Deborah Feldman


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Not sure if I heard the word Nazi or not, but I do remember similar scenes of conflict from my childhood. Poor fireman!

April 19th 2014
April 19th 2014

The Proselytizing Professor

One summer at Sarah Lawrence I signed up for a class with a visiting professor which intrigued me because it was titled “History through Memoir.” The syllabus listed memoirs of people who lived in different eras; we were to learn about their individual time periods by reading their personal autobiographies. This was when I had just started preparing the proposal for my own memoir, and I figured out a way to make that my conference piece for the class. 

          Each week we would read a different memoir for its historical perspective, and it was very absorbing and enlightening until the professor announced we would be using Jesus as next week’s “eyes” with which to see history, and of course I was up in arms, because he was a devout Roman Catholic, and very open about it.

            Would he be using a historically sound depiction of Jesus, I asked him? He declared that since the Catholic version of Jesus was the only one that was real to him, we would be studying that perspective. So essentially it was bible study, I thought. I was being roped into literal Sunday school at Sarah Lawrence of all places! But I was the only one outraged, of all fourteen students in the class, which I realized was the result of the cultural gap between them and myself. I was the only one that was Jewish. The rest of them had already been exposed to the New Testament Jesus growing up, and so the idea of discussing the historical Jesus in that context didn’t really disturb them. But I felt I had a right to a bias-free classroom. I was preparing to abandon a lifetime of religious indoctrination; I was here to learn, not to be converted.

            I brought my complaints to the head of the program, who was clearly reluctant to get involved. Her solution to the problem: I would skip the class and she would make sure my grades weren’t affected. It felt very wrong. I was the one paying for the experience; I shouldn’t be sitting out what was clearly a non-educative lecture. How could the professor not see that it was his duty to objectively teach, not evangelize with false or unconfirmed information?

            At the end of the class, the professor asked to speak with me. He apologized for the way he had handled the issue, he said. He confessed that he had felt simultaneously threatened and envious of my determination to question religious dogma, both Jewish and Christian. His whole life had been founded in Catholic ideas, he explained – therefore it was too late for him to risk stepping outside of that framework. He didn’t feel certain that the structure would hold without him in it.

            I looked at him then and realized he was no different from the people who had raised me. They too were afraid to question, for fear of collapsing the shelter of their belief system. And I knew that whatever belief system I would be building in the future would be one that could stand the test of inquiry.

 

April 19th 2014

Would you say ultra religious Jews and ultra religious Muslims treat women about the same?

I wouldn’t really compare the two - I don’t feel I’m informed enough about Ultra-Religious Muslims. Still, I think any kind of fundamentalist oppression of women is bad. 

April 19th 2014

Hi Deborah! How is your son deaing with going back and forth between you and your ex husband, and most importantly how does he deal from going from your household to a satmar household? Does your ex try to sway him towards Satmarism?

My ex is no longer Satmar by any means so that transition is not really that difficult. I’ve taught my son that there are a lot of different ways to be Jewish, and when he’s a grown-up he can pick the way that feels right for him.

April 19th 2014

Strange, just when I broke up with my boyfriend, who is jewish, I see all your postings, its like a message from God. I read your book while I was visiting Brooklyn. That trip was a present from my ex. He wanted me to get to know the religion. He was sure I was a jewish soul and said that I could become jewish again. Your book has touched my hart and now I'm sure I can never become jewish. I want to find out who I am, I don't want to live in the shadow of my husband. Keep on writing.

No one should live in the shadow of anyone else! Be your own person, and don’t let anyone tell you who you should be. 

April 19th 2014

just wondering since u grew up in an hasidic backround -dont u recall what u learned in school that there is a world to come? dont u have a guilt feeling ?

