Saturday, February 03, 2007

How Jewish Is Jewish?

I typically enjoy the “Coupling” column in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. (I always read it first-- right after I read the Target ad.) It is usually funny, sometimes poignant, often right-on. The column features couples both gay and straight, married and single, divorced and long-term, with and without children, so there is plenty of interesting material.

This past Sunday, however, the Coupling column caught me by surprise. Alison Lobron, one of the columnists who typically writes about pitfalls of the dating scene, penned an article entited “Keeping the Faith: I'm Still Figuring Out How Jewish I Am, So I Can't Really Require It In A Boyfriend.” This column made me really sad.

Lobron’s basic theme is that she doesn’t feel very Jewish, even though she is Jewish, so why should she limit herself to Jewish men and/or to Jewish venues when she pursues her mate?

Lobron says:

Ultimately, a lot about dating is putting yourself in situations where the general public has been winnowed in a way that proves congenial for you. For me, “Jewish” proved not to be the best winnower. Some of my best friends are Jewish (as the saying goes), but many are not. Just as I wouldn’t limit my friendship circle to Jews, I won’t limit my dating pool, either.

Okay, I can buy that, to a certain extent. But there’s more.

…the first time I joined a friend for services at a Beacon Hill synagogue known as a young-adult mixing spot, I felt as though I was getting away with something naughty. In my own mind, I barely counted as Jewish; I’d had no bat mitzvah, no Hebrew lessons, and, until my mother and brother got religion a few years ago, no family tradition of Jewish holidays. Yet, here I was, getting a free pass to the social events.

As it turned out, I spent most of the evening searching the prayer book for a nonexistent English translation. The event was not primarily about connecting cool, interesting singles; it was (duh) about Judaism and connecting cool, interesting Jewish people. So I’d felt out of it. And I’d felt lonely when two different people assumed I was the out-of-town, non-Jewish guest of my friend. Most important, I’d felt that I didn’t have much in common with all these perfectly nice people with whom I was supposed to share a culture. (italics mine)

There is something so sad and poignant about those words. "I barely counted as Jewish." "I felt out of it (at a Jewish event)." And especially that last line: "I'd felt that I didn't have much in common with all these perfectly nice people with whom I was supposed to share a culture."

What is going on with Judaism these days that a Jewish person feels that they barely count, feel out of it at a Jewish event, and feel that they don't have much in common with other Jews? This is a sad, sad state of affairs for the Jewish community.

For me, Judaism is a central force in my life, so clearly, I'm not in the same boat, so to speak, as Lobron. I'm not the most observant Jew, but Judaism definitely defines who I am, what I do with a lot of my time, who I hang out with, how I feel about a lot of issues.

My own issue is looking at those who are more observant than I am, and kind of feeling "less Jewish" in comparison to them. This has been my issue for as long as I remember. No matter how much I "do Jewish," I always feel vaguely guilty, like there is something else that I should be doing to be more authentically Jewish. This article makes me realize that no matter how much "less Jewish" I feel, there are those who feel "less Jewish" in comparison to me (or to people like me).

As sad as this article made me, I guess there is something hopeful about it, too, at least at the end. It sounds like Lobron is starting to think a bit more about her own relationship to Judaism as she considers her quest for a mate. Lobron states:

Still, a funny thing happened during my adventures in Jewish dating. I didn’t fall for a Jewish man, but I did become attracted to aspects of Judaism itself, like the ritual of Friday night dinners with family as a peaceful door to the weekend.

So the role of cultural identity in my quest for love has become more complicated than when I first tiptoed into temple. I still don’t see it as the most useful subgrouping of the population for me to make friends, let alone find a mate, but I do see it as a part of myself that will need to be reconciled and sorted out with any future Prince Charming...

I'm happy that Lobron is at least starting to become interested in Judaism in-and-of-itself. I feel strongly that Judaism has something important -- maybe even spiritual -- to offer to Jewish people, and it's worth it to to learn more about Judaism as you find your place in the world. Because even if being Jewish doesn't help you find Prince Charming, it may help you find something even more important: yourself.