Is it feminism if you don’t know it

I read “The Feminine Mystique” as 2016 turned to 2017. I spent several hours riding from Harlem to Crown Heights and back on the first day of the year, engrossed in the feminist classic, somewhat embarrassed to be coming to it so late.

I hang out with people for whom I assume Betty Friedan’s book is biblical; if they haven’t read it they’ve absorbed its content anyway. And I had been feigning feminism for several years now, so the outrage that began to flame in me as I hurtled to Brooklyn felt amateur.

I was hangry by the time I reached Crown Heights to meet my family for dinner at a greasy Kosher restaurant. They had already posted a picture to WhatsApp — a religious ritual at this point — of the whole gang surrounding a table covered in the disposable flotsam of dinner.

I walked up a dark Empire Boulevard, and passed the Kosher market where the automatic doors were open, framing a large, shoddy man in black hat and beard, paying at the cashier. I stared egregiously at him, thinking that if I looked harder, I would know him.

Then I saw a poster stapled to a pole advertising a lecture series called “Dating with awareness,” with Chana Schneider*, an acclaimed dating expert. The name catapulted me back ten years to a makeshift classroom in Tzfat in Northern Israel when Chana Schneider had come to talk to my seminary class about dating and marriage.

I remember only that the gist of the conversation was advice on how to deal with petty arguments about open toilet seats and dirty socks left on the floor. As a 17-year-old, this genre of marital education seemed ridiculous. I had no intention of marrying anytime soon. And this dowdy woman, in blond wig, oversized suit and buttoned-up shirt, who was heralded as some sort of bride-whisperer, was not going to be my guide to womanhood.

Since then, I have made choices that would have endeared me to feminists, but I did not know it. I went to college, I chose a career, I left a set of rules and searched for new ones. Yet somehow I’ve been called a bad feminist by feminist friends because I don’t know their canon and my version of sexism was and remains different. (The slow realization of my body’s power over men, something I had legitimately not known until my middle twenties, meant that for a long time I preferred reveling in that power, rather than acquiescing to the narrative that a male-dominant civilization equals a male-dominant interaction on a street corner.)

Ironically, in following the path away from early marriage, I ended up living across the street from Chana Schneider and her many happy, well-adjusted children in Los Angeles. I ate Shabbat lunch with her and was advised to seek her counsel by people with my best interest at heart.

Now, reading Betty Friedan, I recognized so many of the argument that had been made in the name of god and the Torah. And here there were, visible now as angry, domineering, morally righteous, outrageous positions of men against every attempt women made at freedom. Some of those arguments had been made by our beloved Rebbe, whose teachings line the walls of my childhood home and continue to dictate the lives of my parents.

Empire Grill is a loud shop, full of Israelis and Yeshiva students. When I came in, a patron was slurping noodles steeped in a brown sauce off a paper plate. I sat down next to my mother, a woman who bore nine children, and who since her last child has left home, has blossomed. Her brown wig had been curled to frame her face like a young girl. She talked gaily about shopping with her twin-sister.

Later, I left my mother outside my brother’s home, where she’d play grandmother to his five or six kids. I took the train back to Harlem where I live with two roommates, too many frozen Trader Joe’s dinners, and a life that is Chana Schneider’s worst nightmare.

*Not her real name

The exodus story

If you’re reading this (don’t worry it’s not too late) you’re probably someone who has come across an exodus story in your life. It’s the story of a religious person, preferably a Hasidic Jew, that finds the world, embraces it, and leaves their community.

It makes for a great story. It’s amazingly American. The search for freedom and the willingness to sacrifice for it. It’s a great reminder for those who grew up with only freedom what it’s like to breathe it, to have it be your air.

It’s also, like all skeletal plots, overused, oversimplified, probably less dramatic and definitely less linear than described. So let me walk you through some of the tropes. Actually, it’s just one trope. It’s what I get asked most often. And that’s how my family’s taken it.

Let me explain to you why that’s not the most important part.

