Off the Hippie Derech

If you told eighteen-year-old me, rearing to escape his rather hippie-ish private Jewish high school, that many years from now, you’ll realize you’re more of a hippie than any of your peers, I’d have pulled out an earphone and told you you were nuts. But here we are.

The hippies, not the real ones (because who cares), but the vision, the love and peace and all that, pulled me from a morass at fourteen. My life could have gone differently at a dreary school, very real and austere and on-the-rails. Then I switched over and found joy in the freedom of the spirit where anything went, and you were more or less left alone within some loose expectations. The hippie school was less religious than I was and had no vessel for those budding inclinations, but it didn’t matter, because they let a thousand freak flags fly, and that’s beautiful, and seeing it’s beautiful is what makes a hippie, you dig? So they smoked, and I dreamed of Jerusalem, and it all worked out, more or less.

Now the school has an alumni association lambasting the administration for its lack of empathy and sharing a list of demands and uprooting systemic blah blah blah, it doesn’t matter, here’s what matters—finite ideals tended to by animals must all give way to animal tendencies. Animals tend to pull down and away toward death. I may dream of those sunny days with sandals and drums and my little inner petri dish that everyone was too stoned to smash, but the stoners do not seem to dream of them.

They have grown up and become shaved monks, puritanical and terrible-holy, and those who cannot conform will burn. In this sense, we have switched places. I was seen as (and I encouraged this view) a quasi-religious freak, but I gradually grew to appreciate the gentle lightness of being a hippie, the chill, the mellow. It cradled me and raised me and allowed me to become what I was becoming at my own pace. It was patient beyond the point of reason. It thought something beautiful might be emerging if it would just be allowed to emerge and not crushed when it was most brittle. My friends, on the other hand, for reasons understood (being the children of immigrants changed my life more than I realized at the time) and mysterious, were confident hippies doing the cradling, open to the world, open to every new thing as they were to me. But this disposition and environment do not naturally persist; they require maintenance, and even during my time at that school, they shifted and changed. Just as something in human nature tends to self-destruction and self-sabotage, just as those pursuing happiness with the most gusto are the least likely to find it, so, too, are the explicit maintainers of peace and love and lightness and mellowness the least likely to maintain it.

The years since I graduated have not been good to the maintenance crew; they were open, and open, and open until some very talented sociopathic manipulators and people-eating ideas took advantage. Now they say things like ‘police are evil’, which is ironic because if they had psychospiritual or emotional police around their own ideals, they never would have come to say it in this way. They have been looted; their ability to create for me that paradise has been picked over. They are spiritually depleted by the rawest and basest politics and the sickening totalizing tendency of the ideas that have come to dwell in them, who say any mellowness that gives quarter to the enemy is evil and any lightness which allows even the conscientious objectors to exist in our midst is wrong. Our school, that place of accordions and trailers with frozen pipes, is now seen to be detracting from ‘what’s really going on’ by posting updates on student life rather than on solidarity. The alumni (and, I assume, current students still awake) chase moralistically-satisfying ephemera, and the board, in search of the fountain of relative-youth, shall follow.

I, for my part, yearn for the good old days, for a feeling that I now doubt is any mere ideology made manifest but which cannot possibly survive as light and mellow under so much activism. I feel like I have become the most unlikely guardian of this tradition imaginable, a ridiculous reversal of the ex-orthodox writers getting Netflix deals who still, as Bialik did, as Shazar did, defend the homeness of the faith they’ve renounced to those who can’t hope to understand. I am a hippie by education who went off-the-Derech to become an overly-cerebral orthodox Rabbi who now rants about hippie-ness to all who will listen. We must save the hippies from themselves. We must act as beacons pulsing in the dark to call them back to what they were. The light and the mellow were no mere throwaway consequences of other things you were into; they were precious, priceless, and worth defending. Return, my sons, return!

Love and peace are not sustainable in the form of mere affectations. You bore them in your breast and built them into your structures because you were kissed on the forehead by G-d, but that mark has long since worn off in the winds of the world, your innocence lost. The secret is that you did not create it; you cannot create it. You received it and appreciated it. It emanated authentically and spontaneously from a combination of factors so fine they may only be counted by He who knows the sand and knows the stars.

