For the profiles in this issue of CONTACT, we visit three individuals charting iconoclastic avenues of Jewish expression. Whether through Yiddish rock, atheism, or Orthodox feminism, they’ve deepened and enriched their connections to Judaism and to the larger culture by identifying and pursuing their most heartfelt passions.
by BATYA UNGAR-SARGON
“If you’re interested, then you’re one of us, and it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, except insofar as its diversity makes the Yiddish community all the richer.”
SARAH MINA GORDON
Old-School Yiddish Rocker
M oving to New York in May of 2010 had been a long time coming. But it wasn’t until I saw the Yiddish Princess perform one rainy night that I felt I had truly arrived in my diasporic homeland.
The Yiddish Princess is a six-member, Yiddish ’80s rock band that puts Yiddish folk songs to electric guitars, drums, and synthesizers. It’s a wonderful marriage, as full of true brilliance as it is of surprise and wit. For me, though, that night was all about the band’s lead singer, Sarah Mina Gordon.
With her big, black eyes and expressive eyebrows, Gordon at center stage was somehow evocative of a silent film star, like if Clara Bow opened her mouth and Kate Bush’s haunting and wry voice came out. Watching Gordon that night, I felt like I was in a 21st Century iteration of the Weimar Republic. It felt like it had taken the entire history of the Jews to make that show possible; it was an evening steeped in the past that was also insistently a future.
Seven years later almost to the day, I sat down with Gordon in a café in Brooklyn where I learned that she comes from Yiddish aristocracy. She’s the daughter of Adrienne Cooper, a singer, pioneer, and doyenne of the Yiddish revival movement. Born in Manhattan in 1979, Gordon grew up in Morningside Heights (“It was not called Morningside Heights back then,” she noted with a smile). She went to Jewish day school, which Gordon says was a good place to develop a relationship with Jewish learning.
But it was also lacking in one crucial way. “In most Jewish day schools, Yiddish language and culture is relegated to only Holocaust Memorial Day,” Gordon explained. “I was very confused, and also, alienated, because I had this quite rich other Jewish life that was happening concurrently with my mother.”
Gordon’s childhood home was a hub for Yiddish musicians and artists of all kinds. Sometimes, Gordon thought she would also become a musician, but the financial instability that plagued her mother’s work was a big presence in her childhood, and so after college, she looked for full-time work. One day, folding mailers at a terrible office job, Gordon decided she didn’t want to work with adults ever again. She is now finishing her 11th year teaching third grade at a Quaker School in Brooklyn. Why third grade? “It’s the best age,” she explained. “They have a foot firmly rooted in weirdo-imagination world and the other one is rooted in the academically-invested truth-seeking world.”
Meanwhile, Gordon has consistently been involved in the Yiddish music and arts scene, teaching, building community, and singing. She started the Yiddish Princess with some friends after college. “I called myself, as a joke, Yiddish Princess in the days of Myspace or Friendster, as a little play on Jewish American Princess and Yiddish American Princess,” she told me. Plus, she’s literally a Yiddish Princess, in the sense that her mother, who died in 2011, was the Queen of Yiddish.
In person, Sarah Mina is quite different than her stage persona. She’s down to earth, interested, as she put it. But there’s a warmth to her that’s cut by an ever-present wryness, and I realized while talking to her that this surprising juxtaposition is as crucial to her act as is the electric guitar. Yiddish Princess is now on a bit of a hiatus. Gordon was sick last summer with Hotchkins lymphoma, and though she is in full recovery, the time away gave her a chance to reevaluate what matters most to her. Surprisingly, it wasn’t performing.
“Performing is funny that way, in that so much of it is people experiencing you, but when you’re on a stage, you look out and you can’t see people,” she explained. “It’s so one sided,” she went on. “And I want stuff from other people. I’m interested.” Performing does have meaning, she clarified, but it isn’t in itself fulfilling. “It doesn’t mean I don’t like performing,” she said. “It’s just not the thing that drives me.”
What does drive the Yiddish Princess? “Community,” she said decisively. “And learning and teaching. And making new things.” Especially when it comes to Yiddish culture.