1) There is no dramatic excommunication. Usually, the family figures out how to adjust itself to accommodate you and vice versa. They love you and you love them and in a way it makes it tougher. You know in your heart how much you’ve disappointed them but they won’t tell it to your face, and you know how tough it is for them not to ask you when you’re getting married when they deeply believe that that’s the only way you’ll be happy.

It’s probably a lot more similar than you realize to leaving your rural conservative hometown and coming back a raging liberal New Yorker, or what happens when you’re 29 and you’ve only just settled on a career that you’re not entirely happy with, or when the little brother that looked up to you surpasses you in everything. Every family has its drama that happens completely undramatically at a kitchen table, or in the phone calls about Christmas plans, or the quick weekend home, or when your parents move out of the old house where you grew up, and what’s left is only an old couple with memories that may or may not be real.

2) Some of it is not drama at all. It’s boring shit like how do I get a college degree when I’m 23 and I’ve never heard the terms elective, major, general ed, as they relate to college degrees? How do I choose a career when I’ve never even met a journalist or a biologist? How do I pay for college if I have no skills except reading Hebrew? How do I know what size jeans I am? How do I order a drink at a bar? How do I know when a boy is flirting with me?

3) This isn’t only about community. This is about an entire worldview. If you’ve ever had your heart broken over a love you thought was real, and you truly believed you’d devote the rest of your life to, and then it falls apart and he turns out to be a jerk, you know what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever trust yourself again. Try losing trust in yourself, your parents, your community, your books, your way of examining the world and interpreting and digesting it. Try telling yourself that all those things you love — the songs and the tales and that feeling when you enter the hushed women’s section during services and the men are intoning a familiar part of the prayers — are a liability. Tell yourself that you need to abandon that for now because it’s too seductive.

Later, you’ll learn to be okay with the human need for familiarity and belonging, but by then it will be too late. Because by then you won’t belong, and then the intonations and the aphorisms and the shared intellectual foundation will be shells. They’ll be a way to visit a once populated land. They’ll be museums and monuments, a way to mourn a civilization you once knew.

End Times

People think the difference between religious and non-religious people is their belief in god. It’s not. It’s accompanying beliefs that have other kind of impacts.

For example: religious people know how the world is going to end. There’s going to be a redemption, a second coming, a reckoning.

That’s why the don’t have to worry about climate change, why they don’t make movies about nuclear or zombie apocalypses or alien invasions, or what happens when all the fuel is used up, or the world floods or the sun dies, or everything goes black.

They don’t have the same fears, they don’t lie awake genuinely worried about what their grandchildren will eat.

“Science fiction”, a comic-reading, TV-watching, video-gaming teenager once told me, “is the philosophy of today.” He should know. It’s how he thinks about what makes us human vs alien vs animal vs machine. It’s how he questions self, purpose, soul, morality, social contracts. Many of the working definitions we use to function break down when you enter space, introduce new species, when you can design aliens to be any combination of feeling, thinking, communicating, acting beings.

(He tried for a long time to teach me the difference between Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Stargate Atlantis and various other shows that all seamed to feature very idealistic humans in uniform, strangely-shaped, pointy-eared, scaly-skinned foes, and voluptuous music scores set to scenes of deep space.)

Religious people know the answers to those questions, and if they don’t, they start from the position that there is an answer, and a body of thought from which to decipher it. To a deep-space explorer, there is only possibility.

A few days ago the mother of teenager, who is no longer a teenager, told me that he told her that he no longer believes in god. A difficult thing to hear. I guess I knew it was coming. Can god compete with science fiction?

The absence of redemption

Christopher Hitchens:

It will never be normal or safe to be Jewish. And I hope it never is.

Leo Strauss:

The Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption. This, one could say, is the meaning of the chosen people; the Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption.

Brought to you me by YouTube. By an innocent romp through the web of Christopher Hitchens clips.

Though I know of Christopher Hitchen’s renown I haven’t read his writing or listened to his talks. Frankly, I’ve been scared. If he’s as good as everyone says, I have to be ready. But a 2.5 minute clip from Hitchens on Israel? I can do that. 30 seconds in he said of “Israel and the Jewish question” the first quote above, and then paraphrased Leo Strauss.

