A recurring joke in the current season of South Park involves “member berries” – drug-like fruits that help you forget about the present by literally reminding you of the good ole’ days. It’s a poke at Trump’s campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, which references a past that may have never existed or may not have actually been that great.
In addition to Trump, member berries also made me think of many of us, or Jews you know, whose Judaism today is rooted in reminiscing. “Remember when it was fun to be Jewish? Remember Bubbe’s matzah ball soup? Remember BBYO? Remember summer camp? Remember your Titanic-themed Bar Mitzvah party?”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having fond memories of being Jewish. But a Judaism that is stuck in and defined by our childhood doesn’t translate for us as Jewish adults. Going to High Holiday services alone is nothing like going with your family as a kid. The stories we learned in Hebrew School were watered-down samples of a deep textual tradition. And we can stay camp counselors or sing camp songs to relive the magic of being a care-free camper, but we will never be 14 years old again.
Because our Judaism hasn’t grown up with us, connecting to our Judaism often becomes a regressive experience. Those of us who don’t want to check our adulthood at the door “resolve” this problem by simply disengaging. Those who eventually reengage do so only after they have children in order to pass on this Juvenile Judaism and perpetuate the cycle.
This desire to relive or preserve the Judaism of our youth might be an avoidance of the fact that we just don’t know what it means to be Jewish as adults. Like South Park, the film Midnight in Paris similarly critiques nostalgic thinking. As one character explains: “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Holding onto the Judaism from our past not only limits Judaism’s potential; it also misrepresents the past. Many of us had very negative experiences with Judaism as a kid (see: Hebrew School). Many others weren’t involved at all (see: Jews by Choice, Jews who couldn’t afford $10,000 summer camp, unaffiliated Jews, etc.). Attempts at recreating Juvenile Judaism drives away those seeking to (re)engage as adults by falsely assuming that everyone shared in positive Jewish experiences.
Perhaps our own textual tradition puts it best: “Do not say ‘How was it that the former days were better than these?’” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). We need to shift our focus from the past to the present. We need to make Judaism great – for adults. I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like.
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