Tossed Torah: Why So Many Jews Are Willing To Let Go Of Their Heritage

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Tossed_TorahMy friend Tammy makes the best salad I’ve ever had. She fills it with yummies like avocados, caramelized almonds, and toasted sunflower seeds. When you eat salad at Tammy’s house – which I highly recommend you do should the opportunity ever arise – don’t be surprised when you find yourself taking third and fourth helpings and secretly resenting the guy across the table who finishes off the batch just as you’re contemplating a fifth.

The key to Tammy’s salad’s greatness is the dressing, and being the generous soul that she is, she’ll gladly share the recipe with anyone who asks. And so there I was, in my kitchen, ready to recreate that heavenly union of taste and nutrition, coming together in perfect harmony. Ingredients chopped, dressing poured, first bite…BLECH! YUCK! Utter disappointment. Salad fiasco. Dressing debacle. Something has gone wrong. Seriously wrong. But what could it be? I followed her recipe exactly – the rice vinegar, the canola oil, the brown sugar. All those precious goodies now drenched in an awful slop. Ruined.

And so I return to dear Tammy for a recipe redux. “Please,” I beseech her, “mold me, guide me, show me where I went wrong.” And with the opening of her refrigerator door, it all becomes clear. When she told me to use rice vinegar in the recipe, she meant this, but I thought that. Although both items go by the same name, they are actually quite different.

But there are other times in life when the same moniker can denote vastly different things. Take Judaism, for instance. For the majority of Jews out there, the word Judaism evokes images of boring Hebrew school classes, endless High Holiday services, and nagging mothers, and guilt. Aside from some good food and jokes, most Jews have very few positive associations with their heritage.

For a small number of Jews, however, Judaism means something completely different. It’s not only a way of life, but the meaning of life, a rigorous intellectual pursuit, a profound joy, and a force that connects them to their families as well as all other Jews throughout space and time.

The reason that I was motivated to improve my salad recipe, when so many Jews could care less about improving their relationship with Judaism, is because I had already experienced the salad as it was meant to be and it was wonderful and delicious. If I had never tasted the salad with the correct vinegar – if Tammy had just offered me a recipe without my ever having tried it first at her house – I would have just assumed the salad itself was not worth eating as opposed to assuming that I had somehow made it the wrong way.

It was only because I knew what I was missing that I was able to go back and reclaim it. And herein lies the problem for most Jews in the world today. So few of us have ever had a deliciously positive, soul-surging, mind-satisfying experience with Judaism. And because so few of us have ever experienced it the way it was meant to be lived and learned and practiced, so many of us are willing to toss it away as quickly as a botched recipe.

If you’ve never experienced a Judaism worth relishing, go out there and find someone who has. Although creating those highs will admittedly require some effort, the recipe to get there is available to everyone.

And speaking of available recipes, here’s the one for Tammy’s salad:

The Tam Tam Everything Salad

Mixed Greens
Sliced vidalia onion
Caramelized slivered almonds
Toasted sunflower seeds
Craisins
Sliced avocado
Halved grape tomatoes
Cucumber
Red Pepper
Dressing: Mix rice vinegar (remember to use the right one), canola oil, brown sugar and black pepper to taste and toss with salad.  For a full bowl of salad, use one scant spoonful of brown sugar, 4 dashes of salt and two dashes of pepper. The vinegar to oil ratio is 2:1.
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Comments

  1. As a Christian, I have to say that all your metaphors and parables have meaning for me. Especially this one.
    I am SO going to enjoy what you offer here.

  2. I think you’re right, but I also think that answer is too simplistic. While it’s true that it’s hard to know what you’re missing if you haven’t checked out the right way to make the salad, sometimes there are things in the salad that you dislike or are opposed to SO much that it sours the entirety of the eating experience. I think this is probably a more common factor that people realize, since we naturally tend to evaluate things such that if we love something completely, we can’t really understand someone having a different response outside the notion of that person not really understanding the thing we love.

    • I didn’t say that there are people who try the “salad” and don’t like it – the premise of the piece was that people should make sure they’re experiencing the salad the right way (i.e. experiencing in depth learning and mitzvah observance from people who love it) before throwing it away.