Yes I learned a lot of things in school, but I don’t remember any of my teachers having any credibility or strong sources for their claims. So you can see why I wouldn’t necessarily give credence to anything I learned. I was never really the kind of kid that would accept something as fact just because an older person handed it down - you have to back it up with SOMETHING. So no guilt, sorry. I only feel guilty when I think my actions will have direct consequences on other human beings, not when they arbitrarily affect my “share of the world to come.” 

April 19th 2014

Two questions - Have you ever met Leah Vincent and have read Cut Me Loose?

I have, and I think she’s wonderful and brave and beautiful and I hope she writes many more books in the future. 

April 19th 2014

Hi. I read your book unorthodox and it got me intrigued into Hasidic culture. I am just wondering what is the relationship between any 'ordinary hasid' and the rebbe. In a lot of (more liberals) communities men and women alike take their religious problems to a Rabbi. If a member of the Satmar community had an issue would they speak to the Rebbe/Rebbetzin.

Unfortunately the Satmar community in American ballooned around this one guy that was made into a total celebrity figure, and he hardly had time to communicate with each of his followers the way he might have in the old world, when communities were much smaller. Instead, the Satmar world is filled with smaller personages, Ravs (lesser Rabbis) or Poseks (Arbiters of Jewish Law) that have personal fan bases. Every community member has a list of such characters that they like to consult. As far as I remember, women didn’t directly consult anyone though. They would have to ask their husbands or fathers to do it for them.

April 19th 2014

How about for people that already in their 30s with grown kids. There is so many of us that don't believe and were stuck, knowing full well, if we change, our entire lives will crumble

I think it’s a pro-con situation, really. True, your life may crumble, but then you can rebuild it into something stronger. You have to ask yourself which outcome is worse. They may both fall beneath your expectations, but one alternative is always going to feel more hopeful to you, I think. Breaking away later in life is tough, but I always think about how it might give your kids options in the future that they might not otherwise have. Just knowing someone on the outside can change a Hasidic kid’s life completely. 

April 19th 2014

Dear Deborah, I recently read your book. You are a very courageous woman. Among the Satmars, are women allowed to read and study the Torah and Talmud?

No they are not permitted to study the Written or Oral Torah directly, but are fed bits and pieces of it by male family members, usually. Only the bits that are deemed appropriate for a female audience, of course. 

April 19th 2014

Hi!

Hi Deborah, 

I found your book an interesting read. It’s refreshing to hear about someone from the inside, shall we say, with thoughts just like mine. I live in Israel and witnessing Hasidic Jews on a daily basis always raises the question, “are they really so happy?” Like, do they really feel fulfilled doing these ridiculous things that are interpretations of ancient texts that probably should not apply to today anyway. I think it’s amazing that you somehow had it in you to have this desire to explore what was so seemingly forbidden. I could never imagine having any of my liberties as a female taken away from me. I am so happy that you a strong woman despite the circumstances in which you were raised! You should come to Israel and do a book reading (that is if you haven’t already)! ;)

It’s on my bucket list, I swear! Sometime in the next year, I hope. Keep an eye out for updates. 

April 19th 2014

Are you still religious? Do you continue to use Yiddish?

No and yes. You can take the girl out of Williamsburg, but you can’t take Williamsburg out of the girl, apparently. Even my son says “oy vey” all the time. Also, I’ve learned to speak German fluently, and my German friends have often remarked that my vocabulary has a distinct Yiddish twist. Then again, I’ve had to educate them about the everyday words they use that are clearly of Hebrew origin, but have been so thoroughly Germanized that people have forgotten where they come from. I had a fit the first time I heard a German guy say “Lassen wir tachlis reden.” Tachlis is hebrew for “practical matters” etc. 

April 19th 2014

Hi Deborah! I thoroughly enjoyed reading both of your memoirs. (I just finished reading "Exodus" in a matter of hours.) I too grew up in an Orthodox community, although not as strict as Satmar. Still, I identified with many of the realizations that you came to after leaving the community. I was wondering if you are planning on traveling to Los Angeles anytime soon to promote your book? I would love to meet you one day! -N

I have never been to Los Angeles, actually. I’ve visited San Diego and San Francisco, and have definitely developed a fondness for California in general, with its amazing views and gorgeous sunsets. Would certainly like to check out the L.A. scene someday. I’ll keep you posted.

