You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Susan Reimer-Torn: Upper West Side #1

Susan Reimer-Torn
May 12, 2012
by Susan Reimer-Torn I returned to my native New York City after spending twenty-two years in self-exile, working and raising a family in Paris. During those decades away, I was on the run from my family and friends’ obsession with the Jewish Question. When I took off for France while still in my twenties, I was in search of the larger world. Above all, I was a rebel against my father’s militant, Orthodox religious observance. I wanted to live, work, think, raise my children, practice journalism in a place where not everything was measured in terms of its impact on Jews. A secular, sophisticated culture, where no one would raise their eyebrows in disapproval of my iconoclastic ways, awaited me. A couple of decades have gone by and now I’m back. And here’s the thing: I’m no longer fighting the obsession. The truth is that rarely does a day go by when I am not taken up in some region of mind, body, or spirit with something having to do with yidishkayt. I find the cauldron of activity across the Jewish spectrum to be provocative and endlessly enriching. Settled now on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I get a hit of this activity daily, be it at a lecture, a film screening, an exhibit, a class, or a reorienting conversation with a friend at the corner café. Does my renewed engagement mark me as a narrow sectarian obsessed with the Jewish Question? Am I now the very person I once went to such lengths never to become? I think about that all the time. Here’s the beginning of my response: The real Jewish Obsession is with endless seeking. We investigate, innovate, argue, and boldly envision. Our past offers us a mythic framework and religious language to enliven the search. The question is how that legacy might equip us as complex individuals and interconnected citizens of the 21st century. Judaism is a vast repository of human creativity. In what way might all that inform, enliven, broaden our lives. In what way might it constrict us? For me, Jewish life and thought are compelling precisely because of their accommodation of paradox. It’s not just that you can think a thing or two, while I can think another thing or two or three. What I like is that within a single thinker — be it you, me or any one of our wise guys or girls — there can easily dwell contradictory strains. We can contain, balance, expand to accommodate opposing views. We value synthesis over certainty, reconciliation over polarity, flexibility of spirit over dogma. A Toulouse-based Jew with political ambitions shares his determination to both protect his community against terrorism and at the same time, to guarantee the Moslem community their civil rights. An activist Orthodox Jewish woman I know is negotiating a synthesis between her ardent commitment to both women’s reproductive rights and fetal protection. A radical theologian with whom I grew up balances his allegiance to our tribal particularism with the urgent call for oneness with all humanity. Another friend who does not believe in God is coming to terms with the unshakeable feeling that some higher force is guiding her life. Jews, at their best, dive right into this highly-charged meeting ground where apparent contradictions are reconciled and competing allegiances resolved. As for me, I’ve run away and I’ve come home. I arrive back where I started and, to paraphrase the poet, I begin to know the place as though for the first time . . . this paradoxical place that is, and then again, will never completely be, my home. Here are some scenes from it: # 1. A Dizzying Tapestry She is standing at the podium about to address a sell-out audience at the Manhattan JCC. Coming to us from a cloistered religious enclave in Jerusalem, Dr. Avivah G. Zornberg is the most celebrated woman biblical scholar of our day. She interweaves a dizzying tapestry of ideas. She holds a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University and is revolutionary in her introduction of a psychoanalytic dimension to the analysis of Jewish texts. A few days before I heard Lew Aron (the Director of the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis) address an audience a little further uptown. He argued that psychoanalysis was a Jewish science and that the analyst is to the patient as the midrash is to the biblical text. The midrash or rabbinic commentary “listens” carefully, even literally, to the text. But then it allows itself a kind of tethered yet freewheeling improvisation, a variation on a theme that imaginatively extrapolates between the lines. It might identify a single word or an unusual use of language as a portal to understanding. In Dr. Aron’s view, Freud assimilated this sort of dynamic from his own father’s commitment to daily Jewish study. Psychoanalysis is thus a Jewish paradigm for the excavation of meaning. Jewish study provides a model — a map and a method — for sounding the depths. Avivah Zornberg is a proud inheritor of the Freudian legacy. Freud’s disparagement of monotheism aside, Dr. Zornberg is also a piously devout Jew. I am drawn to her precisely because she is a study in contradictions. The wig on her head identifies her as an Orthodox Jewish wife. The meaning she mines, particularly when it comes to relationships between men and women in the Bible, even between the human and the Divine, arises from her unflinching exploration of the unconscious. Dr. Avivah Zornberg is famous for her teaching that unconscious mental processes are always at work, in some way affecting the conscious, even if they are vigorously suppressed. In one of her talks, she addresses the issue of women’s abrupt disappearance from many Biblical narratives. She offers a novel explanation: This is not so much an exclusion of women as it is a willful departure. Women do not need to go through the long saga of sin and retribution, promises and betrayal, kill me/spare me a son, all the push and pull that characterizes the struggle of the God of Israel with his male protagonists. Women are absent, says Zornberg, precisely because they have always been elsewhere, in another sphere of experience where they are privy to another level of knowing. Women inhabit a space somewhere beyond the margins and from this stance they enrich the mainstream. According to her, women are the midrash or imaginative commentary informing the text; we are the irrepressible unconscious bubbling up from the deep. While men are caught up in the literal text, women have their ears to the ground listening to subterranean truths audible only in the murmurings of the unconscious. I am once again preoccupied by paradox. The admired Dr. Zornberg teaches that we women are privy to the most profound truths. Why is it then that our foremost feminist scholar acquiesces to the male prejudices