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March 13, 2011 3:09 pm

Unorthodoxically Orthodox (And why I hate that term)

avatar by Chava Tombosky

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Ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Photo: Diluvi.com

We live in a society where first impressions are everything. We immediately size up each person we encounter. We can’t help it.  It’s how we are made, according to Malcolm Gladwell, the writer of “Blink”.  But he says we do have the power to change our instincts.

When you meet an orthodox Jew what is the first thing that comes to mind? Come on, we’re all thinking it. The profile is so engrained in us.   Even I can’t help but conjure up some image of an overbearing, judgmental, in the box, strict, dogmatic human being who smells of chicken fat.    Or maybe I immediately think of a poor quiet female who never gets to go swimming or sing or speak in public, ever. Or maybe I think about some poor yutz wearing strings and a kippa who can’t make a living and spends his days “schnorring”. Either way, these are the “blink” images that can come to mind when I hear the term Orthodox Jew.  Add the term “Ultra” to the phrase and you got a whole new group of negative blinks. I don’t even want to think about the “Ultra-ultra orthodox”.

Thanks to cool people like Mattisyahu I guess we’ve come along way in changing the “Orthodox” portrayal.  But still, it’ll be years before anyone thinks of a cool Chassidic hip hopping rapper upon hearing the term “Orthodox”.

People say to me all the time, “I don’t know how you do it, it must be so hard to be…. (This part they say in a quiet whisper, like it’s some bad word we can’t say out loud in public) …….Orthodox.  All the rules and the constant mandates, you must feel so trapped. “

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The truth is the only thing that really makes me feel trapped is the word orthodox that describes my lifestyle and all the connotations that comes with it. (That and never getting to eat Volcano burgers ever again. More about that later.) I think my lifestyle is pretty normal.  My less observant friends would argue that because I stop using all electronic devices every Friday evening until Saturday an hour after sundown- that is far from normal. They point out that because I only choose to eat in Kosher restaurants, limiting vacation eating options and TV dinner possibilities, that is seriously abnormal.

The dictionary definition of Orthodox is:

1. Conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true.

2. Of the ordinary or usual type; normal

NORMAL? That is a real word describing Orthodox? But I thought I wasn’t normal at all! well look at that, according to the dictionary I am normal.

Conforming to a truth….. I can deal with that.  I am a truth seeker. I like this.

But here’s where I get tripped out… Here are some words that come up in the thesaurus for the word orthodox: conventional, mainstream, traditionalist, popular, unoriginal, devout, strict. Unoriginal- conventional- mainstream??  Ok I’ll take traditional and devout and popular. I don’t mind being popular. And I like tradition, but strict? I’m the least strict person I know, just ask my kids. (Ok ask the younger one, ’cause the older one is a teenager and would obviously feel differently).  Unoriginal? This must be why I HATE the word orthodox, because in my mind I try every day to look at life in the most original and unconventional sort of way.

I am or at least try to be an orthodox renegade- a revolutionist, a non-conformist. I don’t even want to say it, but dare I say the word “Maverick” and us Americans have flashbacks of Sarah Palin and the 2008 elections. If you voted blue, you won’t mind this word much, but red voters may feel like our relationship is forever altered. See, we’re having another “Blink” moment.

I have been blessed to straddle two different worlds for most of my life. Although I went to a Jewish Day school as a kid, we were far from orthodox Jews. By the time I had my Bat Mitzvah we had drank the Kool-aid thereby reforming ourselves to “Chassidic Jews”.  (Some would call that ultra-ultra.) I always wondered why this was my journey. It seems so odd and yet it was so “normal” for me.

Over the past five years, I’ve given a class on finding your personal Mission, that I was very inspired to teach after having my own inspired moment from Rabbi Simon Jacobson a number of years ago. He was very influential in my finding my own note in the symphony of this world. He explains that  the key to finding one’s personal mission is to find your PPOPS.  I’ve added a fourth P, which would be spelled out as PPOPPS. It stands for:

-People

-Personalities

-Opportunities

-Places

-Pain (this one I added)

-Situations

These are your basic clues to finding out what your mission is in this world. After much soul searching, I have come to realize  that part of my life’s mission is to bring two very opposing worlds together like a bridge, arching the modern and the archaic together in a synchronized dance.  It is my goal to spend my life searching for truth and sharing with others that it is possible to live in a modern world and still be a traditionalist. It is possible to be original and still be part of an ancestral collective consciousness. My hope for this blog is to share with the world my unorthodox approach to my orthodoxy thereby proving that Judaism can be the wings on our backs and the wind to our sails, versus the albatross we are forced to spend our lives running away from or feeling trapped by.

Our relationship with G-d is a complicated one. One minute we are grateful, the next minute we are angry, then we have severe guilt, which can lead to depression then to reconciliation, back to jubilation, only to find ourselves in major rehabilitation.  It is a windy road, but as long we are able to realize that within this journey there is room for constant questions, which can lead to aha moments, which can give us great insight into seeking truths about our Jewish experience, then our “blink” can change.

I’m bringing orthodox back in the most unorthodox way. I have no agenda except to seek truth and to write about my life’s experiences as authentically as po

ssible. Whether it is as a Rebbetzin, a wife, a mother, a screenwriter, a singer, or even just a woman, I plan on writing about my journey even if I have to utter that foul word before my “Jew” title. Say it with me…. (In a whisper) “Orthodox”.

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  • Yoel B

    Orthodoxy does not connote pursuit of the truth but rather possession of the truth, by virtue of that truth being validated by community consensus and/or tradition. The original meaning was specifically that of having the correct religious doctrine or belief. The application of the term “Orthodox” to Judaism is recent and was part of the reaction to the rise of Liberal/Reform Judaism.
    A March 18 Jerusalem Post story (it’s premium content but available at Jewish Ideas Daily (http://www.jidaily.com/nrn/e) provides an interesting test of that. It describes Asenath Barzani, who was a Rosh Yeshiva in Mosul about 400 years ago. She was educated by her father, who founded the yeshiva. According to the article, “[e]xtant letters written to her by colleagues refer to her as master, rabbi and teacher.” She was asked by the kehilla in Baghdad to send them a scholar. She sent her son.
    I don’t think too many Orthodox communities today would accept a woman as a rabbi or as a Rosh Yeshiva. Probably not many would accept the son of such a woman as their rabbi, either.
    Apparently when plain old “Judaism” was forced to differentiate into groups labeled “Liberal”/”Reform” and “Orthodox,” (and later “Conservative,” etc.) certain possibilities were lost.
    Women being rabbis was never central to Judaism; had it been so, Asenath Barzani wouldn’t have been called “Rabbi” by her colleagues. But now, women being rabbis is central to Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, and women not being rabbis is becoming central to Orthodox Judaism.

  • Daas Torah

    I have no idea why those things are the first to pop into your head. Before I became frum, the first things that came to my mind were great homemade meals, challahs, seders that were real instead of the “when do we eat” kind, cool looking hats, connection to our Maker, and I’ll admit it, hot Chanies (ok, we didn’t have such a term back then, but the idea was there, I was crushing on every long skirt wearing girl I saw.)

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