Friday, June 28, 2013

Marriage and Mysticism in a Less-Gendered World

Dedicated to Anne Tamar-Mattis, a hero of equality for all genders, on the occasion of her birthday.

What a week! With the Supreme Court knocking down the Defense of Marriage Act and also confirming the undoing of California's Prop 8. It is a week to celebrate the freedom to marry, and to rethink what marriage means, and perhaps to wonder why this institution has been so inflexible.

I was re-awakened yesterday to the deep assumptions that we all hold around how marriage operates, and the importance of gender dualism in that conception. I was doing some business in town, and I happened to refer to my partner, my spouse, as "my husband." I paused for a moment to savor the deliciousness of a previously forbidden term. The other person, earnestly celebrating with me, asked, as a follow-up question, "So are you also a husband, or do you think of yourself as a wife?"

It took me a moment to realize this person was not being flip or phobic, but was really wondering how one organizes the institution of marriage in this new era. And the question is, in fact, a deep and pertinent one. The terms "husband" and "wife" are obviously gendered, but not neutrally so. That is they represent a composite of competing  and opposite characteristics, each associated with a gender. I know that what follows sounds old-fashioned, but I submit that it is alive and well and is probably the nemesis of many well-meaning modern heterosexual couples. "Husband" has and continues to suggest breadwinner, protector, perhaps even at times philanderer. "Wife," on the other hand, connotes, well, servant. I could say that nicer - something about productive activity in the domestic sphere, but really we all know the the activity of a "wife" is to meet the needs of husband and children. And a marriage traditionally requires (or thinks it requires) both of these opposing elements. The words "husband" and "wife" are loaded - perhaps irremediably so. So while the court says a marriage of two men or two women can exist, it is unclear, culturally, whether a marriage of two "husbands" or two "wives" can.

Now gay people have often used these terms over the years - but mostly with imaginary quotation marks around them. Lots of us used to call our partners "husband," in ironic mimicry of an institution we were not in fact invited to join. And I've known overworked lesbian couples to sigh over a well deserved cocktail and say, "Let's face it. We need a wife."

But this week is a good week for marriage, not just for LGBTQ people, but for everyone, for the institution itself. Because it is now clear that marriage must be able to accommodate relationships that are not built on the idea of the oppositeness of men and women. Because - as my friend Anne finds herself having to point out again and again - men and women are not, in fact, opposites. Still, that's what we learn. Ask a child, "What's the opposite of boy" and they will say, "girl." But boys and girls are far more alike than they are different. I don't know what the opposite of boy is. Nebula? Lunchbox? Whatever it is, it is not "girl".

In fact, there is very little in this cosmos that has an "opposite." Is a positve charge the opposite of a negative charge? Protons and electrons? I don't know if these things are opposites or just different and attracted to each other. Are matter and energy opposites or just different? If darkness is the absence of light, is it really light's opposite? Or is that like the difference between thighs and lap? It's a lap when there's something on it, and thighs when there isn't? That doesn't make lap and thighs opposites. Left and right might be opposites, but only conditionally so - if you're on the North Pole, both left and right are alternative ways to go south. The truth is, much of what we consider the basic elements of cosmos and cognition that oppose each other, don't quite, upon closer inspection.

And yet we've really played, or overplayed, the idea of opposites in our understanding of the world. We can't see a duo without inventing a duality, a pair without a polarity. Part of this might in fact be the result of a world in which we perceive much pairing - there is predominant (but not complete) gender dimorphism, there is apparent (but mostly superficial) bilateral symmetry in the body. In any event, it has somehow been convenient in our cultural and intellectual history to divide the world into two, along just about any axis you can name. There are two kinds of people in this world: people who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don't.

The truth seems to me that we are all complex; our internal makeup, our interactions with each other, are all multifaceted and unique, even if there are generalizations that can be drawn. The question is knowing when to let go of the generalizations. When does dividing the world into men and women make sense? At an exclusively heterosexual mixer? Maybe. At the gynecologist's office? Less than you'd think. In quickly organizing groups for a school activity or a synagogue responsive reading? Never.

Men and women are not opposites, but represent part of a spectrum of variation of the human body. Yes, there seem to also be some differences in behaviors and preferences, at least in the aggregate, but the extent to which those are chemically versus culturally driven continue to be a source of controversy.