      One more thing to note – even many of us who love the “salad” have elements of it that on their own we struggle with. But each element of the salad contributes to the product in its entirety, so we take the package as a whole even as we struggle with elements of it.

  3. “Soul-surging” describes perfectly how it felt when I first encountered God. Allison, do you think some people simply have a talent for perceiving God and others simply don’t? We’ve learned so much about how brains are wired differently I wonder whether God for some reason gives this talent to some but not others.

    • I think some people are naturally more spiritual than others and more easily perceive spirituality in the universe. But I think God gives us the tools to find Him and while it take more effort from some to create that closeness and awareness, it’s something that’s available to all mankind.

  4. bill price says:

    my thoughts echo donna w. you have been blessed with great wisdom, and you put it to great use. it is a wonderful thing you do. you reach across “denominational” lines, spreading that wisdom and teaching gentiles about judiasm. you can’t do much better than that.

    -bp

  5. Allison,

    I’ve been following you for some time now (just your work online–I’m not a stalker), and I’ve always been impressed. I think this may be my favorite of your columns to date. Just a brilliant analogy, and the recipe sounds delicious. Although, I must say that I already make a good salad; I would have preferred a good hamantaschen recipe!

    Regarding Janet’s question I have known a few people in my life who were total mensches and genuinely happy, and they were atheists. I truly believe that they are wired differently in this regard–that they lack the G-d gene. For those of us who have it (I have no doubt that I do) a happy, meaningful life just isn’t possible without an awareness of our connection to HaShem.

  6. Jo Pearlman says:

    Hi As an English person interested in the salad (as well as the Judaism, as you know). What is a vidalia onion? – is it like a normal onion? a spring onion? Help – we don’t have anything in the UK that goes by that name! Great post yet again BTW!!

    • so interesting! i did a little research. do you guys have granex onions? vadalia onions are extra sweet – so sweet you can eat them raw. got anything like that on the other side of the pond?

  7. recipe sounds great, but would you please add measurements? thanks and freilichen Purim!

    • ok – i added some general guidelines to the dressing. tammy’s not so much of a recipe person. but this should help! :)

      • thanks! i’m a cooking neophyte so any guidance is appreciated (lest i end up as disappointed with my creation as you were with yours :-) )

  8. Jo Pearlman says:

    Never heard of granex onions either!!!

  9. I believe I had a positive experience with Judaism but as I grow older, I just can’t bring myself to believe in G-d. I think I’ve simply lost faith and I really have no interest in finding it. I have a perfectly satisfying life now without religion in my life, aside from the annual Rosh Hashanah services that I attend to appease my family. I appreciate your opinion and the analogy but I don’t think it’s so cut and dry as to say that people who no longer practice Judaism or are religion in general simply haven’t experienced it the right way.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gabriella. Can I ask you – what denomination have you been a part of? I ask because I was raised Conservative and while, overall I was always happy and positive in my Judaism, what I got from that lifestyle was not particularly deep or meaning-filled. It was only when I started exploring Orthodox Judaism – both learning and observance – that I connected to our heritage in a more profound way.

      Does this mean that everyone who’s experienced Orthodox Judaism is a “happy customer?” Of course not! There are bad people who distort the religion, who practice it too strictly, with not enough joy, there is abuse. There are problems. When practiced how it’s meant to be practiced, though, I believe most Jews do find tremendous satisfaction.

      But do some leave anyway, purely due to disbelief? Of course. There’s a famous story in the Talmud of Elisha ben Avuya – a great rabbi who upon seeing a child die performing a commandment that’s supposed to bring long life threw in the towel and couldn’t believe any more. So Judaism is very aware that faith, in light of tragedy is tremendous struggle for man. I don’t know what you based your faith on when you had it, but when I hear you say “as I grow older I just can’t bring myself to” it reminds me of an old married couple.

      “I used to love my husband, but as I grow older, I just can’t bring myself to.” Is it because the marriage or the husband is flawed? Perhaps. But it could also be because marriage, like faith, takes a tremendous amount of work, and while a couple at first may be young and in love, if they don’t work to keep their romance and relationship strong, the connection can slip away. Faith is the same way.

