Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Response to Heresy on the High Beam: Dogma vs. Creativity

A friend that I roomed with for the summer in Israel, Tova (the only person I stayed in touch with from that program) started sending me her reactions to my essay collection, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess

She and I had very similar religious upbringings with somewhat similar dispositions. We both grew up in mainstream/centrist Orthodox communities. We both were artistically and creatively inclined--me towards writing and Tova to art and design. And we both sought movement outlets that at worst were at odds with Orthodoxy and at best, were a very uneasy fit. We both experienced the cognitive dissonance that comes with being passionate about certain pursuits--gymnastics for me and ballet for Tova--and knowing full well that we weren't supposed to be doing it.

What follows is our back and forth in Facebook's chat/message system (published with her permission). Tova gets things started off:

I will forever thank my lucky stars that my mom, a Bais Yaakov girl (who got kicked out for taking the SATs) told me when I was 12 that in ballet class, Shulamis' [our school] rules didn't really hold. I suppose she thought that the ballet company I had belonged to for four years already was far away in Manhattan and that no one would see, and she probably didn't care if they did. I felt a huge internal conflict about being one person at school and a very different person for all of Sunday (especially at performances), but that comment kept me from quitting.  
I was never going to be a professional ballerina and I knew it, but I owe much of who I am today to the ballet I danced from when I was a toddler until I graduated high school. I learned some important lessons early: 
1. How to be a ruthless perfectionist. This later helped me immensely as a designer.
2. How to appreciate art, especially the ingenious beauty of the human form.
3. That physicality isn't inherently bad, no matter how much the Orthodox Jewish world claims to abhor it.
4. Creativity sets you free. Obviously this is true at any age. As a child, it made me a little bit invincible to the disapproving adult world. No one could be the boss of my mind. 
My husband doesn't totally understand why when we've started checking out elementary schools for our son, I say it's a priority for me to send him where they have a good arts program. It's already beyond obvious that our son has more of a scientist's than an artist's perspective on life. (At a magic show a few months ago, he told me magic doesn't exist, and that the tricks were being done by magnets. But anyway...) Even if he never joins a painting class or a band or a gymnastics or judo group, I think it's important that young people not be put in an environment that prizes dogma over discovery. I think you and I certainly spent a lot of time in that kind of place.
I came to Israel so that I wouldn't have to compartmentalize my being. I wanted what I still think is possible: to be Jewish but not feel singled out for it, to also be observant, to design and create things and live a life that holds meaning, to be productive and recognized for my skills, to be spiritual, and to experience wholeness. Because of an attraction to creative pursuits, most of my life, especially my childhood in the Orthodox educational system, was marked by a constant compartmentalization of skills and psyche that was deeply confusing. I don't want to pass it on to the next generation: I want my kids to have a stronger sense of who they are. 
It was also really funny/strange to remember Fayva, Kings Plaza, etc. Ah, Jewish Brooklyn of yesteryear, I do not miss you.

Naturally, I was tickled that she wrote such a thoughtful response. (Though not surprised--Tova is one of the most thoughtful people I know.) This is how I responded:

This was wonderful. I'm really touched that you wrote this. I don't think the balance you describe is really an option in the U.S. And I have no desire to move to Israel. It's not in line with my goals and what I want out of life. At times, I am sad that I can't try and have it all to use the fraught terminology of the moment. But when I tried to do everything, I couldn't and I was miserable. Cause the conventional wisdom has it that halacha trumps all so it never felt like a fair fight. I'm still finding my way in many regards and I feel less and less bad about leaving institutions that I find to be, at their core, based on values that I can't abide by. But it's hard at times and as much as I've gained by going my own way, I know I've lost some stuff too. 
And it's really interesting how being in touch with your physicality really creates conflict as a woman within Orthodoxy. It really gives you an appreciation of your body for what it can do, not what it looks like. I fervently believe that modesty restrictions are just as harmful as naked photo shoots, just as reductionist.
Tova again:

Totally agree about tzniut rules. Most are very damaging in my opinion. I await the day when the concept of tzniut will be taught as body awareness + self esteem development, and not as covering up the unholy. How many school teachers do you think I will have to complain to in the next 12 years for that to happen? 

And again:

I just got to the thing about "picking and choosing." OMG. Bane of my youth. Worst thing they ever taught in me in Brooklyn, and they kept on repeating it, even when I moved out to less-religiously-insane Long Island. Since then I have discovered that picking and choosing is the only goddamned way to stay connected to your life. Picking and choosing is precisely my goal now. I believe it is a pure and honest virtue: the only way to improve yourself, your society, your mind, and especially your religion. The opposite of being "picky and choosy" is "passive and apathetic."...Why is there no club for people like us? 
Me: I guess we're it. We should invite more folks. 
Tova: I will not let you give us uniforms with glitter. Please.

Too bad, Tova. This is what we'll be wearing when we start the revolution.

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