Monday, September 26, 2011

A perfect example of what not to do

Every year Mrs. Yid and I throw a seder for family and friends, in which the vast majority of participants are not Jewish. (We also have a Hanukkah party complete with menorah lighting and many, many fried foods.) As such I have a little background about how to make Jewish ritual accessible to a non-Jewish, or non-religious audience.

Which is exactly why this video pains me so very much.

I'm going to put aside the dicey politics of Chabad mixing Judaism and politics by roping random public officials into self-serving media events, as well as the interesting fact that the mucky-mucks orchestrating this particular Hanukkah photo-op decided to have it during the day. Instead let's talk about the participation dynamics featured here.

Rick Perry, the only non-Jew in the bunch, stands awkwardly in the middle of five Chabad rabbis, as they have him light the shamash candle. From there, the rabbis go into auto-pilot. One of them chants the blessings as Perry looks around and fidgets, having no idea where to look or what to do. Other than firing up the candle, he has zero role whatsoever. There is no translation for him to follow, no transliteration to allow him to participate, he doesn't even get a lousy yarmulke. Instead he gets to be a captive audience, watching the rabbis do their thing and looking somewhere between bored and uncomfortable, not sure whether to look at the rabbis chanting, the flame flickering, or the cameras. He clearly has no idea what's going on and any opportunity of having an actual spiritual connection between him and rabbis is totally gone. From there the rabbis start singing a song in Yiddish, again, something Perry can't do, with none of them even looking at him. He keeps trying to at least help with the chorus (bum, bum, bum-biddy-bum), but since no one has given him the slightest bit of prep ahead of time, he's lost there, too. Finally the rabbis drag Perry into a hora, something which he also seems to be totally unprepared for.

I think maybe the most painful part is when one of the rabbis tries to explain what just happened, giving Perry the most dumbed-down gist of the blessings and meaning of Hanukkah humanly possible. Not surprisingly, Perry procedes to stare at the menorah as if it were a mutant egg-sack from Mars.

I totally understand why some people are so skeptical of "open-source Judaism" advocates like Douglas Rushkoff and R. Niles Goldstein. But looking at this video, seeing a group of educated Jews who have an explicit goal to reach out to non-Jews as a way of building their brand and ostensibly broadening non-Jews' awareness of Orthodox Judaism all but ignore and shut out a non-Jew who seems like he would at least be willing to pretend to care about what's going on if they gave him half a chance and some basic information, I can't help but conclude that top-down Judaism doesn't have all the answers, either.

Granted, Rick Perry is not Jewish, so he is not exactly Chabad's target audience. But seeing his discomfort, seeing how the rabbis speed on ahead totally oblivious to the fact that he cannot-- and has not been invited to-- participate, I can't help but think about how many times this has happened to Jews, as well.

If you're going to spend all your time with people who share your background, culture and education, I suppose things like this don't matter. But if part of your life or mission involves spending time with and reaching out to people from different backgrounds than yourself, it might be a good idea to rethink your approach.

If your idea of "sharing Hanukkah" with someone is "letting them watch while you pray," I don't think most people will be back. No matter how good your doughnuts are.

Hat-tip to Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic.


Anonymous said...

Compare Mr. Perry with the scne from Baltimore last winter:!4912919

From the pictures, it seems that not only was the mayor briefed about what was going to happen, but they even let her speak a few words, and then she got to ride up on a cherry-picker to help light the menorah. Frankly, having been there, I think that our mayor is just more interested in her Jewish constituents (or at least getting our political support) than is Gov. Perry, who, despite his yappings about Israel, doesn't really expect to get the Jewish vote, and, if he's sincere about his fundamentalist Christianity, supports Israel only because he thinks it will lead to the second coming of Jesus and conversion of the Jews.

Plus, in Baltimore they held the menorah lighting outdoors in public at a prominent downtown location. Not like Gov. Perry, who hid is menorah lighting indoor, despite the fact the the weather in Texas during Hanukkah is much more pleasant than it is in Baltimore. I interpret this as just being a check-off-the-box attempt by Gov. Perry to sucker the Jews into voting for him. I suspect that Chabad did not send their brightest stars to this charade.

Friar Yid said...

A very fair point. It's certainly possible that part of the reason Perry looked bored here was because he simply didn't care.