Monday, February 27, 2012

On Board the Queen Mary with Jewlicious and Mayim Bialik

When I first contacted Miriam a year ago, her first email to me was that she could not talk to me for the next few weeks because the Limmud LA conference and Jewlicious festival were just around the corner. So I was pleased to join Miriam in attending this year's Jewlicious 8.0 festival as her lawfully bagged, captured and tamed husband.

The event was hosted on the Queen Mary liner, which is permanently parked in Long Beach, CA and operates as a museum and hotel. Stepping on board was enough to send me into libertarian seasteading fantasies of a privately owned miniature city floating out in international waters. Unfortunately, I later found out that, after it was retired, the Queen Mary was bought by the city of Long Beach, which was kind enough to add on a tourism tax on our room bill. So much for escaping big government. For those of you planning a kosher cruise for Passover, the Queen Mary was the first ship designed with a kosher kitchen; it even had its own line of specially designed kosher dishes.

In addition to great food at Jewlicious 8.0, there was a parade of comic and musical performances Saturday night and Sunday. At the Sunday concert, I was privileged to finally hear a live performance by Seth Glass. I was familiar with Seth's work from a CD, "Question of Faith," I found at my father's house years ago. I listened to that CD to death, but unfortunately I never ran into anything else by Seth. When he started performing it all of a sudden struck me who he was and I surprised him by asking for "The King is in the Field," my favorite song from the CD. He is an extremely talented musician who never got the attention and fans he deserves. (Perhaps not unlike a certain blogger, but I digress.)

Jewlicious is a non-denominational Jewish organization for young professionals in Los Angeles under the leadership of Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. In many respects, it represents where left-wing Orthodoxy and traditionalist Judaism, which make up the majority of Jewlicious' audience, may be heading. Jewlicious is nominally under Orthodox auspices, is strictly kosher and focuses on the study of texts as a vehicle for increased observance. Thus it could easily be tagged as an Orthodox outreach program. That being said, the primary ideology preached at Jewlicious seems to be one of Judaism as expressed through activism, mainly of a left-wing variety. For example, Rabbi Yonah spoke about his experiences with Occupy LA. (Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to this presentation as it conflicted with my talk about messianism.) There was also a panel of Jewish activists whose fields ranged from using Talmudic style dialectics to confront contemporary issues to saving the redwood trees and helping the homeless. There were a number of things conspicuously absent that would have certainly been present if this program were being run by traditional Orthodox outreach programs like Chabad or Aish. While Israel and Zionism were represented as an integral part of Jewish culture, there was little about Israeli politics and the Palestinian conflict. There was no Jewish theology in the sense of Maimonides' principles of faith that one must believe in. Also, there was no sense of halacha as something mandated by God. Instead, discussions of Jewish law were framed as something people choose to do as a means of leading a more meaningful and spiritual life.

This particular brand of Judaism (call it neo-traditionalism or "modern frumkeit" if you like) was exemplified in the event's guest of honor, Mayim Bialik. For those of you not familiar with her, Mayim Bialik plays Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, probably the most consistently modestly dressed character in the history of modern television. Before I say anything else, let me add that I found Mayim to be an exceptionally down to Earth and friendly person as well as a terrific speaker. What struck me about hearing her speak is that she came across as a very "frum" person with her discussion of her commitment to tzniut dress and learning. Forget about Modern Orthodoxy, Mayim, if she wanted to, could easily fit in with a Haredi community. Yet she referred to herself as "observantish," acknowledging that not everything in her life fits with Orthodoxy as traditionally defined. Her theology, to the extent that she spoke of it between her two public presentations, seems to rest on a strong belief in God as a creator and moral guide and a commitment to Jewish law as an ongoing process in which one strives to increase observance but is not an all or nothing deal.

I found it particularly interesting that Mayim made use of the categories of observant and non-observant while seeming to acknowledge how poorly they applied to her. These categories were the creation of Orthodoxy to take Reform and Conservative Judaism out of the picture. Instead of different denominations, there are observant Jews who keep halacha and there are those non-observant Jews ensnared by assimilation, who need to be brought back into the fold through shabbos dinners and outreach programs. Of course, these categories could also be used to take the "dox" out of Orthodoxy and since no one is perfect even the most Orthodox is really only "observantish."

The Orthodoxy in which I was raised would not have known what to do with Mayim. For that matter, I am not sure how well Orthodoxy is prepared for even the Orthodox members of Jewlicious. They seem comfortable in operating as Jews in a non-Orthodox environment, thus breaking down the lines between observant and non-observant and even Orthodox and Conservative. Such a Judaism, while formally halachic, effectively eliminates any need for an Orthodox community. On a practical level, these people do not live in a world of separated sexes so traditional taboos against touching a member of the opposite sex or for men to listen to women singing are non-existent. There is also little ingrained opposition to homosexuality.

People in their 20s, particularly in this generation, are naturally in flux and in search of identity. However these participants evolve, it would seem that traditional Orthodoxy loses. Our Orthodox members of Jewlicious could follow the path toward non-observance, which according to the Orthodox narrative is the inevitable result of stepping outside the Orthodox social structure or they could evolve their own variation of traditional observance, which would be markedly different than common Orthodoxy and may even present a greater challenge to it. Due to its narrative, Orthodoxy is not equipped to respond to educated and committed Jews, who fall outside the Orthodox system.
Arguably this model of neo-traditionalism I am outlining, with its non-interest in theology and commitment to a Jewish community that includes a range of observance levels, is more in tune with Judaism as it has historically existed than Orthodoxy. That could prove a powerful rhetorical weapon in the battle to define Orthodoxy in the next generation. Can Orthodoxy step in and provide a Judaism to accommodate members of the Jewlicious community? By this, I mean even those who identify as Orthodox. The choice may be between taking the initiative for making changes now while it still might be possible to maintain some say or sit back, pat oneself on the back for holding the line against change and surrendering all say in the Judaism that comes out of events like Jewlicious.

1 comment:

Adam Zur said...

But it was not long before the Orthodox Judaism degenerated from idealism to narcissism.
The fuel was the baali teshuva. But most of the people who took power were merely interested in using it to satisfy their own ambitions.