On Responsibility to the Community — Sexism, Intermarriage, and Other Fun Stuff (Part 2)

 Commissioned post count: 2 out of 8 requests so far.


[Continued from Part 1, found here. Requested by Elissa G.]


This part is going to be a lot more Jewish, because Judaism and community are so inextricably intertwined and as an agnostic Jew who keeps most observances for all the “wrong” reasons, I of course have much to say about the communal aspects of Judaism as opposed to the religious ones.


But first I have to talk a bit about what makes a community. A common (but by no means universal) Jewish take on community is that it’s like a diagram of concentric circles — you and your personal bubble (or “dalet amot”) in the center, your family in the circle around that, your Jewish neighbors in the circle around that, then non-Jewish neighbors, then Jews in your city, then non-Jews in your city, then Jews everywhere else in the world, and everyone else in the world in the circle around that.

Like this. Only not as tasty.

The closer the circle is to the center, the greater the urgency for you to help those people. Responsibility becomes diffused the further out you go. Which is quite practical when it comes to allotting the limited resources that we all have in life — if you try to help everyone equally and spread your resources too thinly, then no one gets the help they need. So “take care of your own first” is as good a way as any to divvy up the resources.


Still, in reality, a diagram of the communities that we belong to probably looks more like this:



There is family, there are school friends, there are neighborhood friends, there are internet friends, there are colleagues, there is extended family, there is step-family, half-family, people who were in the same school clubs as you, people who went to schools you graduated from, summer camp friends, people who are fans of the same shows/music/youtubers/sports teams that you are, people who are the same gender as you are, people who are the same ethnicity as you are, people who are the same religion as you are, and so on and so forth, and some of these may overlap a little and some of them may overlap a lot, and some may have absolutely no overlap at all.


And you may feel a strong connection to some of these communities and little or no connection to others, and other members of the community may see you differently than you see yourself. For instance, colleges are always going to consider you part of the alumni community and ask you for money, whether you feel any affinity toward them or not. Some Yankee fans may consider you basically a brother if you’re a Yankee fan too, while you yourself may have much more stringent criteria for what makes you feel connected to someone in a brotherly way. And you may feel more of an affinity for your friends than you do for your own family, or vice versa. Or you may feel very strongly drawn to a particular cause that involves a particular population, like the homeless or LGBTQ teens.


So when it comes to “taking care of your own first,” the question of who “your own” truly is becomes muddled and confusing.


Personally, I usually tend to latch onto people, not communities. True, I may feel a connection and common ground with a person who is Jewish, or a Yankee fan, or a woman, or a rabbi’s daughter, but that alone is seldom enough to inspire any kind of loyalty. I’m not gonna put myself out there for someone and do them any special favors just because of those things, if the person as a whole is not someone I find compelling. I don’t owe anyone anything just because they may belong to a community that I belong to. But for my friends, my real true friends, who are there for me and have established a reciprocal relationship? There’s very little I would not do, regardless of what community they may belong to.


Obviously I try to have a basic baseline of human decency with most people I meet, and I try to stand up for what I think is right/fight injustice on a situational basis as discussed in Part 1, but just as obviously, I’m not an unendingly generous person who will just give and give and give to anyone who needs regardless of who they are and how they treat me and what they mean to me. Just because we inhabit this world together or share some particular commonality does not put some cosmic, crushing responsibility on me for them, or on them for me. I don’t think that is a healthy way of thinking.


[Side note: I wrote this conflict into characters from the series of (mostly unpublished) novels I wrote in elementary school and high school — one of the characters, Jake, has a phenomenal range of superpowers, one of which is the power to heal others, and once he develops that one enough, he begins to feel that any time he spends sleeping, or eating, or talking to his girlfriend, is essentially causing other people to die, because he could be healing them. He internalizes that cosmic, crushing weight of responsibility to others, any others, to the point where his friends begin to conspire to somehow weaken his powers because the guilt is destroying him. Great power, great responsibility, etc. Yeah, that was the way High School Me grappled with this issue and the pressure to be a good person. Aaaaaangst.]

Self Portrait of High School SM


Nowadays, I rarely do things that are “good for the community” or “what the community wants/needs” if I do not also have enough personal reasons to do those things.


