What is it like being an Orthodox Jew? Up until last week my answer would have been extremely limited. Information on Orthodox Judaism is nebulous at best. Most common hearsay includes anti-woman and unbendingly self righteous. Judy Gruen set me straight. A slow convert to Orthodox Judaism, Judy managed to remove all the haze and innuendo surrounding this misunderstood faith. Her faith love story took me on a long unexpected journey of doubt, fear, and ultimate contentment. Judy taught me that one’s love of God follows paths that albeit often unmarked or unchartered, will eventually bring you to where you should and want to be.
Judy Gruen’s Orthodox faith journey began in a most unlikely place; Los Angeles, California. Born as a Conservative Jew, she was raised in conflict between kosher and secular. As she grew older, Judy found herself questioning her heritage, faith, and purpose in life as a Jew. “The Skeptic and the Rabbi” is a memoir of Judy Gruen’s slow transition from an American Jew to a Jewish American. Her matter-of-fact narrative delved into the dynamic nuances that identify Jews in Diaspora. Preserving Judaism in a country predominantly Christian is challenging. Preserving it in secular America takes tenacity and strength. Judy found both in the Torah and Orthodox Judaism.
The book is more than a self-realization of Jewish faith, it is a template on how to eliminate religious and personal confusion so prevalent in today’s progressive secular society. As weird as it might sound, her morphing from secular to Orthodox was more about stubbornness, discipline, and the deep desire to define one’s purpose in life, than an exercise in religious righteousness. Judy’s parents followed kosher law at home but not necessarily looked for kosher on the outside. Their favorite restaurant was Italian. Her brother’s sudden death left her father morose both in life and in faith. Although he participated in Shabbos , he was not one to attend temple or to even acknowledge his Judaism as something to be noted.
Judy’s two sets of grandparents were as different and far apart as goal posts on a soccer field. She referred to them as the Cohens and the Rosenfelds. The former were fervent Jews and first generation immigrants from Europe, still observing all holy days and owning an extensive leather bound library on Torah readings and studies. The Rosenfelds were secular to a fault. and only owned up to being Jewish by birth. Although Judy enjoyed both sets of grandparents she could not help but wonder how different they were as Jews. Were they Jewish Americans or American Jews? A question that she came to terms with later in life. It dug deep into her definition of “being” Jewish.
Eventually, Judy concluded that grandparents Cohen were definitely Jewish Americans, whereas the Rosenfelds were American Jews. Some might think that this differentiation is an exercise in semantic futility, but current anti-Israel and Jewish sentiment is correlated to an identity crises of most Jews in America. They consider themselves Jewish by birth but as “free” Americans unrestrained by Torah standards in daily life. They miss the point entirely. Judy describes Papa Cohen lamenting that when they left their homeland for America they sought freedom from persecution and not freedom from the Torah. An argument for those who erroneously mistake freedom with non-accountability and responsibility.
Judy, like most of us, held preconceived ideas on Orthodox Judaism. The most common of misconceptions is that Orthodox Jews keep to themselves. A closed society. They deprive women of secular freedoms. They perform ancient rituals. Judy’s gradual turn toward Orthodox Judaism was equally rife with doubt. Her Orthodox misgivings were argumentative against all her beliefs as a modern American woman and a conservative Jew. Little by little she came to realize that Orthodox Judaism provided her with a deeper identity. An identity that embraces her past, present, and future.
Jeff was the catalyst to her transformation. Jeff was intelligent, funny, thoughtful and gentle. Jeff observed the Torah to the letter. Jeff did not fit the pre-conceived Orthodox Jew mold. That was both confusing and endearing. A curious combination. As their relationship matured, Jeff gently guided Judy toward Jewish Observance. He patiently explained the what, why, and how of Jewish Observance and Orthodox Judaism. Resisting at first, Judy gradually realized that Jeff’s world seemed more at peace than her own had ever been. There was comforting structure. Jeff’s standards started to make sense. He seemed to know exactly who he was, where he wanted to be, and how to get there.
Judy Gruen’s story is not limited to being a Jew. It is a story of finding peace and gratitude in faith. Whether Jewish, Christian, or atheist, it gives all of us a degree of hope that we can assume a way of life that sets us apart through moral high standards and perseverance. Judy opened my closed mind to possibilities outside my comfort zone. My idea of Orthodox Judaism was also limited to what I had read in the past. I have never known anyone of Orthodox persuasion to form an educated opinion, so I too succumbed to the misconceptions rampant in the secular media and blogs.
At first Judy resisted being drawn into a world that seemed restrictive both religiously and socially. She was going to miss her Italian restaurants and certain “family purity” rituals brought premature grey hairs to her head and goose bumps to her body. She constantly asked the inevitable “why?” Rabbi Daniel Lapin became her and Jeff’s spiritual mentor. Rabbi Lapin answered all the “why’s”. He mentored and guided the couple through their courting until their final marriage vows. The Rabbi was Judy’s life line, and remained the couple’s lifelong friend. He made Orthodox Judaism 101 easy. A point of interest to those us of who are or were of the opinion that Orthodox women are somewhat devalued; by what I gathered, in an Orthodox wedding ceremony it is only the bridegroom who makes promises and vows. I can live with that.
Judy’s journey was a lesson in how faith can determine how we choose to live our lives. I “walked” with Judy as she determinedly stumbled through the often difficult decisions of “letting go” and believing that standards in life, whether based on faith or society, are imperative to an order we often lack and we definitely need. Judaism standards cross lateral lines and demand equality. The Torah is the most progressive document alive. It is the fundamental playbook to all our legal, social, and democratic concepts we enjoy today. The Torah gave us individual rights, property laws, rule of law, literacy, and equality in social classes. Every Jew is held to the same standard. Before the Magna Carta even existed, the Torah told us how to live as good citizens with fundamental rights to the pursuit of happiness. Point in fact; the Ten Commandments that once hung on the walls of all US court rooms were a reminder that a court of law upholds society’s standards. The guilty could gaze up and realize that their crime had disrupted the social well being of a community. Even a secular humanist should not have a problem with “Thou shalt not kill”.
It is not easy being a Jew. Even Judy often found herself on the end of racial slurs and vulgarity as she walked the sunny sidewalks of LA. While everyone was shedding clothing she was piling it on. It is difficult wearing Judaism literally on your sleeve. Orthodox Jewish men wear a kippah and women dress modestly. You can tell an Orthodox Jew from a mile away. Judy sadly questions how long Jews will still enjoy safety and freedom in America. Recent Jewish attacks and anti-Semite remarks by members of the US Congress give Jewish Americans an uneasy feeling. She thinks that “historically” safety and freedom has not lasted “anywhere in the diaspora”. A sad testimonial to a society that seems determined to remain conveniently and historically ignorant. Judy’s narrative ends with a chilling realization that it is always difficult “going out into the world easily identifiable as a Jew”.
Gruen, J. Published 2017. The Skeptic and The Rabbi. Falling in love with faith.