When I think of Judaism in America, my brain reliably conjures up the average stereotypes: yamaka-adorned men ambling around the kosher aisle with a box of Matzo crackers tucked underneath his arm, imposing synagogues and complicated Hebrew text, Hollywood…and of course, a Holocaust Museum surrounded by lit candles. Before my visit, I wasn’t completely ignorant of the Jewish culture and faith—but besides the Wikipedia basics, part of me was never interested in further cultivating my knowledge. In fact, I was doggedly reluctant—and I wondered why.
Let me rewind back two years when I attended a Hillel service for a class assignment. I found myself in a basement with a rabbi and ten others Jews— where, for what seemed like eternity, I sung and spun in circles and praised in a tongue that left me shaken and confused. The experience reaffirmed my enduring frustration with the sheer complexity of Jewish practices, and I found it bitterly ironic that a religion whose people had been ostracized for so long could be so exclusive and insular.
But don’t mistake me as Mel Gibson v.2—my sentiments are hardly original. I refuse to believe the romantic notion that all people should love each other, that any discriminatory thought should be hastily stuffed into the brain’s Guilt compartment. Although I accept my biased shortcomings, I’m vehemently to ignorance. Knowledge can either negate or validate, and so I sought to find a person who could teach me about a thing or two about Judaism. Rabbi Michael Balinsky was that person. He’s the Executive Vice President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, a member of the Jewish Catholic Scholars Dialogue in Chicago, the Council of Religious leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, and the Bernadin Center at Catholic Theological Union. Basically, he could destroy you on Religion Jeopardy.
When I arrived for my first Shabbat dinner, I was surprised the lights were on. Balinsky is an Orthodox Jew—so no active use of electricity (including cameras). I was greeted by his wife Myra, his daughter, a family friend, and stockpile of Passover goodies. After a warm family welcome, our dinner began with a set of complex prayers, a hand-washing ritual, fizzy grape juice, and a mound of superb challah bread.
So what does food symbolize for the Jewish person? Poetry, Balinksy says. Food is a gift and eating is a religious act. Food is the communal glue that provides a ritualistic and sacrificial significance. Interestingly, Balinsky informs me that the first law in the Bible is a food law—the case of the forbidden fruit. The dietary restrictions don’t end there: No milk with meat. No bacon. No fish without fins and scales. As the rules became more elaborate, I kept thinking about how restrictive it must feel to constantly think about what you can’t do. What if an Orthodox teenager wanted to eat a cheeseburger with his friend at Burger King? Would God rage down from the heavens, ready to smite with the Torah of Truth? “I’d just drink a Coke,” says Balinsky’s daughter, shrugging her shoulders in frank honesty.
But it’s not just dietary rules. I once had a Jewish friend who never threw away a piece of paper with the word “God” on it. It’s a lifestyle, Balinsky’s wife says. But she also says it’s a personal choice that can be surprisingly stress-relieving. The idea shocked me but shouldn’t have—we should all spend a Shabbat weekend away from our computers, TVs, and phones to spend quality time with friends and family. Of course, not all Jews practice Orthodox customs. Reform Jews and other denominations follow the laws to varying extent. The challenge of Orthodox Judaism, Myra says, is to find “loopholes” in the text which allow for better functioning in an increasingly modern society. I asked them if they ever thought the laws made any rational sense, a question I was apprehensive about asking. Of course not, Myra says (who is a doctor, by the way). But it’s good to question, to ask oneself, she adds. Despite their inconveniences, the rules are not only diligently followed, but also surprisingly cherished. To have such profound faith against pure logic—is that foolishness…or passion?
As we devour the eggy goodness of challah, Balinsky changes the plates and brings out the soup course, comprised of a gloriously-sized Matzo ball sitting supremely ontop a carrot and onion broth. That was followed by a whole boiled artichoke, peeled and dipped in a garlicky aioli. Our main course included an assortment of potato pies, leek frittatas, and a perfectly seasoned mushroom noodle Kugel. We also had braised beef (no pork) and a salmon dish spiced so deliciously that I kept licking my fingers in shameful pride.
As we ate heartily, our conversation meandered around feminism and Orthodox Judaism, bagels and pomegranates (good for making babies), and good kosher restaurants in Chicago. I learned that modesty is a huge part of the Jewish culture—even one’s body belongs to God (so there goes suicide). I learned that certain refrigerators have a Shabbat mode so that the lights don’t automatically turn on. I learned that Little Debbie snacks are kosher. But what about interfaith marriage? Orthodox Jews frown upon interfaith marriages, Balinsky says. It’s seen as an act of rebellion, his wife further adds. I didn’t find their sentiments altogether surprising—after all, every parent wishes for a son or daughter in-law familiar with their culture. (e.g., Big Fat Greek Wedding: “What do you mean, you don’t eat no meat?…That’s okay, that’s okay. I make lamb.”). What I kept wondering was why cultural groups feel so compelled to interbreed, as if their modest efforts could stop the avalanche of globalization and integration. What is so bad about Michael Weiss marrying Amy Ling?
I asked the Balinskys to get inside the head of non-Jewish Americans—how they think people like me perceive Jews like them. His wife said that most Americans see Jews as average Americans, no different from Greeks or Chinese or Catholics. (Although apparently Toronto used to have beach signs that said “No dogs or Jews”.) However, Balinsky says he still has to navigate between two “worlds.” I kept thinking about how praying three times a day and keeping a strictly kosher regimen hardly constitutes as navigating two “worlds.” After all, blacks navigate two worlds because their skin color. Women navigate two worlds because of their breasts. That raised another related question—is being Jewish a racial or religious concept? Myra tells me there’s a strange tension between the two; after all, there are some non-practicing Jews that strongly identify as Jewish. Regardless, at the end of the day, Jews have their own religious and personal struggles, and my judgment was as useful as a broken clock. It eventually dawned on me that it’s impossible to compare our struggles in navigating between two (or eighteen) worlds. Hardship, pain, and struggle are inherently subjective terms, and if anything, competitive pity-sharing stunts empathy and awareness. Each individual’s experiences are no less trivial than that of any other person, and devaluing each other’s sense of self has already produced enough clusterfuck in the world.
As we finished our dinner with clementines, grapes, and chocolate cookies, I asked my meal hosts what they considered to be the great issue concerning contemporary Judaism. Their reply? Jewish continuity. The need for more education and a better balance between choice and tradition. And then I realized something else—Jews aren’t uniquely insular and culturally complex. My mother still takes two hours to make love-infused dumplings even when our fridge is crammed with frozen pizzas. She still speaks in Mandarin even though I always respond in English. Jews are not actively trying to be exclusionary—like many others, they’re simply trying to protect their heritage. In fact, no cultural group—whether ethnic or religious—can claim otherwise. That fear of change, that need for preservation, that desire to maintain a cherished and almost nostalgic sense of culture—that isn’t Jewish. It’s simply and utterly human.
Two hours of laughter and conversation later, I was stuffed with delicious food and pleasantly amused by which family member could best talk over the others (Alas, not all stereotypes are false). I wondered if I had more stomach space for challah. But most importantly, I felt welcome—a reaction wholly unexpected. We ended the night with a short prayer—Hebrew verses that before, would have seemed like some foreign, alien nonsense—but now resembled more of a comforting rhyme, an homage to family and home.