- Posted by Jen Gubitz
- On October 11, 2019
- 0 Comments
“I saw your vagina ad. Yuck,” the email read, “was that really necessary?” The criticism came rolling in. And why? In response to a sign that was bold, bright, hip, and funky, plastered on kiosks throughout the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan that read: “Even if you think kugel is an exercise you do for your vagina . . . JewBelong.”
It was a bold ad campaign referring to that tasty and traditional Jewish noodle casserole, whose name can be easily mistaken for Kegel pelvic contractions.
This ad scandalized the Upper East Side and after an intervention by the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District, ultimately, JewBelong replaced Kugel… with bacon. This time the ad read: So you eat bacon. God has other things to worry about. JewBelong!
“Was that really necessary?” That angry Upper East Sider demanded.
I received this picture no less than 10 times from different people in my life, all Jewish, but identities expressed in ways quite different. So yes. I think so. Sometimes it takes provocative language, some snarky truth telling about how many Jews love bacon, and some really strong branding to draw our easily-distracted attention back to Judaism. Well chosen words have power!
JewBelong is a nonprofit that aims to bring “disengaged Jews” back into Judaism through memes and ads, online holiday guides, and modernized (and often snarky) prayers. It is run by Archie Gottesman and Stacy Stuart, two advertising professionals who were behind the brilliantly hilarious billboards for Manhattan Mini Storage. If you can make storage units seem remotely compelling, you must be gifted! And that they are: I can’t tell you the amount of times I would ride the NYC subway over the Brooklyn Bridge on my way to rabbinical school, see a hilarious Manhattan Mini Storage sign and spit out my coffee. (Sorry for mentioning coffee on Yom Kippur!) Signs like “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married,” Or “Let your personality be the reason people don’t come to your apartment… Storage starting at 29 dollars…”
I didn’t even need a storage unit, but suddenly, it was something I considered daily. Because well chosen and well placed words have power. And not only to encourage us to consider the benefits of living in a storage unit because that’s pretty low rent.
Well chosen words provoke us into paying attention. The word in Hebrew – is Sim Lev. Sim – To make or put – and Lev – heart; Sim Lev: To make our hearts open up in attention. Of course, colloquially to pay attention to the words we hear, to the words we think or speak to others,
to the words we use to talk to and about ourselves, and to the words we use to articulate our values, our beliefs, our hopes, and our fears.
Well chosen and well placed words have power. And although less edgy than JewBelong’s ad campaign, no less provocative is the liturgy of the High Holy Days, specifically the prayer – Un’taneh Tokef. When these words are brilliantly planted in our liturgy, as if on a billboard
to provoke our attention, we see them and we take pause: Un’taneh Tokef K’dushat Hayom: Let us proclaim the power of this day!
More Jews now than any other time of year are provoked to come here to understand what these words mean. Words that says – “You are judge and plaintiff, counselor and witness. You inscribe and seal. You record and recount.” These words cause us to take pause and then cause us to our open hearts and minds in attention. “You count and consider every life,” it says… “You set bounds; You decide destiny; You inscribe judgments.” And those words cause us to listen more intently…
What does this all mean?
“B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun uv’Yom Tzom Kippur Yichateimum…
On Rosh Hashanah this is written; On Yom Kippur this is sealed….
Who will live and who will die… Who by fire, who by water…
Who by earthquake and who by plague, Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled…”
And it is those words which cause many more of us to send that angry email to the Jewish Theological Improvement Board asking, demanding: Really? Is this sort of language really necessary? We demand clarification of these agitational words: Are these words really true?
In the last ten days, has my destiny for the year to come been determined? Really?
My parent who died this past year, that was part of a Divine decree?
And my diagnosis this past year, and my divorce, and the earthquakes and the hurricanes and the floods and the ice melting, the opioids, and the dumpster fire political ploys, the wars, the destruction, the hatred and the sickness: all of this was part of a Divine decree?
If that is what your year was like, and for many here it was, and for so many in our world, too, then these are painful words to hear.
And we would rather laugh about kugel or bacon – (double sorry for mentioning food.) We would rather laugh than open our hearts to these heavy painful truths. But Judaism demands more of us than jokes. And even though we are so good at using humor to avoid the heart, the heart of what really matters is at the core of this prayer that disturbs us so. Un’taneh Tokef goes line by line asking us not if people will die, but how they will die. It does not question IF people die, rather it acknowledges that this IS the way of life.
And so it may be that you see yourself and your life or your loved ones or the ways of the world
too clearly narrated in these heart provoking words. Or it may be that death has or will arrive
In some other way that the medieval penman could never have imagined. But this prayer does not pass judgement on the HOW or the WHY, or adjudicate if death was fair. And “It is not an affirmation,” writes Rabbi Noa Kushner, “that some of us deserve to suffer(!) [rather] it is a realization that [for most of us] suffering exists.” And so does death.
The problem, suggests Rabbi Kushner, is this: “we treat the text as so sacrosanct that it is supposed to only compel us to change our view on life… But feminist writers, [for example] have taught us how contradictions between life and text should also force reinterpretations of the text.” But as we reinterpret, we need not abandon our lives nor the text. “We need only abandon the idea that the text… is supposed to be able to fully describe our lives (and even our deaths) on its own, without us.”