April 19th 2014

My first mixed-gender handshake

The night Obama was elected I drove to Sarah Lawrence, still in my wig and long skirt. I had managed to get away for the evening under some pretense I don’t remember, because I wanted to stand under the big tent with all the others and watch the votes being tallied. I didn’t know anyone there, but that didn’t especially matter, and I just stood off to the side and watched while students spontaneously hugged one another and shed tears of anticipation, and the numbers on the screen shifted to and from our advantage. The last few months had been charged with tension, the young Democrats campaigning like crazy, despite the lack of any Republicans on campus. You remember there was this feeling that college students mattered more than ever, that we were Obama’s strongest supporters, and politics was for young people again.

After the results were announced and everyone started crying and screaming I slipped out. I had parked my car in front of the building where I attended classes, which normally closed at 10 p.m. For security purposes, a graduate student manned the front desk, a guy who had the late shift so I normally never ran into him. He was skinny, with a lip ring and spiky dark hair. He recognized me when I walked in to use the bathroom, looked straight at me and said my name, and I was disproportionately surprised because I was sure no one on campus knew me. I went straight to class and straight home every time, and almost never mingled unless there was a reading, and even then I stood in the back.

He showed me his computer, which was open to my Facebook page. “We’re friends,” he said, “see?” And he clicked on his profile, and there he was, Evan Ross, goofy smile sans lip ring in the picture.

“Oh yeah. Maybe we met at a reading?”

“Yes, the one last week, I remember you.” He had great energy, bouncing on the balls of his feet, really huge smile with two rows of teeth showing. He was being very nice, but of course I thought, “He’s hitting on me.”

“I’m married,” I said. And it was on my facebook page as well, he should have noticed.

“That’s cool,” he said. His face didn’t change. He seemed very interested in talking, so we did for a bit. I sat on the bottom step of the large spiral staircase that curved gracefully into the main room, and chatted shyly until he finished his shift.

Evan walked me to my car afterwards, and tried to shake my hand, which first I refused. Then I thought better of it, and reached out, and we shook hands, and laughed, and that was the beginning of a cherished friendship.

Evan taught me that it was indeed possible for guys and girls to be friends, despite the fear and skepticism that had been drummed into me in the Hasidic community - and because of him, I have continued to cement enduring and honest friendships with kind, respectful and intelligent men, who see me for the person I am, and not my genitalia. I feel so fortunate to have liberated myself from those nasty gender stereotypes that the Satmar world enforced, not only because they impacted my self-esteem and sense of security in the world, but because their attitudes seemed to legitimize and promote disgusting behavior in the name of those stereotypes. Men consistently allowed themselves to treat women badly because they had been taught that nothing else was truly expected of them, and therefore they would never be held accountable for their behavior. Instead, it was always the woman that was blamed, simply for existing.  

It’s thrilling to watch my son grow up in a healthy, well-adjusted mixed-gender environment, and embrace girls and boys equally as his friends. I know that when he grows up he will shake women’s hands and look into their eyes instead of assessing their bodies. 

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April 19th 2014

The Mormon Mission to Convert Me

The Mormon Temple in D.C. puts on a harmless sounding “festival of lights” display each holiday season. Driving to the temple, you’ll notice that the exit sign on the highway has the words ‘Surrender Dorothy’ scribbled on it in white paint, the original phrase long since faded. Up ahead, the light beams surrounding the temple illuminate the night sky, and the otherworldly edifice floating eerily above the treetops may strike you as some celestial UFO.

