Thursday, May 17, 2012

I became Jewish because I'm really good at complicating my life.

In the not too distant past, as I was struggling with my conversion demons and the nearly unanswerable question concerning what this thing I joined called Judaism actually is, I made some shallow, or at least unfair assumptions in this very blog concerning certain Jewish practices that don't jive well with my sensibilities. This bothered me, so I tweaked some of those past posts, in some sincere attempt to not come off as a complete asshole (maybe just an asshole with a little 'a'). But perhaps rewriting large chunks of text looks more like saving face than just having the humility to admit that I was not being particularly thoughtful. I must say though, since I managed to insult both Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, I have a certain degree of pride in my obtuse condemnations of them; you can't pinpoint my prejudices. My prejudices run along the entire spectrum! My condescension is all inclusive, folks.

Of course, I'm being somewhat facetious, but it's better to admit to making a mistake than to continue to defend your mistake as though that's not exactly what it is. Then I would look as though I protest too much, and I'd revert back into an asshole with a capital "A."

If I carried this bag, would you believe me?
Just this week, I've learned some things about Judaism that are worthy of my consideration before I just jump into the ring and start throwing punches in all directions. Let's start with something concerning our liberal friends in the Reform movement. But before I start groveling, let me preface the discussion by saying that I still truly have problems with Reform Judaism. I still think that there is too much of a tendency within the movement to disregard Jewish tradition and ritual, and while I admire and support their attempts to be more inclusive of women, I think they take it too far by trying to force egalitarianism even where it's not natural. What I mean by unnatural is not "perversion" or "morally wrong." I just mean, I don't want complete egalitarianism just for the sake of waving the banner of egalitarianism like it's some great achievement in and of itself without considering the individual. Now, understand, please, that I too want to be equally considered, equally valued and equally heard and respected. But people are different, men and women are different in nature (it's true, shut up) and I'd like that to be taken into consideration before all gender roles get thrown out the window after being labeled evil inventions of patriarchal societies.

-Honey, it just makes sense for me to mother the child, because I have a womb and my breasts produce milk.
-Tch. Typical patriarchal argument. You're such a dick. 
Now that I've insulted feminists, let me get back to the heart of my issue with Reform Judaism, which is that they seem to have no problem with playing fast and loose with conversions. When I discussed a particular Reform convert that I met last Succot, I mentioned my alarm with her ignorance of the very religion she converted to--not knowing about after meal blessings, not seeing the point of eating meals in a sukkah, not knowing that many Orthodox Jews don't touch the opposite sex, and are typically (at least ideally, if they are following their practices) super-virgins until the get married, in that they have before never engaged in intimate contact of any kind. I stand by my alarm at her ignorance. Converts obviously don't know everything before they head to the mikveh (though some Reform Jews don't see the need to immerse in a mikveh as a part of their conversion process...I hope they do know what a mikveh is), but at least knowing of and having some familiarity with really, rather basic Jewish practices, even if you have no interest in taking them on yourself should be a taught and learned.

But, I also criticized her version of reciting HaMotzi, with the challah chain. I believe I referred to it as "perhaps the most incorrect way to say HaMotzi." Well, honestly,  that's not quite true, in a certain sense. While there are laws or rules to follow when performing certain actions in the Jewish world, there are also plenty of variations. Jewish customs are not the same in every area of the world, community, or even household. I "learned" how to recite HaMotzi from the three year old living in the household that I was living in during my conversion, which consisted of laying a hand on the challah and repeating the blessing after his mother said it, and then tearing large chunks from the loaf and tossing a piece to each person around the table. Apparently, the  Rabbis who codified our laws once upon a time, would do it a bit differently.

The truth is, a lot of these practices became customs, passed down over generations. We don't do them all the same way. We might recite the same blessings, but how we hold the challah for instance, or if we cut the bread into pieces with a knife or tear chunks off with our hands, is moot. I still don't like the challah chain. It feels like a hippie invention, and I've never liked linking hands with my neighbor. It's awkward. The only time I'd do it, is at a Reform Shabbat meal.