Those, like me, who yearn for innocence, for love, for peace—not in some exalted divine or cosmic sense, even, but in the simplest sense, in the sense that a fourteen-year-old boy was protected in the light and the mellow—are wise to turn from overt attempts to create to covert attempts to foster it. We strengthen and deepen our souls on the individual level, free from any worldly master that wishes to control us, free from the insecurities and guilt others use to ensnare us. We will not be turned outward and downward to foster the superficial and the unreal, to be “for” movements or candidates or cathartic destruction. We will not be tricked into believing that the extension of the ego into a million egos by the collective is a form of sublimation or selflessness. We will not declare our goal to be love and peace and thereby open it up to understanding and subversion when what we mean is a soul experience that is valuable even if it cannot be named and scrawled on a poster. We will not lose our balance and be yanked right and left because our balance is what matters to us, a focus on what is inner and upward, what is real, something that the soul knew, once, for a passing sun-flecked hour. We will not sour into pathological self-seriousness and heaviness.

We will remember that Tikkun Olam grew up not among the activists but the dreamers. They knew that the mere manipulation of the technical state of affairs is not enough, that if the hand and heart and head were not attached to something solid and immovable inside us, they would inevitably come to fail. On the shores of the sea of reeds, before it split and our ancestors went through on dry land (an event I have honest-to-goodness heard described by a Jew as a racism-tinged cutting of our African ties), they saw the Egyptian army approach and began arguing. Some wished to throw themselves into the sea, some wished to wage war, some wished to return peacefully to slavery, and some wished to pray to G-d for salvation. They were all, to a one, wrong.

Their intentions ranged from worthy to unworthy, but they were all functions of heaviness and panic, a desperate need to affirmatively form their answers, to make their passage. The slaves from Egypt had not yet fully worked out the implications of having a G-d, of being able to let go because the bedrock truth of all things is Goodness and Freedom. If they had, they would have been unafraid enough simply to listen, not to have to think but simply to walk at the water in loving surrender.

The concealing sea was then pulled back, and the dry land revealed, a path forward where none, even under the collective, previously existed.

20 Things I Didn’t Learn In Jewish Day School

In eight years of modern orthodox elementary and middle school and four years of trans-denominational high school, I never learned:

1. The flag of each tribe. (Each of the twelve Hebrew tribes marched in the desert under its own flag, with unique colors etc. Despite the Hebrews being very cool and interesting, by eighth grade I would’ve been better-versed in the seven forms of lightsaber combat than the twelve tribes if left to my schooling alone. But, praise to the G-d almighty who cares for all His creatures, my grandmother of blessed memory bought me a set of books called The Little Midrash Says, the greatest influence on my life as a Jew.)

2. Why there is no good kosher pizza. (If you pull your kids out of public school you’re a bad person because you’re leaving the less-fortunate kids to suffer, but if you pull your kids out of Pizza Time and put them in Di Fara you’re just being practical and wanting what’s best for little Liam.)

3. That Jews died to keep their yarmulkes on. (Despite a minor obsession on the part of teachers with the origins in custom of a fully-codified and binding law concerning male Jews covering their heads, in school I never really ran into the stories of how far Jews would go defending the “custom.” Nazis would throw yarmulkes on the ground and make their owners stomp on them, and G-d help you if you resisted. These are not things to be cast aside if you’re on the school soccer team. Oh well. Good thing I hated sports.)

4. Why Gush Katif was, regardless of one’s politics, a tragedy. (I learned all my empathy from the way Jews spoke about fellow Jews when I was in high school. I’m famous for it.)

5. Does G-d exist? (I would’ve loved to see certain teachers fight over this. Preferably to the death.)

6. Why to care about Zionism. (Everything was HaTikvah this and Yom HaAtzmaut that, but it was weird talking about a country when the United States itself was basically a non-starter, even in modern orthodox school. It would’ve been cool to examine the various reasons for and against Zionism prior to the founding of the state of Israel. It would’ve perhaps kept my friends in high school from calling Jewish History class propaganda.)

7. What the federation is, and why it’s important. (Accepted as axiomatic; a sort of First Cause, as it were. I immigrated from South Africa; what did I know why my parents never read the Atlanta Jewish Times or went to play basketball at the JCC?)