In any event we keep deeply wanting to divide the world in two, and for the two sides of the dividing line to stand in opposition to each other. Somehow that conveys both dynamism and stability for us. Then we apply that model of opposition to as many binary distinctions as we can dream up. And because gender has played so great a role in our culture, we tend to gender those oppositions. "Hard/soft, intellectual/emotional, strong/weak" - even though in real life, among our families and peers, we know darn well that those distinctions are often misapplied.

And yet we draw them, we gender them, and we pit them against each other. One of the places where this is done extensively, and with undeniable beauty, is in our Jewish mystical, or kabbalistic, cosmological system, which relies on the 10 sefirot of the Tree of Life. This scheme, which represents the flow of Creation, or perhaps God's internal mechanics, is visualized with a central vertical axis, which holds 4 of the ten sefirot, or elemental or spiritual hubs. Then there are three that sit to the left and three that sit to the right. The ones on the right are associated with maleness; the ones on the left with femaleness. The central column contains elements that represent a balance or synthesis of the two previous opposing sefirot. So, for instance, the right, or male, side includes chesed - compassion and kindness, which are considered externally focused - ways of interacting with the world. Opposing it on the left or female side is gevurah, representing strength and discipline which, even though in Western gender archetypes seems male, is here female, reflecting an internal focus. All human characteristics and tendencies end up lined up on one side of this gender-divided tree or the other.

Now I say this is beautiful, because from inside its own cultural context (a hetero-normative world, in which the cosmos was primarily described and theorized by men), having Creation resemble the meeting of the sexes, making Creation resemble heterosexual intercourse, is both daring and arousing. What drives the world to exist is desire, arousal! The attraction of opposites for each other. The dynamo of Creation is based, for instance, on the desire of power to merge with kindness, wisdom to unite with understanding, the masculine to unite with the feminine.

The metaphor is beautiful and romantic. But it is a metaphor, a souped-up yin-yang, thesis-antithesis. It is a metaphor, and sometimes we forget that. I was once at a kabbalistic study session in a town full of hip Jews, a town I shall not name, but it sits next to Oakland and begins with a B. There I challenged the idea of our having to gender the seemingly opposing forces of the kabbalistic tree of life. I said that for many of us - people who are transgendered, people who love in a same-sex way, maybe some intersex people who choose not to think of themselves in traditional gender terms - the system doesn't have the same fire to it; we can understand it and speak in its language, we can understand how the tension of duality is supposed to work, but it doesn't feel like it's representing some essential truth about gender. The responses I received were surprisingly defensive and angry. I was told that the Tree of Life doesn't represent actual biological sex but rather everyone's internal masculine and feminine.

But of course, that doesn't answer anything; it just begs the question, at least for me. Moving the male-female divide from the social world into one's internal world is no less problematic. People who are used to being strongly gender-identified will be expected to naturally identify with that "side" of their personality, even if they are supposed to imagine containing both sides somewhere internally. Telling a man to access his feminine side reinforces the gendering of certain qualities; if he wants to access his nurturing nature (in the broad social scheme) or his sense of gevurah (in Kabbalah), he still needs to cross a metaphorical gender divide; he needs to pass through an internal mechitzah. In other words, instead of seeing himself as a beautiful mix of human (and/or divine) qualities, he instead is being asked to see himself as a person with easy access to Quality Set A (the "male" qualities), and so more effortful access to a suppressed, or remote, or hidden Quality Set B (the "female" qualities). And the only reason Quality Set B is presumed to be hard to access is because he is male. So even if this male/female quality divide is conceived of as internal rather than social, it still reinforces the idea of a divide, and that he belongs on a specific side of it. For someone like me, who has always felt rather like a Switzerland in this presumed "war between the sexes," the metaphor holds no power, and the clear divide of qualities that is supposed to exist inside of me feels untrue, unnecessary, and puzzling.