In my evisceration of Reform converts, I also referred to some Orthodox practices that I find silly at best, and odious at worst. But then again, I also have had some new light shed upon those practices from those who actually practice them. I'm referring, of course, to the "no touching" rules of both shomer negiah and niddah. This is still troubling to me, so bear with me.

I made the brazen claim that shomer negiah was about avoiding temptation to have intimate contact before marriage as well as to avoid inadvertently coming into contact with a woman who is menstruating. As far as I can tell, these are the "practical" considerations of being shomer negiah. Okay, fine. If that is important to someone, I understand. Judaism sees the marital union between husband and wife to be something holy, and their sexual relationship a blessing, that has the ability to produce life. I'm not going to get into my own personal beliefs concerning sexual behavior between people prior to marriage, except to say that I see the value in connecting with someone  on an intimate level before deciding to spend your life with them, exploring and understanding that side of yourself as a sexual being, and that homosexual relationships should also be valid and valued and recognized just as equally as heterosexual relationships (perhaps now some of you will forgive my issues with egalitarianism from before, eh?) All of this is how I view sexual behavior, relationships and marriage, and yes, Judaism and I disagree here, but I can rip my hair out over it in frustration another time. The issue that I truly have the biggest problem with in this sense, is the practice of niddah.

For those of you who don't know, a woman is in niddah from the beginning or her period, to seven days after she has stopped bleeding. During this time, she is 'off limits' so to speak, to her husband. She is not to have any physical contact with him. She may have physical contact with children, other women, and family. When her period has ended, and the seven days afterwards have elapsed, she immerses herself in a mikveh, and is then permitted to engage in marital relations with her husband again.

Niddah often gets translated as 'impure' or 'unclean' and it is no mystery why people would read it that way. Being untouchable in some sense, and then have to ritualistically immerse yourself in water before you can be touched by your husband again certainly carries the connotation of being unclean because of something totally normal and healthy that your body does.

Let me share too much information for a moment. When I first began to menstruate, I was only ten years old. My pituitary gland decided to play a cruel joke on my young body by acting up before anyone else in my class. As a result I was intentionally wearing baggy clothes, and almost always two shirts to hide my changing body. Puberty was around the time that I started dressing like a boy, hanging out with boys, skateboarding, playing basketball, and generally wishing that I was a boy.

Clearly, the other girl in the front was having the same issue with her body as I was with mine. 
So when I found bloodstains in my underwear, I did what any logical ten year old would do; I threw them away. I hid the evidence. Maybe it was a fluke, I hoped. Maybe that wasn't blood. Or maybe I had cut myself somehow and didn't realize it. Just throw the panties away, get a fresh pair, and pretend like that didn't happen. Of course, it did happen, and when I showed my mother, I knew just from her expression that it was no small thing. When she gave me an overview of what was going on (she eventually checked out a library book for me that would go into graphic detail about the wonders of the female anatomy. Life was never the same after that), I reacted as though I had just been given a lifelong prison sentence. I couldn't understand how I was supposed to live with this. It was going to last 4-7 days a month?! I had to wear this bulky pad like a crotch diaper?! I couldn't swim while wearing the crotch diaper (tampons came later. When you're ten...yeah, tampons are just out of the question)?! How was I supposed to change the crotch diaper at school? What if I bled through the crotch diaper? And I'll be doubled over with cramps this whole time as well?! How could people live this? In the words of Dorothy Parker, what fresh hell is this?

More than any of that though, I was absolutely sure, more than certain, that I was the only girl in the fourth grade who was going through this. I had the distinct sense that as soon as I would show up to school the next day, everyone would know somehow, that I had gotten my period. I was terrified of being found out, and of nobody understanding what it was like, because nobody else was going through this. Most of them would have another two or three blissful years of innocence left before they would be put through this hell called puberty.

