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by Susan Reimer-Torn
“I am a traitor, self-hater, blasphemer, inflictor of shame. I am none of these. I am all of these. It is absurd to apologize for a mystery. ”
I am watching the Long Wharf Theater production of My Name is Asher Lev, based on Chaim Potok’s best-selling novel (1972). It is the story of a gifted artist born to devout Hasidic parents who cannot understand their child’s pagan calling. How can Asher’s obsession with form, color, perspective, and light trump their passion for spreading the Hasidic version of holiness all over the world? There is an unbridgeable gap between Asher (despite his quiet loyalty to Orthodoxy) and his father, Aryeh, a man with a messianic mission. To his father, Asher is morally blind, while the son bemoans his father’s complete lack of aesthetic vision. We are left, along with Asher’s mother, to wonder how it is that a man who sees the world in black and white can sire a son who sees the same world in infinite colors.
The minimalist production floods me with the pain of my own past. I know well the outsider status of Asher Lev. My Orthodox father lived according to a Divine-sanctioned blueprint: I saw life through a succession of playful mirrors and always glimpsed possible new paths.
I am sitting up close to the stage with my two young adult sons. I wonder if they are moved. It turns out they are mostly mystified. They ask if it is really possible for a father to have so little empathy with his own son. Couldn’t he have been a little more open-minded? Could such a rigid person really exist? I am taken aback by their shortsightedness. (They barely knew their grandfather.) Could intergenerational dynamics have undergone such a radical change? Has my self-consciously liberal parenting succeeded in relegating my own life story to the imperceivable past?
The young actor playing Asher Lev has been a close friend of my younger son since early childhood. Ari Brand, now in his late twenties, has grown up to bear an uncanny resemblance to his father, Natan Brand, a gifted classical pianist who died when Ari was six. Decades ago, Natan and I shared our up-from-Orthodoxy tales; he too was on the run from a religiously intolerant and rejecting father. Ari was never told these stories, but I see him compellingly acting out the encoded drama. I am certain he is haunted by an unconscious legacy, saturated by that subterranean river that runs long and deep, that seeps in and unsettles.
“It is absurd to apologize for a mystery,” says Asher Lev, and I, possibly more than the young man speaking the lines, have a strong sense of what that might mean.
The next morning at 10 AM I have the privilege of greeting the guest who arrives promptly at the door of a friend’s home on Riverside Drive. I am there with a tight-knit group of a dozen women who for the past two years have been studying The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious by Dr. Avivah Zornberg. This spring, our completion of the hefty book coincides with Dr Zornberg’s yearly visit from Jerusalem, and we are thrilled for this opportunity to engage her in a private salon.
A refreshing breeze arises from the Hudson River. Dr. Zornberg relaxes in a padded armchair as we get comfy on the nearby sofas. She dives right into a consideration of the core tension: How does she, a practicing Jew, reconcile her devotion to Orthodoxy with her passion for psychoanalysis? After all, Judaism appears to be a set body of “prescriptions and proscriptions” while psychoanalyses “encourages us to play out our desires.” It is her belief that by digging deep into midrash and Hasidic thought, we will discover that Judaism, like psychoanalysis, offers a path to the true self. It has to do with taming the turbulent ego, with allowing desire to animate a life without destroying it. In that hypothesis, I find enough to ponder for a lifetime.
Break Their Thighs!
At the Skirball Center just a week later, Zornberg speaks a tale from Midrash Tanchuma, which portrays the Hebrew women slaves in Egypt engaging in mirror play to distort, extend, camouflage, and transform their bleak reality. Later, when a call goes out for contributions to the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert, the women make an offering of these same mirrors.
Moses is furious – how can the women bring mere play-things to God’s house, ignoble material in which they (literally and figuratively) “make themselves up”? Moses is so outraged by the women that he calls for “sticks to break their thighs!” It is God himself who, according to the midrash, intervenes, instructing Moses not only to accept, but to incorporate the offering.
What is the significance of these mirrors? Zornberg suggests it is in their reflection that women try on different roles, open windows to new possibilities, refract reality, conjure illusions. Mirror play is a creative game of multiple and imaginative outcomes. Moses, on the other hand, is a man who adheres to a more rigid version of the truth. But God lets him know that a more comprehensive truth might just come from a willingness to imagine the possible.
The Greatest Threat of All
Women and the Roiling of Jewish Tensions: This is the title of a three-part series offered through the month of May on the top floor of Manhattan’s JCC. The speaker, Saul Berman, makes a bold opening statement: that the current divisiveness around the women issue “poses the greatest threat to the Jewish future since the destruction of the Second Temple.”
We have all been appalled by the Taliban-like behavior of certain ultra-Orthodox Jews subjecting women to segregated buses and sidewalks, refusing them education and in some cases, spitting on them in public spheres. There’s nothing like a repressive public crusade to reinforce secular Jews’ disdain for religion. The crisis prompts the more thoughtful religious leadership to look within and offer up some explanation.
We need clarification because most of us, much like the moderate Moslems, don’t know where our tradition really stands on the matter of women rights. Saul Berman, an Orthodox rabbi with a big yarmulke, soulful smile and untrimmed white beard, is clearly on a mission to bring some clarity to this murky and marginalizing matter.
He explains that in the Jewish legal tradition (halakha), we have three categories – that which we are obligated to do, that which we are forbidden to do, and the broadest middle category, wherein lies all that is in-between. In these more ambiguous areas of life, we are called upon to refine our moral conscience and use our own discretion.
Attitudes, practices and sage advice concerning women mostly fall in this middle category, one without the gravitas of legal decrees. This doesn’t stop fear-driven sexists from usurping religious authority and oppressing women in the name of holy law. I like the way Rabbi Berman offers us a nuts and bolts framework with which to challenge the false claims of perverse fundamentalists of all faiths.
After the Riverside salon, I tell Avivah Zornberg about my experience of the night before – how the Asher Lev play evoked my own sad memories of rupture. I tell this scholarly high priestess of the unconscious how I saw a young actor incarnate the “known-unknown” drama of his long-deceased dad. When she asks about the role of Asher’s mother, I describe how she is torn between her husband and her son, how she suffers from constantly mediating between the two. This leads to the climactic moment, when Asher Lev unveils a series of paintings entitled “The Brooklyn Crucifixions”. Instead of Christ on the cross, he substitutes a deliberate likeness of his caught-in-the-middle-mom.
I watch Dr. Zornberg thoughtfully integrate the symbolic gestalt. How often have I heard her allude to women as agents of transformation, caught between the rigid and the possible? She knows what it is to be pulled by opposite realizations, polarized by paradoxical insight. A Jewish woman stretched out on a cross is no mere literary device. It is an external symbol of an internal tension many of us know well. She who has held up, and helped us look through, so many mirrors considers the vision and does not flinch.
Susan Reimer-Torn holds a Master’s degree in dance history from Columbia University and has written widely on dance, culture, lifestyle, and women’s issues for French and American publications. While living in Paris she had a regular cultural column in International Herald Tribune. She also published Kids Extra!, a quarterly serving the expatriate community. Susan has lived in New York for the past eleven years and works as a writer and a life coach. She also writes a blog, From the Twisted Fringe.