Months ago, I e-mailed a friend (let’s call him Earl) about who-remembers-what. Earl is also a writer, and in addition, works in photography, film, and music. He is waiting for his Big Break, which actually looks to be fast arriving. Earl is secular, Jewish, American, just a shade older than I am, and currently lives in a large arts-producing city with his significant other, a talented and funny writer / model / actress we’ll call Joy. I haven’t seen him in about 8 years but we correspond digitally.
Apparently, he’s been chewing over part of the contents of that e-mail for a long time. Here’s what I got from Earl last week (posted here with his permission):
â€œâ€¦I have one question about a statement you wrote:
Anyway â€“ suburbia is no picnic either sometimes, ditto organized religion, and I am not a tremendous fan of either one. Why do you stay in Orthodox Judaism then? Do you not yearn to be free? To not be bound by laws and restrictions that at the end of the day you cannot wholly prove actually come from God, and more likely come from man? Don’t you want to just eat a cheeseburger with your hair down in public, a nice pair of hot, tight jeans and a cute, sexy shirt on and do what you want, when you want with no feelings of having to be doing things at a pre-ordained time because that’s that the rules say? Maybe feel the thrill of catching the eyes of other men who think, â€œMan, she’s hotâ€? etc., etc.
If you’re not a tremendous fan of either, why do you stay in them? You could still be a wife, a mom and a Jewish woman and not be bound by those things. I mean what would happen if you said to your husband: â€œThis Friday night I want to get a babysitter and take you into Tel Aviv to go dancing and have a few drinks and then stay in hotel room and [suggested recreational activity removed]â€œ? Would David say, â€œFâ€” yeah. Let’s do itâ€ or is there no way that would happen?
I am curious. I don’t want to imagine a life bound in that way. I am too much a free spirit as is [Joy]. It’s why we work so well together.
– â€˜Earl’ â€œ
Well. Earl. Where do I begin?
Thank you for your vote of confidence in my ability to look hot in tight jeans?
â€¦And for volunteering to explain to our 15.5-year-old son why our potential drunken partying is so much more responsible and acceptable than the potential same activity of his peers?
Although: Why on earth do David and I need to go to a club and a hotel on Shabbat when we have a bedroom, a booze cabinet, a large music collection, and another 6 days of the week?
How about: I wouldn’t eat a cheeseburger if it was made by the OU and blessed by Rav Ovadia because my arteries are my friendsâ€¦ and there are those tight jeans to slide intoâ€¦?
â€¦However, I think all these things are somewhat beside the point.
As Rachel Menken once said to Don Draper: You didn’t think this through.
Earl, you (understandably) misunderstood: I sometimes dislike suburbia because it can be boring, conformist, and nosy, and Orthodoxy because (like most organized religion) I feel it has become stagnant and irresponsible, on the verge of losing the creative spirit that has kept it alive until now. (And going into detail here would involve a MUCH longer post, but I am happy to expand upon request.) But my lack of fandom is NOT because Orthodoxy / suburbia are both restrictive. Not because I don’t want to feel bound by anything or anyone.
My objections have to do with the contemporary wisdom of some of the rules in those structures and their method of adjudication, or their lack of compassion, but I have no doubt that some rules are in fact necessary for a functional, productive life. I have no doubt that requiring hard things of people is overall a good policy, because people tend to step up then, when they are being required of.
Surely, you have some rules for yourself, Earl, or you couldn’t have accomplished all that you have. I do not â€œyearn to be freeâ€; I am, thankfully, in a relationship and in a community that allows me to be, within reason, free. I yearn to be lazy, sometimes, or asleep, or surprised by fabulousness, my own or that of others. But what’s missing for me isn’t freedom. When something is missing, that thing is novelty, or maybe, lightning-speed forward movement. But I digress.
Being part of a family and / or a community and / or a belief system (religious or otherwise) has its disadvantages, to be sure. You hit the main one: You are no longer simply your own agent. There are meetings, happenings, causes, responsibilities, loyalties, and rules. You need to bake for people at â€œpre-ordained times,â€ like after childbirth or during shiva. You need to be with people when all you want to do is be alone. You need to smile when you hate humanity; but you don’t really. Just today. Forget religion for a moment. What person anywhere wants to get out of their sweatpants on a Tuesday night and attend a fundraiser? (And Holy Crap, am I raising my hand to volunteer for the XYZ committee? Really? Again?)
Throwing God and / or His earthly agents into the mix adds an extra few levels of commitment and an extra unplugged day of the week (which, by the way, I couldn’t and wouldn’t live without â€“ think: a no e-mail or phone Sabbatical! Divine.), but it is along the same continuum: There is Something Larger Than Yourself that you belong to and that you must answer to. That Something Larger in many cases is a tiny cross-section of the world’s people and cultures. There’s your paradox.
It seems that you view my lifestyle as a battle of the Him (God / Law) or the Them (Society / Rules) vs. the I (My Needs and Wants.) But I view it more as a choice of We (family, community, spirituality) over Me Me Me.
The perks: You are never alone; there are people looking out for you; you are part of something; you are consistently loved and asked to keep yourself open, consistently giving love; you are responsible for enriching your community; you must be disciplined and hold yourself to real, firm standards because there are eyes and ears (Divine and otherwise) everywhere. The downside: Same.
We all know there is no having it all. Stability by nature demands putting some freedoms in check. It’s a tradeoff of the collective versus the individual, pro and con alike. So back to your question: Do I feel buried and repressed? Missing out on life? No. Bored and restless? Resentful? Sameness? Sometimes. Overwhelmed by the responsibilities I’ve chosen to carry? Often. Are tight jeans and a treif burger, a hot bar and a hotter dance party, the ability to do anything I want when I want, the answers I seek to what occasionally ails me about this life?
Not by a mile. You with your big connections Earl, I’ll tell you what to do if you want to help me with my Suburbadox Malaise: Get me a meeting with Matthew Weiner. Whatever they serve for lunch, whatever I wear there, whether the hot guard checks me out when I walk in the door or notâ€¦I’ll feel much, much better about everything if I get to work on a high quality, life-changing project with a deep, brilliant writer, to the benefit of millions of culture consumers. That would be a novelty and a huge leap forward all at once.
You and Joy can take the hotel in Tel Aviv. David and I left most of the mini-bar. Help yourselves.