Friday, November 04, 2011

Celebrating Superficiality

As a liberal Jew in his late twenties who grew up in California, I am contractually and culturally obligated to be non-judgmental when it comes to anyone else, particularly anyone else's religious practices, and particularly anyone else who is a Jew, and particularly anyone else who is Jewish and more liberal than me.

That said... there are a couple of stories, both from the Forward, that have come across my e-desk that strike me as just plain 'off'.

The first one was back in July when a female artist wrote an ode to her new creative business enterprise, which combined her love of gluing random bits of broken pottery with her talent for making people uncomfortable. Presenting the Mosaic Urn.


For years, I’ve been designing mosaic art objects in the French style known as pique assiette, nipping dishes into tiny shards and combining them to create one-of-a-kind tables, vases, picture frames and candlestick holders. Some months ago, I turned this into an online business. While working, I watch cable news, so my background noise is a parade of political scandals, financial frauds, and national health care and unemployment crises. 
In the early 1970s, I became a comedy writer. I was now inspired to use mosaic to express political satire, finding red, white and blue plates with flag images for what I called my Breaking News Series. I assembled pictures of my bêtes noires — Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, John Edwards and John Ensign, Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff, the National Debt Clock and corporate logos. To add bite, I’d set the mosaics on cremation urns. 
I submitted one such urn to an edgy Brooklyn art show. At the opening party, I watched guests studying the piece, identifying the right-wingers to one another as if it were a party game. Photos and text inserted into the mosaic made a cutting political statement, but I began to consider whether the aesthetic might have a wider — and more functional — application. With this process, I could animate an urn for actual usage that would visually tell the story of a life. It would be highly personal and have a celebratory quality. 
A few months ago, as I was setting the table for dinner, I surprised myself by blurting out: “You’ll be most affected by this, Nick. Would you prefer that we be buried or cremated?” 
He shot me a puzzled look. “Uh, any reason you’re asking?” 
“How about I make urns for Dad and me? I can cover them with fun photos — family vacations, birthday parties, graduations,” I said. 
He didn’t answer immediately. 
“They’ll be pretty and about life!” I urged. “I’ll use our dishes. It’ll remind you of the dinner table.” 
It felt like forever before Nick said, “Sounds good.” Martin remained silent, which I interpreted as enthusiasm.

And now she's selling them online and somehow convinced someone at the Forward to let her write one big advertisement for her kooky home business based on the premise of being Jewishly edgy, or something. Also I like how this started as personal art, morphed into sneering political "satire" (Get it? It's Sarah Palin on an urn!) and now has transcended its humble beginnings into being creepy, inappropriate burial accoutrements. Bra-va, I guess?

Here's the thing: I respect that this lady has made a choice in a way that feels meaningful to her. At the same time, her attitude about the whole thing, "Check out this cool thing I came up with to hold your ashes! Ain't it cool!" to be quite off-putting. My father has mentioned he will probably want to be cremated, and while it isn't my cup of tea, I know that I'm much happier with the idea of scattering someone's ashes than keeping them in an urn that looks like a kindergartener's collage project. Maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy, but to me it feels really inappropriate to try to make someone's urn "pretty" or "remind you of the dinner table."
Some who believe that death requires a somber approach question my upbeat spin. I explain I hope a beautiful urn that honors memories of a loved one can take some of the sting out of death.
Here we have a critical point: for me the idea of trying to "spin" death does not remove the sting. Death is supposed to have a sting. That's part of it. It doesn't mean you need to go into full on ashes and sackcloth, but I don't think "upbeat" is the way to go, either. It's not about being "somber" specifically, but it's about taking the moment seriously.

So that was July. Now this week we have this woman, who wrote an article high-fiving herself for only going to shul to get free food.

