The Jewish teddy bear

A dozen or so years ago, when I was living in Washington, DC, I had a good friend who taught me a lot about traditional Judaism. I had great fondness and admiration for him.

Unlike me, he had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, attending weekly prayer services with his parents and brother, and enrolled in a private Jewish day school that gifted him an easy comfort with ancient Jewish texts and practices that defied me.

While his own religious lifestyle differed in some ways from that of his parents, and while he had become more lenient in his personal practices over the years, he remained very committed to Jewish tradition. Not only that, but he was never one to arbitrarily dismiss our people’s ancient ways; rather, he would make informed decisions, performing a delicate and difficult balancing high wire act, with our 21st century society in one hand and the ancient guidance of our sages in his other.

One factor that my friend had to account for was his homosexuality. After all, in the mainstream Orthodox Jewish community, homosexual partnerships are not accepted, and, to oversimplify only slightly, gay sex is religiously verboten.

In any case, my friend was a knowledgeable and committed Jew, a very proud ‘M.O.T.’

One Jew’s metaphor

I remember once sitting at shul (synagogue) with my friend on Shabbat, when he shared a metaphor with me, which described his relationship to Orthodox Judaism. We had been talking about our respective Jewish identities, and I had challenged him as to why he chose to remain affiliated (albeit not exclusively) with Orthodoxy, despite its broadly accepted rejection of his sexuality. His response was as follows –

For me, Orthodox Judaism is a giant teddy bear. I float above it in the sky, but remain anchored to it, which prevents me from drifting too far away.

As always, I felt jealous of my friend who felt so at home in Jewish tradition; and, in truth, even today, I still do.

While not the point of this particular blog post, it’s clear to me that my seemingly insurmountable discomfort with many Jewish texts and traditions is largely why I am so excited about my six-year-old daughter’s admission to a wonderful Jewish school next year. I wish for our proud heritage to be an integral and natural part of her 21st century identity.

Delicious, or: Unkosher (a poem)

Sevenling (I drank)

A d’Verse quadrille, Apr. 6, 2021

I drank an expensive bottle of red 
wine from Moldova. It was subtle; smooth;

Kosher wines must be produced exclusively 
by Sabbath-observant Jews; open bottles are rendered 
unkosher if even touched by gentiles; this feels to me like racism.

Such delicious wine.

A confession

Since writing the above poem in April, I have consumed a few more bottles of high quality non-kosher wine, and I am more than half way through a bottle of non-kosher cognac (also a grape-based beverage), which is delicious.

Now, to be fair to myself, I should clarify that I am not going out and purchasing these bottles myself; rather, they have all been gifted to me. It’s not the case that I have been actively seeking out non-kosher beverages.

Nevertheless, I have been drinking them and enjoying them.

And, frankly, on a moral level, I have absolutely no problem with this. If anything, I consider the Jewish religious law forbidding grape beverages touched by gentiles to be outdated at best.

On the other hand, I feel… what? Uncomfortable? Sad? Disconnected?

It’s hard to explain even to myself, but I have a tremendous fondness, even a love, for Jewish tradition. It is, after all, mine, even though it also isn’t. I definitely continue to romanticize traditional Jewish life, even though I’ve spent years studying Jewish religious texts and have come to acknowledge that too many of them do not speak to me.

Whenever I knowingly break Jewish religious commandments, I always have an internal dialogue with myself about whether or not it’s worth it… in my ideal world, traditional Jewish life would be entirely in sync with my personal sensibilities.

Honestly, though, I think this is essentially impossible today, unless one is born into or absorbed into a cloistered religious community. Otherwise – something’s got to give: either one’s trust in one’s lived experience, or one’s trust in the divine nature and timelessness of traditional religious wisdom.

What’s my metaphor?

What am I anchored to, as I float about in the sky?

I see the mirage of a huge teddy bear below me, but what lies below it? I’m all too well aware that no such teddy bear actually exists for me. I was not raised hugging it to sleep in my crib – it does not bear any of the familiar smells and memories of my childhood.

What is it, I ask myself endlessly, that keeps me from drifting far, far, far away?

70 thoughts on “The Jewish teddy bear”

  1. My mother was imbued with religious guilt and thus always both unhappy and inflexible. I understand both the pull of ritual and the need to keep a culture alive, but I think you can acknowledge and celebrate a culture without agreeing with or following all of its teachings. Whether you will be accepted by its Gatekeepers is another thing. I believe institutions that don’t evolve eventually die. Still, as you point out, it’s easier to have clarity about something if you’ve always known what it means. (K)

      1. Christian, Methodist. My grandparents were good people, but they had a lot of rules. My grandmother lived by her interpretation of the Bible.

  2. David, it seems to me (and I may be wrong) most religions in their bid to keep their flock together imposed innumerable restrictions which may have lost meaning with the passage of time.
    As always, your writing widened my horizons. ❤️

  3. I look at the various religions of the world and see more similarities than differences. I suppose it is partly driven by the need to belong that anchors us to the familiar. Having changed religions, I was accused of apostacy but I never really left my faith – instead I merely incorporated some new traditions and prayers. As I said, more similarities than differences…

  4. I really relate to this post. I have often, throughout my life, wished I had the anchor of that giant teddy bear, whether in the form of religious Judaism or whatever else.

    On another note, one of my biggest hangups about becoming affiliated with an Orthodox community is, what if I have a gay kid? Obviously some communities are more accepting than others, but still… I don’t envy your friend’s position, teddy bear or no.

    1. It’s always easier to be in the majority – straight, cis-gender, etc… I wouldn’t want my child[ren] to face discrimination from our community either…


    2. I know of an Orthodox couple who proudly announced the marriage of their gay son to his partner and the news was well received. (I don’t think the son + husband are Orthodox and I have no idea if it was a religious wedding). The Modern Orthodox community where I live is particularly kind. I suspect this is not the standard Orthodox community reaction, but also, you never know.

      1. but also, you never know.

        I’d say that in this case, I know. Orthodox communities like that are few and far between – and they often get attacked by other Orthodox communities for honoring the same-sex weddings of their community members.

      2. I used to sporadically attend a Modern Orthodox shul that was very LGBTQ friendly, so I know it’s out there – but it definitely seems like the exception, at least for now.

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