Not so long ago I watched a Youtube video featuring a religious service. It was a multitudinous celebration of the festival of sukkot. There were hundreds of smiling faces happily singing and clapping to some Jewish tune of Hasidic inspiration. Some of them wore kippot and flied Israeli flags. Everything very Jewish at first sight… except for a number of banners with crosses and the name “Jesus” written in bright colored letters. Of course I was not surprised: this kind of celebrations are no news to me. I was rather amazed and intrigued at my own first reaction of rebuke. Those people where not pretending to be Jewish, but rather using our symbols for their purpose, assigning them a very different and almost opposite meaning. I felt co-opted.
Co-optation is almost synonymous with appropriation. It designates the action of taking or assuming something for your own use. It often points to a tactic by which an opponent is neutralized by absorption. Sociologists talk about co-optation when a minority is taken over and assimilated to the established main culture. As Jews, it is normal for us to feel uneasy when we perceive that we are object of cultural co-optation. I think that this is an important factor of our visceral reaction to the so-called messianic Jews, people who celebrate the external aspects of our culture only to appropriate these symbols with the firm intention of “perfecting” us so we can finally cease to exist as a minority and be part of their cultural and religious collective. Co-optation is even more aggressive when a majority is not so open to diversity, when they think that their culture is superior or better than yours. This is exactly what we have done to Native Americans and Pennsylvania-dutch speakers, or what Spain does to Catalans. Reverting this path to assimilation is not impossible but you will need a critical mass and an enormous determination.
However, co-optation happens also among us, sometimes inadvertently, and it is more difficult to detect. It is bad enough when people co-opt our identity, but it’s really bad when we accept this appropriation without questioning. It dawned on me on my first week working at a Jewish day school. Conservative Jews constitute the majority of students now but there is an important contingent of Orthodox faculty and students. A couple of non-Orthodox kids asked me: “Cantor Frau, are you religious?” This was kind of shocking to me: how can a Jewish clergy person be non-religious? It took me a minute to realize that, in their minds, the kids reserved the term “religious” for Orthodox Jews. Yes, I wear a kippah, speak Hebrew with the kids and some see me leading services and leyning, but my long hair and colorful shirts are not frum, not “religious.” This use of the term “religious” to mean Orthodox most probably started with the Orthodox kids, but was quickly adopted and endorsed by the rest of Jews, children and adults equally.
Why is this relevant and why should we care? By accepting the Orthodox co-optation of the word “religious” you are tacitly admitting that only people from this denomination are really religious. The rest of us are fake, inauthentic, not real Jews. Should I had accepted my students calling me non-religious, I would have reaffirmed the idea that their own Judaism, what they see at their progressive shul, is not good enough, not authentic. I will never be able to change the Orthodox kids’ lingo, but at least I will teach all of them that calling a committed progressive Jew “non-religious” is indeed insulting.
This prejudice is everywhere and most of us are liable of buying into this co-optation. A couple of days ago I was reading a post on Facebook that contained a link to a video by FrumSatire, an Orthodox stand-up comedian to whose videos I confess to be subscribed. It made fun of some absurd misconceptions of “our non-Jewish/secular friends” regarding kosher food. Do you see the problem? FrumSatire and a number of his viewers put non-Jews and secular Jews (that’s anybody who is not frum according to their definition) on the same level, assuming we don’t know a thing about kashrut and that we don’t care either. See, all these committed progressive Jews you know who are shomrei shabbat and keep kosher… they do not really count.
In my opinion, a good part of the Orthodox animadversion for other Jews comes from lack of first-hand knowledge of who we are. Unfortunately, we are all too quick to take stereotypes on face value and assume way too much. Last week a young lady was telling me how she met a person at the JCC and they started dating. Pretty soon she was horrified to discover that her new partner was “one of these Jewish lefties,” label she used to classify non-Orthodox Jews. After a while she discovered that the differences between them were less than she thought. What is more, while remaining Orthodox she begun to enjoy exploring those “lefty things” that, far from being a secular trap to lead people astray, were spiritually enriching.
Next time you try to use “religious” to mean “Orthodox” –or next time you hear somebody doing it– think twice and take action. Yesh yoter mi derekh echad li-hiyot Yehudi. This well-known bumper sticker should be engraved in our minds: there is more than one way of being Jewish. We often feel like throwing this phrase on the face of those who do not consider our Judaism as valid. But how about stepping to the other side? How do you feel about Jews from other groups and denominations? Do you frown at Orthodox or Reform Jews? Do you consider Renewal or Reconstructionist Jews inauthentic? How do you feel about queer Jews? And about black or Asian Jews? And about Jews by choice?