The Torah portions at this time of year, in Leviticus, are sometimes described as a hard sell. Leviticus’s detailed narrative about what is pure and safe, what’s diseased or leprous, and how priests can tell the difference isn’t light reading. It can be hard to interact with this kind of text.
At the same time, these details saved us as a people on numerous occasions. Keeping things clean, considering what was healthy, diseased or spoiled – historically, these things may have protected us from scourges like the Black Death. Analyzing the details of something difficult and complicated helps us find greater truths or safety, which are not always obvious from the outside, just as we continue to wrestle with diseases or challenges we don’t understand today. Whether it’s something described in Leviticus or a new kind of virus, smart people have to work to figure these things out.
In order to keep myself “working” and intellectually active, I do lots of reading and thinking about things I encounter. However, I don’t have much time to do this while juggling my household, kids, dogs and work responsibilities. I listen to audiobooks while I do household tasks. This gives me a chance to think about something bigger than, for instance, chopping salad or changing bedding. We all have a lot of boring waiting, obligations and chores to get through. Engaging my brain and listening to a book makes me feel a lot better about this grunt work.
I used to think I had to finish everything I started, but if it’s too violent or scary, I now shut it off. I recently found a new category of book to “shut off.” It doesn’t have an easy label, like “mystery” or “non-fiction.” Maybe it should be called “superficial.” Here’s what I mean.
I was listening to a memoir that contained recipes. In itself, this was a quirky choice for an audiobook, but I like food and cooking. Beyond that, the premise was larger. The author had been editor of a publication that had gone out of business. The memoir was supposed to describe how she found new direction through her cooking. I don’t write mean book reviews, even when I’ve been asked to review something, but I just can’t recommend this book.
I got very nearly to the end when I had to give up. Why? The primary reason was that the author is described, in her biography, as a Jewish person. However, her book rhapsodized about the food she made for Christmas and Easter and, even further, about the true glory of pork and shellfish. OK, I figured, maybe her husband isn’t Jewish. But I did more research. He was.
I could live with the idea that this writer didn’t keep kosher. Heck, lots of Jews don’t. I could even live with the idea that she’d decided, for whatever reason, to celebrate Christian holidays, if only there had been some explanation of why. She rhapsodized about matzah brei (but why?!) and yet she didn’t tell her readers why she ate it in the springtime. After awhile, I even started to feel cranky about how she used way too much butter in every recipe. Time to shut it off!
At its heart, I told myself that, while using the majority culture’s touchstones, like Christmas and Easter, might make a book more saleable, it seemed like a betrayal far worse than cooking with non-kosher foods. When I thought about it longer, I concluded that the whole thing was vacuous. She’d never actually explained how the cooking had helped her heal or get over such a big professional loss. At that point, it didn’t matter how the book ended. I was done.
Awhile back, I had a writing gig on a national platform. My proud husband boasted about it to our Montreal friends. The articles paid less than what I published locally and were poorly edited, but my earnest “voice” came through. That seemed OK. Then the editor told me that she would only get in touch again after she assessed how my previous posts had done. (The ones that, while earnest, had been poorly edited.) I never heard back. I guess they weren’t successful in her eyes. Instead, I saw parenting posts on that platform that celebrated Jewish writers who extolled how they proudly chose to be secular or why they weren’t comfortable investing in their religious or cultural identities.
All around us, hate crimes are rising. Minorities – like Jews – are being harassed. Just because it hasn’t happened to you yet doesn’t mean it won’t. So, why not ask Jewish writers to dig deeper and figure out what that identity actually means? When the Gestapo killed Jews during the Second World War, they didn’t ask, “Are you assimilated? Secular? Do you celebrate Christmas?” No. Why not embrace or at least learn about your real background?
I felt angry. My time is so limited that I hate wasting these spare moments on reading something so intellectually lazy. In between raising kids and walking dogs, figuring out our taxes (in two countries) and the rest of life’s details, well, I might as well get more sleep instead. If an entire memoir, written by a well-known figure, sounds so tone deaf, it bothers me that she makes a living selling these books.
Worse, my articles might have been seen as too earnest, too religious and too detail-oriented, and were tossed in favour of someone who was happy to express his apathy and ignorance about his Judaism. It’s like the (non-Jewish) editor said, “Well, gee, we want the Jewish perspective, but only if it isn’t too Jewish.”
Leviticus is a hard slog. Yet, every year, we go through all of the five books of Moses and we try to dig deeper to find something new. There are many commentaries on Leviticus. Some explain it, and others try to give modern examples for how to relate to its narrative. These are all worthy intellectual exercises, much like choosing to listen to books while doing mind-numbing chores.
What’s not worth it? Let’s not waste time on empty-headed accounts from people who determinedly embrace their ignorance. If you want to stay committed to your identity – Jewish, political or other – keep learning and growing so you can express it with pride.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.