I’m one of those synagogue goers who arrive pretty much just in time for the “Amen!” as we raise our mini plastic cups of wine before elbowing our way — er, gently sauntering over — to the food. My timing is never quite exact, of course, so there are days when I get there and my fellow congregants are still singing “Adon Olam,” the last song of the service. I’m happy to sing along — in fact, I like it if I’m in time for Kaddish and the announcements; makes me feel very much a part of things. But for shallow, antsy and kind-of-cheap me, going to synagogue means going to lunch with friends, there, in the social hall. 
And how important is the quality of that lunch? Let’s just say that a tray of hummus and carrot sticks makes my spiritual aura shrink to the size of a store-bought gefilte fish ball. You could pierce my soul with a toothpick. But a glistening mound of bar mitzvah lox — the Holy Grail, as it were, of Kiddushes — maketh me skip through the Valley of Death and cartwheel over to the scallion cream cheese. It restoreth my soul and maketh my kids a lot happier about my bringing them along, too. In fact, it getteth them psyched to come again, the way a random shower of slot machine nickels getteth bubbe back to Atlantic City. And I know that I am not the only congregant who peruses the synagogue calendar to see who has a great big spread — er, great big simcha — coming up, and precisely which Saturday we are talking about. 
My worry, of course, is that the Divine One is probably not thrilled with the attendee who arrives when the audience is filing out of the theater. Come to think of it, the rabbi probably isn’t, either. But I do believe there is something more than just lip service (and Tam Tams) being offered when a congregant arrives in time only to eat and shmooze. And, I am glad to say, some folks agree with me.

The writer then goes on to quote various people who have written various things about kiddush. No introspection, no thoughts on other ways she expresses her Jewish identity, other approaches she could use to get something out of the service, nothing. She's a Bagel and Lox Jew by self-definition, and she's proud of it, thanks very much.

I understand that this is this lady's reality and I... suppose I admire her willingness to be honest about it? And while I don't think she necessarily should be embarrassed about this, I really don't understand the mentality which says this is something to celebrate, rather than wrestles with. I don't understand the thinking that says, "Yeah, I fully admit I just show up to get free food, and these are the values I'm passing on to my kids. That food is awesome." To say nothing of the fact that the writer's behavior-- both barging in late, as well as adopting a "schnorer" attitude to her fellow congregants-- strikes me as just plain rude.

It's one thing to acknowledge one's imperfections in a public forum as a way of calling attention to things you have to work on and areas where you can grow. It's another to use them as a platform for advertising how awesome, enlightened, or creative you are and suggesting that people should follow your example.

Sometimes I just don't get people.


Antigonos said...

"My worry, of course, is that the Divine One is probably not thrilled with the attendee who arrives when the audience is filing out of the theater."

At least this woman is honest: a synagogue, to her, looks like a theater. Plush seats, the actors, oops, rabbi and choir, up on the stage, oops, performance art, Saturday services are pretty dull. I never experienced honest davvening until I made aliyah [and even here, not always]. No rabbi [just a shaliach tzibur] or choir; the congregants all know all the prayers and many will even correct the person "leining". No sermon [a Protestant innovation; traditionally a rabbi preached twice a year, on Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat Hagadol, and this latter was only a review of halachot of Pesach], two hours from start to finish -- and generally, no Kiddush afterwards since most shuls in Israel don't have "social halls". Just businesslike davvening. Very refreshing.

cipher said...


I saw that article when it was posted a few months ago. I also went to her website, and I actually liked some of her offerings. I'm not at all observant, and I'm at a point in life at which people of conservative faith piss me off (hence my comments on Failed Messiah), so I was leaning toward the approval side of the fence. I didn't leave a comment to that effect, although I did respond to one frummie who left this:

Read Rabbi Avi Shafran's article before making such a momentous and against halacha decision.

With this:

If Avi Shafran is against something, that's a good reason to be for it.

However, after reading this post, even though I still have mixed feelings, I think I'm leaning toward agreeing with you, especially as A) It's a little creepy; B) You're right; the whole thing did really seem to be just an ad for her home business. This is what the Forward has come to? At any rate, I deleted my comment (although I meant what I said; I have no use for Shafran or the organization for which he does damage control).

Re: the other woman - I just read the article. I don't know. It's hard to find connection today. If she's a dues-paying member, and this is what she gets out of it, I don't think we're in a position to judge. So she treats it as though it were the JCC. If, on the other hand, she isn't a member and just goes for the free food and to hang out (and she isn't poor and hungry, as this woman apparently isn't) - that's another matter.