that reduce her to second-class citizenship? Why doe she live a live circumscribed by male authority? What is it that binds a brilliant woman to a constricted, inelastic Orthodox worldview that will never fully acknowledge her worth? #2. Mother’s Day Medley So I am an Avivah Zornberg groupie, because I like the way she sets the ancient text ablaze with new meaning. She comes from Jerusalem only once a year in springtime and I’m there every New York lecture night. Tonight her talk is about a hero’s journey home, in this case, forefather Jacob who in Genesis, chapter 35 takes two years to cover the distance of a two-day walk. In this, the biblical Jacob is a kind of Jewish Odysseus. But Jacob has something singular, something peculiarly Jew-boyish going on that distinguishes him from the pagan adventurer. Jacob chooses to tarry along his path in order to avoid a reunion with his overbearing mom. There is nothing new about a good Jewish boy’s reluctance to sort out unfinished business with his mom. Jacob did his level best to satisfy Rebeccah, his mom, but she was a manipulator, even a conniver, and that business with the stolen blessing got him into a lot of trouble with Esau, the wronged brother who afterwards, furious at being cheated, threatened to kill him. So Jacob fled, and twenty-two years later he has vowed to make it back home to his parents’ house. He seems to encounter lots of obstacles along the way. (I blanch a little, this is getting weirdly personal; I too was away for exactly twenty-two years before I began making my way home.) Dr. Zornberg sees forefather Jacob as a veritable battlefield of internal contradictions. On the one hand, Jacob longs for closure with his mother and all that she represents in his internal landscape. But, like a lot of us, especially the boychiks, our hero resists returning to his mother. And because of that, Zornberg tells us, Jacob is cut off from a big part of himself. What’s more, he is unable to reach out, cherish and protect the wife and daughter he loves. Jacob, she says, is split off from deeper truths. These remarks perfectly set the stage for a panel held a few days later on . . . #3. The War Against Women I am in the giant ballroom of Temple Rodeph Shalom (near Central Park) where at least a thousand people have gathered to lend support to the rally to protect women’s reproductive rights. Leading Jewish, Moslem, Hindu and Protestant clergy make it clear that the right-wing does not own scriptures and that nothing in any of their faiths sanctions withholding birth control and abortion rights from women. We’re talking about faith-based progressive politics. This is a shout-out from the Gender Justice Initiative whose clergy are talking about unleashing the power of religious leaders to bring about social change. There is an invitation for all assembled to see religion as a force for transformation. I know there are many present for whom a multi-faith-based initiative for human rights is a novel idea. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, lets us know that she has received a personal phone call from President Obama guaranteeing that her organization will not be defunded out of existence on his watch. I can’t help comparing the president to the biblical Jacob. Obama is a hero with a dramatic arc to his life who has never hesitated to credit strong women for his success. #4. A Poem for Mom The New York Jewish world is full of characters with their own version of estrangement-turned-fascination when it comes to their Judaism. Jan Uhrbach is a self-styled woman rabbi for whom spiritual leadership is a second career. A graduate of Harvard Law, Jan was a full partner in a prestigious corporate law firm when she heard the call. In her mid-forties, she needed to start at the beginning. She learned the aleph-beyt and eventually enrolled in rabbinical school quickly distinguishing herself for her sharp mind. She is now a magnet for all kinds of unaffiliated Jews on the Upper West Side holding her own outpost services in a neighborhood hotel. I like one of the poems she hands out at her Friday night service. Jewish Mother (from A Spiritual Life by Merle Feld) Please don’t let me feed you, let it be me that pleases, not the food. It’s so easy for me to feed you, the dinner makes itself, but please, wrestle from me a blessing not rugelach, not chocolate cake. It’s so easy For me to feed you — chicken soup or quiche — you’re on your way? The table’s laden with everything you like. It’s so easy for me to feed you, and shy, withhold myself. So mother/son-child/parent connection goes two ways. Jacob’s story explores a son’s unwillingness to be vulnerable to the feelings induced by his mother. But Merle Feld, the Jewish mom and poet, tells us that’s not the whole story. It’s also about women’s willingness to be open, to be real, with their men. # 5. A Legacy of Invention Inventing our Life is a newly released documentary by Toby Perl Freilich, recently screened at the Quad Cinema, that explores the history of the kibbutz in Israel from many angles. This radical social experiment in collective, equalitarian living leaves us with many questions. One of the lingering ones, for me, is about the feasibility of handing something down to the next generation. Escaping the persecution of Eastern Europe, often defying their own parents’ prohibitions, the teenage pioneers of the kibbutz reinvented themselves as agrarians while authoring a new social ideal in the harsh territory of early 20th century Palestine. Guided by what one veteran called “a religion of labor,” they disconnected from the intellectual stereotypes that characterized the Jewish personality of the diaspora. They brought forth a new egalitarian way of life in a barren land. Their dream was that the children they raised in this hard-won utopia would cherish and preserve their achievement. The impossibility of their dream was built-in. The only way for the second generation of kibbutz dwellers to perpetuate the essence of the pioneering spirit was to radically depart from their parents’ world. Staying on implied a resting on the laurels of the past generation, the very sort of complacency their parents were committed to transcend. Judaism is a tradition that emphasizes continuity from one generation to the other. We are instructed to pass our Jewish heritage on to our children. Education about the past, preservation of memories are all central to our way of life. Passover is a holiday whose entire mission is a retelling of our story. But the lesson I take away from the film is that even the most impressive of achievements take place in the limited context of their time. Every generation is enriched by what has come before — and then we get to figure it out all over again for ourselves. 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.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.