I do think the Kabbalistic imagination is beautiful and brave. On Shabbat eve it is the custom, originating with the mystics, but now universal among Jews, to open the door and greet Shabbat, imagined as a bride. Most people hear the song that embodies this image, Lecha Dodi, and they imagine us as her bridegroom. But that's not the case. Shabbat is associated with Shechinah, the female-personified, experiential, immanent aspect of God, and also with Yisrael, the People of Israel. Us. We are the bride, on the way to consummate our marriage to the Eyn Sof, the masculine-gendered, remote and unknowable God of the Cosmos. The thought of all these bearded mystics, all men, in their male-only academies, imagining themselves to be God's bride - well, that just pleases me in all sorts of ways. They were able to see the gendering of the system as a metaphor not tied to biological sex or lived gender perhaps more than we can. Whether or not that made a difference in the lives of their real-life wives is unknown. But still, they used their male privilege to imagine themselves not-male. And that's worth something in my book.

But for me, the important thing is that seeing the world as a series or system of dualities is artificial. It might be based on some observations of the world, but it is a tremendous metaphorical leap from some very select elements of existence. Why pairs? There are other elementals that come in other numbers. There are three primary colors. What if our mystical concept of the world involved threes. Everything was either of the blue sort or the red sort or the yellow sort - every emotion, every behavior. Or the four archetypal elements - water, fire, earth and air? Or the directions? "Ah, strength, well that is very north. Mix it with passion, which is very west, and you get bravery, at center-left." Couldn't we imagine a system like that? Or what if we wanted a system that accounts for predominance of certain types or phenomena, without denying the legitimacy of the less frequent? How about a mystical system based on prime numbers? Each one is equally unique. But they are not equally prevalent. The number 1 is ubiquitous, 2 is associated with half the universe of whole numbers; 3 with a third of them. And then there are some of us who are a 17 or a 71 or a 457. We are all similar to each other, we are all magnetic poles of some sort, each with a similar pull, but exerted in all directions. We are all similar, but some fit into more common types, and some don't. And wouldn't that make a better metaphor for Creation and for the flow of shefa from the Eyn Sof into our world? A mix of infinite unique elements, in unequal proportions?

So back to marriage. I'll stop short today of wondering about whether pair-bonding at all makes sense in the world that we live in. I'll stop short of wondering if community, intimacy, childrearing and legacy are best served by a pairing of two people, as opposed to loosely associated and mutually supportive single people, or even a more closely bonded kibbutz-like group, such as my own remarkable family. I'll stop short because why rob this week's marriage victories of their sweetness by wondering if marriage is still relevant. And I'll stop short because I'm part of it too. I understand the romance of finding someone who feels like your bashert, even though I don't actually believe that any of us are specifically destined for each other. I understand the pull and feel the romance, and I've benefited from them for sure.

But I will say this: that same-sex marriage does hold the possibility of destroying traditional marriage, in ways that will accrue to the benefit of all partnered people, straight or gay. Because we bring to marriage an idea of complementarity without polarity. Marriage can no longer rest on assumptions of how each partner will be, based on the dictates of their sex. Every marriage will have to be seen fresh, and assessed on the basis of each person's gifts and each person's needs without regard to gender. Just as racial integration has benefited every institution that opened itself up to it, so marriage will now be enriched. Spouses, partners, maridos, can now be a team that does not require husbandness and wifeness in order to flourish. We can at last exorcise the antiquated dybbuk of gender roles from the body of marriage. Modern heterosexual couples have been trying to do this for a long time; now they do it with the added support of a surge of thousands of new married couples for whom organizing their relationships without reference to traditional gender roles is not just a progressive anti-sexist step, but an utter and definitional necessity.

A friend said to me today, "marriage is never equal." Meaning that at any moment, in any sphere, one partner is demanding and one deferring. Compromise, negotiation, respect, complementarity. Those will always be part of marriage and of the flow of this Creation. And we don't need oppositeness to make it happen.

Shabbat shalom.

PS. I'm available for weddings. My husband handles my bookings.

Very important insights in this essay flowed from conversations with Eli Herb, Janet Shifrah Tobacman, and Anne Tamar-Mattis (with whom my conversation is constant and delicious). I am also grateful to Yael Raff Peskin, who helped me fix a rather glaring error which, now that it's fixed, I'm too embarrassed to identify!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Parashat Balak: Hatred & Angel Action

For Congregation Ner Shalom, June 21, 2013

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishknotecha Yisrael. How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings O Israel.

