It’s not easy.

Caryn Aviv
December 21, 2011
Share:email print

I want to sit down for coffee with Marci Shore and Shulem Deen.   I want to talk with them about how they’re both rootless cosmopolitans, in their own particular, yet very different ways.  They’re both global travelers and itinerants, literally and metaphorically.  Both seem to identify as secular Jews.  Marci, in her piece “Birth of a Rootless Cosmopolitan” speaks to a deeper underlying feeling about the instability of Jewishness, identifying with Deutscher’s notion of how “a life of hovering on the margins of various cultures might generate privileged insight.” While Marci celebrates that instability as a virtue in her life as a global Jewish intellectual, Shulem movingly describes his gradual embrace of alienation as a gut-wrenching journey, rejecting a previous self and tightly-knit community for a life less clear, less stable, less guaranteed.

And yet….there is something lurking beneath the surface of these 2 essays that seems to implicitly tie these essays together in a surprising way.  It’s the issue of integration, but not in the sociological or historical sense.   And it’s something that I struggle with as a Jewish Studies academic who deeply yearns to integrate the spiritual and the intellectual in my own life.  What I mean by integration is the pervasive sense (at least among many Jews I know) that’s its’ pretty difficult to integrate one’s many selves that co-exist uneasily within, and there are certain taboos and boundaries about what you can and can’t talk about in certain company – whether with secular intellectuals at a Jewish Studies conference or Hasidic yeshiva students.   Here’s my question to both Marci and Shulem:  Is it possible to celebrate the virtues of one’s love of intellect AND also connect unself-consciously with the powerful emotions generated by spirituality and prayer?  In other words – is there a model for moving beyond the loneliness of alienation and the insights of life on the margin?  Can you live with the tensions Shulem experienced, generated by deep theological questioning, and still reconnect with divinity, even if only occasionally?

Marci, Shulem – okay – so you love the life of the mind, you love the intellectual inquiry and skepticism and history.  That’s great.  So what else out of Judaism and/or Jewish traditions and history grabs you, compels you, makes you feel something that transcends the contours of your own life? Shulem names as a longing he sensed when he wept while reciting the Amidah after many years.   Have you found a way to move more deeply into that feeling you experienced while weeping through the Amidah?  Marci – do you ever feel moved to tears while singing Polish or English or German lullabies to Kalev?

For me – celebrating cosmopolitanism as a quintessential condition, and the insight generated by alienation, are two pieces of a much larger and more complicated Jewish puzzle.  I want to participate in Jewish traditions and legacies that reflect and celebrate cosmopolitanism.   And I want to openly embrace what transcends intellectual alienation: the mysterious and compelling pull of the sacred.   It’s not easy.

Share:email print
Related Topics:

Caryn Aviv is Associate Director/Jewish Educator with Judaism Your Way in Denver, CO. Caryn taught Jewish Studies at various universities for ten years, and has published widely in the areas of contemporary Jewish culture, gender and sexuality in Judaism, and Israel Studies. In her voluminous spare time, she's an aspirational vegan yogini and is studying for rabbinical ordination through ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.


  1. Yasher koach, Caryn, on this wonderful piece that names the Jewish paradox of how to hold BOTH the richness of the intellect AND the depth and mystery of spirituality. We are so powerfully habituated to frame things in the either/or paradigm, so I really appreciate your invitation to take a risk and explore what else might be there beneath the surface.

    Posted by
  2. Please let me know if you find yourself passing through New Haven. I’d be happy to have coffee with you!

    Posted by
Sh’ma does its best to present a multitude of perspectives on the topics that it presents, and promotes the active participation of its readers on its website and social media pages. In keeping with this, Sh’ma is committed to creating a safe and open space for its readers to voice their opinions in a respectful manner. Disagreement on subject matter is encouraged, but Sh’ma does not tolerate personal attacks or inappropriate language. Sh’ma reserves the right to remove any and all postings that do not fit the criteria outlined herein.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>