I just finished reading a great and entertaining memoir  by Lisa Fineberg Cook, a self-aware, spoiled, very smart and funny Jewish girl from LA who marries a world-traveling educator / adventurer and spends two years in Japan, completely out of her element. The better to introspect, my dear. The new bride ends up shedding many of her J.A.P.py notions, and learning a thing or two about how being a citizen of the world (and a wife) requires one to step into another’s shoes, regularly. (And that borrowing your best friend’s Manolos doesn’t count in this regard.)

I will be writing an entire column on the book, and doing a Q+A with the author, sometime in the next month (stay tuned…), but what I want to say now is this: I once had the privilege of editing an excellent partial manuscript for someone whose journey took him in somewhat of the opposite direction…From a Zen secular life in the US, to a bike tour through Europe and to Lebanon, to meet his wife’s Christian Arab family, and, ultimately, to Israel, where he ended up adopting religious Judaism. (As did she.)

The writing was superb and the adventure completely unique, but he could not find a publisher anywhere. I ask anyone who will answer me: Will the Manhattan book establishment not even entertain the possibility that growth can also take one from the assimilated to the culturally particular? Is it a given that to be a “journey” it not only has to end in self-awareness and spiritual expansion, but in adopting something foreign? What if there’s no place like home? Would Dorothy Gale get published in 2009, having seen the other side of the rainbow, and choosing churchy Kansas because that’s where her heart was? Which brings me to Hanukah:

Would I have been a Maccabee or a Hellenist? I ask this quite sincerely since I’m pretty sure Mattathias Cohen and Sons were more Judean Hilltop and less Tel Aviv Café…not even suburban Modern Orthodox. While we live (and my kids learn) in an Orthodox environment, Jewish-centered and centric, I can not claim to have taken secular culture out of our house – pretty much the opposite is true. Is it only living in Israel that allows us the luxury of consuming Hollywood and being broadly cultural, and not worrying for a minute about our identity or continuity? I’m thinking probably…yes… in the US I might have been a bit more of a protective / defensive Frumom. (Reason #687 for Aliyah!) 

(I’m also thinking that the Hasmonean Dynasty in the Second Commonwealth didn’t do so well at the end of the day, once they grew cozier with Rome…but that I’m not canceling cable.)

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  • For this Hirshian Torah-Im-Derech-Eretz Yekke, the Talmud sums it up quite nicely:

    Chochmah ba-goyim – ta’amin.
    Torah ba-goyim – al ta’amin.

    Wisdom in gentile culture? Believe it.
    Torah in gentile culture? Don’t believe it.

    From the gentile world we take tools, techniques, and general insights into the human condition. But we don’t take values – we give them ours.

    We assess the value of what’s going on in that world – what furthers our purpose as G-d’s witnesses, and what is contrary to it – by the transcendent moral/spiritual yardstick of Torah.

    This requires:
    – not to be wowed by technological advances.
    Scientific achievements shed no light, and give no authority, in moral and spiritual matters. In the modern secular world, the cloak of scientific authority is constantly stretched/misused to promote moral/spiritual opinions – usually contrary to Torah.

    Evolution has not “disproved” that humans have a divine soul, any more than the moonwalk in the 60s “disproved” G-d’s role in creation. The recent flood of pseudo-science urging people to think of themselves as apes unable to control their “natural” urges is another good example of the misuse of scientific authority. The neo-pagan religion of environmentalism is another example. These can – and should – be dismissed, and not just by Torah Jews.

    – not to be swayed by emotion in the arts.
    We obviously share basic human and emotional makeup with the gentile world, and therefore gentile artistic/cultural products “work” on us. By their nature these experiences downplay the rational. It requires care and awareness to perceive the gestalt/mindset from which these cultural products come from, or lead to – and critically analyze if they are compatible with the Torah’s spiritual path.

    Here a spiritual mentor and regular study of the immutable Torah are invaluable to balance subjective – and often deeply persuasive – experience.

    – not to be wowed by cultural/material success.
    We have our own definition of “the good life” and of what a “successful” society should look like.

    Again, it is the Torah that takes the measure of the surrounding society, not the other way around. Judaism does not have to be capitalist/socialist/democratic/feminist enough – we look at the Torah to judge the relative merits of capitalism/socialism/democracy/feminism.

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