Cross Dressing

by Barry Drogin

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I am an odd duck of Modern Orthodox Jewry (See Note below). I used to make up terms, like "Village Orthodox" or, modestly, "Bad Orthodox," until a Jewish dating site came up with the appropriate term: Flexidox. So, apparently, Iím not the only one out there.

I had to leave Judaism in order to come back to it, and Iíve left other aspects of Judaism in order to return to them, as well. For example, for many years, I attended a synagogue with no rabbi, until the insane President, unrestrained by rabbinic dictate, staged a purge to retain his power (it turned out he did this every few years, but the restriction against einhoreh, the evil eye, kept the remnants from warning the newbies about it). I went on to help found a rabbi-less minyan, which, after a few years, I started to refer to as "The Village Eight," due to our repeated failure to muster the ten required male adult Jews. Eventually I joined a different Modern Orthodox synagogue, a mile and a half walk away, with a paid rabbi, services on Jewish festivals, and the ability to squeak out a minyan by 10am every Shabbas (on weekdays they are packed serving the local working frum). The rabbi gives good sermon, is useful to consult on matters of Halacha, and has given some erudite lectures and classes, but he eyes me warily, and I guess I eye him warily in return.

I left Conservative Judaism at a time when its numbers were waning and it appeared to be becoming a ten-years-later version of Reform Judaism. In 1988, the Conservative movement issued its official "Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism," the most wishy-washy Chinese menu of principles ever collected into a single document, and I was gone. Some conservative synagogues have become Conservadox, and some split from the Convervative movement to form the Union for Traditional Judaism, but I havenít returned. Yet. (See Note below.)

Not that I havenít had to look the other way within the Modern Orthodox movement. First, the Modern Orthodox movement is awash with poor Republicans who, on the island of Manhattan, are nearly quaint. At least they are strong supporters of Israel, and speak out against genocides, which are probably the only political issues worth discussing within the building, anyway. Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, they donít have a messianic complex or make believe that the secular State of Israel doesnít exist. My children attend a Chabad after-school program, and I look the other way when the teachers pretend to not know about Yom Haíatzmaut or insert a line about Moshiach into the school song. At least theyíre learning their Hebrew letters and some sound Halacha along with the Hasidic exuberance (methinks that, as a result, they find Hebrew school a lot more fun than I did).

Every town has the synagogue you go to, and the synagogue that you wonít set foot in. New York has many more choices. Each synagogue has its ritual committee, and each attracts a spectrum of the observant. Many Modern Orthodox Jews may sneer at my Flexidoxy, but I havenít shared their journey. I did not attend a yeshiva. Iíve forgotten how to do certain things, or was never taught them to begin with. If I seem to have created my own Chinese menu of Jewish practice, at least I am cognizant of it, and sometimes feel guilty about it. For example, I keep a kosher kitchen at home, but I donít even eat "kosher style" when I am away from home (and I have paper plates and utensils for non-kosher take-in). It is my firm belief that kosher non-Jewish cuisines are based on recipes developed and cooked by people who have never ever tasted the real thing. I donít know how to deploy Shabbas timers, I hate cholent, and who am I kidding Ė Iím typing this right now on my computer on Shabbas. Before the Flexidox category, I got drawn into a conversation with a Modern Orthodox woman who insisted that homophobia was an essential identifying element of the Orthodox. Letís not go there.

Despite the mishegas, three paths led me to the Modern Orthodox movement. One was my simple faith (emunah pshutah). The first Orthodox Jews I ever met, at engineering school in New York City, were as frum as could be but lacked it, concocting elaborate science fiction scenarios to reconcile their practices with the few cosmological facts that had been allowed to reach their isolated covens. Most members of the New York intelligentsia, and most rabbis, I have discovered, tend to empathize with Maimonidesí "Guide for the Perplexed," or at least with its title (the rabbis at least have probably read it), with a little existential philosophy thrown in Ė they struggle to make the leap of faith. Although it can be useful to indulge in an anthropomorphic vision of G-d, I rarely think about it, but I do believe in a personal relation with G-d and his unknowable will. I donít care for the pseudo-science of the numinous, but I do feel the presence of the miraculous in life, as when a new soul is brought to Earth during birth. Nor am I a creationist, and I have no problem in enjoying and applying the amazing discoveries of modern science.

