While this column generally focuses on weighty public issues, it sometimes lets slip a personal detail like, “I was eating a pork chop the other day...” This invariably inspires a reader to object: “PORK CHOP!?!? I thought you were JEWISH!!!”
This is what I call a “self-reveal.” They’re carrying around this cliched notion of what being Jewish means, and a pork chop has no place on their dance card. Rather than reevaluate their obviously mistaken belief in light of new information — who does that? — they find it easier to try to hoot down the contrary fact.
It doesn’t offend me. Little does. There’s a lot of stupid in the world, and I’m not in charge of stamping it out. I’m not even sure where on the scale of offensiveness this would go. Something less idiotic than saying, “If you’re Native American, where’s your horse?” though worse than assuming that someone whose parents are from Mexico must speak Spanish.
A pork chop doesn’t represent much of a slide from my upbringing. My mother never prepared pork in our house. But she served bacon. Her idiosyncratic personal theology saw a difference between the two, one not actually found in the strictures of Judaism, where a pig’s a pig. What part you eat isn’t the issue.
Why shouldn’t she? Given all the contradictory nonsense that organized religion imposes upon our supposedly modern world, it seems only fair that individual participants get to inject a few irrationalities of their own. Fun for everybody.
So yes, I’m writing this on Yom Kippur. I used to go to synagogue, back in the day. It wasn’t bad. Long. I liked the chest-pounding. You hear about chest-pounding, but how often do you actually have a chance to do it? Though the service did drag on and I was glad to shuck it. Frankly, when my boss asked “Are you writing for Friday?” my first thought was he didn’t realize the project I’d been working on that kept me from being in the paper Monday and Wednesday was done. Then I thought it could be a nicer version of the pork chop question. “Aren’t you busy praying?” Umm, no. Had I been more nimble-minded, I would have happily used my religion as a smokescreen — everybody else does — and grabbed an extra day off. But honesty is my default, and I said I’d write something. This, apparently.
I must point out, alas, that I am in no way criticizing anybody who spends the entire day in synagogue, praying and fasting and repenting. Or any other intensive expression of faith. Good on ya. We are free to manifest our religion as we like, though I hasten to point out if this applies to you, then it applies to me too. There there, it’s hard to accept, I know.
We “come to our own beliefs,” is how Angela Warnick Buchdahl, senior rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York, put it in her sermon Wednesday night during the Kol Nidre service, which I watched because my wife watched. “Kol Nidre” is an ancient Aramaic tune whose mournfulness appeals to me. Give it a listen, and you’ve done your Yom Kippur duty.
What I’m hoping you take away is that while the extreme forms of every faith pretend to have a lock on belief and practice, they don’t. Most Jews don’t keep Kosher, most Catholics support legal abortion, most Muslims do not pray five times a day. We’re all people. We vary. We stray.
Frankly, I like the straying part best. Beginning in the 1880s, anarchist Jews would throw dances on Yom Kippur. In Poland, they’d hold circuses. In New York, Jewish restaurants gave away free blintzes. The point was heresy.
“Advertised in the Yiddish press, Yom Kippur balls, lectures, and nosh fests were decidedly communal events created by and for an alternative community,” Eddy Portnoy writes in his delightful survey, “Bad Rabbi, And Other Strange But True Stories From the Yiddish Press.” “Some people partook to spite a god they did not believe in. Others participated to antagonize their parents, and still others to harass the religious establishment. In fact, harassment may have been the biggest draw.”
Shrugging off inconvenient rules might be the Jewish superpower, with an overlay of ridicule to ease the process along. I take as much pride in those nose-thumbing Yom Kippur feasts as I do in my people cooking up the Decalogue. Maybe a little more.