Keyboard Judaism

When I discovered Orthodox Judaism at the age of eighteen, I experienced it as the meaningful vision for religious Judaism that I had never thought to imagine. Through many of the years that followed, even when I wasn’t a practicing Jew, I aspired only to Orthodoxy. I judged myself and others by the standards and positions of the mainstream Orthodox community.

Although there was deep dissonance for me between the ideals of the extended Orthodox community and the modern society I inhabited, I pushed it out of my mind. The confidence in Orthodoxy’s voice lent it credibility with me, and, like most that pass through this uncertain world, I found solace in certainty.

For me today, there lies elusive but enticing comfort in the unlikely possibility that the lives of individuals have purpose, and there also exists a second, concomitant comfort for me in the existence of my people. For complicated reasons, some indiscernible even to myself, I find great meaning in being a Jew. This lends me some sense of purpose, therefore I am invested in my nation’s continuity.

Either way, I must acknowledge to myself that I am done with Orthodoxy, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

Being done with Orthodoxy in a world of limited communal options is a fairly meaningless sentiment if the remaining alternatives are lacking for me; and communities, as far as I am concerned, are the Jewish nation’s largest building blocks. With due respect to God, to the extent that I can muster it (a failing of mine), I find Judaism without community nearly meaningless.

While my thinking has evolved from Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy, and I have developed sincere respect for people’s personal agencies and choices, as well as a deep appreciation for the historical contexts and worldviews of the non-Orthodox denominations, I retain a concern about non-Orthodoxy, which hasn’t abated over the years.

Simply put, I believe that the greatest failing of non-Orthodoxy is the relative ignorance that the great majority of its adherents have of Judaism, including ignorance of Jewish history, language, theology, literature… you name it.

One need not follow Jewish religious law (halakhah) in an Orthodox way, nor follow it at all, but I cannot wrap my mind around the notion of a meaningful Jewish identity empty of Jewish substance. There is much to laud in non-Orthodoxy, and I am happy to do so, but non-Orthodoxy around the world seems to be moving increasingly towards human universalism, away from national particularism.

At some point, universalism does cease to be Judaism, but: ending this particular train of thought here would miss the point.

* * *

A serious, developing problem of mine is that I am increasingly creating my own religious experience, apart from Jewish community of any sort… and the developing of one’s own, private Judaism is distinctly a heterodox undertaking.

I recently wrote, regarding my kaddish blogging following Papa’s death:

… I was successfully constructing a powerful, personalized religious experience… Even today, more than a year after completing my year of mourning for Papa, I’m still living off of my kaddish’s fumes.

– Me, ‘Resting on Religious Laurels’, Sept. 11, 2020

Thinking on this further, I realize that I’m doing much more than ‘living off my kaddish’s fumes’. On this website, I have been, in fact, throwing endless words atop my spiritual pyre. Yes, true, I attended synagogue every single day for an entire year following Papa’s death; and, true, I recited the traditional orphan’s kaddish in his memory every day… but it was my thinking and writing, which imbued my kaddish experience with real meaning.

Now, having returned to writing some two-thirds of a year after completing my kaddish odyssey, I realize how much purpose this process continues to provide me with. While I think that Judaism without community is pointless, it would seem that the essence of my own Judaism is being actualized in the chair before my keyboard.

COVID-19 lockdowns have certainly limited my access to community during this last half year and more, but… I haven’t been desperately clawing for any opportunities for communal engagement (which yet exist), nor tearing at the gates of my synagogue to return to daily communal prayer.

Instead, I’ve been writing.

And now I wonder: is my Judaism without community any more Jewishly substantive than a Judaism without Jewish substance?

72 thoughts on “Keyboard Judaism”

  1. Only you can answer this question for yourself, David. Your father Aleve v’Shalom was of my generation, the generation of Jewish Renaissance, which mostly meant trying to find out as much as possible about Jewish culture, rather than religion, and being proud of one’s Jewishness, rather than embarassed of the infamous “fifth line.”
    I consider myself fortunate in that I am this rarity: a post-Stalin-generation girl (I was two years old when Stalin died, may his name be erased from memory forever) brought up in a Shomer Shabbos, kosher home. I grew up with a concept of G-d explained by my granmother in my early childhood, and I was again fortunate later to spend two years with my great-grandfather, Reb Avrohom Chaim, the Tzaddik of Zhitomir.
    Before the lockdown, we always welcomed Baalei Tshuvos to our Shabbosim, Yomim Tovim, and weekly shiurim, and it never mattered to my husband and myself who observed what or who raised questions about the existence or substance of the A-mighty. As long as you come with an open heart (even if the mind is not ready yet), there is always “a gleizele wine” and a frank discussion.
    I wish you the very best in your search,
    Dolly

    1. That is very interesting, Dolly! Where were you raised?

      trying to find out as much as possible about Jewish culture, rather than religion, and being proud of one’s Jewishness, rather than embarassed of the infamous “fifth line.”

      My father was almost entirely ignorant about Judaism as a child, and he was very cosmopolitan – he had many non-Jewish friends and was bright enough to be successful despite the quotas in the USSR. It was only in his mid-twenties that he started becoming curious to know something about his Jewish’ness… and that led him to study Hebrew underground and eventually to make Aliyah in ’74.

