Slouching towards Bushwick, posed a few questions to me. It's been a while since I had time to blog, but I felt guilty for not responding, so I sat down and wrote....here goes....
A blog wherein Rabbi Daniel Brenner answers Samantha’s Questions. (or attempts to do so)
Does “being Jewish” mean having a daily practice? Do you do things each day to “be” Jewish like praying before eating, after going to the bathroom, performing mitzvot, etc. or can you just “be” Jewish without doing anything particularly Jewish?
One of my teachers, Reb Zalman, said that without discipline you don’t get the pay-off. I don’t do everything I could do, but I am conscious of starting my day with a few words of gratitude, saying a short prayer before eating…I do that sort of thing in my head. I hope that in doing so that I am cultivating a sensibility – meaning that I am thinking about the Jewish perspective on things that I eat, and maybe even more important -- things that I say. That is the everyday Jewish.
Do you feel grateful that you are Jewish? Like, is your daily life better because you are Jewish? Or is it just a part of you, like being born male, brown-haired, etc.?
I am grateful. Jews have a unique history and I marvel at every chapter/tale I hear that adds to the multi-layered Jewish category in my brain. Is my life better? Who knows, I’ve never been anything else, really. But having experienced years in a Christian environment and days in a Zen Buddhist environment, I’d say that daily life in Jewish environments has its pluses. For one thing it’s louder – much louder, and it is quirkier, snarkier, more sarcastic, less focused on manners, etc. That is also a huge downside. Being Jewish is not ‘just part of me’ though. My mom does not look particularly Jewish and growing up I don’t think that I looked particularly Jewish…and I grew up in North Carolina…so I could have opted out in some way.
How much does your childhood Jewishness affect your Jewishness later in life?
I had some amazing childhood experiences. First off, I had some great teachers in a small Jewish day school. I realized early on that arguing about Jewish ethics is at the heart of our tradition. I also got to go to Jewish summer camps and see ‘outdoor Judaism’ at its best. So I got both intellectual oriented Judaism and emotional community-feeling Judaism. I still like both and try to replicate them for my own children. (two of whom are off at summer camp right now)
Do you ever grow tired of thinking about the Jewish community?
Yes, it is exhausting. But if I wasn’t thinking about the Jewish community I’d be thinking about another community.
Do you want Birthright alumni/young Jews to believe in God? Do you think those who don’t now will come to believe in God after being part of a Jewish community?
I’ve always said that there is a difference between believing in God and loving God. Belief is a word that I use about whether or not I think that the Miami Dolphins are going to make the playoffs. Love is a word I use to describe those things that are beyond my rational mind’s ability to break them down into facts. I tend to side with the kabbalsits and non-dualists on God – so God is what is, not some separate being outside of what is. And in that way, when I think about loving God, I think about loving the big, tragic, beautiful mess that we are all caught up in.
I think that in community, you go beyond your self a little bit more, and can open your heart up to other people, and that is the only way that you can really love God when it comes down to it – because praying towards a wall is not what it is all about in my opinion. It might help you do a better job at opening your heart when in dialogue with a person, but it isn’t the act that ultimately matters.
Is it important to you to be Jewish? Why? Because you were born Jewish and/or because Jewish wisdom is important for the world? For you as an individual?
Yes. But I don’t separate the mind and body part of being Jewish as if we could just say “what’s important, to study choreography or to be a dancer?” My being Jewish can’t be separated out into body/mind. I have a genetic history and a psychological disposition and resulting mind-map that are a result of 3,000 plus years of a particular tribe wandering around the globe and trying to stay together. That’s real and was there from the moment that I was born. As I’ve grown and experienced the limitations and abilities of my particular body I have come to understand my Jewishness on the physical level as a real thing. As for the Jewish wisdom part – that came from the way that I was taught language, taught what matters, taught my name and my history….it is far beyond what I could ever chronicle in a thousand books.
What is important to me is both the embodied and the language/ritual based expressions. My children are, literally, another layer of Jews with all sorts of hereditary quirks. I hope that the Jewish education I give them will help them to value the continuation of the whole package. I know that that may sound racist, but I really do not care if they marry someone who is of different genetic history. I just want them to love – or at least make peace - with their own embodied situation -- the eyes they have, the metabolism, the occasional hyperactivity….that sort of thing. I hope that they want to replicate it someday in another little person.
My goals in life are to be happy+successful. How can you or other Jewish leaders/organizations help me achieve my goals?
I’m still trying to be happy+successful and I think that it is taking a long time. Good Jewish organizations are helping people find friends and find meaning and as a result they are a little bit happier and more successful. But there is no perfect formula, so all I can do is quote pirke avot: Who is rich? One content with their portion.
Are you working on a book? What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?
I just finished a book of poetry and I have a few short stories in the works. I’m reading Absurdistan now – so far I’m loving it.
Briefly, what is the best part of being alive?
Falling in love and making babies and watching those babies grow up. Swimming at the bottom of a waterfall. Yotvata Chocolate Milk. Dancing to Fela. Laughing with friends.