For instance, religious Jewry is a very small minority in the world, and is probably getting smaller. As a result, what is good for the community, and what is built into the cultural programming of most people in it, is that you should a) remain religious, b) marry someone religious or at least Jewish, c) have lots of Jewish babies.


I do not think that “because the community needs you to” is a good enough reason for any of those things. People should be able to remain religious because they want to, and stop being religious if they want to, and if a different religion speaks to them more, they should be free to go for that. And people should have children if they want children, and if they don’t want children, well, they probably shouldn’t be having them.


And this may be a controversial thing to say on a public blog, but I have zero philosophical/ideological problems with Jews dating and marrying non-Jews, because I don’t think anyone’s responsibility to the continuity of their community should supersede their own personal needs. If I were 1000% convinced that religious Judaism is the absolute best of all possibly ways of living and that bringing it closer to extinction is this horrible, unspeakable crime toward future generations and the world as a whole, then maybe I’d be sad about people intermarrying. But…I don’t think that. I think Judaism is certainly a valuable, valid, often excellent way of living, but so are lots of other ways. And yeah, I think it would be a shame if it died out completely, but I don’t think that putting that responsibility on any one person’s shoulders, at the cost of their personal happiness or fulfillment, is fair.


Again, personally, I keep many religious observances for various different reasons, as I’ve written about before. I also, after much consideration, decided that I am not willing to date non-Jews, not for ideological reasons, but rather for practical and emotional ones.


Practically speaking, I know it would alienate me from my community, my family, many of my friends, and even the possibility of being truly, madly, deeply in love does not make up that cost. And since I am not the sort of person who falls truly, madly, deeply in love without an intense period of dating, it’s unlikely I will form an emotional connection with a person who is not Jewish that is strong enough to make me want to date them and risk all the fallout.


Emotionally speaking . . . oy. So much of my fight for my identity and my life struggles are deeply tied to religious Judaism. And that’s a part of me that needs to be understood, and understood on the intuitive soul-deep level that only comes from having been through it yourself. I don’t need everything about me to be understood that way — I don’t need a partner to intuitively understand what it’s like to be from a big family, or what it’s like to want to be an automotive technician, or what it’s like to be a woman — but I need this, I need a partner who intuitively understands what Judaism has put me through. It’s like how some war veterans find it difficult to adjust back to relationships with civilians and only feel at home among their old army buddies. I’m not saying that my upbringing was the equivalent of a war, but it was an emotional pressure-cooker of an experience that’s difficult to convey to others who haven’t lived it. That’s also why I’m reluctant to date people who’ve never had their heart broken. I’m a snob like that.


Well, Elissa, I hope you got your money’s worth. I did not intend to write this much, but your topic gave me thinky thoughts.




Like my thinky thoughts? Want more of them? Consider donating and commissioning more, via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — and thanks for reading! And you can keep up with me on Twitter @FloatingSpirals and never miss a post 🙂


A Much Too Personal Movie Review of the First Ten Minutes of “Fill the Void”


“Are – are you going to be all right?”

“You mean, like, ever?”

My date chuckles halfheartedly. “Well, at the very least, ever. But I meant more like, by the time you go to sleep tonight?”

I inhale shakily. Everything under my skin is still vibrating — not in the sexy-clichéd-romance-novel kind of way; in the stitched-together-ripping-apart kind of way. My stomach gives an ominous residual lurch. “I honestly don’t know.”

We’re sitting on a bench outside the Lincoln Center movie theater at dusk on a Sunday evening. The paths and other benches around the fountains and mini waterfalls are relatively deserted. It’s quiet, or maybe just quiet for New York City. My quiet barometers are probably not working terribly well, though.




I’m hesitant to call my reaction to the first ten or fifteen minutes of the indie drama “Fill the Void” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2219514/) a panic attack, not because I’m concerned about the stigma that might come with a loaded phrase like that, but because I don’t think the symptoms fit and I don’t want to belittle the severity of people’s actual panic attacks when my experience was probably a lot milder by comparison. No heart palpitations, no inability to breathe, no paralysis of thought, no actual panic or fear.

