True confession: I’m obsessed with Judaism. They say that adolescent boys think about sex every seven seconds. I have them beat when it comes to thinking about Jewishness — I never stop. Now this may not be so surprising, given that I’m a “professional” Jew. I write, teach and speak about Jewish culture. I serve as a Hillel director. I’m married to a Jewish studies professor, and we send our three kids to a Jewish day school. We keep Shabbat (mostly on Friday nights), keep kosher (at least at home) and live in a Jewish neighborhood, albeit in a minor-league city in Central Pennsylvania. Still, aren’t there other things to think about? Isn’t there a whole big world out there?
Maybe not, at least for me. Jewish religion, after all, dictates a peculiar form of single-mindedness. No, I’m not talking about the obsessive-compulsive aspect of so many Jewish rituals (Does it really matter in which sequence of directions we wave the lulav, or which dish towel we use to dry the silverware?) but about the Big Picture. The central credo of Judaism, the Shema, prescribes that we meditate on God’s oneness when we get up in the morning, when we go to sleep at night, when we walk down the street — basically, all the time.
But given that we’ve lived in a monotheistic world for the last couple of thousand years, do we really need to remind ourselves so frequently that there is only one God? We certainly don’t see a lot of people praying to the sun, moon and stars. Maybe it’s not God, per se, but Jewish religion in general that we’re supposed to be constantly mindful of. Call it a Jewish version of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.”
Sociologist Bethamie Horowitz, who teaches at NYU, has studied the correspondence between thinking Jewish thoughts and the strength of one’s Jewish identity. Her path-breaking 2003 report for UJA, “Connections and Journeys,” posited that the traditional way of measuring Jewish identity through assessing Jewish behaviors — such as lighting Shabbat candles or fasting on Yom Kippur — needed to be significantly revised to include more subjective, psychological aspects of Jewishness. Being Jewish in America, she said, has morphed into a “state of mind,” rather than simply a set of ritual actions. Perhaps instead of — or in addition to — a “New York State of Mind,” as the 1970s Billy Joel song goes, we’re in a “Jewish state of mind.”
Being Jewish in today’s world certainly affords a lot of things to ponder. What does intermarriage portend for the future of the Jewish community? How secure is Israel if Iran develops a nuclear weapon? Will religious and secular Jews find common ground? What role will Jews play in the upcoming presidential election? And, perhaps most importantly, what exactly does Sarah Silverman think she’s doing by offering her body to Sheldon Adelson?
Whenever there was the tiniest shift in the tides of political power in Eastern Europe, the perennial question was, “Is it good for the Jews?” Everything got viewed through a Jewish lens and filtered through a Jewish consciousness. Everything got assessed according to a Jewish set of priorities. Everything came down to Jewish vulnerability, Jewish anxiety, the precariousness of Jewish existence.
This is what fueled so much Jewish humor, especially in Yiddish — think Menashe Skulnik, for example — about powerlessness, shame, and self-reproach. But we’re not living in that world any more, in which the earth seemed always to be about to cave in under our feet. Nowadays, the most successful Jewish comedian is probably Jon Stewart, who, far from obsessing about being Jewish, wears his Jewishness so lightly that it might as well be a designer jacket to be donned or doffed at will. Should I try to take an interest in something outside of Judaism? Not so easy, because everything that I do takes on a Jewish coloration. When I cook, I want to cook Jewish food. When I read, I want to read Jewish books. When I listen to music, I want to hear Jewish tunes. I need a true “interior” decorator, someone who can help me move around some of my mental furniture to make room for some new, non-Jewish thinking. But I’m not sure how this could happen. Should I try shock therapy? Hypnosis? Yoga? Psychoanalysis? A 12-step program?
In the meantime, can we talk about something Jewish?
Ted Merwin is the paper’s theater critic. His Culture View column appears every other month.