Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Questions from the Uninitiated


What's school like, you ask...?

Well, there's a lot of students. A whole lot. A whoooole lot -especially when you pause to consider that my undergraduate experience was basically revved-up seminary. And there are a lot of guys. A whooooole lot. As many guys as girls...and lots and lots of non-Jews -which doesn't bother me, or even incur my notice. After all, you can't really tell the Jews are Jews anyway. And they ask the same questions -the Jews and the non-Jews, I mean. Take, for instance, today. I sat down next to a Jewish, non-religious girl who often says things that make my ears turn red and a nice, aidel, non-Jewish Asian guy -both of them were in my class last year, and it's always good to sit with someone whose name you know. So I sat, said hi, and started unwrapping my lunch. Hm. It was a sandwich, and I had just gotten comfortable...do I really need to get up, slightly embarrass myself, and wash...yes, of course, I can't believe I even hesitated. So I got up, mentioned I need to was for my bread, and did so, holding off on the netilas yedayim bracha in case someone spoke to me before I could get a bit in me, and returned to my seat. I said the brachos, tore off a hunk of bread and gulped it down, knowing the moment I lifted my eyes to my friends (acquaintances, really) they'd ask...something.

So as I slowly raised my eyelids to meet their questioning glances, I sifted through a few responses in my mind, swiftly settling on the most simple one. "Do you have to wash your hands before all food?" and "What kind of blessing do you say?" and "What's the Hebrew?" and "What would you do if you didn't have all these rules?" came in quick succession. The first three I easily dispatched of, though the why of washing made me shamefully scratch my head for a moment, as the basic knowledge of the "why"s is a bit dusty hidden in the back of my mind. But the last question confused me -"What do you mean, I asked -I would just eat the bread without washing if I didn't have to...?" "No, I mean..." And then the other turned to me and asked, "If an MIT genius professor came to you and told you that you were brainwashed, and none of it's true..." That was easy, since there are many MIT professors and Harvard-educated believers, and my belief is a rational one. And then they asked if I would doubt if something happened, to which I replied with a bit of background in my life -a life not perfect, a life not all fun and games, a life that's known sadness, pain and despair, but still strives onward and believes. We then discussed belief in G-d, as opposed to belief in Judaism, and we would have continued, but I had Family Law in five minutes and had to run. But first I had to bentch. At this point, I excused myself, and laughed, and said I had to say the "after-blessing" -but their attention was no longer on me, but instead diverted by another friend who had just sat down.

It's better that way -I hate when people watch me bentch. I always feel like I should slow down, enunciate my words, and then I feel guilty for caring more about what they think than Hashem. And then I feel even guiltier, since by that time, I finished bentching without actually realizing it, all the while deceiving my observers. Life sure is complicated....

Or maybe we just make it so. But either way, it was so satisfying me to be in the educator role again. I hope they ask more questions. Usually in school, my ways are marveled at (don't get them started about being shomer negiya!) or laughed at (my "summer" clothes), but generally not questioned -and I like the questions. They make me think, try to give good answers, and sometimes knock some dust off the deeply hidden fundamentals I keep in the back of my mind, but really need at the forefront. (And the less dusty these things are now that we're in Elul, the better...)

Kesivah v'chasima tova!!

8 comments:

Lvnsm27 said...

I agree, their questions are excellent for helping us to think about and put more meaning into what we do.

As for the one about the genious proffessor, they might be academically genious, but they doesn't know everything. And it would be foolish for someone to deny the possibility of something larger than this world

These experiences like in college or somewhere are always very interesting

lvnsm said...

woops, I mean they don't

Scraps said...

V'dah, she'haadam tzarich laamod al gesher tzar meod...

It's always a careful balance we must strike, between wanting to be true to ourselves and to halacha, and between not wanting to look weird or making people think that Judaism is an incredibly strange religion. And of course, our inner struggles are involved as well, like your example about bentching--do I say it with lots of kavanna, so I make a good impression, or am I saying it with kavanna for the right reasons, or should I just try to say it as quickly and unobtrusively as possible, and the heck with it? And so on...

Hatzlacha rabba! And ketivah v'chatimah tovah!

SJ said...

My family has a lot of non-religious Jews and even non-Jews over for shabbos all the time, so we learned how to "explain" washing and benschting from a very early age. When we were young, my father used to have us do it at the table, to show off our knowledge to the guests. :) Though it's sometimes a little strange (especially with non-Jews) it's definitely kept me very aware of the meaning behind the rituals.

David_on_the_Lake said...

wow...we should all spend a week in ur class to brush up on the fndamentals...
thanks for sharing..

Jessica said...

I'm an undergrad now at a secular college. "Asher yatzar"... mumbling after you walk out of the bathroom. The people who notice me look at me like I'm a maniac. lol. I keep mostly to myself though, so no one really asks me questions about why I talk to myself.

Eddie said...

Hi there. This is my first comment on your blog. I only just came across it... but it has some very nice material. I see that you haven't written anything here in a while. Please do keep writing... it's good stuff.

Just wanted to encourage you. It does still get readers.

Best wishes

Eddie

Harper @ Israel said...

If people were less ignorant and more ready to accept traditions of other people, you might have avoided these strange questions.