These words, which many of us know well, and which are recited every morning by Jews who pray every morning come from this week's Torah portion, Balak. It is a funny little offstage side-story in the Book of Numbers. It is to the Book of Numbers what Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" is to Hamlet. Several chapters of intrigues having to do with the Children of Israel, but about which the Children of Israel are completely unaware. The story starts with the hate-filled king of Moab, named Balak, who hires a well known freelance prophet and paranormal hitman named Bil'am to curse the Israelites, who are encamped on Moab's borders.

Balak the king is a simple and predictable character - a monarch who fears attack by a sea of people wandering in the desert. He wants them gone, but fears attacking them physically unless he can first arrange a good wallop metaphysically. But Bil'am, who would deliver said curse, is a  more complex figure. Unlike the king, he seems to have scruples, at least some. He is in frequent communication with God, with YHWH, our God, whom he frequently calls by name, something we don't even do.

He announces that he will not do what God commands him not do,  although he keeps veering close. In the end he is brought to a peak overlooking the vast Israelite encampment and instead of a curse, what issues from his mouth is blessing: mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, how goodly are your tents.

The sages over time have been quick to villify Bil'am. I suspect they were uncomfortable with his power to bless, curse and prophesy. His intimacy, as a non-Israelite, with our Israelite God  could only have felt like an embarrassment to our sages and their belief in our chosenness.

The later mystics see Bil'am a little differently. He is a sort of shadow Moses. They point to one of the last lines of Torah,

וְלֹא־קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה

which means, "there never arose in Israel another prophet like Moshe." They take this to mean that while Moshe has never been duplicated in our camp, he has peers among the other nations. And Bil'am was the Moshe of Moab. But the difference, according to the Berditchever Rebbe, is that Moshe is the channel for kedushah, for holiness. Whereas Bil'am is part of the k'lipah, the husk, the earthiness and everyday-ness that holds and obscures holiness. So maybe Moshe is the favorite because his relationship with the divine is of a higher caliber. Or maybe Moshe is the fave just because he's ours.

But in any event, there's more to this story than Bil'am's character. The tale is full of suspenseful elements. The question of "will he or won't he curse Israel" gets drawn out and re-posed repeatedly. God is a surprisingly lively player in the story, instructing Bil'am every day. But God's messages are a little contradictory - don't go, go, don't go, go. And God's methods are, as always, inexplicable. You can't tell if this is all part of a master plan, or if God is just improvising as it goes.

Meanwhile, there are both fantastical and comedic elements. Delegations run up and back between Balak the king and Bil'am the prophet. In the movie in my head, they're played by the Marx Brothers. Then there's an angel (obviously played by Tilda Swinton) who appears brandishing a sword to block Bil'am's path on his way to deliver what might or might not be a curse. Oh, and there's a talking donkey too, because why not?

I wonder sometimes why this story is so catchy, and why it's even included in Torah. It is one of our few chances to imagine the conversations and machinations of other nations. It captures a universal fear, that there might be people who hate us and plot against us without our even knowing. The story's resolution reassures us that while we have to deal with the hate that hits us head on, there might at least be some divine protection against the hate we don't see coming. Angels bar the path of those who would curse us. A beautiful thought.

In re-reading this parashah, I was caught a little differently this time by this image of angels barring the path. This is because last week, I took a few Ner Shalom teens to Los Angeles for a short Jewish heritage trip. Besides the requisite deli food (eliciting from one teen the observation that he'd never been in a restaurant with so many Jews), we made a trip to the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance. Besides its careful presentation of the history of the Holocaust, the museum presents examples of hate and intolerance in the world today, and draws attention to creative responses to it.

So one panel in the diorama was on anti-gay violence, focusing on the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming 15 years ago, which brought on the early public appearances of the now-famous  Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. They showed up at Mathew's funeral with their "God Hates Fags" and "Mathew Burns in Hell" signs. Their next visit was during the trial of Mathews torturers and killers, again with the same message that this young man deserved what he got. But this time, in anticipation of their hatemongering and the pain it would cause, friends of Mathew's organized what came to be known as Angel Action. Scores of people dressed as angels, with white robes and 7-foot wingpans, formed an outward-facing perimeter around the God-Hates-Fags people, rendering them invisible and silent; containing the hate before it could harm.

