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My Treif Years

Joyce KleinFilmed at Limmud Conference 2014

From the time I was 20 until I was 30, I left the traditional Orthodoxy of my childhood and made a discovery. It was a journey that took me to many places within the Jewish world and taught me some unexpected lessons. With a few stories to tell, from near and far, that may surprise you along the way I explain how eating treif taught me to love the Jewish people ...

Joyce Klein is a playwright, director, storyteller, translator, teacher and Jewish educator.  She has been working in the combined fields of theater and Jewish education for more than 30 years.  Her plays have been produced in the US, Israel and the Former Soviet Union. She has also written one children’s book (The Shabbat Book).

Joyce has lived in Jerusalem since 1990 and works in many places, performing, creating Living History events and conducting workshops on a wide variety of subjects.

Reb Mendel was the only shoemaker in the shtetl – he wasn’t poor man; he wasn’t rich. One day, he inherited a 100 ruble note. He thought “Where can I put it where I know it will be safe?” and he thought for a while and eventually decided, and put it inside of his chumash, on the page where it says “לא תגנב” — “Thou shalt not steal.” Then he went to sleep in peace. In the middle of the night, a thief crawled in the window, walked straight over to the chumash, took the 100 ruble note and put a 50 ruble note on the page where it says “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We love this story. Why? It just confirms all those stereotypes we’d like to believe were true about the shtetl: even the thief knows the Torah know how to teach a musar lesson and, there once was a a time the Jews actually lived by – ואהבת לרעך כמוך.

I live in Israel. Israel seems to be filled with many people who belong to groups that believe they are the only ones who know the truth, that they are right – and that everybody else is wrong. I don’t really understand the concept. Why can’t I acknowledge your idea without diminishing my own?
I’m a playwright and I work in theatre and I choose to fight against narrowness of thought through theater because I believe theater can open a window into the reality of somebody else. I work with groups of young people in workshops that will then produce plays that I write that they will then perform that’s about their own stories. That means creating an environment that is non-judgemental and comfortable, for people to be able to feel free to talk about their lives and their stories, and I think that I learnt how to be the kind of person who could create that kind of environment because of the ten years of my life that I like to refer to as my “treif years.”

I grew up in Seattle, Washington inside of the Orthodox community: I went to the Day School in town which was Orthodox, my friends were all like me; we came from observant homes, we all kept kosher, we all kept Shabbes. We knew there were other Jews, but we had very specific knowledge about them. The Reform Temple, Temple De Hirsch, was referred to as “Church De Hirsch.”

Well, we kinda laughed at them because they ate lobster and drove on Shabbes and called themselves Jews. The Conservative Jews we didn’t know that much about but we knew that the men and women sat together in synagogue, so they were suspect. Our way was the right way and we were the real Jews.

At 18, I went off to New York to go to university. I had to create my own way of being Jewish and I found some things on campus that were helpful. But I took a class called The Bible as Literature and for the first time in my life met people who didn’t believe that God wrote the Torah. I started to look around with eighteen-year-old eyes that saw everything in black and white and I began to wonder; about Orthodox business people who were doing things that were illegal or immoral. If the Torah doesn’t make people holy, then what good is it? I asked. No one answered.

And so, one day, a fellow traveler and I found ourselves sitting down for a taste of the forbidden: Duck a la Orange at a non-kosher restaurant. It was delicious.

That began a ten year journey away from everything I had ever known into a place that I couldn’t yet anticipate – without limits on what I ate, no limits on my time and no limits on what I did. For good and for bad, the next leg of my journey was spent in Israel.

Junior Year Abroad: I threw myself into secular Israeli life: Friday night discos at the Tel Aviv University, going out with Israeli friends for “steak lavan” — Hebrew code for “pork.” I thought it was kinda exciting and it seemed like what I was ready for at the time, but there were other things about Israel that were a little more surprising. For instance, supermarket ads that used biblical references and Talmudic jokes! Walking from Ramat Aviv to Ramat Gan on Yom Kippur down the middle of an empty highway, and being overwhelmed by the silence of it. Going to a seder with my non-religious relatives where the food wasn’t kosher but everyone understood every word of the Haggadah. What kind of a place is this?! Is it Jewish or isn’t it?

I had a lot of new questions.

