You Aren’t Jewish Enough (and A Story About Chopsticks)

Creator-or-complainer-chopsticks

Note: this article is very “trigger-y”. Fair warning.

A few months ago, I led a Shabbat service online at OneShul around the issue of legitimacy.

I asked my fellow congregants, “what is the legitimate form of Judaism? Who is legitimately Jewish? And who is legitimate enough to make these kinds of judgement calls, and what does that mean for you?”

Their answers were simple: everyone is legitimate, except me.

But first, a quick thought about chopsticks.

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Do you remember the first time you used chopsticks?

Where were you? And what was that experience like? Were you excited? Perhaps confused, asking yourself how anyone could possibly eat with sticks?

Sitting in a Chinese restaurant, or a sushi bar, or a Thai place, or wherever you were, you were engaging in something basic, like eating, in a way that was totally foreign to you.

I suspect three things ran through your mind, as you stared at those chopsticks:

  1. I have no idea what is going on
    Do I stab the food with them, and eat everything like a kebab? I know I hold both of the sticks in my hand…so do I make an impractical shovel and scoop things up? And how do I eat rice? One grain at a time? Oh well.
  2. Everyone else around me is completely confident of what is going on
    Wow, there are a lot of people in here. They’re all laughing and having a good time. They’re magically able to make these damn sticks into magical food portals. How do they not get splinters? And how can that eight year old kid use these better than me? They must have gotten the easy chopsticks. Can I trade?
  3. Those confident people can see right through me, and that makes me a total loser
    Please don’t look at me! Please don’t look at me! I know you know everything about chopsticks and it’s obvious that I’m not nearly as sophisticated as you are and I’ll have to resort to asking for a fork and looking like a total stooge. Can I go home now?

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For all the excuses that people make as to why they don’t go to synagogue, or get involved in Jewish life, there is an undercurrent of fear and apprehension about Judaism. Whether its lighting a menorah, going to a Jewish wedding, or even something as hardcore as being given an aliyah, the following thoughts run through their minds:

  1. I have no idea what is going on
  2. Everyone else around me is completely confident of what is going on
  3. Those confident people can see right through me, and that makes me a total loser

Let’s go through this together.

  1. I have no idea what is going on
    Do I stand? Sit? What language is this? Hebrew??? What do I do with this book? What page are we on?
  2. Everyone else around me is completely confident of what is going on
    This is West Texas. How can all these people know Hebrew? Their parents must have spoken it in the home. Wow, I am totally uneducated. Wait…they’re holding cups of grape juice but not drinking them. What’s this about??? Are we doing communion? They all seem to just know what to do. No one is telling them what happens next. Wait…why are they standing on their tippy toes and saying the word “kadosh”?
  3. Those confident people can see right through me, and that makes me a total loser
    Cue the scene from Carrie: They’re all gonna laugh at you! They’re all gonna laugh at you!  They’re all gonna laugh at you!Can I go home now? Clearly I’m not legitimately Jewish.

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In my event at OneShul, I thought I was being empowering when I replied, “you are legitimate. You are here. You showed up.” And even though it was not on our parshah calendar, I gave the stump speech about Torah being given to every person to learn here on Earth, not as a relic in Heaven that a Jewish Superman will bring down for you (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20). I used that line to move swiftly into an appeal for volunteers. “Of course you can lead a Shabbat service. Of course you can lead a Torah study. We’ll teach you how!” I thought I was channelling the oratory spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the guy who sells ShamWows on late night TV all at once. Certainly my plea for others to see their legitimacy would work.

Only, it didn’t work for everyone.

I got an email immediately following the service. “Thanks for the great class rabbi. You really got me thinking.”

I replied, “awesome! When do you want to start teaching/leading/contributing in whatever way you are passionate about?”

The answer: never. I’m not legitimate.

I got several emails like that.

“Thanks for the positive encouragement Patrick. But you’re wrong. I’m about as legitimate as a Ph.D. from a mail order college in Romania. So I’ll just hide in the proverbial back row of OneShul for the rest of my life hoping you’ll never try to empower me again. Sincerely, someone who isn’t worth your time.”

I try to end every email I send with the words “you matter”. My friend Rob taught me that…and I love it.

But I tell you, it’s hard to impress on people.

###

The bottom line is simple: we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life. We are terrified that someone is going to call us out for doing things wrong, that for some of us it’s easier to hide in the corner and do nothing.

But I’m here to tell you something: hiding in a corner is a terrible place to die.

This article was written by Rabbi Patrick Aleph, executive director of PunkTorah.