      As you say, he wasn’t embarrassed… but he did know that being Jewish carried certain negative connotations.

      Yours,
      David

      1. It’s funny – I just asked you the same question. I am from Odessa, and Odessa has traditionally been very cosmopolitan. Considering that I worked for TV and newspaper, I obviously had many non-Jewish friends. In 1974 I was still stting in “otkaz,” and it was not until 1978 that I was expelled as “the enemy of the people.”
        We also had an underground ulpan on the wild beach, but that was secular learning of modern Hebrew, rather than Torah learning.
        Be well,
        Dolly (Devorah Yentl)

        1. Neither of my parents were ever “refused” – they both left in ’74 for Israel. (but my father was harassed by the KGB and had to leave the USSR without any of his belongings)

          Yours,
          David

          1. Yes, I was also questioned by the KGB for several months and then, when stories about me appeared in a couple of Western papers, I was expelled, and of course, also without amy belongings, with a six-year-old in one hand and a visa that bore a KGB, rather than the OVIR stamp in the other. I still have that visa; the stamp reads “Leave the borders within 10 days.”
            Mind you, I was no “heroic refusenik,” just a courier who delivered names.
            Be well,
            Dolly

            1. Dolly,

              In this blog post, I wrote this detail of my father’s story:

              In 1974, my father was detained by the Soviet militsia for protesting for the right of Jews to emigrate to Israel. He was no refusenik leader, but his friends had called him (on the day of!) to join them at a protest near the Mayakovskaya Metro stop in Moscow, and he had agreed to come. Minister of Internal Affairs Shchelokov interrogated my father, and my father felt the Minister’s cold gaze boring through him – focused somewhere upon on the back of his skull. This was the first and only protest my father attended in the USSR; he was one of the lucky few to receive an exit visa and moved to Israel shortly afterwards.

              1. Thank you for the link, David. I just left a rather long comment there.
                Wow! your father was interrogated by Shchelokov – what a distinction! I only had a lowly KGB colonel interrogating me, but it lasted a few months.
                Ah, the old synagogue by Mayakovskaya Metro where I would meet with the next person in information transfer relay…
                I did not participate in any protests, other than the two memorial services at Babi Yar where half of my family had perished. We were all under 18, i.e. not responsible under the Criminal Code (organized by adults, of course, who had connections with Western press). The boys said Kaddish, and we girls carried candles. Those were the first two times I got arrested, but they only held us overnight and kicked us out early in the morning.

                1. Reading a bit about your experiences makes me feel more connected to those times and places, Dolly, which are a part of my own history. Thank you.

                  -David

                  1. I am fascinated by the fact that you seem to want to get connected. My son, who was six when we left, has chosen to block it out, until suddenly he had to go to Russia on business in the 2000’s. and encountered a visa issue: we lft from Ukraine, but he had to go to Russia, The Russian government required proof that he was not a Ukrainian citizen, even though he has been a US citizen for years already. Lo and behold, my visa, in which he had been included as a minor, served as proof of having lost Ukrainian citizenship.
                    I think he had suffered an emotional trauma when the KGB came in the middle of the night to search our apartment; together with all the pillows they cut open his beloved stuffed monkey. Don’t worry about the monkey; my grandmother stitched his belly and put pants on him to cover the scar. Now he graces my granddaughter’s bed.
                    Incidentally, the last chapter of ny novel takes place at that old Moscow synagogue on Simhat Torah.
                    Be well,
                    D

                    1. I think… I just have no scars of my own from the USSR.

                      And… well… knowing more about it makes me feel that I know more about my family – my parents, my grandparents, etc….

                      I wouldn’t say that my parents avoided talking about the USSR, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how special it was to get out of the USSR in ’74… somehow I never thought to ask why all of my father’s and mother’s extended families moved to the USA and Israel (respectively) in the late eighties and early nineties, after they had been entirely absent from our lives before.

                      Also… I think that speaking Russian makes me feel that I’m connected to something that is beyond my own life experience, which fascinates me.

                    2. I don’t write, but I can read (although I have to sound out longer words)… but I don’t read for pleasure in Russian – rather, it’s a welcome exercise for me.

                    3. Well, my Mom tried – I had an Azbuka at home.

                      But as a kid, I wasn’t very interested in reading in Russian – my English skills eclipsed my Russian skills at a young age so I had almost no motivation.

                      As an adult, especially after I returned to Israel to live and worked for JAFI at a summer camp in St. Petersburg (which is how I met my wife), I became much more invested in speaking Russian correctly and reading more fluently.

                    4. Which language was spoken at home during your childhood, David? You see, my husband’s family also left in 1974 (we got married here). He had finished 3rd grade there, but he also doesn’t write and reads with difficulty.
                      You were immersed in the language in that summer camp, and the natural language acquisition process took over, I think.

                    5. we spoke Russian at home, but I only spoke it with my parents and grandparents for the most part.

                      but my Russian was full of errors because the longer we lived in the USA, the more our Russian at home became a form of Runglish.

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