They Are Not Laughing At Me Anymore

by Ephraim Buchwald

There was a time, not long ago, that folks would snicker when they heard that I was a practicing traditional Jew. They would refer to my lifestyle as primitive or medieval. I imagine they viewed me as somewhere between a misguided soul and a fanatical fundamentalist. But something happened on the way to the 90’s. They’re not laughing at me anymore. I feel vindicated. In fact, people, lots of people, are beginning to ask me about my “unusual” lifestyle.

They’re intrigued by the fact that we don’t answer the phone on Shabbat, and fascinated by the modest dress of our men and women. They’d like to know how we’ve managed to keep our sons off drugs, and our teenage daughters out of the abortion clinics. They’re puzzled by the fact that they don’t see kids with yarmulkes drunk or “wilding”, and that even our little children seem to play less aggressively.

Each day, I’m more and more impressed by the way the ancient Jewish traditions prove their relevance in the 20th century. Even more impressive is how traditional families, given the unstable nature of society today, communicate and maintain these ancient values. Frankly, it’s not easy, and the struggle is never ending. One way traditional Jews attempt to create a sense of sanctity in their lives, is by dumping the television set. Some of us have no idea what “Melrose Place” is, let alone “The X Files”. Those traditional homes which do allow television, are quite rigorous in controlling its use. And wonder of wonders — despite this terrible deprivation, our children manage to graduate from many of the top colleges, gain graduate degrees at some of the finest schools, more often than average placing in the top 10% of the class. The fact that they missed “E.R.” and the “glove” at the O.J. Simpson trial, does not seem to have resulted in any great cultural lacuna.

Society today seems hell bent on decadence. Eliminate sex and violence, and you’ve eliminated most contemporary entertainment. Most Americans have few alternatives to the trashy offerings of the day. But, traditional Jews have an abundance of alternatives, many of them home or community centered. You’d be surprised to learn how popular and stimulating the intense discussions at the Shabbat table are; how scintillating the experience of studying Bible, Talmud, or philosophy together can be; and how moving singing Shabbat songs are for a family. Communal celebrations are popular and frequent among traditionalists. Holiday parties and wedding celebrations are feasts of unmitigated joy and ecstasy, absent the hangover. I often hear myself saying that the world never needed Shabbat more than today. Shabbat is something almost everyone can appreciate. Jewish tradition teaches that “quality time” is impossible unless there’s “quantity time,” and that’s exactly what the 25 hour period from Friday evening to Saturday evening is for us. And I mean real quality time! No telephone, no TV, no Power Rangers or Nintendo 64. We eat together, even talk to one another face to face (when was the last time your family did that?) and celebrate as a family every week. We hug our children and bless them, something we’d like to do every day, but don’t always get around to. Shabbat assures that it happens at least once a week.

Someone should suggest to our President that if he really wants to solve the ills of American society, he should get Congress to legislate Shabbat for all Americans. Not necessarily Friday and Saturday. But let’s get families together again, so we can begin to rebuild society’s crumbling infrastructure.

One of the basic Jewish traditions, not often observed by non-traditional Jews, is kashruth. The neglect of kashruth is unfortunate since these rituals have great meaning to contemporary life. Especially since most American Jews today live in urban settings, far away from the farms and from the people who produce the food, we tend to take both the environment and food production for granted. Jewish tradition regards food as a sacred gift of the Divine, to be acknowledged with blessings before and after partaking. For the practicing Jew, it is almost impossible to eat without bringing to mind a entire retinue of those involved in the food cycle: the earth, the farmer, those who maybe hungry (both human and beast), those with whom we may be dining, and even those who serve the food, whether host, hostess, maid, or waiter. It’s absolutely startling to see how finely tuned the traditions of kashruth are to contemporary sensitivities!

Although the rapid spread of AIDS is a serious concern for all citizens, this dread disease is not, thank G-d, a major problem in traditional Jewish circles. This is largely due to the almost universal practice of abstinence before marriage. In fact, not only is the practice of pre-marital abstinence being vindicated lately, but even the traditional dating and courting customs are resonating triumphantly. Some of our friends are shocked to hear that most traditional young Jews are married by their early mid-20’s, and that it is not uncommon for some of our children to have children of their own by their early twenties. Yes, teenage sex can be good, especially for those who are mentally prepared for it — and married! And traditional living often has unexpected benefits for its practitioners. Recent reports from medical professionals regarding the efficacy of having children early and frequently, and its positive effect on women’s health, have brought more than a twinkle to traditional Jewish eyes.

Perhaps the most harshly derided traditional Jewish custom is the practice of matchmaker-arranged marriages. Yet, young people who come from traditional homes often prefer this method to the dating scene and the “meat market” environment. To be sure, this one is not easy to swallow. But, you’ve got to admit that utilizing a third party consultant to provide a young person with a more honest and objective picture of a prospective mate, reflects a certain compelling logic. After all, Americans call upon consultants for many important needs: Their businesses, their plumbing, and their health. Why not their marital happiness? And if divorce statistics are any indication, the matchmaker method surely beats the heck out of the romantic Hollywood-inspired courting system, which is wreaking havoc in our society. Of course, there are unhappily married traditional Jews, and some marriages end in divorce. Others often choose to stick it out, rather than terminate. But, isn’t it interesting that “sticking it out and working it through” has suddenly become a more frequently recommended approach in counseling circles. Charity is frequently a high profile feature of many religious communities, but traditional Jews focus on charity with a special passion. Our communities sponsor free ambulance services, free medical referrals, free soup kitchens, food and clothes distribution, and generous scholarships for schooling for those who cannot afford. It’s been estimated that the traditional Jewish community alone, some 450,000 Jews, contributes well over $1 billion(!) annually to charity and Jewish education.

Happily, many young Jews from secular backgrounds have begun adopting more traditional lifestyles. It is as if they’ve discovered that career is not the sole reason for living, and that Jewish tradition has, once again, proven to be right on the money. After all, have you ever heard a dying man complain, “Why didn’t I spend more time in the office?!” I don’t care what you call it — back to basics, family values. It makes sense! For Jew and non-Jew alike.

So remember the words of that great Jewish sage, Steven Spielberg, and “Phone Home!”. It’s warm, wonderful, and truly meaningful.

[If you’d like to “phone home” and personally experience the very special traditions which can be found in your own Jewish heritage, call us at 1-800-44-TORAH.]

Ephraim Buchwald is the Director of the National Jewish Outreach Program. He is the Founding President of the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals, and rabbi of the Beginners Service at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City.