Just wave after wave of nausea sliming my insides, coating my throat, making it spasm. Shakes. Dizziness. Surges of heat under my skin that vanish, leaving me shivery.

It wasn’t pleasant, I’ll say that.

But if it had been a full-fledged panic attack, I don’t know that after rushing out of the movie, locking myself in a bathroom stall, crashing down on the toilet, trying not to hunch over lest I make the nausea worse, I would have been able to scoop up my phone and send a coherent, properly-spelled text to my very worried date:

“I think it’s a combination of physical and mental. That movie has a lot of emotional triggers for me, I didn’t realize – marriage, religion, claustrophobic/repressive culture . . . all hit me really hard.”




I should point out that we didn’t even get to the major plot development listed in the film’s summary: “A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister” — my reaction was triggered solely from the film’s highly effective handful of setup scenes before the major crisis is even introduced.

I want to clarify that (a) every one of these scenes is brilliantly conceived and executed, and (b) they constitute my own personal horror show. I’m aware that the rest of the movie was probably a very good negation of the awfulness of these opening scenes, but we didn’t get that far. I should also clarify that I am not Hasidic, although my paternal grandfather was and some of my cousins are, and some of them are Yeshivish, which is also a very insular community with some fairly extreme marriage practices.


Sample scene: Young Hasidic girl in the supermarket with her mother. They’re both pretending to shop but really trying to get a look at the guy the girl has been betrothed to but never met. They can’t seem to find him, so they call someone, and are immediately told, “He’s in aisle 5.” (Or, “he’s in the produce section” – I don’t remember exactly.) They find him soon after and gawk from a distance. He looks singularly unimpressive: not particularly well-groomed or dressed, uninspired posture. Basically more or less like every other Hasidic male in the movie thus far. The girl does not seem bothered.

Two triggers in this scene: (1) The idea of marrying a total stranger, and (2) the fact that it’s not just one person presenting this as the norm but rather an entire network of people in this girl’s life (as evidenced by the phone call). I find these two things deeply, deeply horrific — tethering your entire life to someone you don’t know, and being told on all sides that this is the only option, and this is simply how it’s done, and having been kept naïve and sheltered enough not to question it.

I would love to say that this is foreign to me and I can’t imagine it ever happening to me or anyone else, but that would be a lie, for reasons brought out further in the next scene I’ll discuss, and because I know that dating before getting engaged in the circles I live in goes at a brisk pace. My Yeshivish cousins date for 2 or 3 weeks, generally, before the engagement. In my own, non-Yeshivish circles, 3 to 6 months is often fairly standard. Ten months to a year is an eternity, and very rare, unless the relationship began as high school sweethearts, in which case waiting longer was legally mandatory. Is 3 months enough time to get to know someone? Maybe. Maybe not. Everyone’s in such a rush to pair up for life that even I can’t help but feel the marriage pressure from the second I start dating someone new. I feel it much less when I’m not seeing anyone, and that’s an enormous incentive for me to never date. I’d much rather be single forever than get too involved with the wrong person just because of outside pressure. But obviously playing it safe because of pressure is just another way of letting yourself be pressured.


Sample scene: It’s the holiday of Purim, and at the Purim feast, the Rabbi is doling out charity money to those who ask. One man asks for money because, “My wife is mentally ill. I didn’t know that when I married her.” The rabbi gives him money, and when he protests that it’s not enough, he’s told whom to go to for more.

Triggers: (1) example of results of marrying a total stranger, (2) I have a Hasidic cousin who married a girl, had a child with her, and only then found out she was mentally ill because she stopped taking her medication. Her family had kept her condition under wraps, knowing full well that they were duping her husband. As far as I know, the custody battle is still going on, but nobody talks about it because it’s all so very scandalous and shameful and would force people to confront realities in their community that they don’t want to confront. (3) It’s all well and good that the man in the movie is receiving charity from the community to help him with this awful situation, but that’s a band-aid, and nothing is ever going to be said about the underlying cause: DON’T MARRY STRANGERS.


Sample scene: The girl’s pregnant sister talks briefly with her husband. Purim is the holiday of getting publicly wasted, and the sister immediately knows that her husband is drunk because he starts saying affectionate things to her. If he were sober, he’d never say a thing like, “I love you.” She says with a smile, “You’re drunk,” somehow manages convey an eye-roll without actually rolling her eyes, and walks away.