The museum had a photo of this, an image that I'd seen before but forgotten, and I gasped and teared up with the beauty of it, the kedushah, the holiness, that these counter-protestors manifested in response to this very unholy hate.

I was choked up because hate remains as prevalent in our world as ever; and while some hate seems to abate, new victims slide into the "most despised" category. Where does all this hate come from? What part of our heart? Is it nurture or nature? One of the rebbes of Broadway explains it this way:

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

And clearly we do this. We teach our hatreds to our children, through what we say and what we don't say; through what makes us laugh and what makes us tense up. Yes we teach it; but why is it so easy to learn? Because we can hate many years before we learn a verse of the Bible to hang the hate on.

So I asked our 16-year old what makes hate so attractive. A couple thoughts came to him right off the bat. One had to do with identity - that people feel a need to belong, to go with the crowd, and attacking those outside the group makes them feel more accepted inside the group.

This idea seemed right to me. Hate plays on very primal tribal instincts. The tribe survives if it can retain control of sufficient resources. Anyone outside the tribe is competition. The division between "us" and "them" must be clear, and moral judgments, "we are good, they are bad,"  or even, "we are human, they are animals," must be overlaid to justify not sharing - or worse. It's all about the group.
In the parashah we have an interesting moment right at the top when it says, "Moab was alarmed because the Israelites were so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites and said, 'Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field'." This speech is not attributed to a single speaker - not a Hitler or a Fred Phelps or an Assad or even Balak. It is the voice of the country, the voice of the Zeitgeist. It is the tribe as a whole calling the other tribe "animal."

And alas, we still do this. Our more complex society, with so many overlapping identities and allegiances and needs, produces a constant scramble for who is the "us" and who is the "them." Until recently, gay people were a popular "them" but we're witnessing the erosion of that hate, at least in many overt ways. But hate is still everywhere. We see the constant attacks on immigrants, attacks made by the very people who rely on them to do the underpaid and undesirable work. Employers have policies against race bias, but a person with a black-sounding name is 50% less likely to get a response on a job application, despite her education and qualifications, because of what her name suggests of her race and her class origins.

Like the angel in the Balak story that is there all the time and only suddenly is it visible, so I have suddenly had my eyes truly opened to the widespread and unquestioned hatred of fat people in America. It is a hatred so deep that no American is happy with their body; they either feel too fat or terrified they will become fat. No meal is eaten without a calorie judgment or an apologetic comment, all of which adds to our idea that the only desirable body is a thin body and being fat is the worst kind of shame. This hatred pervades the culture. With the possible exception of Kathy Bates, we all know that a fat person never appears on the screen except to be the butt of a joke or to represent some undesirable personality trait - greed, cowardice, selfishness. As Ner Shalomer Anna Mollow pointed out in her recent essay, "Sized Up", fat jokes have replaced queer jokes as the hurtful humor that is acceptable in just about any social setting.

"So why else is hating so attractive," I asked our 16-year old. His answer was revealing. He said, "Once you've decided to hate, it's one of the few emotions you can act on without restraint." He pointed to examples from bullying to terrorism, the freedom that comes once you've rejected whatever it is that would otherwise hold you back. And sadly, that sounded true to me as well, and the Westboro Baptist rank and file, people who might have started out as good Christians but ended up picketing funerals seemed to prove it.

So where I've arrived is this: we are hardwired this way. We don't have to be carefully taught to hate. We have to be carefully taught not to. We have to learn to unlearn. We have to learn to apologize  for hate when we discover we've been behind it. After all, if the Exodus Ex-Gay Ministry which, baruch Hashem, closed their doors this week, can apologize for the merciless harm they inflicted on countless LGBTQ people, both directly and by propping up other people's hate, we can apologize for our missteps too.

And we can learn from the the great teachers of non-violence who came before us: learn how to dam the surge of hate without giving it back in kind. Refuse to go along with the fat joke. Or the racist or the anti-Muslim or even the self-hating Jewish joke. Respond to injustice and hate not with more hate but with creativity, with satire and, when we can manage it, with love. That is what takes the wind out of hate's sails.