      I’m not telling you what you should or shouldn’t do with your life – it’s your life. For someone like me – I’m very much aware that the time spent on this planet is the blink of an eye compared to the eternity that comes once life is over, therefore I have to live connected to something that transcends this fleeting world – otherwise, life doesn’t make much sense to me.

      If you’re interested in any more information about experiencing Judaism from an Orthodox perspective please let me know. Best of luck, either way.

  10. Thank you Allison for your response!:-) I grew up in conservative Judaism, as you did. My grandmother is a holocaust survivor so I do feel tremendous guilt in not actively practicing but I feel I have found plenty of meaning in my life outside of religion. I appreciate the culture and the struggles my family has gone through but I don’t yearn spiritually I suppose in the same way that I yearn for companionship so I guess I don’t feel the need to put in in the work as I would in my marriage because the return isn’t worth it to me. I enjoy reading your blog though, it’s very interesting and helps me feel connected to the Jewish community at large.

    • Oh man, Gabriella – you just got me with the Holocaust survivor thing! I was almost ready to leave you alone! ;) Look – a person has free will – so only you can decide whether or not you ever delve into Judaism in a deeper way – but since your Jewish background is similar to mine, I’d venture to say that you have never experienced some of the most profound aspects of our heritage yet. And for your grandmother to have survived Hitler’s evil plot only for her granddaughter, two generations later, to not have an interest in actively engaging in Judaism any more, well – it feels quite tragic. I get why you feel guilty, but guilt is kind of a pointless feeling because it doesn’t accomplish anything but make you feel bad. Instead of feeling guilty, why not give the Jewish thing one last look, but from a different perspective this time. It’s the exact analogy that I wrote about – the salad that you’re not interested in is NOT the salad that I’m eating. (OK, done with impassioned plea for now! ;)

      • Allison – I truly appreciate your spiritual connection to your religion — you’ve obviously had and continue to have a positive connection. My problem with Juaism is much larger. I find it stifling — but don’t take offense as I find many religions stifling. My family — for the most part — consider themselves Jews. Not because they know much about the religion, but because their is a sticky cultural connection that they’re used to — they don’t know how to perceive themselves as anything separate from the label. Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to it all sects — reformed, conservative and orthodox. I was even exposed to certain sects of Christianity. None of it stuck. Today, I’m happy to accept the fact that I don’t have any of the answers to whether or not there is a higher force and I wholeheartedly embrace my agnotisticism. Also, culturally, I have NO association with Judaism … and living in LA I’m surrounded by friends who are proud of their Jewish association. Come December, I enjoy the capitalistic mainline America traditions of Christmas — my only conscious association with any religious holiday. Yet, Judaism still insists on implanting religious dogma into our society convincing the world that I am a Jew simply by association with my family. At first, I found this association merely annoying and in need of occasional correction explaining that it’s a religious based association, not race-based association. (After all, if one were really born into a into a Jewish race, then you really couldn’t have converts — one can’t “convert” into an African-American.) But after being attacked by those who want to associate birthright with Judaism, I’ve found that my tolerance level for anyone who associates with it has completely deteriorated! For my part, I merely wanted to not be associated as anything, but instead the Jewish religious dogma works to convince society that I have to be labeled a Jew. I find that intolerable and liable. As much as you have a right to embrace what you see as your positive “heritage”, I have the right to be free of to embrace what I see as my true spiritual roots. In short, I cannot ever respect Judaism if it never respects me! Your comment to Gabriella is even more upsetting to me. There were a lot of good people who suffered during the Holocaust. In no way, shape or form should that influence someone to view freedom of choice or to in any way influence association to a religion, lifestyle, perceived heritage, or anything else as a tragedy. I understand that you may view the lost Holocaust survivors as those “who sacrificed” when in fact, religious association in general gave Hitler the basis to murder to begin with. Many of those victims did not even associate with the religion or the community, but by virtue of their family doing so, they were indicted and also made victims. I believe Judaism does a great dis-service by not allowing those who don’t believe in it (as strongly as you DO believe in it) to depart from it cleanly — without any perceived cultural connection! When that gets solved for, I can then truly appreciate and celebrate your heritage.

