Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I am the Only Jew

This week, Fantoft decided to add security on all its student apartment buildings with a magnetic tag that opens up the outer doors. Fine. Except for shabbat. When I’ll be stuck inside for 25 hours, chewing on the walls and banging my head against the ceiling. Or else locked outside, waiting with bovine patience for someone to come along and open the door for me.

An hour after I received the email, I was standing in front of the SiB desk, facing a girl whose jaw actually dropped open as I began to explain to her that I am a religious Jew who doesn’t use electricity for a 24-hour period every week. She smiled and nodded in sympathetic bewilderment, gave me an email to write to, and beckoned me over to the woman in charge.

“Well it’s fine. This doesn’t use electricity. It’s magnetic,” she said dismissively. “Write to the man who is in charge. NEXT!” Before I could point out to her that it probably does use electricity to open that door, and that it most certainly triggers a light, I was brushed out of the way. I decided to email the guy and see what he said.

Wednesday, without having received a response, and Friday looming ever closer, I returned to SiB to get the man in charge’s phone number. The same woman was there. Just as helpful as before.

“I don’t think there’ll be anything we can do for you.” And she was happy about it, for some reason. “You’ll have to call a friend to let you in on weekends,” she advised. No dice, lady—I can’t use a phone, either.

“Organize a time to meet them and have them let you in.” Every week, for the next three months? Seriously? Because I will want to go outside at the same time every week, and I have a friend that slavishly without a life that they can do that?

“Where is this—where is your... meeting?” Could you drip more disdain into that last word? No, lady, this is not a religious meeting, this is my apartment that I won’t be able to get in and out of for an entire day every week.

“Well, look, what do you do in your apartment during that time? Do you sit in the dark? Or do you use lights?” She was so triumphant in her mistaken proof of my inconsistency, it took me slightly aback. Then I leaned calmly towards her over the counter, and spoke in measured tones.

“You smug toad. You bask in your ignorance. You’re actually rejoicing in your mono-cultural blindness. You don’t want to know, you want to catch me out in a flaw. What possible reason has your warped mind come up with for imagining that I wouldn’t prefer to use the simple magnetic door-opener? You think you can catechize me on Judaism? Well, you complacent scumbag, I’ve spent a year and a half in the hellish cognitive dissonance of midrasha, and I’ve attended my requisite twelve years of forced fanaticism by Ner Yisrael FOF’s at the local day school, and I’ve read Potok and wept, and I don’t need you to make me cringe in question. You dare try to prove me inconsistent in religion when the dat’lash wedge on my pie chart of friends gets fatter every year? You think it’s a choice I’m making to keep shabbat? Sure it is—one on the same level as the one you make when you decide not to rob a grocery store. You think the choices I make every day about what I wear, eat, say, should all pass through your court so you can declare me religious or not? When I already judge myself incessantly? It’s fun for you to bait me? Walk off a cliff, bitch.”

Of course, I didn’t. I opened my mouth, and closed it. Because I remembered, in time, that I am the only Jew this lady ever knows she’s met. And more important than my ire, more important than my being locked indoors for 25 hours every week, even equally important with keeping shabbat, is the kiddush Hashem that I signed on for this year when I decided to be the only observant Jew in this city. So I can’t say anything that I’d like to, even though with my temper I'm the last person on earth that should have to represent anyone (forgodsake, I can't even stay silent enough to keep from posting this on my blog!). I can only try to keep my hands from trembling as I smile and respond that no, I don’t turn on lights on shabbat, I leave on one small one to read by the whole weekend long. And then, still trembling, I walked out.

I know that mine is utterly ridiculous rage. What, so this is the first time my coddled existence has come up against a lack of sympathy with my religious needs? Yes, good morning, little Miss Innocent, outside of America’s embrace of diversity and Israel’s Jewish refuge, people don’t give a flying fuck about facilitating religious observance. Do you want coffee with that newsflash? And yet I’m angry at that woman, angry at her twenty-first century Western joy that in an increasingly automated world it’s hard for Neanderthals like me to maintain our religious practice. But I left with my cool intact, rubbing my mind furiously against the internal insistence that I cannot allow a passionate intensity to take over.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


  1. Your anger is perfectly understandable. And don't get down on yourself for venting on this blog - you have amazing self restraint when it matters and are truly doing a kiddush Hashem this year. Although the gyre may be widening, passionate intensity can lead us to a sense of what we truly value - and it looks like you have figured it out.

  2. It's very impressive that you are able to keep to your beliefs in non-sympathetic environment. It's hard for me to imagine dealing with that since I've always lived in a somewhat religious environment (up till my service in the army).
    Just wondering though, do you see keeping Shabbos as a moral obligation? ("you think it's a choice I'm making to keep Shabbat? Sure it is – one on the same level as the one you make when you decide not to rob a grocery store")

  3. Okay. Ready for the complicated answer? I think keeping shabbat is a moral obligation sometimes-- it's not an objective moral right, but it can become bound up with a person's morality if their values are connected to it and if breaking it will mean inconsistency in their ethical system.

    I didn't mean to equate breaking shabbat to stealing on a moral ground-- one is particular to one society while the other a fairly universal value that is necessary pragmatically as well as ethically. I meant to use the comparison as a slightly exaggerated way of saying that the choices require the same amount of consideration and will power. Just as most people won't even think of stealing, at most letting the thought flit across their mind, and occasionally perhaps grappling with it in its more complicated incarnations (internet downloads, taking a tissue, repeating someone else's thought louder as your own), breaking shabbat is not really on the conscious-decision level for me. I used the metaphor (in my blog, not in real life) to explain, to a woman who looked at my not using electricity as a choice I make every time I do something on the weekend, that it is in fact less of a choice and more of a norm.

    Sorry about the convolutedness of some of those sentences. Hope you still got the gist. Pesach kasher v'sameach!

  4. Hi Hannah Wenger,
    Did I ever tell you I think you're really cool? (Sorry for randomly stalking your blog as I procrastinate... Honestly, I am usually very critical of people who make blogs, but I think your blog is really great!)
    Anyway, I loved the internal rant.