I felt punched. Physically punched. The absence of redemption, that’s what we are. Destined to wander and suffer and never be safe. Believing all the while that we’re the light, the chosen, that there’s reason and purpose to being hated or different or both. That there will be redemption, a redemption, one that vindicates everything we’ve endured at the hands of others and everything we’ve imposed on ourselves. May it be speedily in our days.

Without redemption, what is there?

In the clip before this one Hitchens responds to a girl in a Q+A session who asks why the world is so focused on Iran’s evilness versus Israel’s. Hitchens, “Does this (Israel’s guilt) in your mind make the destruction of human rights in Islamist countries okay? or not?”

He mentions that the Hezbollah flag (it was actually a banner at an event) has a mushroom cloud on it, with a threat to the Jews. So there’s knowing that many people want you dead – me dead – me, here in LA, with my first world problems and first world naivete and first world tolerance and liberalism towards all people. And there’s knowing that we’re the suckers, or the true believers.

Eli Weisel, as always, says it best:

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out,
swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”

I can do no wrong

I miss being an existentialist.
Not that I knew, or know, what that means. I gave it my own private definition, based on Wikipedia entries, a brief reading of The Stranger and the sound of the word.
As an existentialist I could be dismissive. I didn’t have to worry that while I wondered if I’d ever find anything that mattered, I was missing out on all the things that did.
It was really a mask though, a filter.

Then I read an essay on existentialism by Sartre. It said that existentialists don’t believe in design, in a prior purpose.

What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that first of all man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards defines himself.
Man is nothing but he makes of himself. That is the first principal of existentialism.

To most people that’s akin to having the floor drop open beneath you. They take it to mean that nothing matters unless you impose meaning to it. Since the meaning is self-imposed it isn’t real. Sartre says otherwise. It means that everything matters. Every decision has massive significance. It makes yo who you are.
That’s a scary thought.

It’s also the first time I understood how it’s possible to not have a binary view of the world. If there is truly no objective truth then there are no shoulds; there is no right or wrong. Just choices and outcomes.
(I’m not sure why this suddenly made sense to me. It’s not like I’ve never heard it before.)

In the past when I had to make a decision, the process involved deciding which option was right, or more right. That meant trying to divine what G-d, or the Rebbe (spiritual leader) would deem right, the effect of the choice on my spiritual improvement, on others in my life, and on G-d’s master plan. (Hence my indecisiveness?)

When I dropped that way of thinking the deciding factor became my happiness. I felt guilty for thinking that way but consoled myself that when I was unhappy nobody benefited – physically or spiritually. That I was doing the right thing by looking out for myself.

Recently I had to make a decision about moving. What was more important – privacy and comfort, or friends and community? Was it okay to make a change just for the sake of change? I went to the beach to think about it, an empty beach, about one story below the road.

(A friend and mentor told me to choose the place that would be better for my connection to religion. She’s the only one who still talks to me that way.)

On the beach I ran through the pros and cons, which were all two sides of the same coin. I couldn’t see myself settling on one choice or the other. Either way I’d be sacrificing, and gaining. Then I remembered what I’d read and I realized there was no possible way to get it wrong. What a relief.

Faith 22

My problem with faith isn’t that it’s trite, or weak, or primitive.

I see the wisdom in it.
Let go. Stop trying to control everything. Submit, succumb, lie still for a moment and let G-d, or fate, or the universe do their thing.

My problem with faith is faith.
It’s like telling a depressed person that to heal they need to be happy, or an addict that to heal they need only to stop using.

If you’ve been hurt by someone you love, betrayed by someone you trusted or by an ideal in which you trusted, the casualty is your faith. In G-d. In humanity. In goodness. In truth.

So how can you turn to faith for comfort, or guidance?

You can’t. The solution is a change of expectations. Have faith in something different. In subjectivity. In anonymity. In the fragility and intangibility of being.