Non-Mormons aren’t allowed inside the actual temple, but a nearby visitor’s center hosts those not quite holy enough, so you’ll see some lovely hospitality even though you’re not going to heaven. The glowing trees are very pretty, which is why they keep drawing in these crowds, but it’s also dreadfully cold. Behind the glimmering trees, the temple looks like it dropped from the heavens with a bang; it’s huge, square, and the combination of archaic and modern architecture have a confusing effect. No guests allowed, so the cold drives me into the less imposing visitor’s center.

It turns out the visitor’s center is mission control for the Mormon proselytism effort! Big surprise. Yes, there’s a room where you can see nativity scenes from countries all over the world, but mostly there are long skirted women standing next to tables boasting bibles in every language, and posters showing ostensibly Mormon families in every color; Asian, African-American, Hispanic. Not one poster shows a mixed-race family, I notice. I guess the Mormons haven’t quite caught up; I suppose they should be congratulated for getting over the non-white thing.

I inspect all eighty two Mormon bibles on display. There’s one in Tagalog and Urdu, but no bible in Yiddish. Feeling vaguely mischievous, I ask why not. The attendant, in a baggy gray suit jacket and long gray skirt, her hair tied severely behind her neck, looks confused. “Yiddish?” she asks, “what language is that?”

“Only the language of the Jews,” I say with a big grin.

She scuttles off to find someone who might know more. The next time I look up, I’m literally surrounded by the cream of the Mormon missionary crop, all young men with chiseled jaws, eyeing me with a hunger just barely hidden by professional restraint.

"You’re Jewish?" One of them asks, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. 

"Wow, I can’t believe you are really here in front of us!" Another adds, practically drooling at the sight of me. 

I feel completely unprepared for this sort of celebrity status. Why are they all standing around me? There are plenty of other visitors they could be trying their luck with. I say that to one of them, and she answers:

"But you don’t understand! You’re Jewish! We’ve never actually met a real Jew before, but we’ve learned about you! You’re the one who needs to be saved the most!"

They follow me all the way to the door, trying to think of ways to entice me to stay. I feel vaguely fearful of being kidnapped. I know I’ll never forget the looks on their faces - like aliens about to abduct me so they can conduct weird experiments on me in their spaceship.

Can you share your weirdest experience with missionaries? 

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April 18th 2014
<p><a href="http://booksdirect.tumblr.com/post/82828638129/a-book-is-a-dream-that-you-hold-in-your-hand-neil-gaiman" class="tumblr_blog" target="_blank">booksdirect</a>:</p>

<blockquote><p>"A book is a dream that you hold in your hand." - <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Neil-Gaiman/e/B000AQ01G2/ref=nosim?tag=booksdirectsh-20&linkCode=sb1&camp=212353&creative=380549" target="_blank">Neil Gaiman</a></p></blockquote>

booksdirect:

"A book is a dream that you hold in your hand." - Neil Gaiman

April 18th 2014

Germans, the Jews, and Israel

It was a gray day in Frankfurt, I was in the red light district next to the Hauptbahnhof, strolling through the little market set up on Kaiserstrasse. They were serving glühwein from little trucks; a couple of stragglers huddled over steaming glasses placed on a bar table, smoking cigarettes with fingers only just emerging from jacket cuffs. I was on my way to pick up a friend from the station, but she wasn’t due for another twenty-five minutes, so I stopped into the international bookstore, hidden under ubiquitous scaffolding, on impulse.

            I was immediately drawn to a book with a Yiddish title, “Machloikes,” by Michel Bergmann. It was printed in German, and I wondered if the word, meaning quarrels in Hebrew, had become integrated into the German language along with schlemazel, nosh, tachlis, and meshuggeh.

            The elderly woman behind the counter watched me with sharp eyes from behind her bifocal glasses. She had a full head of curly white hair. I brought the book to her, asking if I could look inside, as it was wrapped in plastic. She unwrapped it carefully, explaining that it was the second book in a celebrated trilogy.

            “Translated into English yet?” I asked.

            “I don’t believe so.”