Not long after being thrust into womanhood at a too-early age, I learned that apparently, "being on the rag" was a bad thing, just as I had expected. If you were in a bad mood, or upset with someone, no matter how understandable your emotional reaction was, it was not outside of the realm of reason to assume that you were on your period. All of my emotional responses to the outside world could be boiled down to one simple fact: I menstruate. There are few words to describe how frustrated and humiliated I felt (and still feel) whenever my feelings were dismissed as the hormone crazed rantings of a woman on the rag. Of course, getting more angry about this only makes you look more like a hormonal bitch in the eyes of the one waving away your feelings. I grew up being bombarded with the idea that getting your period was a bad thing, nobody takes a woman as seriously as a man because we have periods, and by the way, it's gross! Bleeding from your vagina for days at a time? If I could punch someone every time I've heard "never trust something that bleeds for a week and doesn't die," I'd be moderately wealthy, and so satisfied with my swollen, punching fist.

I know that I can't speak for every woman and her particular experience of coming of age with this physically pivotal moment in her life. I'm speaking for myself: I have a hard time accepting shomer nagiah and niddah practices, because I automatically assume them to be negative reactions to the female body, its functions, and the honestly difficult reality of existing in this body. Don't get me wrong; I love being a woman, and am perfectly comfortable in my feminine skin these days. That took a lot of time and a lot of work to get to, though. And it's not just menstruating that makes female bodily experiences a touchy subject. In the secular world, we struggle with being more than what we're constantly being fed--too fat, too thin, boobs too small, boobs too big, hips too narrow, cellulite is gross, I like big butts, and I cannot lie, you're not enough of this, you're too much of's maddening. It's not difficult to look at a religious observance regarding a woman's body and its natural function in the same light. You bleed, you're untouchable. You have to go purify yourself before you're fit for affection and intimacy again. You're dirty.

Of course, this isn't how women who practice niddah (and their husbands) view it. As a teacher of mine put it, it has nothing to do with purity and impurity, rather, niddah should be considered a time of separation where husband and wife can evaluate and contemplate their relationship beyond it's physical aspects, as well as be autonomous from one another. While I'm tempted to make a joke here that married couples stop having sex at some point, and that conjugal relations should be encouraged whenever possible, there is something to be said for creating a sense of longing and yearning for your partner when you are off limits to each other physically for about two weeks out of the month. Not being around each other and in each other's personal space constantly, perhaps, can keep the flame of desire between a married coupled kindled, and the need to rediscover the spark when love becomes routine is less of an issue. I recently have read some studies regarding what keeps a happy marriage happy, and it's not all that far off from Jewish marital values. For instance, spending time apart and pursuing your own interests every so often is a positive thing. Spending time with each other during every waking moment of your lives apparently becomes tedious--and annoying. Even sleeping in separate beds once in a while apparently has its benefits (though that seems to have more to do with the fact that sleeping with another person every night can do a number on how much restful sleep you actually get, because it's easy to wake each other up with moving around, snoring, hogging the blankets or the bed...all that fun stuff they don't tell you about before you start sleeping with someone).

How can I make it look like an accident if I just kill him in his sleep?
I have never been married, but I have been in a long term relationship--a seven and a half year long relationship, to be precise. Five of those years, we lived in sin with each other, and encountered these same issues, which really ruined our relationship (among other things, but that's a whole other soap opera). We spent almost all of our time together, and as a result, we annoyed the living hell out of each other. Even the tiniest, most mundane things that your partner does can turn you into an irrationally furious and resentful person. Those little things fly under the radar when you're not in each other's faces all the time. We argued over everything at the point where the relationship became practically unbearable. And because he had restless leg syndrome, and I have a tendency to toss and turn restlessly until I finally find a position that my body finds suitable to sleep in, we kept each other up, woke each other up, and generally wanted to strangle each other with the sheets in exhausted frustration.