Yiddish and Yiddish culture matter, Gordon explained, because of how open they are. “If you’re invested, you’re welcome,” she explained. “If you’re interested, then you’re one of us, and it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are,” except insofar as its diversity makes the Yiddish community all the richer. “It’s this idea of a secular Jewish identity that’s firmly rooted in politics and advocating for all people and part of that also has to do with art and has to do with music.”
All that is part of our history, Gordon said. And now, thanks in no small part to Gordon, it’s part of our future. ■
“Was Sholem Aleichem writing religious stories?
W hat is a Jew? The tension between Judaism as religion and Judaism as ethnicity is one that plagues every attempt to define us. But Paul Golin wants you to know that Judaism can be neither religion nor race. It can be a civilization, as Mordechai Kaplan defined it. It can be a history. It can even be an atheistic practice. In fact, it can be whatever you want it to be.
Golin grew up Conservative on Staten Island. After college, he came back to New York and worked in multimedia, and then went on to work for the Steinhardt Foundation, where he designed the first issue of this very magazine. “I had never heard the phrase tikkun olam until I started working there,” Golin remembered recently.
Not long after, Golin heard of an opening at the Jewish Outreach Institute, where he went on to work for 17 years. It was there that Golin played an active role in changing the way the Jewish community thinks about intermarriage. “In 2000, the community was still debating the question of whether we should welcome the intermarried,” he explained. “Fifteen years later, the question was, how do we do it.”
The organization changed its name along the way to Big Tent Judaism, with the goal of addressing issues of inclusion that transcended intermarriage. “We realized that issues of inclusion had commonanilities regardless of who the marginalized were — intermarried, Jews of color, LGBT Jews, Jews who don’t have money,” Golin said. These marginalized groups are less likely to belong to a Jewish community or to have a relationship with their Jewishness — and it’s not an accident, either. “Any segment of the Jewish community that doesn’t look the way the organized communities thinks Jews look have lower rates of engagement,” Golin said.
According to Golin, the organized communities have a very specific image in mind of what they consider Jews to look like: married, heterosexual, white Jews with children. “But that’s less than 20 percent of the Jews!” He exclaimed. “Helping the community lose that part of the image was part of the work we set out to do.”
But there was another issue that Golin himself had struggled with his entire Jewish life, one that had always made him, too, feel marginalized from the mainstream. “I knew from age ten that I was an atheist,” he explained. He just didn’t believe the stories he was being told. “And I felt alone.”
But Jewish atheism has a long tradition. One of its modern iterations comes in the form of Secular Humanistic Judaism, founded in 1963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine to spurn the idea of a personal God. Wine reworked the Jewish liturgy, replacing God with a humanistic understanding of the world, meaning it’s up to people to address human challenges. Golin now serves as the Society for Humanistic Judaism’s Executive Director.
It’s a movement that subscribes to an expanding, rather than a contracting, model of Jewish identity. Golin defines as Jewish anybody who wants to be Jewish and feels a connection to Jewish history and tradition and culture. And that is a point of view that represents most American Jews, he insists, who think the rules of who is a Jew and who isn’t a Jew are arbitrary.
“Was Sholem Aleichem writing religious stories? Are Woody Allen movies religious? Is lighting a Channukah menorah purely a religious act? I say no,” Golin said. “I say in most cases in America, when Jews light a Channukah Menorah, it’s a cultural expression and they don’t think God is listening to them say that blessing.” They’re doing it for other reasons, he explained. “For me personally, I derive meaning by knowing where I come from and where I fit into human history and that I’m part of a unique story.”
Judaism has never fit neatly into any existing box, be it ethnicity, nation, religion, race, civilization, or Peoplehood. “All of these are inexact descriptions,” said Golin. “What I would rather do is say, there’s nothing else like this. This is a unique experience. There’s never been a tribe of peoples who have survived 2,000 years separated from their homeland. That story is unique. Let’s stop trying to put ourselves into boxes.”
As for those who want to keep the laws of who is a Jew strict, Golin has a question for them. “What’s the fear? What’s going to happen? Are millions of people going to turn around and call themselves Jewish?” These fears suggest a preoccupation with dilution — which in turn evoke an unseemly notion of purity. “It skirts way too close to World War II where the notion of purity got 6 million Jews killed.” ■
“I have always been Orthodox. The problem is that a lot of people in the Orthodox community keep moving right, and have gone to a place that is not recognizable. The Judaism I practice has been practiced for thousands of years.”