            I wandered into the back where the international titles were stocked. There was a memoir by Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, titled Out of Place. I liked the title. It felt like it could easily describe my own life. I placed it on the counter, and the bookseller asked if I wanted it unwrapped so I could peruse it as well.

            I shook my head no.

The bookseller looked at the memoir then, registered its author, then she looked at the book titled “Machloikes” and looked back up at me with a spark of cognition in her gray eyes.

            “Sind Sie Jude?” she asked abruptly.

            “Indeed,” I answered, amused at her directness, at the experience I kept having here in Germany, where my Jewishness was a firmly skewed and prepackaged marker of identity.

(In Cologne, after ordering flammküchen in a Turkish restaurant, the tattooed waiter with the blond mustache had insisted on knowing the answer to that question as well.

 “I can spot it a mile away!” he had said exultantly, after I confirmed his suspicions.

“You know, you should be more careful with that question,” I had scolded him. “After all, this is Germany, and my grandparents survived the camps.”

            “No, it’s not like that at all,” he had assured me nervously. “I have so many Jewish friends.”

            I was reminded then of that ubiquitous disclaimer in the states – I can’t be racist because I have so many _____ friends.)

            Now the bookseller scrutinized me intensely, much in the same manner as that hapless waiter.

            “So tell me, what do you think about Israel?” Her face told me that she had been waiting to ask that question for a long time, and that now she had a Jew standing in her shop she could not let the opportunity to grill me pass her by.

            “To be honest, I have no opinion about Israel at all,” I said to her. “I’ve never even visited.”

            “That’s wonderful,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Here they always say if you criticize Israel you are anti-Semitic, but it’s not true. We are very against what Israel is doing here, we are just not allowed to say it. And yes, of course what we did during the war was the worst that mankind is capable of, but that is no excuse for Israel’s behavior. I am not an anti-Semite, I am totally capable of separating the Jews from the Israelis.”

            “Clearly, you are not,” I pointed out gently, “since as soon as you ascertained that I was Jewish, you unloaded all of your feelings about Israel on me. Consider for a moment that anti-Israeli sentiment is the new anti-Semitism.”

She looked at me in horror. I paid cash for the two books, and left the shop, and as I walked to the train station I thought perhaps it was time for me to visit Israel, so that I could finally form an opinion. image

April 17th 2014

The Wicked Son: following in the tradition of Spinoza, Arendt, and just maybe, Ayaan Hirsi Ali

In the early part of the Passover Haggadah there is a section containing instructions on how to educate four potentially different sons on the story of the Exodus. They are respectively referred to as the wise, the simple, the ignorant, and the wicked sons. The wicked son is quoted as phrasing his question to his father using the pronoun “you.” This is interpreted as meaning he excludes himself from the question; he assumes the answer does not apply to him. It is his self-selected exclusion that is equated with wickedness here. It denies a basic principle of Judaism, which is conformity and joining; that is we are redeemed through enduring unity – with individuality comes the threat of breakage, of fragmentation. What is the only acceptable answer to this wicked son? The Haggadah says to knock out his teeth, implying that to reason with him is hopeless, since individuality, once it takes root, cannot be excised, and the only way to defeat it is to disable its means of expression. If the wicked son had been in Egypt, the father is supposed to say, than he would not have been redeemed.

The Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who pioneered the Jewish enlightenment movement (Haskalah) of the 18th century, was one such wicked son. Born in the 17th century to a family of Portuguese Jewish descent, he was the first Jewish thinker to openly question the validity of the Jewish bible, and the nature of the God described therein. By the time he was twenty-three years old, the Jewish religious authorities had issued the ultimate ban against him, called cherem: a form of ostracism and expulsion so permanent that Jewish law views it as akin to total annihilation of the spirit. In the document recording the official censure and rejection of Spinoza, both his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds” are recorded as reasons for expulsion. This because he dared to postulate that the laws practiced by Jewish communities were not literally given by God, and that they were no longer binding on the Jewish people. What is most fascinating about the story of Spinoza, is that after his vitriolic and irrevocable excommunication from the Jewish world, he did not do what was expected of him, and what had been done by many others who had committed lesser offenses against the Jewish leadership and the institution of its authority – that is, convert to Christianity and be welcomed into a world that had a clear stake in any views that invalidated Judaism. Instead, Spinoza became the first secular Jew of Europe, and the first public example of a wicked son who continued to question even after his “teeth had been knocked out.”

