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The Schmooze

Would I Ask the Same Question of a Man? You Bet!

Thank you, commentators, talkbackers, bloggers, and writers, for so passionately sharing your thoughts with me following the publication in the Forward of my interview with Racheli Ibenboim.

Honestly, I was not prepared for such a reaction. A couple of you were on my side (thank you!), but many hundreds of you were against me. And what was all this rage about?

Well, during the interview I asked Racheli, a member of a Hasidic group that does not allow any intermingling between the sexes, how she felt on her wedding night being with a man she didn’t actually know. To you, this was obviously a vulgar question and a horrible crossing of the lines. To convince me of how vulgar I was, one of you called me Arschloch, which is of course a very kind word to show displeasure. Others have accused me of sexual harassment and one advised Racheli to contact a lawyer and the police. Another claimed to have “puked from the inappropriate questions” and called me a “crude and despicable man.”

What have I done?

Well, before answering this question, let me tell you a little bit about myself.

To start with, I was not raised in this country. I’m an “American Jew” by default but not by education. I come from a long line of rabbis and rebbes, and I was born in Israel to parents who survived the Holocaust. My great grandfather was the Radziner Rebbe, and the community I grew up in is known as Hazon-Ishnikes. My middle name, which I hardly use, is Yeshayahu, after the Hazon Ish, who was very close to my father. I grew up alongside the most renowned rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox world and I was groomed to become a rabbi as well. My community treated me with utmost respect and love — they made me skip many grades in school, so that I could start becoming a rabbi in the speediest way. But with the years I have come to the conclusion that what they have taught and preached had more to do with Catholicism than with Judaism. The biggest leaders of Israel, Biblical and Talmudic, did not dream of being anti-sex; they just loved it and flaunted it – and a reading of the sources will confirm it on many a page. One of the issues that I had with the ultra-Orthodox world was their way of treating anything sexual, which did not correlate to my reading of Judaism. I thought they were cherry-picking the most extreme ideas in the Talmud while neglecting the majority of opinions. In addition, and with the years, I came to believe that Judaism was about asking questions, not about following absolutes. And so I left them.

Thirty-three years ago, I ended up in this country, where I believed Jews were practicing their Judaism differently.

Sadly, I was disappointed. I left the Jewish world and spent about fifteen years studying various disciplines in various universities. Only afterwards did I realize that Judaism was still big part of me and so I founded the Jewish Theater of New York, believing that the stage could supply the perfect place to questioning, self-criticism, the slaughter of all sacred cows and the practice of Judaism as I thought it to be.

This theater was, and still is, a great place to be, but there is one little problem: American Jews. No, don’t take it personally. Many members of our audiences are really great people, but there is a sizable minority that at times makes it almost impossible to present anything on the stage. Some, in the name of “pluralism and fairness,” have thrown garbage on the stage, demanded immediate refunds, or waited for me at the lobby with great lines, such as: “I pray that a car runs you over when you cross the street.” For twenty years now, I have had to deal with this group of people in a very direct way, and at times it is frustrating.

Come think of it, I should not have been so surprised to read the many comments against me as a result of the article about Racheli.

Let’s talk about Racheli.

I first learned about her during a press conference in Jerusalem. I liked how she presented herself and I asked her for an interview. She agreed and a few days later we met. I happened to know a little bit about the Gur Hasidim – her rebbe was my neighbor many years ago – and I wanted her to share some of her thoughts with my readers. Racheli is a strong lady, with a massive will power and great personality to match. We sat down at a café and we laughed much, talking about her and about her community in the greatest of details. Racheli is a politician, a strong leader, and she doesn’t shy away from any topic. I loved this about her, and I wanted to share her spirit with my readers.

We talked a little a bit about an organization she’s involved with called Meir Panim, and we agreed to meet again. A story has been circulating that Racheli walked out of our interview because of the questions I asked. In fact, we left the cafe together and we even stood outside talking a bit more and she arranged for another lady to meet with me as well. All of this happened with great spirit. A few days later, after I left Jerusalem, Racheli arranged for a packet of information about Meir Panim to be left for me at my Jerusalem address.

While I totally agree that not all tastes are equal, I strongly decry the sexism hidden in many of the comments I have read over the last few days about my interview. While they present themselves as fighters against sexism, their words betray the exact opposite. Their rush to “protect” Racheli, as if she were a fragile little thing in dire need of some American Jew’s protection, is very disturbing to me. Historically speaking, viewing women as fragile creatures was always at the root of sexism. Women, the thought was, need the “protection” of the man because they can’t handle themselves alone. It is this very “protection” that has caused huge discrimination. I don’t know Racheli beyond the two occasions described here, but I salute her for not viewing herself as such a fragile creature.

“I feel despair upon reading this piece,” wrote a woman who identifies herself as a feminist and a rabbi, and then she calls me “clod.”

Thanks, rabbi! That’s better than Arschloch, I guess.

What happened to you, American Jews?

I see this unique behavior, this tendency to kvetch in the extreme, in some of our theater’s audience members as well. They, too, have forgotten what’s written in the ancient Jewish texts. The bread and soul of Judaism is asking questions, and why wouldn’t I ask this question from a person who is part of the community that put sexless-ness on its highest pole and its most sacred altar?

Get it over with, my friends, and learn that kvetching and hysteric fault-finding is not an integral part of Judaism. Furthermore, questions about, and discussions of sexual matters is totally within the mainframe of Judaism. Do you know, by the way, that the Talmud even relates a big discussion by the rabbis about who has a bigger penis?

And now to those of who wanted to know if I would pose this same question to men: You bet! Once, surprise, surprise, I asked it of myself and even wrote a play about it called “One Hundred Gates.”

In closing: Chill out. There are only Ten Commandments in the Bible, and none of them is Thou Shalt Kvetch, Thou Shalt be Hysteric or Thou Shalt Find Fault.

Tuvia Tenenbom is the founder of the Jewish Theater of New York and the author of ‘I Sleep in Hitler’s Room.’


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