Jewish Body, Jewish Heart

I’ve been appearing in New York to promote my book, The Jewish Body, which (says the publisher, who wants to sell books, God bless him) inspired a slew of activities called “Jewish Body Week,” with events in many parts of this city and others—dance performances, “Jewish” yoga, food events, mikvah tours, etcetera.

I spoke Sunday at the JCC in Manhattan, an imposing, shiny, seven-story building at Amsterdam and 76th, a center of Jewish life on the upper West Side. It was abuzz with activity Sunday–three security guards screening and directing people at the entrance, an art exhibit and people giving out food samples just past the entrance, a bustling store, children everywhere. Jewish life is thriving here.

The story was similar later in the afternoon at the 14th Street Y. After a just-finished renovation they had a full house for a variety of activities, only one of which (blessedly) had anything to do with me.

Wayne and Alyssa, my handlers from Nextbook publishers, had duly whisked me downtown after my JCC event and book signing, and we were on time for the panel that preceded my appearance. This was really wonderful.

Dr. Ruth Calderon, Founder and Chair of Alma Home for Hebrew Culture, and Ruby Namdar, a novelist and teacher of Jewish texts, were speaking. Both are Israeli, both articulate in accented, lilting English, both charming, and both were insightful and moving in what they had to say.

Ruth had given out some texts, particularly one that she wanted to talk about—the one where Moses, seeing the burning bush, is told by God to “put thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground you stand upon is holy.” Similar language is used later with Joshua, and Ruth asked the audience, “What do you think this means?”

People said interesting things: it’s a sign of respect, it makes you vulnerable. But the one she seemed to be looking for was a little different: to take away the barrier between your body and the soil, the earth, the world.  To confront it and connect to it in a way you never have before. I will never read that text in the old way again.

Ruby spoke next, and said that when he teaches the Bible to non-Hebrew speaking audiences, he likes to use the King James Version. I found myself nodding as he said it, but our reasons were different. I find it simply, and by far, the most beautiful English version. Ruby, not being a native English speaker, couldn’t easily make that judgment, but he made a different point.

For English speakers, reading the King James is something like the experience modern Hebrew speakers have when they read the original Hebrew text. It’s archaic to them, challenging to access, and all in all representative of a different, distant time. When we read the text in Shakespeare’s English, we get something of the flavor of that experience.

He then told a story that reminded me of my own. He had not been in a synagogue for many years when his first child was born, and he found himself going back. His daughter became accustomed to being there with her father, and at age seven was curled up in his lap, “regressing,” sucking her thumb. This was fine with Ruby—he wanted her above all to be comfortable there, and she clearly was—embedded in the womb of Jewish tradition.

But in one brief exchange Ruth gently pointed out to him that he came originally from the men’s side of the shul, while she came from the women’s side. In a real sense, he is a native of synagogue culture, while a woman, however religious, could until recently only be an immigrant. The unspoken question was, what would Ruby’s daughter be?

When it was time for my on-stage interview–by the able and engaging Gabe Sanders, who had read my book–I was ready to answer his questions, but I wanted to say first that I had learned three things from the panel.

First, the great Jewish texts are not the sol property of the Orthodox rabbis; they belong to the Jewish people.

Second, strong links between Israelis and the American Jews are vital and bring us something we cannot get any other way. As time goes by, I believe that connecting to Israel will be a key to my (as yet unborn) grandchildren’s Jewish identity.

Third, the Jewish future rests above all with women. First, for the old reason that the next generation of Jews will come out of their Jewish bodies. Second, for the new reason that in this period of transition, they must decide whether they can cross over from the role they have had until now, to the equal role they must have going forward. Only if they decide the transition is worth making will Jewish life have a future.

Yes, I know the Orthodox arguments. Women have the most important responsibility already—their role in the private sphere of the family. Fine. That continues. But their role in the public sphere is destined to grow dramatically, and Judaism and Jewishness rest more in the hands of my daughters than they do in the hands of my son.