The Clichés of Our Lives

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published December 18, 2008, issue of December 26, 2008.
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At a recent bat mitzvah party, as the Village People’s “YMCA” played, my wife remarked to me that it may be time to retire that unique piece of American kitsch. Give it a rest for a decade. After that, if we think it’s still amusing to spell out letters with our arms, fine, bring it back. But we may discover that there are other ways to express ourselves joyously, and we’ll just move on.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we did the same in American Judaism? So much habit, so much built-up cultural “heritage.” American Jews don’t experience Jewish things — we just submit to the routine of them.

Time for some retirements. Let’s look for the worst of our own built-up and sclerotic habits, and get rid of them for a little while — say, 10 years. After that, we will be free to adopt them anew — or not.

I have a few thoughts of where we could start. I don’t propose doing away with anything required by Halacha — after all, we already do away with too much of that by choice. Rather, let’s focus on what some people call tradition and what I call inertia. Here are my nominations:

Gefilte fish, Manischewitz wine, cholent: Nothing against Jewish soul food in general, but if you were to describe the concept of gefilte fish to someone unfamiliar with it, you’d question eating it as well. Kosher wine has long surpassed the machinery oil quality of Manischewitz, and it is preposterous that our religious ceremonies should be consecrated with such swill. Meanwhile, cholent may have a utilitarian value to those who won’t use an oven on Shabbat, but let’s face it, anything cooked on something called a “blech” is going to retain some of that quality. Let’s eat what Israelis eat — that’s our real soul food.

“Fiddler on the Roof,” especially “Sunrise, Sunset” at weddings: “Fiddler” is now in its post-cliché phase, so perhaps it’s too late to retire it, since it may already be on its way out. But a forced closure would do it some good.

Task forces: Most task forces neither accomplish any task nor have any force. Yet they continue to populate the flow charts of Jewish organizations, usually in an effort to create the impression of consensus in crisis. We are already a community of committees. Better for us to hire a bunch of benign dictators to ram through unpopular but necessary solutions to languishing problems.

The phrase “tikkun olam”: Wiser minds than I have already exploded the misconception that tikkun olam is a commandment from the Torah. Where it exists as a concept in rabbinic Judaism, it does not mean what lefty Jews think it means. Worse yet, tikkun olam has become a cliché of progressive Judaism, a bumper sticker slapped on virtually any social cause that comes along. Progressive Jews need a new motto, and they would find one if they dug deeper into the texts than they do. Here’s a good excuse to do so.

Second Day of yom tov/eighth day of Passover: My friend Tevi Troy points out that we live in an age of atomic clocks. So why live with the fiction that we don’t know exactly when Jewish holidays begin and end? Given the scientific precision brought to all matters of halachic observance — shatnez, kashrut and rabbinic permission for embryonic stem cell research, surrogacy and other biomedical advances — maybe we should also wipe away an onerous and unnecessary weight on Diaspora Jewry.

Shiny satin kippot: Honestly, I would rather wear the flimsy, black, “who wore this last?” giveaway than a preposterously bright and poor-fitting monochrome satin kippah. Most men look ridiculous in them, and toss them after one wearing. If our community agreed to simple black or white cotton kippot — or any variety of suede, velvet or knit — for at least a few years, no one would complain.

New Haggadot: My friend Saul Kelner questions why publishers are always rolling out new versions of the Passover Haggadah. Fair point. Compared with the giveaway versions from Maxwell House, most of the new ones are over-illustrated and over-written. New Haggadot are the equivalent of celebrity-sung Christmas song collections — do we really need yet another version of a classic?

Fundraising dinners/testimonials: If the Bernie Madoff scandal teaches us anything, it is the danger of macher envy — wanting to be toasted as a “leader” in some fundraising dinner often leads to unspeakable acts of stupidity and vanity. Please, spare me — and spare the lives of hundreds of thousands of chickens who give their lives every year to be picked at by bored dinner guests as others give windbag speeches. Jewish philanthropies are now in crisis mode. Cancel the galas, and start raising money by impressing people, not by feeding them dinner.

Publicly uttered prayer for the sick/prayer for the USA/prayer for Israel: This is the section of the Shabbat morning service when everything comes to a grinding halt. At some synagogues, the names of the ill are uttered aloud, as if God must be reminded of those who are sick. (“Oh yeah, I forgot about Bessie’s gallstones.”) The prayers for the United States and Israel are no less tiresome, accompanied often by op-ed commentaries or news summaries by the rabbi. If American Judaism wants a two-hour Shabbat morning service (and judging by sparse attendance when services actually begin, I’m betting it does), here’s the first thing that can get boiled down.

Nine nominations for temporary retirement. I probably could go on longer, but I don’t want to face the same fate.

Noam Neusner served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.

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