I returned to America and finished college and jumped into informal and formal Jewish education – treif years were very Jewish!

I ended up being hired to be the principal of a Reform religious school, and the summer before I started that job I was invited to spend a Shabbat at Camp Swig, the Reform camp in northern California. Shabbat at a reform camp? I said ‘Oh my god, Rabbis in robes; English all over the place. An organ! What am I gonna do? Wait, it’s summer camp – too hot for robes, maybe they won’t have an organ; maybe it’ll be alright…

Friday night services, I walk into a big space about 150 people; campers and staff. Everyone was dressed up and they seemed very excited. There was an Aron Kodesh in the front; and there was a young woman standing next to it with a guitar. She started a niggun. She led them in the Shema. And then, accompanying herself, she started to sing: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy might …” The music was beautiful and transcendent. I recognized the words; a formal English translation of the “V’ahavta,” but somehow the language was irrelevant. This was a moment of pure prayer. Everyone there was singing along; it wasn’t new to them. But everything about it was new to me: a moving and spiritual experience with a prayer in English. I was blown away. God was in this place and I didn’t know it – I hadn’t even known to anticipate it.

The young woman with the guitar was Debbie Friedman, z”l. She put her passion into everything she wrote and now people all over the world sing her tfilot melodies, and I think they are moved by them and find holiness in them – even if some probably wouldn’t sing them if they knew who wrote them.

I went on to work with the Conservative movement, and I found them quite inspiring. Struggling with tradition and change and the balance between them was something that all Jews who are serious about it struggle with. But ere was a movement that was will to put that as a guiding principle. And with Reconstructionism all I can say is it was, you should excuse the expression, a revelation – serious intellectual dealing with the larger issues. I’ve decided that we’re all Reconstructionists today whether we know it or not: and in fact we live in two civilizations and I think we are the better off for it. Before the term even existed, I was engaged in “Jewish Renewal.” I can play Jewish Geography with anybody!

I was finding that I was accumulating from all these different people that I was meeting and these ideas that I was encountering things that I could take with me and that meant something to me, and that were slowly becoming part of a tapestry that I seemed to be weaving.

And then the winds began to change. An old friend from Seattle came to town and couldn’t stay with me because my house wasn’t kosher; that bothered me. I spent a summer in Israel and I met a Yeshiva student who was shomer negiya – he did not touch women. We fell in love. We spent many, many hours together, talking – well, what else were we going to do? And we talked a lot about religion and the part it played in our lives. He said, “For me, Judaism is a house. It’s safe and it’s secure, and any wind that blows will not threaten me. I keep the windows closed and the door locked; and I am safe.”

And I said “What if a tree falls on the roof?! You won’t know how to fix it, and you can’t hide forever. For me, Judaism is a coat. I can go outside and the wind won’t bother me – but I can learn to know the world and the world can learn to know me. And they can see my coat – and they might actually want one of their own.”

I knew I couldn’t live in his house, but I understood why he lived in it – and that helped me see other Jewish structures and be able to see their inherent beauty.

Those conversations and all the things that happened to me became a part of me that had a lasting impact. I slowly found myself re-embracing Jewish tradition, but in a very different way. I was no longer interested in labels and denominations. I felt they had absolutely nothing to do with Jewishness. They gave them no meaning. But Jewishness, suddenly, did have meaning for me.

I don’t think you have to have “treif years” in order to learn to be open to everything around you, but I’m glad I had mine. They taught me that Torah and holiness can be found in many different forms, and that all ways of being Jewish are ways of being Jewish, and deserve respect.

I’m gonna leave you with one last story. When I was the principal of that Reform religious school I did a few unconventional things. On the Sunday before Shavuot, I brought the entire student body into the sanctuary. I told them that we were about to celebrate receiving the Torah, and I think we should do something special. So all the teachers came and they lined up across the front of the sanctuary facing the children, and two of them picked up a Sefer Torah, each holding one side, and they backed away from each other slowly and unrolled the entire sefer torah. The teachers held up the parchment. I don’t know if you’ve ever unrolled a sefer torah but it’s really long. As we got to the sides, it became clear that we had to open the doors so that they could keep going until the very end, and they did. The children, who had all spontaneously stood up watch the whole thing and suddenly a 9 year old boy called out, “The Torah is bigger than the synagogue!”
It is.

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