Twelve years ago, my wife and I moved from Manhattan to Harrisburg, Pa., and sought a Jewish community in tune with our liberal, Upper West Side Jewish ethos. We found ourselves living in what was, for a provincial state capital floating in a sea of Evangelical Christianity, a remarkably diverse Jewish neighborhood — our new friends included Reform Jewish lesbians, egalitarian Conservative Jews, non-egalitarian Conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews who eschewed American holidays (including Thanksgiving) as inimical to Jewish tradition.
We inaugurated a monthly Friday night potluck, in which members of the group took turns leading services, reciting blessings and conducting the grace after the meal. Everything went along swimmingly until we set ground rules that women could perform all of these rituals on an equal basis with men. Feeling betrayed, the more observant members left, charging us with not being “inclusive.”
While the group fizzled out long ago, I’ve never stopped thinking about the issue that our friends raised. What does it mean for Jews to be inclusive? It was painful that the most observant Jews in our neighborhood felt excluded from our group, but it was the non-Orthodox women who tearfully responded that they were the ones who were being shut out of full participation. It didn’t seem possible to create a space in which everyone’s understanding and practice of Judaism could be honored.
These tensions underlie much of contemporary Jewish life and culture. Throughout history, Jews have been obsessed with the notion of boundaries, whether used by Jews to keep themselves together or used against Jews to keep them out of majority society. For example, many anthropologists believe that the kosher laws were instituted to keep Jews separate from the surrounding peoples in the name of religious and cultural distinctiveness. The entrance of Jews into modernity necessitated a crashing through the door of Western society, which viewed Jews as loathsome racial outsiders.
Boundaries and limits became defining features of Jewish life, as one sees in Joseph Cedar’s new film, “Footnote,” in which a father and son’s battles against the feeling of marginalization, both in their family and in their society, sum up intra-Jewish conflicts as well as conflicts between Jews and the rest of the world.
As group identity declines, boundaries start to blur. Tiffany Shlain’s short 2006 documentary, “The Tribe,” uses the Barbie doll (created by a Jewish woman, Ruth Handler) as a symbol for the Jewish desire for assimilation, and questions the whole notion of a tribal Jewish identity at a time when Jews are so diverse and so individualistic in their ceaseless drawing and re-drawing of the contours of Jewish identity. But what happens when Jews insist on drawing boundaries among themselves?
Inevitably, someone feels excluded. When women were first being ordained as rabbis in the 1970s, the issue was couched in terms of inclusiveness. When congregations frowned on the involvement of non-Jews in their family members’ synagogue rituals, it was “inclusion” that became the rallying cry. Nowadays, a call for “inclusion,” whether it comes from philanthropist Lynn Schusterman or from activist Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, is understood to refer to LGBT Jews who are combating their own disenfranchisement in Jewish life.
As non-white Jews, Jews with special needs and other still-marginalized Jews increasingly come to the fore in Jewish life over the next few decades, the use of “inclusion” will doubtless shift once again. Is it an accident that so many rising North American Jewish novelists are Russian (I’m thinking of David Bezmozgis and Lara Vapnyar, just for starters), and that they bring such a fresh voice to the old Jewish themes of minority identity, of the experience of exile, of the yearning for a place to call their own?
There may be something quintessentially American about the position of being on the outside, looking in — one thinks of the title character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the (possibly Jewish) social climber whose wealth fails to buy either love or a sense of belonging. But we still need to worry about, as Bill Clinton put it in his first inaugural address, “who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down.” How much can we compromise — religiously, politically and ideologically — for the sake of unity, for the sake of what we call K’lal Yisrael — the whole Jewish people?
Ted Merwin is the paper’s theater critic. This is his first Culture View column, which will appear every other month in rotation with Daniel Schifrin’s.