These skills will be our wings, as we take our place as angels, barring the path, keeping would-be haters from uttering their words of curse. So that instead they (and we) may open our mouths, and find words of kedushah, of holiness, there. So that we can climb to higher ground, view the great expanse and the colorful tents filling it, and say, mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael. You, yes you of the other tribe, how goodly are your tents, your dwelling places.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What Jews Look Like (Or: did they ever diet in the shtetl?)

This week we read Parashat Korach, the portion of the book of Numbers in which a Levite named Korach, along with his family and friends, speaks out against Moshe's authority, arguing that the people's truth needs to have a role as well. Moshe sets up a test, or maybe an ambush, and Korach receives a divine slapdown of almost unimaginable proportions. Not only are his ideas quashed, but he and his people are swallowed up by the earth. The firepans they had used in the test are purified in fire and become part of the altar -- as a warning, according to the harsh text.

It's an interesting portion because as modern Jews, as voices for social justice, as questioners of authority and would-be truthtellers, our sympathies tend to lie with Korach. For me, this week has become an annual celebration of the rebel in us, and of our willingness to suffer the slapdown, the backlash, the firestorm that sometimes follows in the wake of representing unpopular truths.

And so I was particularly interested and excited this week to read the essay "Sized Up" by my friend Anna Mollow. In it, Anna takes to task our conventional wisdom about fatness and the health risks popularly associated with it. She asks us to look at the science, which does not support our suppositions and, once we're done with that, to see the ways in which it has become popular and unremarkable to scapegoat fat people in our society. Why, she wonders, is it important to harangue fat people for being fat, when studies actually suggest that fat people live longer than skinny people.

Speaking out, Korach-like, against conventional wisdom -- against ideas that we are certain are truth but can't quite put our fingers on how we know that -- she brought on a firestorm. If you're wondering where firestorms occur in this day and age, just look at the "comments" section of any online article. Some commenters expressed gratitude and relief for their truth being spoken. And others condemned, sometimes in cruel and personal terms, the very suggestion that our ideas about fat might be wrong. After all, what believer in healthy living wants to be told that they might actually be guilty of an ugly sort of prejudice that can no longer quite so easily be packaged as scientific or even painted as well-meaning?

I was among those who thought, "This can't be true. Fat people live longer?" So I went to some of Anna's sources, including The Diet Myth by Paul Campos and New York Times reporter Gina Kolata's Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss---and the Myths and Realities of Dieting. These books are exposés, gathering up the science that supposedly justifies our views of fat. But what the studies actually say is not at all what we've been told, and it's eye opening. Here are some of the surprising findings that you might need to read a couple times to absorb:
  • People categorized as "overweight" under current body-mass index (BMI) standards typically have a decreased risk of premature mortality. That is, fat people live longer. Mind if I say that again? Fat people live longer. 
  • Healthy diet and physical activity promote longevity -- in fat and thin people equally, without regard to whether it produces weight loss. 
  • Fat people have no greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. than thin people.
  • People at the far extremes of the bell curve -- both fat and thin -- suffer complications. 
  • Making a long-term, significant change in one's body weight is nearly impossible.
  • The greatest health risk fat people seem to face -- and it's a big one -- is dieting. Shedding 20 pounds and gaining them back (which is nearly always the case in the long run) radically increases the risk congestive heart failure, vascular disease and other problems we've typically associated with being fat per sé. In other words, it's pushing fat people, including ourselves, to diet that puts one at risk for all those nasty conditions.
In her essay, Anna sketches this problem as a queer issue, noting how the almost unthinking scapegoating of fat people looks like, and serves a similar social function as, the oppression of queers in this country (at least until relatively recently). Where queers were medicalized and psychologized baselessly; where queer jokes and disparaging comments used to be safe in any social setting, it is now fat people who are medicalized, and it is the fat joke that no one will object to.

And I, because it's what I do, would like to make this a Jewish issue as well. My friend Jane Herman recently pointed out to me that we Jews, as a tribe, come from shtetl stock; our bodies do, in fact, deviate from the American ideal. Thin is not our dominant shape. And our shape should be our core reference point, not the shape of someone on a Weight Watchers commercial.

So I'd like you to meet some poeple.