        • Thanks for your comment, RSM. I am happy to hear that you’ve explored Orthodoxy, although I do have one more question since you said you felt “stifled” by it. Were the people you met normal and balanced in their practice or very extreme? I ask this b/c I spoke to a woman yesterday who decided to explore her Jewish roots and she went to study in a program in Israel and the stories she told me about – the things that she experienced there – left me horrified. People only concerned about keeping the most stringent opinion of the law, yet neglecting to fulfill the basic commandments of loving your neighbor as yourself and not embarrassing others. I know other people who were exposed to more “extreme” forms of Judaism like this and they were very turned off and honestly, if I had only seen what she had seen, I would have been extremely turned off too. So my question about Orthodoxy wasn’t specific enough – it should have been: did you ever meet a Torah observant Jew who you could look up to and respect – even if you couldn’t see yourself being exactly like them?

          In terms of Gabriella – I stated numerous times in my comment that she has free will – as do you. ALL I am interested in doing is making sure people make informed decisions. I believe we have something very special, but I’m afraid most people haven’t had the chance to experience it as it’s meant to be experienced. If a person does and then says “it’s not for me” then there’s nothing else I can say at that point – the choice is theirs.

          And by the way, I don’t believe that anyone can know 100% that there’s a Higher Force – check out what I wrote about faith: http://www.jewinthecity.com/2009/09/you-gotta-have-faith-faith-faith/

  11. Thanks for your swift response, Allison. I do appreciate the dialogue. I’m sure that there are some amazing Torah observant Jews … just like there are some amazing Koran observing Muslims … and some amazing new testament observing Christians … and so on. And I know that you feel strongly that you have something very special. I’m glad you have that. All of my experiences have convinced me that it’s not for me. My only point is that it’s wrong to have the religion claim that I’m “born” something when I know I’m not … and it’s wrong for them to make society at large believe in that absolute truth. For that one reason, I respect other religions much more than this one. I would rather have a Christian attempt to proselytise me all day long than to be have any association with Judaism — at least the Christian acknowledges free will. Maybe that is something to consider writing about in your blog. Thanks for your time.

    • Allison Allison says:

      Any time, Ross! :) I am also sure that there are amazing Koran observing Muslims and Bible observing Christians, but what your comment leads me to believe is that amazing Torah observing Jews are only theoretical to you, which is a shame since you cared to take the time to explore the observant side of Judaism yet didn’t meet anyone exceptional. Again – I have no problem with you rejecting your heritage if you’ve informed yourself – I’m just afraid you STILL haven’t experienced your heritage as it’s truly meant to be experienced. As my rabbi recently said, “We are not meant to be a nation of laws, we’re meant to be a nation to model. If we’ve forgotten that, we’ve forgotten our purpose in the world.”

      ALSO, for the record, since posting this article, I’ve been informed that Muslims don’t believe you can convert out of Islam and a Christian woman (from a protestant group) said in her church, there’s no such thing as leaving Christianity either. So I guess other groups are just as stubborn as we are.

      Unfortunately, I can’t give you a get-out-of-Jew-free card ;) but if I could, I would. I respect your right to not practice or associate with being a Jew since you took the time to inform yourself and we the people failed you. But just know, that if you ever do want to meet exceptional Torah observant Jews, I’m always here to help.

  12. searchinmyroots says:

    Great article as usual Allison!

    In my opinion, I would just change 1 word.

    You wrote “For a small number of Jews, however, Judaism means something completely different.

    I would replace the word “small” with the word “growing”. If I am correct, there are more Jewish people than ever who are “returning to their roots”.

    Just my thoughts anyway!

  13. Brilliant! I’m not neccesarily sure that we see eye to eye on everything hashkaficly (does anybody?) but people too often focus on the one thing they disagree with, ignoring the 9 other things they don’t. This, like much of your other writing, is a well thought out, fundamental “ha’ara”, something which makes people pause their daily routine and think. Thank you.

  14. In my case, the salad was shoved down my throat so I have no interest in eating salad anymore.

    • Thanks, for your comment, Ana. I completely understand where you’re coming from. The analogy holds up very well with being “forced fed.” Even a delicious dish, when forced fed would be disgusting and unpleasant. If you ever want to engage Judaism again on your own terms, at your own pace, please let me know.

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