So begins a storied tradition of Jews who say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Fast forward three centuries to Hannah Arendt, a secular Jewish thinker and political theorist, whose career was aligned with the likes of Heidegger before WWII tore them apart, both literally and figuratively, after which she emigrated to the States and was left to struggle with the aftermath of the Holocaust in her writings. She felt legitimately torn between her past affiliations with philosophers who were now personas non grata, and the new philosophy of explanation and accusation that became the task of her and peers such as Karl Jaspers. In her seminal work The Banality of Evil, first commissioned by the New Yorker as an analysis of the Eichmann trial, she dared question the black and white views that had been adopted by the Jewish leadership for the entirety of the diaspora, namely that of the monstrous evil of the anti-Semite and the angelic victimhood of the Jew. Portraying the Nazi who had organized massive transports of Jews to death camps as a thoughtless automaton, she also suggested that were it not for the behavior of Jewish councils who cooperated with Nazi policy, the annihilation of European Jewry would not have been nearly as successful. She asserted:

“The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had been really unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and half and six million people.”

It is this unacceptable pointing of fingers at the Jewish elite, in their new seat of power in post-war America, that earned her scathing, venomous criticism and attacks from the Jewish world, the central figures of which accused her of “blaming the victim” or being a self-hating Jew, as a means to distract from her accusation, instead of having a viable and necessary discussion about the possibility of error and culpability within the Jewish community.

I too am a wicked son – or rather, daughter (interestingly the Haggadah wastes no time instructing fathers how to answer their daughters.) First I left the Hasidic Jewish community and wrote a memoir about what life was like in that world, an act of self-selected exclusion in that it violated the unspoken rule of speaking publicly about the problem of fundamentalism within the Jewish community. I was most viciously attacked because I dared to discuss the laws of marital purity – which is the very foundation of the patriarchal oppression of women that plagues Jewish history. Then I wrote another memoir, in which I describe the process of rebuilding my life from scratch once outside the Hasidic world, and in finding the other acceptable norms of Jewish identity insufficient or flawed, I embarked upon a journey to discover my own version of Jewishness that felt honest, compassionate, and real. Because I dared to comment on the prevalence of divisiveness and the practice of prejudice in a Jewish community that preaches unity in public, and because I then chose a form of Jewishness that didn’t comfortably fit into any mainstream or acceptable idea, my critics now claim my Jewishness isn’t real. I am no longer one of them, they say. The possibility that authentic Jewishness can exist outside of their narrow spectrum is anathema to them, as it was to the authorities who expelled Spinoza from their midst so many centuries ago.

Last week, Brandeis University announced that it was revoking the honorary degree it had long since promised Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her work against the abuses of women and children under the name of fundamentalism. Though it had thoroughly researched Ali’s work prior to offering the degree in the first place, it cited requests from faculty members and an online petition that accused Ali of expressing anti-Islamic sentiment for the sudden reversal. Understandably this sparked outrage all over the world. I, too, was infuriated. Coming from a fundamentalist culture myself, albeit a Jewish one, Ali has always been a personal hero for me; she endured much worse in Muslim Somalia than I did in Hasidic Williamsburg, and the criticism and attacks against her make my own experience of ostracism in the Jewish world look mild, yet she continues in that tradition I know so well in my own world – that of the individual questioning “group-think,” or the wicked son who dares exclude himself, and thereby achieve the objectivity necessary for true questioning and thought. She may not be Jewish – which is probably why Brandeis was willing to give her the honor of a degree in the first place, since the Jewish community has never quite been comfortable confronting the threats against humanity inherent in fundamentalism when the presence of it is growing ever stronger in the Jewish world, but her bravery brings to mind the courage of Spinoza in that she has been so thoroughly exiled, and yet has never once sacrificed her integrity.

