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;
unkosher.

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. The teddy bear metaphor isn’t working for me. I think because the expectation is that children will one day outgrow their stuffed animals, dolls, toys, etc. whereas the expectation for Judaism/religion is that you’re supposed to continue practicing and living it. But I do get the broader point about the importance of a Jewish educational foundation.
    Impressive that your friend chose to remain Orthodox. Even setting aside the actual text, I would think the community focus on marriage, children, etc. would just become intolerable.

    1. It was a personal metaphor that worked for him… It doesn’t work for me either, but I’m trying to figure out what metaphor best describes my relationship to Jewish tradition.

      My friend wasn’t exclusively Orthodox – he also actively participated in non-Orthodox communities. But he never avoided Orthodoxy – he would daven in Orthodox shuls all the time.

      ❀
      David

  2. I loved this piece David, I loved your honesty and your history and how you are raising your daughter. Your friend’s teddy bear analogy, was something I really could see too ( as a practitioner of a religion with daily rituals) Thank you for sharing this beautiful post with us all.πŸ™πŸ€—β€οΈ

    1. I think it goes back to ancient religions (including ancient Judaism) and sacrifices, which included wine libations. Ancient Judaism regarded other religions as idol worship and created “barriers” to distance its adherents from any but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  3. πŸ’– DavidπŸ’–

    I loved this piece… while it’s admirable that your friend has his teddy bear image and philosophy, It’s hard to get my head around it and I can see how one can struggle with any religion that separates and isn’t accepting of what is. I’m sure they have their reasons but none hold water with me. But I suppose that’s why I keep to a spiritual path.

    On another note I’m having my half jewish half catholic Godson over tonight for his 27th Birthday. Note sure I told you or not but I was not chosen at birth because I’m neither but 12 years later when he had bipolar episodes etc…. he chose me on his own. He is a love, he struggles deeply and relates more to Judaism than Catholicism and has thought about going to study and have his Bar Mitzvah like his brother did. He is very angry at having been circumcised though and feels his was done brutally and has tried to talk to different Rabbis. I often wish he could talk to you because you approach religion in such an open positive way with all of it’s limitations and yet embrace the gifts that far outweigh anything else. He is extremely bright, a great poet and figuring out his life. I’ve tried to encourage him to blog for many reasons, including connecting with your pieces but so far he’s not interested. Would you mind if I copied and pasted your articles you write on Judaism and email them to him?

    Love your Quadrille … don’t love what feels like racism…
    We’ll def be drinking a bottle of wine together tonight. 🀣

    Is there a tradition on your birthday that you do in your faith or a song or a prayer I might say for tonight?

    Sorry this was soooo long and maybe the wrong forum but the right timing.
    πŸ’–
    Cindy

    1. Cindy, your godson sounds like an interesting guy! It’s too bad he’s not interested in sharing his poetry here on WP with us πŸ™‚

      All of the stuff on my blog is public so you can definitely share it with him. I would be honored.

      ❀
      David

      1. He definitely is Ben. I agree and I’ll share this with him as well.
        So know special birthday blessings or prayers?

        Great to know.. I will be sending and glad you are honored πŸ’–

          1. Oh that’s lovely…. He will LOVE that and I do coming from you.

            Thank you so very kindly❣️❣️❣️
            I’ll print it out
            πŸ’–πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™πŸ™

  4. A lot to think about, David. Our older child is gay and recently out as non-binary–but also has become more involved with Judaism. I think they find beauty in the ritual and traditions, as well as the mysticism.

  5. I have to guess that the origin of not touching wine touched by gentiles is a history of racial hatred leading to poisonings. I would see drinking wine given to you by genuine friends who aren’t Jewish would be following the spirit of the law, but that could be my own ignorance. Of course, this is coming from someone who regularly gets called an anti-Semite for showing support for Palestinians. It’s only strangers on the internet who say this, though. Jews I know in real life don’t make this accusations, but most of my Jewish friends are not of the attitude that “everything Israel does is right,” either the way internet trolls are.

    1. a history of racial hatred leading to poisonings

      Scott, there’s that element, and there’s also the ritual status of wine and other grape drinks that goes back to the days of the Temple sacrifices. A lot of religions back then poured out wines for the gods on their altars, and the Jews were trying to keep their own people away from idol worship.

      following the spirit of the law

      There are religiously oriented Jews who would agree with you but still follow this practice because it is the LAW. That’s the way Orthodox Judaism is.

      As for what you raised about Palestinians, I don’t think the two issues are much related – the wine issue is related to all non-Jews, regardless of where they live and what their roots are.

      ❀
      David

  6. your friends’ metaphor reminds me a bit of May Sarton talking about her cat – she was my deepest inner self, words like that. It seems so-called outsiders have a greater chance to get access to it, because they have to.
    Also, I am wondering – RC dogma has a little-known loop-hole (in catechism or somewhere else I forgot) saying your conscience has priority. What would the Jewish equivalent be?

    Btw, have you now been admitted to the school’s parents’ app/group? πŸ˜‰
    Have a good day.

    1. have not been admitted to whatsapp group yet (*grumbles*)

      Orthodox Judaism vis-Γ -vis homosexuality is complicated, and form of discussion is different because it’s such a legalistic religion.

      1. Isn’t it in the Holiness Code, addressed to the Levites as a warning against the homo-genital sex enacted during Pagan religious services? Also the cross dressing in Deuteronomy 22,I forget the verse. My wife and I are transsexuals and that verse though about transvestites,is the closest Scripture comes to condemnation.

  7. Mazel tov on your daughter’s admission to a great school. Very moving story. I can relate to your feelings so well. Been there, done that with Orthodoxy. My grandfather was a Litvak, so I learned to study Torah pragmatically from him. I am on a new journey now…into the deeper (syncretic) roots of our religion and heritage. Things no one tells us in shul. πŸ˜‰

      1. It has been percolating on and off for several years and has been on my mind. I wrote the posts for a class series I was planning on teaching on Historical Judaism, if the pandemic outlook and health concerns ever improve. 🧑

  8. Great post. I love the Teddy Bear metaphor. My son also had trouble reconciling being homosexual with traditional Christian beliefs. Thank you for sharing this post.

    1. Yeah – that was one thing particularly impressed me about my friend – he did not let his homosexuality push him any farther away from his religious community than the community itself pushed him away… does that make sense, Molly?

    2. So did mine, he entered the Seminary thinking to placate God. Met his boyfriend of 23 years in there and left. I made them stay in until they got their Masters in Education.

  9. Really amazing this life story πŸ‘ŒπŸΌπŸŒΉ life how changing nobody knows πŸ‘πŸŒΉ
    This our life we want peace and happy and Blessings πŸ™πŸŒΉ my comment ✌️🌹

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