Why Judaism Lost Heidi

Heidi’s maternal grandfather studied in the Telzer yeshiva in Lithuania and came to the United States in the 1920s. He married an American girl from a fairly well-to-do family and subsequently became the rabbi of a nominally orthodox shul in a medium-sized city in the Midwest. The Rabbi’s family was the only shomer shabbes family in the neighborhood. Heidi’s mother and her two brothers went to public school; after school Heidi’s grandfather studied Talmud with his sons.

Heidi’s paternal grandparents moved to New York shortly after their marriage in Warsaw in the early 1930s. Jobs were hard to come by during the Depression; Heidi’s grandfather worked in a kosher butcher shop and her grandmother freelanced as a seamstress. There were few Jewish day schools available and, in any event, the family could ill-afford one, so Heidi’s father and his sister attended public school. They both went to the local orthodox shul’s Sunday School program.

Heidi’s parents met in New York in the 1960s. They shared a conservative and traditional sensibility that was rare at that time. They married and moved to Long Island, where Heidi’s dad worked as an engineer at a large firm and her mom worked as a schoolteacher. They became active in the local Conservative congregation, attending services often, if not religiously. Heidi attended the local public school because it was regarded as an excellent school academically; almost all of her classmates and friends were Jewish.

Heidi attended after-school classes in the local synagogue; she could read Hebrew passably and was well-versed in Jewish legends. She had good relationships with her Orthodox grandparents and even with her mother’s brother’s family, who had turned yeshivish and lived in Flatbush.

When she came to Princeton as an undergrad, she naturally gravitated to Stevenson Hall, the forerunner of the Center for Jewish Life. Most of the students who dined at Stevenson came for the kosher food, but Heidi – who did not generally keep kosher – simply felt comfortable in the company of other Jews. In fact, she often attended egalitarian services on Shabbat and, after befriending orthodox students who had returned from gap-year programs in yeshivot in Israel, occasionally allowed herself to be pulled in to lectures on halacha.

By her Junior year, however, Heidi’s large circle of friends began to resemble a Benetton ad. Initially, the evident ethnic pride of her black, Hispanic, Muslim and Hindu friends increased her appreciation of her own ethnic identity. Gradually, though, she felt her own commitments challenged in two ways. First, the view from nowhere accords no privilege to Judaism and so she became keenly aware of the utter arbitrariness of her own particular identity. Second, she became aware of the financial, social and cultural obstacles that many of her new friends had to overcome in order to get to and survive in Princeton and she began to feel guilty about her own privilege as a white and relatively wealthy American.

From this new point of view, she began to re-assess her Jewish attachments. Her orthodox friends and relatives seemed a bit, well, provincial. Their professed beliefs seemed so random as to necessarily either be insincere or the product of brainwashing. Their concern with picayune details of halacha seemed somewhat obsessive; in any event, it apparently sapped them of energy for the truly important social justice causes crying out for attention.

But most of all, halacha itself seemed to her to suffer from serious moral failings. First of all, halacha seemed to encourage in its practitioners a certain hostility to non-Jews (or, as her orthodox friends insisted on calling them, “Goyim”). She had always known that Jews were opposed to intermarriage; for reasons becoming increasingly inexplicable to her, her parents had mentioned their own revulsion at the idea on several occasions. But she had discovered at Princeton that orthodox Jewish disdain for non-Jews extended beyond that: some wouldn’t even drink wine handled by non-Jews. She had also learned that Jews would not collect interest for a loan to a fellow Jew but would take interest from a non-Jew. Altogether, halacha seemed to her to embody an arrogant and disdainful attitude toward non-Jews for no apparent reason.

In fact, Heidi became increasingly aware of a certain condescension towards non-observant Jews such as herself. She discovered to her horror that some orthodox Jews would not drink wine that she, a non-Sabbath observer, had touched. She noticed that when discussing Torah, her orthodox friends would switch into a private language she felt was deliberately intended to exclude the uninitiated. Heidi felt some were particularly antagonistic towards her because she was an opinion leader. Just as she discovered the suffering of the Palestinians, it became a hot topic on campus; just as she discovered the many ways in which gays were made to feel excluded, that became a defining issue of campus life.

But in the final analysis, what really turned Heidi off to Judaism was its attitude towards women. Women in the orthodox minyan sat behind a mechitza and could not lead the services. They were not taught Torah at the same level as the men; suddenly she recalled her mother’s resentment at not having been included when her own father had studied Torah with her brothers. Jewish marriage was, as far as Heidi could ascertain, a patriarchal institution, entered into by the man “acquiring” a wife. Jewish literature was rife with what Heidi saw as oddly essentialist attitudes: men are inherently different than women, Jews are inherently different than non-Jews.

Heidi’s student days were for her a time of discovery, of expanding horizons, of disappearing barriers. She wished to know all cultures, to love all people, to drink the world in whole. The Judaism for which she once had a certain fondness now seemed unnecessarily restrictive, confining and narrow. It squelched love in the name of obscure principle.

By the time I met Heidi, she was a committed social justice warrior, who came to the kosher dining hall mostly to educate innocents like me on the immorality of Judaism. Was there merit to her claims? We’ll take this up in our next post.

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5 thoughts on “Why Judaism Lost Heidi

  1. On a slightly more serious note: Your later paragraphs on her disillusionment ring truer than the first couple, but about all of them I wonder: The Orthodox Jews she’s meeting are the ones studying at Princeton. Was there really no one among them less parochial, more able (and willing) to explain things in ways she could understand? Obviously Heidis exist, so what I’m wondering about doesn’t always happen, but one wonders why not.

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  2. Why not? She seems fairly sincere and well-meaning from the beginning, so why would a few – OK, many – good explanations not keep her where she seemed to originally feel most comfortable?

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  3. What about Jewish apologetics instead of apologies – understanding why belief in monotheism makes sense, one God wholly outside of nature; why miracles are possible, including revelation; why law is necessary, revealed law, and so on. Puzzling that no one taught her to see the relativism inherent in all the critics and how ‘social justice has no foundation but personal feelings.

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