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Kosher Pig

Item Number  37004

Author: Richard J. Israel z"l
Grades: Adult
Format: Softcover book

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The Kosher Pig And Other Curiosities of Modern Jewish Life

Richard J. Israel’s collection of essays focuses on the inherent contradiction of being both a traditional Jew and a liberal, modern human being.


During the early sixities, when personal discovery was even more fashionable that it is today, I participated in a training program for those who wanted to run the predecessors of what have come to be known as growth-groups. It was near the end of the second long and very intense summer the ten of us had spent together. We had been talking about each other and about what was going on in our group from nine in the morning to nine at night, with breaks only for meals, coffee and quick trips to the washroom, six days a week. We had grown very close to one another and yet there was one area in which I always felt separate and different from the other members of the group.. .that was as a Jew.

The feeling was most acute on Friday nights. The group met that evening, the same as it did every other evening. For the rest of the participants, Friday night was no different from Tuesday night. But Friday night is a special time for my wife and children and me. Food, mood and dress are all upgraded. We would have Shabbat dinner together as a family with the appropriate blessings and songs, and then, because we do not drive on Shabbat, I walked the three miles from the little farm house where we were staying to the conference center. I felt absolutely unable to share this part of my life with the others.

Our group was feeling rather self-congratulatory that Friday evening and people spoke of how wonderful it was that we had become so intimate. I didn’t feel intimate at all. There were large pieces of me they knew nothing about. My entire experience as a Jew had never once entered into the discussions. I did not volunteer and they did not ask. There was not so much as a comment about why I was wearing a good white shirt and slacks while they were wearing our usual sloppy uniform of shorts and T-shirts. I was annoyed and this time, I said so.

If we knew so much about each other, why didn’t they know it was my Shabbat? Why didn’t they know that it was a major imposition for me to arrive at our meetings every Friday night? They were completely unaware of a very significant set of my commitments and it didn’t occur to any members of our ostensibly intimate group that such things might be important and even worth discussing. With relief, I was finally able to talk about how I was trying to preserve my own private values in a group in which there was great pressure to reveal and share. They were all part of the great majority, while I was all alone. They were under the illusion that I was an authentic part of the group while, in fact, they had no idea how isolated I felt.

Perhaps I was overdoing it. I backed off from my tirade and excused myself and them, commenting that it was probably understandable that such things had not occurred to them. If I cared that much, I could have raised these issues earlier. Nevertheless, they should know that they were occurring to me with increasing clarity and intensity by the minute.

It became very quiet in the group. Then the fellow sitting next to me said, “I don’t know if any of you has noticed but my left leg is just a little shorter than the fight. I wear special shoes to compensate for it, a slightly thicker sole in one shoe so that I don’t walk with a limp. Though I don’t think anyone here has paid attention, I have always been painfully self-conscious about it. The rest of you were lucky. Your bodies were whole and symmetrical while I was a secret cripple and because of that, I always felt that I was very different from the rest of you.”

The person next to him continued without a pause. “You folks are all from the big cities. I was born and raised on Deer Island, off the coast of Maine. You all are so sophisticated. I am just a country boy and will never be more than that.”

Then, the woman to his left shyly noted that though we had never said anything about it, we had all certainly noticed that English was not her native tongue, that she spoke with an accent. We were all real Americans. She was the true outsider of the group.

One after another, all the members of the group shared their oddness, the extent to which each was more different from all the members of the group than anyone else there. To my astonishment, each of them had a significant and often hidden characteristic that made them feel as different and separate as my Jewishness made me feel.

Over the years, I have come to believe that this group was not unique. I have observed the same phenomenon in every group I have ever been in that felt free enough to talk about the subject. Just about everyone feels less a part of every group than everyone else. Every member is secretly convinced that because of a concealed flaw, he or she is the group’s one authentic outcast. And so I have come to believe that though being Jewish is different, it may not be more different than being Polish, or Greek, or rich, or having a limp or coming from a farm in Iowa. The particulars are of course very different, but the inner experience of feeling separate may not be.

The Jew in me rejects this thesis. In my gut, I am certain that we Jews are more unique than anyone else. But it is my current suspicion that a lot of other people think the same thing. We Jews may indeed be absolutely unique, but in that, may be very much like everyone else. What may be most different about Jews is that we seem to have taken a nearly universal experience and raised it to the level of a theology, a theology of particularism. It is this conviction about the universality of uniqueness that gives me the courage to write about a series of peculiarly Jewish issues. I hope that they will stimulate readers to reflect upon their own uniqueness and what it means to bring their cultural baggage to bear upon the special complexities of modem living.

This is a book about modemity and being Jewish, about the ironies that result from trying to appropriate the Jewish tradition while at the same time attempting to live fully in the modern world. There is no great trick to living in a traditional Jewish world; it is a world that is selfcontained, intemally consistent, suspicious of the outside world, though for its members, it is warm and supportive. There is also no great trick

to living as a full participant in modem Western culture. This is the air most of the people around me appear to breathe. It, too, is a rich full world. But my struggle has been to try to do both.

This attempt to balance both worlds has affected a large segment of my life. It has conditioned where I went to school, whom I chose to marry, the size of my family, the way I wanted to raise our children, my professional life, what I read and even the way I spend my leisure time. I have always been curious about a wide range of issues but whatever subject I have looked at has always seemed to turn into an inquiry about how it related to the Jews. Since I am bald and Jewish, why not write an article about Baldness and the Jewish Problem? I have fought my parochialism, but with no success. When with great effort I finally wrote something that had no Jewish references in it and sent it off to a prestigious literary magazine, they sent it back saying they liked the piece, but that it was too Jewish for them to publish. I gave up. I concluded that I was terminally Jewish and should write about what interested me.

What I want to explore in this book are a number of subjects that have caught my fancy over the years, subjects in which the tension between being a traditional Jew and being a modern American are played out. In the course of writing them down, I began to suspect that instead of being both, I may be neither a traditional Jew nor a modem Amnerican.

There was once a Polish Jew who was unhappy living in Poland and who applied for an exit visa to emigrate to Israel. He went to Israel but concluded that he couldn’t adjust, was unhappy there and so he got permission to travel back to Poland. Alas, it didn’t work out this time either and so once again, he travelled back to Israel.

When the second trip to Israel didn’t work out either, he requested permission to go back to Poland. The exasperated Israeli immigration officer said, “You are not happy in Poland so you travel to Israel. You are not happy in Israel so you travel to Poland. So when are you happy?” The man smiled and said “That’s easy. When I am travelling.”

So it is with me—and perhaps you.

Richard Israel

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Price    $14.95
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