Friday, May 13, 2011

Judaism as Performance Art


1) This week I had a great conversation with a progressive Jewish activist. She is queer, politically savvy, knowledgeable and committed both to her social justice values and to her Judaism.
She hosted her own seder this year. The participants were mostly non-Jews along with some Jews who have no other Jewish affiliation. She crafted an alternative Haggadah that reflects her values.  The seder was a smashing success.
But, she had one complaint. As the only committed Jew in the room, she felt like she was putting on a performance. She missed sharing the commitment with a community of like-minded Jews.

2) When leading services, particularly Bar Mitzvah services, I often find that there is no participation in the congregtion. The congregation is a polite and passive audience; the bima (raised dais, the equivalent of the area around the altar in a church) is a stage. The clergy and musicians perform Judaism for the visitors. One of my colleagues has actually quipped to the congregation: "You know. This is not TV. We can see you!" He gets a laugh and it does help people become engaged in the service.

3) A couple of years ago, I heard the Israeli consul-general in Chicago speak about Israel. This was a well-rehearsed presentation and he hit the usual points in the Zionist narrative. The Consul-General ended with a quote from Amos Oz: "We, in Israel are the actors. We are on the stage. We invite you in the audience to come up onto the stage and join us in the play." This was the classic Ben-Gurion Zionist line. Israel is the center and America is the periphery. Israel is the place of Jewish life and Jewish America is inconsequential.
The audience applauded appreciatively.

All this leads me to believe that Judaism for many Jewish Americans is something that is performed, by others, for them. I don't know if this comes from Christianity or from watching TV, but passivity and being spectators is the default way of being. Whether it's a home ritual, synagogue service or Israel-as-Jewish-state, the role of the average American Jew is to be a polite and passive spectator.

Does it have to be this way? I  hope not.

h/t Rob Jury

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