I’m no big deal writer or anything, but listening to Norman Fischer and Charles Bernstein at last night’s “Radical Poetics and Judaism” event talking about how Judaism informs (or doesn’t) writing, I began to consider where religion touches my work. Is my writing Jewish just because I am? What if I never write about Judaism ever, is it still Jewish then? What’s the difference between being an American writer of Jewish origin and a Jewish-American writer? Norman and Charles were fascinating to listen to, but part of me recalled this feeling of being post-everything — that is to say, I don’t really like the idea of boxes, and I’d prefer not to be in any of them, thank you very much. Even though I liked the talk a lot, I wondered if the very idea is outmoded. If young people are actually creating a post-everything world, how does the question, “what makes culture Jewish?” apply? And how would I answer that question, as a person who is immersed in one type of Jewish culture almost by mistake (I live in Washington Heights, in a “religious building”) and as a person who practices almost exclusively through visiting the Jewish Meditation Center.
Neither of my parents have been in a temple in at least a decade, yet both certainly identify as Jewish. My dad worships at Katz’s Deli and my mom tells me that she prays — that when things are hard for her, she thinks about god. My dad doesn’t believe in god, but he does love the Marx brothers and world war two movies. Obviously, they’re divorced. Both of them were incredulous when I told them about my building, my street, my neighborhood. I pointed out the Shul, the Yeshiva, the Jewish Community Center. I pointed out the Jewish ambulance and the mezuzah on every door. I reminded them how hard it is to park on Shabbat and that if my dad was going to help me put the bed together, I’d have to buy screws on Friday — the hardware store around the corner is Jewish. This is insularity, of a sort, and it’s a sort of insularity to which I belong by accident. Across the airshaft, in my mirror image apartment, Yeshiva University boys share a couple of rooms and I watch them daven, tefillen and all. I watch them and wonder about what it must feel like to live Judaism like that every day. Is it stifling, reading scripture on the subway instead of novels? Is it inspiring? Is it like walking around with a secret wrapped up in leather binding?
Every day I am reminded that my post world does not actually exist yet, that there are actually boxes all around me, and that I put other people into boxes the same way everyone else does. Which brings me back to the question of how a cultural heritage I never knew much about touches my work. Somebody, and I can’t remember who it was, said last night that we are most Jewish when we are not around other Jews (and then immediately countered his own thought with the question of whether the opposite were true — perhaps we are actually most Jewish when we are only around other Jews?) and this has certainly been true for me. In New York, it can feel like everyone is Jewish, like you are just a drop of secular typicality in the bucket. But when you live in rural Vermont, you’re probably pretty much alone. And at the times when I’ve lived in the middle of nowhere, being Jewish suddenly became a real part of my identity, so much at times that I became active in congregations, something I’d never done as a child or when I’ve lived in a city.
Being present to recognize where I fit, or don’t, is so much at the heart of this exercise that I am reminded of something else that was discussed last night — that the process is the point, and that moving through each idea, each question, leaves us with more thoughts, different ones, and different ways of looking at the same thing. I love this idea, that I have the option to think about something without having to answer to it. And I think that the JMC is asking its members to do this. To be willing to sit with the person next to you, talk about your ideas, and form new ones, and question what seems immutable, and then change the world together, by finding similarity where we have been told it does not exist.