Every generation of Jews has its wicked sons and daughters, the ones we give a seat at our Seder table but don’t know how to engage. In one of the most famous passages of the Passover Haggadah read during the Passover Seder, we describe the four sons that our tradition speaks to: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask. Each son asks his own question, the wise one wants to know more, the wicked one wants to know its meaning, the simple one asks with ambivalence, and the oblivious one asks with his silence. All sons are answered with compassion, except the wicked one who is answered with violence.
The wicked son is famous for not falling into the group, he says “what does this ritual mean to you”, by which, as the Haggadah explains, he means to you and not to me, excluding himself from the collective.
Over the last couple years the Jewish community has seen the rise of a new group of people who seem to fall outside of the collective, men and woman who ask the question of the Wicked Son, and which our tradition still hasn’t figured out how to engage. I’m speaking of the increasingly growing community of formerly Ultra-orthodox Jews like myself.
While the phenomenon is not new, over the last couple of years formerly Ultra-orthodox Jews have been forming for themselves their own community and identity. Footsteps, an organization that supports individuals that were raised Ultra-orthodox who then choose to pursue a life beyond that world, recently celebrated it’s tenth anniversary, and formerly Ultra-orthodox individuals have become increasingly vocal on public platforms from the Internet to across the entire spectrum of the progressive Jewish print and visual media.
Yet, despite our increased visibility and the forming of our own identity, the question formerly Ultra-orthodox Jews like myself continue to get asked as we engage with the wider Jewish world is: why do we all go completely secular? Why did we go to the other extreme?
And that question is usually closely followed by the previous question’s metaphorical twin:
Why did we throw out the baby with the bathwater?
Often that question takes the form of “why don’t we see many who leave embrace Modern Orthodoxy?” Wouldn’t Modern Orthodoxy, the question goes, have given us the freedom we were looking for while allowing us to still hold on to parts of our faith and tradition?
It is that question that is continuously asked from me and my friends in the formerly Ultra-orthodox community by members of the larger Jewish community, in private, at fundraising events, and in the media (See “Modern Orthodoxy’s Welcome Alternative” by Rabbi Nathanial Helfgot published in The Jewish Press, June 20th 2013).
Beyond the debate over the answer and validity of the question, the truth is that the Footsteps community and the growing community of formerly Ultra-orthodox are too young for this question. Our sample size is too small, and our subject too new. We don’t know what the makeup of the formerly Ultra-orthodox community will be in another ten years from now. As the barrier for breaking the walls of the Ultra-orthodox community changes, as the Internet makes it easier for people in the Ultra-orthodox community to peek outside, the profile of those who leave won’t just be fighting secularists. Most of the current members of Footsteps don’t yet know where in the Jewish spectrum the will fall, if they will fall there at all.
But the real misunderstanding of this intercommunity discussion hides out in the purported innocent question that me and my friends always get asked usually as a way to justify the Modern Orthodox question: Why did we throw out the baby with the bathwater?
It is this question that, in its formulaic and metaphorical innocence, hides not just a misunderstanding of the growing new community of formerly Ultra-orthodox Jews but of the entire history of Judaism’s interactions and encounters with modernity and change.
What me and my friends disagree with those who ask of us this question is not if the baby is worth keeping since the bath water is dirty, what we disagree with those who ask is where the bathwater ends and the baby begins. The question, when asked, is really: why did we treat as bathwater that which others think is the baby.
And the answer to that of course is that we all choose what is bathwater and what is baby. That is what the Hasidic movement did it with the Yeshiva culture of the eighteenth century, what the Reform movement did with the Orthodox movement, what the Conservative movement then did with Reform movement, and it is what the Modern Orthodox movement did with Ultra-orthodoxy, they looked at the current state of tradition and culture and asked what of that world do we consider baby and what do we consider bathwater.
Now it is our chance, us who were raised in the culture of Ultra-orthodoxy having received its rigorous Jewish education and having been exposed to the ideas and mores of modernity, to do with contemporary Orthodoxy as those all throughout Jewish history have done at every cultural junction. To ask again what is baby and what is bathwater.
Because starting from the four sons of the Haggadah the debate has never been about a baby and a bath of water, the debate has always been about its demarcation, where does the baby end and the bathwater begin? That is how every paradigm shift in Judaism occurred, when groups of people sat down and began asking that question. All of us Jews who engage with the history of our tradition, its richness and its shortcomings, are looking for a way to distill that baby from the murky bathwater. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace’s famous speech, we are all asking “what is bathwater?”
Or in Hebrew: מה העבודה הזאת לכם? The WIcked Sons question.
That has been our history, and the current crop of formerly Ultra-orthodox Jews we are now seeing are no different. For some of us the bathing Jewish baby is the holidays and the Jewish calendar, for some it is going to shul and being a part of a community, for some it is singing zemiros, for some it is Zionism and Jewish history, for some it is God, for myself right now it is the Talmud and the rich culture that comes with it that now, five year after leaving yeshiva, I can look back on it and see that in the swimming Nile of bathwater that accompanied my Yeshiva education there is a baby floating in a basket that I want to save.