Trigger: THAT WHOLE THING. I have recently developed a personal, visceral fear of settling for a relationship where my partner is incapable of paying me a compliment. There are some people who, well, getting a compliment from them is like wrenching it out with pliers. I may have dated someone like that. I have also dated someone who is the exact opposite and I can’t imagine going back from that. But I have this way of listening to those voices in my head that say, “Come on, you can’t expect everyone to be so open about their thoughts and so willing to say nice things. People just aren’t conditioned that way. Especially men, sad as that is.” Just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean they don’t think it — if I got them drunk, maybe all that nice stuff would come pouring out. But maybe not. And I would hate to have a relationship like that.




I understand that when you’re a small minority group, you need to have an emphasis on marriage and children or else you’ll die off. But there has to be a better way.

I could easily have been born into that community. A little to the right on my family tree, and poof!

I wouldn’t have lasted. While I was watching, I felt like I was seeing a life that could have been mine, and I don’t think I would have survived it. I was the kind of kid who pitched a fit when my mom wanted all us kids to wear cute matching outfits. I can’t stand sameness. I can’t stand restrictions on my individuality. It makes me want to tear my skin off. I feel very sure that if I were indeed a part of that type of community, I would not have lived to be as old as I am now. I feel very sure that I’d have done something drastic to get out of it.

Ten minutes of that movie. Jeez.




Image source

REVIEW: House of Cards — Episodes 5 and 6

This show has an uncanny knack for making me root for the bad guys.

One of the central storylines in these episodes revolves around a teachers’ strike (binge-watching makes it difficult for me to remember exactly which events are in which episode, because one flows right into the other, but the teachers’ strike threads through both), and under normal circumstances, I would be on their side — my parents are both teachers, teachers in general are grossly undervalued and underpaid, plus Frank is trying to take away their right to collective bargaining. They have every right to strike until they get what they ask for, and their leader, Spinella, is vocal and articulate, makes extremely good arguments, and seems to be able fight strategically as well as Frank (as evidenced by his sneaky attempt to shut down Frank’s wife’s fundraiser by getting the hotel to refuse to serve as the venue).

And yet I found myself wanting to see what Frank was going to do to get out of this mess and stay in the president’s good graces. He promised to end the strike, and I just really wanted to see how he could do it.

This was the first time I felt like the show dropped the ball a bit on character for the sake of drama. For the sake of drama, you want to have Frank fail before he succeeds — I understand that. You want to paint him into a corner and then amazingly come back from that; it’s much more exciting than having him win on his first try. But the way in which the writers decided to make him fail was a head-scratcher. Frank goes on CNN and makes a complete fool of himself in a debate against Spinella. The Frank we’ve seen so far has been a smooth master of media and interpersonal manipulation; the way he screws up at the debate is completely incongruous with his always-prepared-always-on-top-of-things-always-with-a-backup-plan-or-seven type of character. It was well-acted, it was amusing, it was cringeworthy in the way it was supposed to be, and it certainly backed Frank into a corner, but it wasn’t true to character.

I did like the internet and media follow-up to it, though — very realistic and very funny: Frank’s gaffe gets autotuned on YouTube, and mocked on 5th estate shows like Bill Maher’s (actual guest appearance by Bill Maher; nice work, Netflix — can I hope for Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart to show up at some point?).

One of the reasons this egregious character!fail is so noticeable is because the rest of the characterization on the show is so consistent and fascinating. I particularly like the insights we get into Frank and Claire’s marriage, how their dynamic works and why they are so well-matched. They know about each other’s extramarital affairs (at least, she knows about his; it’s unclear if he knows about hers, though he definitely has suspicions) but they don’t let them get in the way of their own relationship and their joint goals, goals that “turn into one and the same,” in the words of The A.V. Club’s Ryan McGee. Each deeply cares about and appreciates the other for exactly what they bring to the table. They may not be great people, but they have a great marriage, and I love watching how they interact and deal with each situation. A true power couple. It’s a good thing they don’t have children, though. Those kids would be a WRECK.


Rating: 3.75/5 (points docked for character!fail)