8. Why do we all watch Saturday Night Live? (Another confusion stemming from the immigrant experience; another axiom.)

9. About gefilte fish and cholent. (I don’t need a full class on Jewish cuisine (although why not?) but I’ve never forgotten when in that same Jewish History class those foods of the shtetl were explained socio-economically without any reference to the benighted and backward pre-enlightenment Jewish Law that gave their impoverished lives rich meaning (that today we can barely comprehend) and prohibited removing the bones from fish on Shabbos.)

10. Why anyone would fall for a false messiah. (Messiah shmessiah, when are we getting Hamilton tickets?)

11. Why Jews didn’t and don’t accept Jesus. (Easier to avoid; more educational – and perhaps threatening to certain denominations – to confront.)

12. How there are world-historical intelligences among Jewish religious thinkers, and we should be proud of them. (Einstein, yes; even Freud, in high school, got a nod or two. But Rashi we never learned with a sense of awe or adulation; I can’t recall ever studying a mind-boggling Ramban until adulthood. We were never given a sense that Maimonides and his interlocutors are among the all-time big hitters of philosophy generally. The extent to which his genius in particular is a blazing beacon illuminating the sky of Judaism that falls to earth as the precious-beyond-measure living heritage of every single boy and girl making out on the soccer field…was not emphasized.)

13. That Jews are represented in cults far beyond their percentage of the population. (Is something wrong with us? Are we all here or all there? Perhaps in the odd yearnings and impulse to rebellion we find some hint of the fundamental Jewish spirit that might help to define what it means to be uniquely Jewish in America in the 21st century. Perhaps you should’ve told us to be afraid of cults. I got my revenge now. I went to Yeshiva and joined the group that my 9th grade history teacher told me ‘could keep their messiah.’ I have yet to achieve her level of understanding; I don’t drink enough Kool Aid.)

14. How the Maccabees were religious fundamentalist zealots and they ought to be honored anyway. (What I did learn in high school, hilariously, was that Jews should be embarrassed for killing all those non-Jews at the end of the book of Esther. Calling our Jewish homage to the (Hellenistic, Antiochus-providing, naked wrestling, pig-sacrificing, Zeus-statue-erecting) Greek Olympics the “Maccabi Games” is the equivalent of calling the WWII Memorial “A Testament to Aryan Resolve” but killing all those Persians before they killed us is the challenging part of our history. School, man.)

15. About the struggle for modern Hebrew. (Someone did a book report on Ben Yehuda once, but the full topic, his isolation, what he put his family through, the opposition of many Jews to the return of Hebrew, and ultimate triumph for better or worse of a uniquely revived ancient language was glossed over. Would’ve helped me focus in what felt like twenty years of Hebrew class.)

16. Why Judaism is not a misogynistic religion. (I was almost too lazy to Google just to get the devil’s advocate position, though I did, and it was very interesting.)

17. Whether anyone was opposed to Reform Judaism, and why. (Implied would be that there was a time before Reform existed, or perhaps Judaism was always in some way Reform, and this could now be explained. If Reform is a new thing, the case would have to be made for why this new thing is now Judaism; that would lead to a conversation about the Rabbinic process, whereupon I could at least share the things I had to Google so maybe in Twitter arguments nowadays my classmates couldn’t say they never heard any sort of defense of ‘Orthodoxy.’)

18. Why so many of our great grandparents cared about or respected the Talmud. (“Rabbinic Literature” implies that you have to care about this as much as you have to care about Hamlet, and no one cares about that anymore. (I do! Thank you Mr. Robson.))

19. Why anyone could possibly object to playing basketball on a Shabbos afternoon inside an Eruv. (This was, for me, the last straw. I thought I was crazy, because I went to your schools, I went to your churches, I went to your institutional learning facilities. I wasn’t the one that was crazy. All I wanted was a Pepsi.)

20. Why Jewish day school was invented, when it was invented, what came before it, and whether it’s a good idea. (I don’t actually expect them to teach this. It’d be like discussing prison reform with the inmates. But I certainly didn’t learn it, and for that, it rounds out this Stupid Buzzfeed-style List.)


Originally posted on Hevria.