What the passage of the Four Sons in the Haggadah hides is that we were all wicked sons before we got our own Seder table. Amongst the plethora and diversity of wise sons and daughters that the Jewish community has had throughout history most began by asking the question that the wicked son asks: what does this mean to you? Is it meaningful or is it meaningless? Do I want to hold on it or can I change it? Is your demarcation of baby and bathwater the one I won’t to accept or challenge.
The question of “why throw out the baby with the bathwater” is as blind as the violent father of the Haggadah, who knocks out the teeth of his wicked son not realizing that the wise son he so prides himself with only came to be because he wasn’t afraid of loosing a few teeth along the way.
An Essay for April 6th.
I didn’t write anything this year for April 5th, My essay last year on it was my last.
In truth this year April fifth didn’t feel like it felt the last six years. I think it is in part that I have come to realize that between April 6, 2008 and now I have -at this point- changed in my life more than I did on April 5th, 2008.
But, I was going through some old files in my computer I came across this video I made two years ago for a class I took in Stage Design.
The video project was supposed to show our use of diagetic and non-diagetic sound. We got to choose three quotes to make a video about, one of them was this excerpt from a poem by Neruda which began with:
“With which stars do they go on speaking,
those rivers that never reach the sea.”
When I re-watched the video I was surprised by how predictive it was of the place where I am now in relation to that part of my life.
In the past I saw the two lives I lived as being in a series, one of them was my former life, the other my present. But now I see them differently, both of them living in me, in some way I’ve yet to figure out how to describe.
Watching this video made me realize that the seeds of that idea were already in me for a while, that I’ve been embracing the duality of my self and world long before I acknowledged to myself that such a duality exists in me.
It’s a person I wasn’t on April 5th 2008, but I began becoming him on April 6, and I’m happy I took his journey.
It’s April 6 now here in Berlin.
Here’s the essay I submitted together with my video:
“With which stars do they go on speaking,
those rivers that never reach the sea.”
This stanza in Neruda’s poem got me thinking about the phases in my own life which feel like they have never reached the sea. I saw Neruda’s question - about what happens to the aspirations we have that never come to fruition – as a lamentation for the days and actions of our lives that we sometimes must abandon.
I thought about my own days as a religious rabbinical student in Israel, my fervent prayers and my hours of studying, that I have completely abandoned when I chose to study science and theatre at university.
I wanted to create a video that captures that change and the cry of Neruda, how my work and beliefs during those years have never reached the sea. But I also wanted the video to be an answer to that question. That ultimately our own selves and identity is a cumulative sea that all the rivers we pass ultimately reach. To show that I have shown video clips and images of my past and present life, I look different in the images of my past and the images of present, but my pose is the same.
Thinking about the Sisyphean nature of some of my pursuits, I was reminded of the Doll Aria of Offenbach’s opera Les Contes D’Hoffman. In that aria the poet Hoffman falls in love with a robot created by a scientist that he thinks is a real girl, and he is devastated when he finds out the truth about her fakeness. In a sense my belief in God during my yeshiva days was like Hoffman’s belief in the robotic woman, a belief in a human construction as real. But in a sense the allure of science and art that attracted me to leave the world of religion behind was much like the allure of the robotic girl for Hoffman, she is dazzling but also impossible to really exist.
For my video I used a beautiful performance directed by Bartlot Sher of that aria, we hear Kathleen Kim sing (diagetic sound) and we cut away to the parallel alternative lives that I have lived while hearing the aria continue (non diagetic sound.)
In the end my two personalities exist in harmony and even the robot gives me a wink and compassionately sings her notes. But as the final sound shows, that illusion of the beautiful girl who has become the allure of the new life I live needs constant winding and reenergizing, because the sea where the rivers meet needs to be constantly reconstructed.
(If the music in the video intrigues you, here's a preview of the opera it is part of including an introduction by Deborah Voigt, And here you can see a great clip of Kate Lidnsey and Joseph Calleja in a rather funny aria from the opera, when the poet first sees the robot, and here you can hear Ana Netrebko and Elena Garancia sing the opera’s most famous piece of music, the Barcarolle)
If Only We Had Taller Been.
The fence we walked between the years did bounce us serene.
It was a place half in the sky where, in the green of leaf and the promise of peach, we reached our hand and almost touched the sky.
If we could reach out and touch, we said, it would teach us not to, never to, be dead.
We ate, and almost touched that stuff;
Our reach was never quite enough.
If only we had tallied then, and touched God’s cuff, his hem
We would not have to go with them, with those who had gone before
Who, short as us, stood tall as they could and hoped that by stretching tall that they could keep their land their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.
But they like us were standing in a hole.
Oh Thomas! Will a race one day stand really tall, across the void across the universe and all?
And measure all with rocket fire. at last put Adam’s finger forth as on the Sistine ceiling
And God’s hand come down the other way to measure man and find him good ?
And gift him with forever’s day
I work for that ,for that short man, large dream
I send my rockets forth between my ears
Hoping an inch of good is worth a pound of years
Aching to hear a voice cry back across the universal mall
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
My God! We’re tall!