We Are The Tradition
T he role of women in Orthodox Judaism has in recent years been evolving. And one man is on the front lines of that struggle: Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld.
Herzfeld grew up on Staten Island, one of five children. After an uninspiring day-school experience, he went on a gap year to Israel and returned bent on becoming a professor of history. But his course was changed one day when Rabbi Avi Weiss put his arm around Herzfeld and said he thought Herzfeld should be a rabbi. “And I looked at him and said ‘what?’” Herzfeld recalled recently. “What are you talking about — Rabbi? And he said ‘You can do it.’ That’s what made me feel like I could do it — because he told me. That had a huge impact on me.”
Since 2004, Herzfeld has been the Rabbi of Ohev Sholom — the National Synagogue in Washington D.C. He was recently in the news for being escorted out of an AIPAC meeting in 2016 during presidential candidate Donald Trump’s address. Bedecked in a tallis, Herzfeld stood up and started to approach the President, crying as he went, “This man is wicked!” “With every cell in my body, I felt the obligation to declare his wickedness to the world,” he wrote in The Washington Post.
Herzfeld is also famously a friend to Orthodox women. His Synagogue, Ohev Sholom, employs a female member of clergy, known as a maharat. “For all intents and purposes, she’s a rabbi,” he told me. “There’s no question women can be rabbis.” He wrote vociferously on the subject of the Orthodox Union’s new policy barring women from serving as clergy. “The OU should stick to tuna fish,” Herzfeld told The Forward.
Like many feminists, Herzfeld demurs when it comes to the name. “I don’t know what it means to be a feminist,” he told me. But he clarified: “I certainly am sympathetic to the concerns of women, especially within Orthodoxy where it’s often the case that the concerns of women are not the most important concerns of the community.”
It’s a big problem, and one that Herzfeld feels passionately about. “I think that the flaw is not within the Torah, God forbid, and not with the rabbis, God forbid, but in the execution by some communities which are making in some cases fatal flaws by getting a message out to women that we don’t want your help in growing our community,” he explained. “The flaw is not within the holy Torah,” he repeated. “We’re not going to blame the Torah for the flaw in the Orthodox Union.”
I asked Herzfeld why, if he had such difficulty with the Orthodox leadership, he remained within the Orthodox community.
“It’s a fair question, but I feel that I have not changed,” he explained. “I have always been Orthodox. The problem is that a lot of people in the Orthodox community keep moving right, and have gone to a place that is not recognizable. The Judaism I practice has been practiced for thousands of years.”
Jews of the 1700s, for example, had an approach that was closer to Herzfeld’s than to today’s fundamentalists, he believes. “The approach of our ancestors has always been one of willingness and flexibility to deal with challenges of a situation,” Herzfeld said.
Because Herzfeld sees himself as the true inheritor of the tradition, he feels a great responsibility to speak out — precisely because others claim to be speaking for the tradition. “People assume that because you assume a more fundamentalist approach, it’s more halachic. Nonsense!” He cried. “We are the tradition. We haven’t deviated at all. All the courses of women being rabbis, that’s in the Talmud. That goes back to the Bible. We have not deviated from the tradition. We are the tradition!”
As Herzfeld spoke, his voice rose, and he got more passionate. And it’s contagious. I felt tears prick my eyes as he told me about the female spiritual leaders of the Bible — Devorah the Judge, and Miriam. “It goes without saying that women who were spiritual leaders in the Talmud were looked at with great dignity,” he told me. “And if women in the time of Talmud had been as advanced professionally as women are today, it goes without saying the place of women in Jewish law would be entirely different than it is in Orthodoxy today. It goes without saying, it’s not even a question!” He cried. “A person who doesn’t recognize this is just in denial.”
Failure to incorporate women as spiritual leaders is not only giving up on 50 percent of the potential workforce. It means alienating people from Judaism and Torah. “If that’s Orthodoxy,” Herzfeld said, “then I’m not Orthodox.” ■
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
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