My point is, I get the potential advantages of what niddah forces a couple to do by separating themselves from each other on a regular basis. I still think that not touching at all is a bit extreme. Niddah also pertains to a period of time after giving birth, which I find even more extreme. After having a baby together and starting a family, you would think that the most natural impulse for a couple would be to embrace each other and to express affection with their new lives together. And since you're clearly not going to be having sex with each other until the new mother has recuperated, it seems arbitrary to remove yourself from each other, physically. Here however, I was given the argument that the time following a birth, it is crucial that a mother and child spend that time together to bond. Why this means excluding the husband from some part of that physical process is beyond me, and where the argument becomes weaker, I believe.

I still can't get behind the practice of niddah, personally, probably due to my affectionate nature in romantic encounters. I'm not the type of person that thinks to hug friends hello or goodbye, unless we are really close, I'm avoiding the awkward situation of rejecting your hug, or I'm attracted to you and I want to touch you (what?! Oh, like I'm the only one who does that...). If I'm involved with someone, affection is crucial, perhaps to make up for my general stiff awkwardness when it comes to platonic affection. A lot can be said in a hug, and sometimes, they are really needed.

Still, it's good for me to recognize that my assumptions regarding a particular lifestyle are not always, you know...correct. You should see me try to explain kashrut to my family. It's totally impractical, and no, I don't know why we Jews eat the way we eat. I know why I do it and why it's meaningful for me, though. It makes me more mindful of my eating habits and what I put into my body. Having dietary restrictions makes my palette more sensitive, and I become more appreciative of my meals. I started doing it, because I lived with a Jewish family who kept a kosher kitchen, and then I converted and felt compelled to keep kosher because, well, that's what Jews do, right? I also can't tell you why I prefer to daven with a mechitza separating men and women. All I know is that it gives me a different sense of prayer space, and I can concentrate on my attempts to have an I-thou relationship with God this way. I'm not ogling the men if it's a mixed minyan, or anything like that. There's just something about it that means something to me, and really does make my shul experience different.

So, maybe observing niddah provides that important something for some other people. I don't think it's a mystery as to why it gets a bad rap, because hey, it's a touchy subject. We're talking about our periods and sexual boundaries. We live in a world where women's sexual freedom has been fought hard for, and the stigma behind setting our own boundaries on our own terms (guess what? We like sex too!) still trips us up in the bedroom, in relationships, in concepts of self image, and understanding of our own femininity. Observing a practice that sets limits based on what your body does naturally can seem, at first glimpse, like a giant step backwards. I've gotten so used to hearing apologists explain away certain Jewish practices that sideline women, that it's hard not be cynical about what has come to be known as "women's issues." But behind all these practices after all, are real people with their own reasons for their observances. It's condescending to assume that they're looking at their own lives through my eyes and judging themselves based on my criteria. Women who observe niddah have their own minds and their own opinions and their own feelings. They don't need to be told what to think and feel. I get furious when supposed feminists go on and on about the freedom of women to use their own brains to live their own lives, only to condemn women who don't conform to their version of what the modern day Wonder Woman should look like: "You want to be a mother? You want to get married? You want to cook for your husband? You want a man who will take charge? You like giving blow jobs? You shave your legs? You wear make-up? Well, you're just a slave to a patriarchal system that has poisoned your mind! Shame on you, woman!" But you know what really is liberating to us? What really sets us free? Being trusted know what we want and what's best for us, and make our own decisions over how we choose to live our lives by using the brains that God gave us. How about not fighting one form of oppression just to replace it with a different one?

Anyway, I still have a lot to learn before I open my mouth and make sweeping declarations about the nature of Judaism and Jewish practices, having been Jewish for less than a year, myself. Of course, having an opinion and forcefully expressing it with passion would be very Israeli of me...You know, sometimes I think I may have joined the most complicated people to ever populate God's green earth. I feel so at home.

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About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.