Instead, she writes, “we are forced to interact with its message… [and] Un’taneh Tokef takes advantage of this unusual moment” (the rarest moment of the year where everyone happens to be present). Where a large collective of us are gathered to examine our lives “…stretch[ing] ourselves to look over the precipice, [but] knowing that we are not falling [yet]. At this moment,
finally it is safe to pry open difficult memories and expectations. [And] We can allow ourselves to wonder if there is anything to be learned from the fact of our death.
We might even have the presence of mind to ask [this question], “Given that I am going to die, given that my death is a fact, what will I make of my life?” And it is this question, “what will I make of my life?” that is at the very heart of th[is] prayer. And if I were running a Jewish ad agency, that question is what I would write on every billboard that seeks to capture our heart’s attention.
What if every time you were pinged by a tweet, a snapchat, insta, the news; and on every device and every screen: your watch, your fitbit, your phone, your computer, and netflix; what if in every moment you read or listened to books, poems, papers, music, movies, radio, or podcasts… What if instead of all the junk our attention is spammed with, what if In contrast,
every place words exist provoked us to ask ourselves: What will I make of my life today?
Well chosen and well placed words have great power.
The great writer Shai Agnon recalls a lecture by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik’s given to a (mostly secularist) Yiddish Culture club here in Boston… “For me,” Soloveichik said, “the entirety of Yom Kippur is included in the ‘Amen” that one calls out following the Shehecheyanu blessing after Kol Nidre.’ That prayer,” Agnon writes, “thanking God for having ‘kept us in life and enabl[ing] us to reach this season,’ recited at that most dramatic of all moments in the yearly cycle, tells us where the heart of Yom Kippur lies…: the Days of Awe powerfully remind us… that each of us will have our final moment… Death comes, what may.
[But] “We are not a morose people,” Agnon continues “… we consider healthy those who spend their time on something more constructive and cheerful than brooding on the inevitability of death. But we come together on the Yamim Noraim, [these days of Awe] skeptics… agnostics… [atheists] along with pious believers and earnest seekers [alike], to gratefully acknowledge that we are still here…
And so we breathe a sigh of relief when we sit in the pews. Amen! We announce after reciting our gratitude for being kept alive for another year. Amen! I’m (still) here! The inner fear and trembling caused by the unknown subsides…” Amen. I’m in. I’m still here.
When I am having a rough time I’d like to see that on a billboard. “Right.” I’d say to myself. “Life is hard but you are alive. Amen! So what will I make of my life today?”
But then Un’taneh Tokef asks me again – “who will live in poverty and who in prosperity, who by strangling and who by stoning” and who by mass shootings?
But Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, a rabbi of Temple Israel and NYTimes best selling author in the 1930s, reassures that “no normal person can face life without experiencing [these] countless fears and worries.” This was as true 90 years ago as it is today. Our worries and fears of the long list that Un’taneh Tokef records “…are part of the fee we pay for citizenship in an unpredictable universe.” Rabbi Loth Liebman encourages us that “humans are [actually] blessed
with this capacity to know fear” because we also have “the capacity to master fear with serenity.” He notes all of the ways our fears have led us to invent and discover new realities.
Our fear of the dark, “led to the art of fire and the secrets of electricity.” Our fear of pain “became the mother of medicine” resulting in the wonders of surgery, anesthesia, and healing…
But all the same, “the high price tag of our humanity is attached to the sensitive nerve endings which expose us to the pain, dangers, and glories of a conscious life.”
“It is merely,” he continues, “the conspiracy of silence about our deepest inner feelings, our habit of hiding behind the masks of convention, which prevent[s] us from recognizing the universal[ity] …of anxiety which binds the whole human race together.”
Truly, the glories of a conscious life are silenced by the anxieties of the fear that our lives will someday end.
There are few billboards intended to change our habits and our hearts that say something like: I’m so glad the rabbi talked about death tonight. I’d like to buy that product.
Well, all I can hope is that well chosen and well placed words will have great power. And compel us to stay in conversation with these painfully powerful and, I’m afraid, ever true words of Un’taneh Tokef.
AND stay in conversation with Kugel and Mrs. Maisels and Ben Platt or Drake… (maybe skip the bacon?!)
And when we recite these words on Yom Kippur and in the future, remember that because
you have stayed in conversation with yourself and with Judaism, which provokes us to ask ourselves daily: “What will I make of my life today?” Know that you have the tools to stay in the conversation even when there is intolerable anguish in your soul, or amid the great sufferings in the world. Remember that you do have the capacity to stay in the conversation with your heart opened in attention even when faced with an untimely or devastating death of a loved one in your life. And remember that you have support to stay in the conversation, even in the face of great suffering when it is you who becomes ill.
On this day of Yom Kippur, as we contemplate the awe and dread of our humanity, I’ll join you in filling a storage unit with our worries and our fears. Remember though that for as much as we don’t control, “we must force ourselves to remember that we have power in shaping our lives…Re-creating each day anew.”
And know this: while it will never be enough time, In the time that we do have, we will have been enough.
In this New Year of 5780, may the billboards of our lives say it all: We are alive today. And we are enough. Amen.