Friar Yid said...

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for dropping by. You make excellent points. In both cases, it's somewhat awkward for me to feel like I'm being a cranky traditionalist and judging someone for "doing it wrong," given how ecclectic and non-halakhic my family's own practice is. While I have no problem criticizing professional blowhards, going after a random person who's found something that works for them, even if it's not for me, is a delicate subject. I think my biggest issue here is tone and content.

I've written about my thoughts regarding Jews and cremation before-- and basically concluded that while it's definitely not my cup of tea, excoriating Jews who opt for it is out of line (particularly when invoking the Holocaust). As I suspect is the case with you, I don't think a rabbi's job is to do my thinking for me-- regardless of what denomination they come from. That said, something about this piece definitely rubbed me the wrong way, and I think part of it was the idea of taking what for most people is, at worst, a traumatic, and at best, a fairly somber occaison, and deciding, "You know what this needs? More 'cute'!" Part of it is obviously personal preference and taste, but the general tone just seemed so vapid, as well as verging on self-congratulatory. I'd much rather hear from someone who had cremated a family member and explained why, or what that felt like, or something. That at least would have had some emotional or intellectual core to it, instead of, "Check it out! Aren't I so creative and taboo? Buy one!"

Ditto for the Kiddush lady. I'd be fine with a social history of the kiddush. I could deal with someone writing about how their shul's kiddush is special to them-- or alternately, how the rest of shul doesn't speak to them and trying to examine why kiddush is the exception. What's hard for me is reading someone talking about how the only reason she goes to shul is for food and schmoozing, and seeming like she's bragging about it. That, I don't get. Again, the congratulatory tone is what really pushes it over the edge for me. It doesn't make sense to me, I don't relate to it, and I don't see what the accomplishment is that's worth writing about and publishing in a national Jewish newspaper. It would be like me writing an essay saying, "I can't read Hebrew! I spend holidays being bored and staring at the ceiling in shul. Aren't I awesome?"

I guess the bottom line for me is that I personally get much more out of hearing Jews from different backgrounds and practices explain how their practice is meaningful to them rather than just reading about random things they do and which they think are cool. Neither of these writers seem to have realized that part of good writing, particularly in a national forum, is to include and involve their audience. I didn't get the sense that either of these pieces was written with any understanding that some people might have found these ladies' hobbies or attitudes odd, and so there was no attempt to speak to them. They read more as people talking to themselves than as anything addressed to anyone else or intended to make them think or understand where they were coming from.

Seriously, if I was supposed to take away anything "deep" from either of these writers, I missed it.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

The kiddush lady is at least being honest.

As for the cremation lady, in my experience cremation is often chosen by people who can't let go of their loved one. As opposed to burying the body in the ground, now you can have the person's ashes on your mantle. You can put him in his chair at family dinners. You can take him with you on vacation. You can talk to him at length. You never have to say goodbye.

And I'm not being sarcastic. I've seen this happen!

It's like you said, it's about not being able to face the implications of death and therefore trying to minimize them.

cipher said...

Seriously, if I was supposed to take away anything "deep" from either of these writers, I missed it.

Yes, I agree. I don't know what's happened to the Forward. Perhaps they can't get enough legitimate material any longer. I'm not too happy with them in general these days. It's supposed to be one of the last bastions of Jewish Liberalism (I imagined RightJew having an apoplectic fit as I typed that!), certainly the last remnant of the old Yiddish Socialist culture - yet their editorial staff has allowed the comment threads to be overrun by knee-jerk, reactionary conservatives.

I don't bother with it much any more. Pretty much the only reason I go there is if Eli Valley, who is a friend, has a new cartoon - and then I have to read all the comments calling him a self-hater, a Nazi, etc. Thirty years of conservative/evangelical hegemony has been very bad for us - for everyone, of course, but for us especially. We've fallen far. This isn't who we used to be.

That is my unasked-for opinion.

(Heh! The verification word is "consp". Yes, RightJew - it's a Liberal conspiracy!)