would be in big trouble immediately. And yet they have no fear of alienating their major supporters by declaring, in effect, that they aren’t “really” Jews at all. And even more surprisingly, American Jews swallow this without a glitch, and continue to support these policies.

  9. Cotton Fite

     /  July 16, 2010

    DearfriendEmily, Forgive me please; (as you know) I am not a Jew, so though I deeply appreciate your wonderful outrage at the possibility of as small group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis given the power to define who is and who is not a Jew, my imagination kicks into overtime and I (confess) am greatly (and wickedly) entertained. Isn’t there some way the predominantly sane Jews in the Diaspora and Israel could get together and declare these fellows (they are male, right?) “invalid”? And if the Knesset passes the bill, might it not just convince the Diaspora that this government, with its oppressive and self-destructive policies, is no longer worth supporting? And MAYBE, just MAYBE, those of you wonderful people around the world struggling to liberate Israel from the crazies would be in the ascendancy rather than lone voices crying in the Negev. (Did you see, by the way, Alana Newhouse’s op ed in the NYT this morning? Outrage from all quarters.) This is wonderful material for Jon Stewart. As I said, Emily, please forgive me. I do empathize, but my inherently wicked self is showing. Blessings, Cotton

  10. Susan

     /  July 16, 2010

    It says 14 comments, but lists only 11. Mine is one of the missing 3. ??

    • Susan,

      WordPress changes the position of your comment as more comments arrive. I frankly find it hard to read comments last to first, so I may have to go into the guts of the system to see if I can change that. Right now, I can see your comment, at #4. If you can’t see it, please email me at elhauser [at] hotmail [dot] com and I’ll see if I can figure out the problem!

      Also, for some reason, WordPress counts replies in the total comment count, but does not give each reply its own number. If you count the replies + the original comments, you’ll see how the number works out. Sorry for the confusion — that piece of it baffles me, too!

  11. Susan

     /  July 16, 2010

    Now it says 16 comments, but only shows 12.

  12. Susan

     /  July 16, 2010

    Now it says 17 comments and registers 13. Oddly, though, the last comment remains the same through all these changes. And no, we’re not catching up.

  13. I sent the following letter to Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic, and a shorter version is in the queue (or the oubliette) at the Jerusalem Post. But I think you’ll get it.
    ————-
    We non-Orthodox are like a woman who’s been abused, insulted, stolen from, and betrayed by her husband. At last he’s given her a get — but it still hurts, to know how little she was ever respected.

    A crucial aspect that both American and Israeli Orthodox (and secular Israelis) seem to be mostly missing is that non-Orthodox Jewish practice seems more *right* to us. We aren’t interested in just being halachically “good” Jews, we want to be good people who are Jewish. We look at Israeli Orthodoxy and we see the same behavior and attitudes we see in Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists. We do *not* see the true foundations of our Jewish religion: Hillel’s “one-leg Torah” (aka The Golden Rule), teshuva, tikkun olam, justice and wisdom, wrestling with G-d. Indeed, I think that to many of us Israeli Orthodoxy seems to make idols out of even the Torah and Eretz Israel, preferring to focus on these rather than the more difficult mitzvot: “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger or the poor”, for a start. We let strangers into our congregations because we do still know the feelings of the stranger.

    Even when you’ve been kicked out, it’s hard to walk away — but I think that’s what non-Orthodox Jews have to do to remain true to our Jewish obligations.

  14. great post. i’m so happy to have stumbled upon your blog. i was raised as a conservative jew and was zionistic enough to have made aliyah. unfortunately, somewhere along the way, local kiruv organizations convinced me to go down that path. i made aliyah and then left israel and left orthodoxy. i could no longer subscribe to a system that allowed their teachers to tell my children that men who don’t wear kipot are not jews (i had to convince my young kids that their grandfather is jewish.) i had children telling my daughter that she wasn’t a jew because we owned a dog. this is just the tip of the iceberg–i could write you a dissertation. i bring this up because in the scheme of things, what my kids were taught in a year at an american haredi yeshiva on the elementary level gives a pretty clear understanding of the brainwashing that takes place up until adulthood. is it any wonder that the ultra orthodox don’t view anyone other than themselves as being the true jewish people when this is what is taught at the most basic level?
    i keep telling my (non-orthodox)friends that “money talks.” while i’d hate to not help israel, i can no longer support what was originally a secular state for all jews but is now turning into a theocracy and turning against the very citizens who fight in the army and send their children to war, who work hard to live there and financially support the haredim who sit in yeshivot all day without contributing to society, yet tell people like yourself, that they are not jews.
    emily, kol hakavod. i hope more people will hear your voice and stand up against this insanity.

  15. Serge

     /  September 12, 2010

    If I may inject a skeptical note — I do not think that this has much to do with Israel at all. It is typical of almost everywhere but America. To wit, anywhere whose Jewish communities never experienced much of the Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist movements, and anywhere whose Jewish communities never knew to label themselves “Orthodox” because they never had non-Orthodox movements to define themselves against. Ask among traditional Jews of almost any community — Moroccan, Yemenite, Persian, Romanian, what have you — and the attitude will be similar. That flavours of Judaism which were created in the last couple of centuries by West Europeans and Americans, and which reject much of what is consensus among what they are told is “Orthodox” Judaism, are impudent, newfangled, Euro-assimilated schools which haven’t very much to do with real Judaism. I am not saying that there is anything good about this attitude, mind. But I do not think it is correct to tag it is somehow “Israeli”. Israel/Diaspora simply isn’t the relevant distinction. American/Traditional or, perhaps less provocatively, Non-Western/Western, is.

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