 

  • andi

    I don’t care about being “legitimate” – I will try and try and if I get it wrong, I’ll laugh it off and try again. I’ll ask questions if there is someone to ask; if not, I will find books and resources to get me started again. People will generally help if they see that you are trying (at least, that’s what I want to believe). Because what really, truly matters is the journey – the learning – and how I feel about it.

  • http://www.chicagocarless.com MikeDoyle

    I think it’s about our beliefs about ourselves. You can demonstrate to someone that they have legitimacy and worth, but if they don’t believe it, it won’t matter. How do you get them to believe it? I’m not sure. Maybe helping them imagine their way through it. How they can be a leader, relevant, legitimate towards others (Jewishly or any other way) just as they are right now. How they have been so in the past and maybe just never realized it? An imagination workshop on discovering how much more legitimate and a Jewish leader–and totally normal and worthy–they really are and can continue to be more and more? Help them imagine themselves through being not just a Torah leader, but a leader Jewishly in their own lives right now. Help them thread that out. Because I think you’ve got to get them to feel their legitimacy to really believe it. Connect emotionally and get them imagining emotionally and that deep, maybe unexamined belief about their worthiness might fall away.

  • Addi V Smith

    I have said it a hundred times. I am just an idiot with a web cam and the stones to broadcast. Yes I was scared to death. Yes I had all the thoughts you described. Yes there are people who say I am not legit. (Always the ones that do not agree with something I said, which is funny because I clearly state it is an open discussion. They are invited to share what they want and encouraged to).
    I look at my broadcasts like this… You the community are showing up to teach me something. I am learning from you. I often ask other leaders and Rabbi to send me short video on something. My siddur is written by the community. The blessing are being replaced by blessings recorded by those in our community.

    I do mess up and often. Yes it is a bit unnerving. But our wonderful community understands. That is more legit than anything I can come up with. Everyone who comes to my broadcast knows I am real bad at remembering text, and where it says something in the texts. Instead of slamming me for it, you look it up quickly and post the link on chat. I love all of your for this. And you all are legit being apart of this to the extent you are.

    If you think for one second I have never felt I was not good enough to do this, you are mistaken. Every broadcast topic I look at it and say HOW AM I GOING TO DISCUSS THIS!? Then get over it and do it. We have the greatest community. They will be the first to jump in and encourage you in ways you never dreamed of. And once you get involved, you quickly realize, it is not about you in the first place.

    If anyone is struggling with feeling legit, you may talk with me. aroundtheshabbattable@gmail.com

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  • Rabbi Rami

    The issue of legitimacy is built into the hierarchical nature of rabbinic Judaism. Some rabbis are legit and some are not depending on who gets to control the idea of legitimacy. Same with who is a Jew: the answer depends upon who has the power to enforce the answer (either politically as in Israel or emotionally as in the US). Given the demographic trends in American Jewry the Orthodox rabbinate will be the dominate player, and they will exile the vast majority of Jews to the land of nonJew. The Jews we need, the creative Jews with the potential to reinvent Judaism for themselves, are simply walking away. They aren’t interested in authority and legitimacy. They are seeking meaning and wisdom. The fact that your folks have internalized their own illegitimacy speaks to the damage we rabbis have done.

  • Cardinal Robbins

    I think another aspect that makes us sensitive to the “not legitimate” issue is…other Jews. Now, hold on before you start blowing spitballs at me, because I’ve been subjected to this more than once. You see, I was born Reform and wanted to be Conservative, so — fully aware I could have attended a Reform shul — I decided to go through conversion. Technically, I’m Orthodox because the conversion was done by an Orthodox rabbi. I’ve always been close to my Jewish roots, because my father was good about instilling those aspects in me.

    But. I don’t *look* Jewish enough for some people, particularly older Ashkenazic Jews. A very close friend of mine used to be on my back *all the time* about “not being a REAL Jew,” or constantly reminding me, “Gee, you’re able to PASS,” etc…I got tired of it and basically cut him out of my life. I have new Jewish friends now (same age range mostly), and they recognize me as legitimately Jewish without a word spoken between us to that effect. I get called by my Hebrew name or a variation on my first name with ‘leh’ added as a diminutive, and all kinds of nods that let me know I’m accepted as a Jew.

    When I went to shul, initially, people didn’t accept me for the same reasons that my snotty friend didn’t: appearance. Even the rabbi said my auburn hair was “distracting the men in the congregation,” and so I sat in the back, where I could blend into the woodwork. I never stayed for post-Shabbat get-togethers, because it was just too painful. I really don’t think there’s much worse in this world than being discriminated against by your own Tribe, but I was. To be “not Jewish enough” for your ‘friends’ and fellow congregants is the ultimate insult.

    I decided on my own that yes, I’m not only “Jewish enough,” but I’m legitimate. I further decided no one else could convince me that I wasn’t, because I can only be judged by G-d.

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