The ProsenPeople

Arbitrary Judaism

Friday, January 04, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Justine Hope Blau wrote about growing up in an intellectual but chronically homeless family. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

We grew up with my mother's special brand of religion: Eccentric Judaism. My two older brothers and I were allowed to eat shrimp and lobster, but we wouldn’t dream of tasting pork. On Saturdays we weren’t allowed to write or spend money, yet that was negotiable, depending on our circumstances. We spent six years without a home, moving from hotel to hotel in Manhattan, always short of money. So there were times when, given that we often didn’t have a kitchen, we’d spend money on Shabbas to get food. Even Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, was malleable. We drank water and fasted until about 2 pm because that’s as long as my mother could take it before succumbing to her appetite. “Life before Torah,” my mother would say, and she invoked it whenever it suited her agenda.

In my recently published memoir, Scattered, I write of losing faith in Judaism in 4th grade, when my class at PS 111 on West 52nd put on a play about King Arthur. I auditioned for the role of Merlin the magician, after my brothers coached me for the part, teaching me to speak in a low voice for maximum gravitas. I landed it, beating out two boys.

My mother nixed it for me though, when she saw me kneeling as I rehearsed in front of the mirror in our hotel room. At the end of the play, everyone had to kneel to King Arthur.

“Jews don’t kneel to anyone but God,” my mother said. I could bow, but she forbade me to kneel. Back at school, Miss Yalowitz put the issue to a vote before the class. Could Justine bow instead of kneel? I won by one vote. Then Geoffrey Wolf, another Jewish kid, piped up, saying if I couldn’t kneel, neither could he. At that point, Miss Yalowitz took my part away. The play went on with another kid reading Merlin’s lines from a script on stage since he didn’t have time to learn them by heart.

The afternoon when I lost the role, as we waited for our mothers to pick us up, my best enemy, Laura Nusser, praised my piety. “You’re a good Jew, Justine,” but the words were hollow to me. I had few clothes, few toys, and we had been living a marginal life in seedy hotels for a long time. I was willing to sacrifice when necessary but this wasn’t worth it. I realized that my mother had a choice; it wasn’t Jewish law, it was her interpretation of it. If she bent the rules when she pleased, then she could have allowed my kneeling. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I knew that she was using religion in a selfish way that negated the deep joy and fulfillment that anchors Jewish people today to our forebears, and us to each other, transcending doctrine.

Maybe that’s why I react so strongly to the story of Isaac and Abraham—how God tested Abraham to see if he would sacrifice his only son for God. There’s been lots of intellectual debate about this story, but it’s a deal breaker for me. Clearly it’s a story written by a human being; in any case, I reject this story because it portrays God as so sadistic. But I do not totally reject Judaism. One of the beautiful things I got from my mother, which I gleaned from her despite her flaws, was that things are negotiable. Just as she could have been flexible about the kneeling scene, so I can appreciate the values and the soulfulness of Judaism even if I don’t agree with all of it.

I identify as Jewish (as well as Humanist and as a pagan). I loved Hebrew School, especially for the history and the elegiac songs. I sent my children to a Reconstructionist Hebrew School and am glad they had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and that those warm, soulful hymns — like Ein Keloheinu, Adon Olam and and Eliyahu Hanavi—resonate through them and connect them to Jewish tradition and culture.

Thousands of years ago, Jewish schools were the first in the world that were for all the boys in the community, not just for the sons of the rich. And the Reconstructionist synagogue where my children went to Hebrew School, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, was the first in the world, in 1920, to let a girl be Bat Mitzvahed. This same Reconstructionist belief dispensed with the notion that the Jews are the chosen, because all people are special. These are the kind of values that keep me connected to my Jewish roots. It helps me reach the conclusion that my mother is not the final arbiter of Jewish law, and yet she was right that many things are open to interpretation and negotiation. Life before Torah.

Justine Hope Blau's memoir,Scattered: A Mostly True Memoir, is now available.

Shades of Privilege and Deprivation

Wednesday, January 02, 2013 | Permalink

Justine Hope Blau, a writer of screenplays and books, has an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts. Her memoir Scattered: A Mostly True Memoir is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

People would often underestimate me if they knew that my parents hadn't taken good care of me, so I used to be covert about the six years my family was chronically homeless and the years I spent in placement with the Jewish Child Care Association. People assumed I couldn't drive, or had never been to Fire Island or didn't know French—that kind of thing. And I’d get touchy because people who grew up underprivileged tend to be thin-skinned.

Now I've written a childhood memoir, Scattered, so my story is out. And while most people give me a lot of credit for transcending such challenges, friend-of-my-youth Jacqueline Heagle is quick to give me perspective.

“You are a spoiled brat,” she reminds me.

Jacki thinks my experiences with my family roaming around public spaces like libraries, the Automat and Central Park, wandering around the United Nations and midtown Manhattan, having older brothers who went to college and told me stories, reflects a world of privilege. She quips that I’m showing off.

Jacki and I met at the Pleasantville Cottage School when we were 11. I was an emergency case, placed in the same 5th grade class with her on June 17th, 1967, two weeks before the end of school. A few months later she was sent to a group residence in Westchester, but we were reunited in a group residence for teenage girls in Rego Park, Queens, when we were 14. We lived together there for three years.

Jacki found it painful to read Scattered because it made her feel jealous. She grew up rarely leaving her Brooklyn neighborhood and apartment overlooking the noisy elevated subway line; her family was on welfare and the big treat was to get pizza when the check arrived. She has written eloquently about how she eagerly awaited being sent to “The School” and finally got to go when she was eight. Jacki felt that she was reborn when she arrived at Pleasantville. She remembers the first day she got there, how she climbed her first tree and ate her first fresh apple. She hardly ever went home or saw her parents after that.

The Jewish Child Care Association provided that safety net for Jacki, and for me. After Jacki left the residence, she was on her own, but still the JCCA helped her pay for college. And when she decided to leave college, they helped her pay for beauty school. She earned her living for decades as a hair stylist and raised her two sons with far more advantages than she had.

The Jewish Child Care Association didn't get everything right. Corporal punishment was accepted, and there are stories I hear, and believe, of a few cottage parents sexually preying on children. But most of us feel that Pleasantville provided a feeling of safety and security for us.

So how do I feel about being exposed by the book I felt driven to write? Is the world made by colliding classes, power structures and degrees of respectability, or do I see it that way because of how I got here? It’s so confusing, my past, and where it has brought me. I’ve been trying to sort out the confusion for a long time. When a child is torn from her world, and forcibly placed in another, she is likely to learn fast to observe who’s got power, who doesn't and how to manage in the new system. So I've spent a lot of time either being resentful of my disadvantages, or feeling guilty because of my privilege, and somehow both.

I think the extreme worlds of my childhood, between the U.N., the libraries and cheap hotels, a mother with grandiose notions but neglectful habits, gave me a unique ability to read society and the social world around me.

Visit Justine Hope Blau's website here.