I simply donít care to look for a Grand Unified Theory of Being, some line of thought that will reconcile philosophy, science, brain chemistry and religion. I cling to my simple faith Ė without it, I surely would have killed myself years ago (the ultimate act of free will Ė and the greatest sin in Judaism).

Another path that led me to the Modern Orthodox movement was my need to exercise and implement my simple faith in an environment that focused my attention on my personal relation to G-d. My mind wanders, my attention drifts, and, when I should be praying, I am thinking about one of a hundred things that I shouldnít be thinking about. Thinking about sex is definitely not what I want to be thinking about, and so I have found the mechitza of Orthodox Judaism to be useful to me. I know that separate but equal is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, and so my personal stance on womenís minyans may not be of much comfort to actual women in need of one. I wish there was a cure for lust, and I donít blame women who would reject the Modern Orthodox movement for my failings. Iíve attended a few egalitarian Orthodox minyans, and when the familiar melodies sweep me into the moment, I am transported, but afterwards I get to return home rejected by a roomful of beautiful Jewish women. At least at my Modern Orthodox synagogue I have managed to befriend a few Jewish women, and only get rejected by a few others, typically one per event.

This leads me to the third and final path that is more than just nostalgic Ė the use of the melodies of my youth. Judaism alone provides me with an opportunity for communal singing (and the occasional solo when I receive an aliyah), and I yearn for these melodies. A Modern Orthodox Shabbas morning service is three hours long, and much of it is Torah chant, chazzan solos and silence. To be frank, during most of that I read the English translation on the other side of the page, struggling valiantly to think about the words of praise, thanksgiving and subservience they describe. Curiously, when a melody from my youth makes its rare appearance, I lose sight of what I am singing about. I also am freed from my mindís monologue. I sing, loudly and with great beauty, and offer my song directly to G-d. When another melody is substituted, I am bereft. I need to sing those melodies again. And again and again. Judaism is a constant striving towards holiness, and I never get closer than when I am singing those old, Ashkenazi melodies. Some I am denied. Oh, canít we not go silent after Víanachnu korim and sing She-hu noteh shamayim? Whatever happened to all of those wonderful Harachamanís as part of the Birkat Hamazon? Sometimes, I think the davener is more interested in getting it over with than in getting it done right. So much text, so little time.

The Conservative Jews cut to the chase, the Hasidic wallow in elaborate melodies of their rebbeís devising. I take refuge in the Modern Orthodox service. I am a dues-paying member of a Modern Orthodox synagogue. I am affiliated, and I attend services as often as I can. Statistically, it would be difficult to come up with a definition that does not count me as Modern Orthodox. I admit it; I am Flexidox. Have been for two decades now. I wear a yarmulke under my hat, and even take off the hat when I am working (See Note below). If I could find a kosher place in West Chelsea, the West Village, Western Soho and Tribeca, I might eat there Ė a few times per year. Maybe some day Iíll move to Israel and this will all sort itself out. Or maybe not.

This simple explanation of my journey from Conservative to Modern Orthodox moved a life-long friend of mine with an interesting pedigree - a promoter of secular jewish culture. When I turned 50, she wrote this.