If Ayaan Hirsi Ali were to have accepted that degree from Brandeis, it would have legitimized them as a Humanist institution, but the truth is, until institutions of Jewish thought are willing to face the fundamentalism in their own backyard, they will not be qualified to participate in a discussion about it anywhere else – Islamic or otherwise. Yet this particular contradiction of criticizing the faults of other communities while bolting the door against one’s own skeletons - this is applicable to the mainstream American-Jewish community at large, and their flawed philosophy is one that Brandeis pays its own allegiance to – so it cannot then rightly call itself humanist or progressive or a force for good in the world while conveniently ignoring this.

Although I think Ali is better off without the patronizing pat-on-the-back that a degree would have represented, it is still absolutely untenable that Brandeis has seen fit to behave in this way, because in doing so it has made a clear statement: it is legitimizing abuse of human rights under the banner of multiculturalism. Too long have we allowed this hypocrisy to continue in our so-called liberal, progressive society – too long has academia, Jewish or not, allowed itself to turn a blind eye to the suffering of innocents in the name of this higher cause – this blind reverence for “culture” even as it implies religious extremism and the evils that come with it. It is not progressive to make exceptions out of women who are born in environments that promote their oppression – it cannot be called “humane” to fight for other women’s rights but ignore the ones who are truly in need of advocacy. The fact that Brandeis was intimidated into rescinding Ali’s degree is blatant proof that our society is dangling at the end of strings held in the hands of fundamentalists and their advocates. It is telling indeed when fingers are pointed at women who have experienced tremendous suffering because of religion, and attempts are made to silence them by calling them “anti-religion.” This cowardly and convenient slur echoes those heaved at Hannah Arendt all those years ago. When has religion become so holy to the secular that it is exempt from criticism and reform?

The actions of Brandeis have shown that no real progress has been made since the day Spinoza was ostracized for having thoughts that contradicted the prevailing authorities of his time. In the end, the only “progressive views” permitted to be expressed in this world of Jews who align themselves with the secular are those that adopt the mainstream ideas being forced on us from on high, while making the leadership look “liberal” in the process. It is a bizarre conundrum indeed, to have reached the moment in time when the authoritative voice would by all means prefer to appear liberal, while at the same time perpetuating those same stifling black and white ideas of our fearful and restrictive past. The leadership of Brandeis may as well be Arendt’s critics, or Spinoza’s enemies. They have participated in that age-old tradition of knocking out the teeth of the wicked son, instead of allowing for productive conversation and progress.

Were the Jewish community to have adopted a different attitude to dissent, perhaps the betrayals of trust and violations of human rights that have systematically occurred within the Jewish world itself could have been mitigated and prevented. It is the belief of the Jews that redemption can only occur when all Jews are united; yet our idea of unity seems to consist of hiding our petty squabbles from view while making a show of being cohesive, as if to fool outsiders is to fool God. It is imperative that we stop prioritizing appearances and conformity and start addressing our own problems. Fundamentalism is a genuine threat to the future of Judaism; divisiveness and hatred continues to poison us in our sleep.

For all the ways in which I have and continue to exclude myself from acceptable Jewish thought, I have been vilified in my own sphere. Yet I have a tradition in which I can find myself, in those golden words of Spinoza, in the raw, courageous honesty of Hannah Arendt. I am not alone in my refusal to be silenced or intimidated. I hereby extend this illustrious tradition to include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, permanently and irrevocably. It may not be a degree, but it is a worthy honor on its own.

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April 16th 2014