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Rabbinical School Confidential: Jordie Gerson

If HUC had a yearbook, I’d be voted “Least likely to end up in a pluralistic environment.” And by pluralistic I mean: “Anything not Reform. Or Reconstructionist-lite.” So last week, in a staff meeting with Yehuda, Yoni and Yonah, I said: “Just so you know, if anyone was counting, I’d be voted ‘Least likely to end up in an intrafaith environment.’” They laughed. But it’s true. I’m the great-great-great granddaughter of pure-bred, aristocratic Berlin-born German Jews. When my mother, the Yekke, brought my Russian-Jewish father home, my pork-chop cooking grandmother took one look at him, in his smothers brothers beard, and wire rimmed glasses, raised her eyebrows, and whispered too loudly: “But he’s so Jewish.” A few years later, my father would enroll in Rabbinical School, making the shanda of my parents marriage permanent. But my maternal grandparents would never have said shanda. Yiddish was far too ethnic. We didn’t speak Yiddish in my house growing up. We didn’t have a kosher kitchen, and our most passionate Jewish observance was ‘classically’ Reform: social action. No Saturday morning services the Rabbi’s family. Instead, we were at protest marches, or making sandwiches for the homeless, or at the farmer’s market, buying organic. Or I was at swim practice, and my sister at choir rehearsal. We were shrimp and cheeseburger eating Midwestern Reform Jews. When discussing very observant Jews, we referred to a family narrative of mythical types named Moishe and Hershl, and sneered a little as we did. We weren’t like that. My father’s anti-Semitism laden Michigan childhood and my mother’s Germanic heritage left their mark. I didn’t attend my first Orthodox service until college, visiting family friends in Buffalo, New York, and was appalled. Everyone was mumbling. Women were relegated to the back of the room, holding babies, gossiping, and adjusting their wigs!! I couldn’t see the Torah through the Mechitza. This was, I knew, not my religion. It was the vestige of something better left behind; chauvinistic and particularistic, and, I honestly believed, not Jewish. Not the way I thought of it, anyway. Last week, at the Bronfman Center, in between a graduate student wine and cheese reception and a Bollywood party for the undergrads (complete with free henna tattoes and kosher Indian food), Yonah, the Orthodox intern, stopped me on one of the stairways. “Why haven’t you said anything to me yet?” he asked. “Said anything?” I repeated. “Yeah,” he said, “About Orthodoxy. About women. About all that stuff we do that you don’t believe in.” “Well, I…” “I’ve heard about you, Jordie.” He said, grinning benignly. “I’ve heard about that talk you gave at Harvard about Mechitzas. You think I’m – we’re crazy.” “I don’t.” I said. “Yeah,” he said, “It’s OK. I know you do.” “I’m trying to be respectful…” I fumbled. “I know.” He said, “But I also know what you think about misogyny and women and traditional Judaism.” “Really?” I said. “Yeah.” He said. “And we should talk some time. You don’t know what I think about all of that.” “We’ll get there.” I answered. “OK,” he said, “You promise?” “Sure.” I returned. “Promise.” I’m the only Rabbinical Student at HUC this year whose Rabbinic supervisor is Orthodox. I’m the only Rabbinical Student – as far as I know – working in a pluralistic environment, where my closest Rabbinic colleagues are one Orthodox Rabbi, one Orthodox Rabbinic Student, and one Conservative Rabbinic student. I’m also one of the few Rabbinical Students at HUC who is Reform with a capital R. Kicking it old school. I don’t keep kosher (though I am ‘eco-kosher’), I’m not shomer Shabbat, I don’t romanticize traditional Judaism, and I have, for a very long time — had an absolute aversion to anything that I believe is, as my grandmother would have said “too Jewish.” And so it is with total earnestness that I report that I’ve recently realized that Yehuda, Yoni and Yonah may be one of the best things that has happened to me in Rabbinical School. Because in these past few weeks, they’ve ceased to be caricatures of their respective movements, and their tactful acceptance of me – and my choices – has put to shame all of my ideas about who they are, and what they believe. Moishe and Hershl have become these men, and these men have become my friends, my mentors, and my colleagues. I have a lot to learn. And I’d write more, but I’m off to Korean BBQ in Flushing with some non-Jewish friends. That means pork. Some things, in any case, never change.

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