Here I will not hear the voice of the cuckoo.
Here the tree will not wear a cape of snow.
But it is here in the shade of these pines
my whole childhood reawakens.
The chime of the needles: Once upon a time –
I called the snow-space homeland,
and the green ice at the river’s edge -
was the poem’s grammar in a foreign place.
Perhaps only migrating birds know -
suspended between earth and sky -
the heartache of two homelands.
With you I was transplanted twice,
with you, pine trees, I grew -
roots in two disparate landscapes.
“When I see how calm,
how full of pride you are,
something inside me goes wild –
How can one live this awesome life
without a touch of madness,
with only a grim, ancient pride?
If I could, I would burn down
that we call the seasons,
along with your cursed dependence
on earth and air and sun,
on rain and dew.”
The cypress does not answer.
He knows there is madness in him,
But the flame will not understand,
the flame will not believe.
Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce
Homeward returning. High in Front advanc’t,
The brandisht Sword of God before them blaz’d
Fierce as a Comet; which with torrid heat,
And vapour as the Libyan Air adust,
Began to parch that temperate Clime; whereat
In either hand the hastning Angel caught
Our lingring Parents, and to th’ Eastern Gate
Led them direct, and down the Cliff as fast
To the subjected Plaine; then disappeer’d.
They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
-John Milton, ending of Paradise Lost (Chapter 12 632-649)
Lord of the heart’s silliness,
and the crimes of actions.
Father of the hungry-body’s pain,
Feed me life,
and then I’ll know,
That there is a big sun in your sky,
and her golden light is much to me.
Here, I’ll stretch out my hand,
spare me some change.
Note: I translated this poem from the Hebrew on my own so some of the translation is probably imperfect. For example the word הטריפני means feed but the root of the word is that of “prey” as in make me prey, it’s used to connote feeding but with a stronger intonation, as in make me prey of life.
O the songs you sang of Brazil, of the Amazons
boiling up their rice in satellite dishes, stealing whatever men
or comfort they could! For years I dreamed of turning Amazon,
letting my slips and hair grow wild as flowered vines in the Amazon.
Did I tell you? Once near Rio, I nearly drowned
when the tide, like a lover, stole back to the Amazon,
her brown lips wide and waiting. They had to pull me up
before I sank for good, like you, my pale body yanked up
like a tooth rotten at the root, while the sounds of the Amazon
crooned in my blood. They warmed me like love.
The songs you sang were always about love.
The boys in the chip shops lied to you about love,
slick under their Elvis haircuts, eyes sequined like the Amazon’s
dark amniotic waters. Them you loved,
as much as the Irish who fled to New York, loving
the night sounds of Christmas bells kissing the stars, men
chained to Church and self-hatred who called you ‘Luv,’
their unwashed necks tasting of bitterroot and Love-
Me-Not when you lured them down, down, down
to your apartment. Even the Socialists who wouldn’t go down
on you, their bad skins splintering in the cold, these too you loved,
teasing them into the bars where you propped them up
on wood stools to demand why you weren’t quite up
to our standards yet, our Madonnas and Kylies, app-
aratchiks of plasticity, of de-thighed loving-
kindness spray painted pink. You were the London girl, flying up
and over townships, backed by a flaming Amazonian
'do and Johnny Marr beat. Lonely girls, we put you up
on a pedestal. You put us on the pill, crooning Are you up
for disappointment? in our bedrooms packed with men’s
photographs and colognes. On a cold gray day, a cold gray man
will do, I learned to sigh, and gathered up
all signs of strangers’ passing like treasures from the drowned;
fragile wood ships sinking into horizons, down
to the tips of their amber sails; down
to me, where I lived through a voice that called up
starfish and sirens, breathy songs so tearful as to drown
sailors in their own beds. They said: In Mexico, she drowned
in front of her two children. Isn’t that sad? Frankly, I’d love
a better word than sad right now. Something less drowsy
and inert, something to reflect the woman you were drowning
in her bathtub, clutching a martini. The Amazon’s
sheared off breast perhaps, or the war cries that rattled their jungle
like silver spears. I’m in your eyes; I’m drowning,
you purred in stereo until I could only picture the man
who’d pull me under the way you could, into the male,
heady registers my voice could barely reach. Here comes that man
again, Kirsty, the one who can’t stop killing you with his down-
burst of sighs, his tooth-and-nail kisses. You with your black jack-
boots and bejeweled cashmeres, mane
of hair sweetly teased into powdery red, op-
eratic clouds settled after the nuclear blast: what man
can resist you? Not even that Insatiable Mister
who’s caught you (at last) into his thin arms, crying, Beloved!
the way he once caught at me, adrift at sea and in love
with the tug of shoals and moon. I swore no more songs for dead men
or rock stars but you were the last straw, my Penthesilea
calling all her Amazons
to war. O my Amazon,
the girls you’ve left are still here; like me, waving, not drowning,
before the poets on their pylons, eyes fixed to the ships sailing above
us in the night, mouths full of the hymns you sang of love.
The world is beautiful and wrong. But the men, Kirsty. O the men.
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