P.S. The blogosphere has started to mock the term "Flexidox." When I originally encountered the term, it was used to describe Jews who were not totally frum in observance, but were on a journey to become more so. Apparently, the term is also being used by people who are moving in the opposite direction - they're frum in observance, but they believe the Torah was written by people, etc. Essays describe a journey from Modern Orthodoxy to Flexidoxy. Obviously, such a journey earns the scorn of the Orthodox blogosphere. Actually, just about everything earns the scorn of the blogosphere. So let me be clear:
1. I believe the Torah was revealed to Moses at Sinai, and I believe the Prophets received their revelations in dreams or visions from G-d.
2. I rate the Jewish holidays according to their importance within Judaism, not according to their competition with Christianity. I do not believe there is such a thing as a "Judeo-Christian" tradition.
3. I believe kashrut is kashrut, and it is hard enough keeping kosher in this town without spreading vicious rumors about national kosher brands. On Passover, I'm Sephardic.
4. I need to lock my door when I go to synagogue on Shabbas. I don't live within an eruv. I wish that electricity, which is a modern convenience, was not considered fire (especially since I know the difference between an electromagnetic field and a chemical reaction). I don't own tefillin, let alone remember how to put them on. I put on a tallis at synagogue, but consider the idea of tzitzis as an undergarment to be kind of silly. I take off my yarmulke when I am home.
5. I think Judaism is a wonderful religion, despite the Jewish people. I think anti-Zionists are anti-Semites in disguise. I think the Arab nations created the Palestinian refugee problem, and I think only Israelis are in a position to have meaningful opinions about Israeli politics.
6. I think a "good Jew" is defined by holiness, modesty, kindness, and tikkun olam. A physically observant Jew who does not believe in G-d is not a "good Jew" - but, given matrilineal descent, is still a Jew.
7. I wear colored clothing, and I don't think homosexuality is an abomination. I am not obsessed with the Dome of the Rock - why can't the Temple just be rebuilt somewhere else?
8. Jewish women turn me on. Having learned my lesson the hard way, reform, agnostic and atheistic Jewish women disgust me. I do not believe the purpose of sex is procreation, or that sex is forbidden outside of marriage. I am, forevermore, only interested in Jewish women who are post-menopausal - and zaftig.
9. As my father taught me, you don't drink milk with your cheeseburger, because that's disgusting. And when you go to a deli, you have to drink a Dr. Brown's. (See Note below.)
10. I have many identities, and being Jewish is only one of them.

Note: In August 2016, I decided to no longer identify as Modern Orthodox. I no longer wear a yarmulke, except when I am in a synagogue. I also no longer drink Dr. Brown's, but that's because their diet sodas contain phenylalanine, which can interfere with a medication I take. At this writing, I have not decided whether to return to Conservative Judaism. This is, first of all, a decision about how I identify. I also declined a nomination to continue to serve on the Board of my Modern Orthodox synagogue, because I don't think I should represent a Modern Orthodox synagogue. And, with the election of Donald Trump (which came in November 2016, three months after the decision), I am reluctant to associate with Modern Orthodox Jews. This is a work in progress. I may no longer be Flexidox.

Update: It is now July 2017, and I continue to grapple. Most of the members of the Modern Orthodox synagogue don't talk to me during kiddush (well, they are haimish enough to exchange a few pleasantries and inquiries - a pre-requisite for me (and them) for joining in the first place - but I am otherwise isolated and ignored and left out of discussions, so I may just attend services and skip the kiddush, which many do). So that has turned whether I choose to associate with Modern Orthodox Jews into whether Modern Orthodox Jews choose to associate with me. I cannot resist the pun of being "drummed out" of my local Conservative synagogues, by rabbis and cantors who use the bima as a percussion instrument which they pound and beat and stamp with their hands and feet when "the Spirit" moves them, even though no one else in the congregations do so. It must be that the leaders of the Conservadox movement feel they need to learn from the Hasidim and inject some dance-like fervor into the service in order to lure those who identify as "spiritual" but not "religious." The one exception was a bima-thumping cantor who was replaced by an "operatic" cantor - reminiscent to me of a cantorial concert I attended which I later described as "death by cantor." So I think I am becoming a Conservative Jew, but I just haven't found the right congregation (whether a synagogue or an independent minyan) yet. I probably need to look farther away. For now, I'm still paying dues (and probably purchasing High Holy Day tickets) at that Modern Orthodox synagogue.

Latest Update: It is now July 2022, and, in order to be able to attend High Holy Day services in September, I have re-joined the local Conservative synagogue. The new rabbi there sometimes does bang the bima, but stops after he realizes no one else is joining in (I am considering talking to him about it). The congregants who attend are primarily female and most are older than I am. So apparently most single Boomer Jewish men attend Modern Orthodox shuls, and most single Boomer Jewish women attend Conservative shuls. As my politics are vehemently anti-patriarchy, I prefer the latter.

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