These are my great-grandmothers -- the two on the sides, seen here flanking my grandmother,  all celebrating Mother's Day in the early 1950s on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Rebecca is on the left and Rose on the right. Grandma Sade is in the middle, but it is Rebecca and Rose I want to talk about. Both diminutive in height, both formidable women, both immigrants, both zaftik.1

Neither of my great grandmothers was ever told to diet; neither of them ever did. Neither of them was told that fat was bad or that to be Americans they had to be skinny and blonde. Neither was informed of the supposed health risks of obesity, although both would certainly qualify as "obese" under the current BMI standards (as do, by the way, George Clooney and Tom Cruise). As busy balabostehs, heroic homemakers with many newly American children, neither had time to notice that fat people were supposed to be lazy and sedentary. Probably neither ever ate a McDonalds hamburger, although they ate well and Jewish. Both lived well into their 90s.

This is, takeh, how Jewish women look. At least in my book.

The point is that our ideas about fat are social, not medical. There is a social hatred of fat people in this country today, and in the last generation or so we have justified it with false science. The real science is out there, but the media and the public haven't caught on, and the diet industry doesn't want us to.

What is normal weight? What makes a weight ideal? Looking at the data, heavier than our current norm is in fact better for you. It's as if someone took the actual ideal window, compressed it and gave it a hard shove leftward on the bell curve.

Remember your grandmothers and your aunties; your Ashkenazic, immigrant, pre-diet craze foremothers. That is what women look like.

Once the science is yanked out from under the supposition that fat is bad, what is left to justify our constant criticism of fat people? An aesthetic judgment? Fat people are not attractive? A moral judgment? Fat people are lazy or lacking in self-control? No one would have called my great grandmothers any of those things. No one would have called them unattractive -- at least not until they arrived in America, where Jews and other undesirable ethnics increasingly could not be kept out of the professions and the social clubs, but at least they could be kept out of the aesthetic of physical desirability. A skinny Anglo-Saxon aesthetic, combined with a Puritan work ethic and, eventually, a multi-billion dollar diet industry, turned people who look like our grandmothers into people to be judged on the basis of their bodies.

Jews - take note. Our bodies haven't changed; just our values. Did anyone ever go on a diet in the shtetl? What would the idea of purposeful weight loss have sounded like to them?


Goyim naches.

Reject the war on obesity. Reject the vilification of fat people. Speak up against fat jokes. Oppose the shaming of fat kids, whether it is by school yard bullies or by public health campaigns. Fight for good health, healthy food, healthy activity and health care for everyone of all sizes. Stop trying to make fat people thin - and that includes yourself.

Before we finish, though, there is something in the Korach story that has always puzzled me. The firepans that belonged to Korach the rebel and his people are incorporated into the altar in the mishkan, the holy tent. You'd expect them instead to be cast out of the encampment. And though the text says it's a warning, some element of Korach's rebellion is clearly understood to be holy. And over time, Korach's plea for equality and fairness has become as holy and Jewish a value as anything Moses handed down at Mt. Sinai.

Plus, as my friend Atzilah Solot pointed out to me this week, another element of Korach is this: that even when our ideas are swallowed up by the earth, they become like seeds that will most certainly bloom later.

So let us open ourselves up to new truths; let us question any orthodoxy of thought; let us stand up for equality and fairness even -- and especially -- when the culture tells us that harsh judgments leveled against a class of people are natural and justified. And even if our voices are drowned out right now, know that we will have planted the seeds whose blossoming is just a season away.

Many thanks to Anna Mollow, Jane Herman and Atzilah Solot for all the inspiration and the insights.

1 Anna warns in her essay against euphemizing "fat", but I perceive "zaftik" in Yiddish as both non-evasive and as having a warm, favorable valence, meaning literally "juicy." I've always perceived it to be a word that doesn't mince words, and which is said proudly, descriptively and lovingly. I could be wrong - I've never been called zaftik, I don't know how it feels. And being affectionate doesn't necessarily make a euphemism not a euphemism. Maybe it's true that I don't want to say fat, and that I'm still working up to it. But in any event, in the name of reclaiming our particularly Jewish acceptance of diverse body shapes, I'm willing to go out on this limb.