jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · movies · television

Don’t get brainwashed!

I told a friend who is in the conversion process that I still read stuff like the Sookie Stackhouse series and watch stuff like the show True Blood (though I wish they’d move it to the USA cable network so they could “clean it up” like they did with syndicated episodes of Sex and the City). She was shocked. She wanted to know if my husband approved. Somehow after a couple of emails back and forth, the conversation ended with me saying: “I don’t think my husband thinks I’m going to have premarital sex because I’m reading Sookie Stackhouse books. I mean, I’m married already!” Yeah, and now I’ve immortalized this on my blog. Thank G-d he doesn’t read it.

But since becoming Orthodox, I read and watch things through very different eyes. I’ve very cognizant of the strangest things, like people touching each other (even just affectionately between men and women, nothing graphic) on film and before I see someone eat something on TV, I say the blessing in my head for whatever they’re going to eat. I notice when women are dressed immodestly in a way I know I was desensitized to before. But do I think watching and reading these secular TV shows and movies “pollute” my head? It’s a risk I’m willing to take. My love of film, TV shows and books of all kinds doesn’t come between me and my Judaism. I doubt that reading a few vampire novels is going to make me go bite people. I’m not reading or watching this stuff brainlessly and not thinking about what it says and what it’s trying to tell me. In fact, I think much more sensitively of the stuff I see in the media and in Hollywood.

Lately I’ve run into too many converts who are peer pressured by mentors (rabbis, friends, other converts, etc) to leave more and more of their secular lifestyle behind. Okay, giving up pork is one thing but giving up all the movies you like, all your non-Jewish friends and family, all your books and stuff in quick succession smells like brainwashing to me. If it feels good, more power to you. (I was elated to give up pants so I didn’t have to do “the dance” to squeeze myself in them.) But it might be brainwashing if well, you feel awful all the time for one and then you find yourself “reverting” and hiding the secular things you still want to do. Basically, you’ve quickly been turned into one of those ultra-Orthodox people who have a TV hidden in the dark room in their house that nobody knows about because everyone in your community would shun you if they did.
Yes, your lifestyle’s going to change dramatically when you convert to Judaism but if it’s giving you an ulcer or post-traumatic stress disorder then you’re going to fast (easy does it!) or you’re in the wrong community for you. There are many different movements within Judaism (even just within Orthodoxy itself). One synagogue in one little neighborhood is a world unto itself, I think, sometimes. There’s a lot of things people should be ashamed about but on the whole, I think that even most of the crappy stuff we did in our past life molded us into the person we are today and we wouldn’t have gotten to this point if we hadn’t done it.
This statement always cracks me up and I probably can’t pull off the coolness required to deliver it but remember you gotta “do you.” This is your life and you can’t spend the rest of it hiding in a dark room sneaking movies. Or well, if that is what a fulfilled life is to you then you gotta learn to roll with it I guess. Okay, now I’m starting to sound like a mini-Oprah. It’s time to log off! Yoga, physical therapy, medication, sleep, stretch, gym, stationary bike, repeat, rest.

7 thoughts on “Don’t get brainwashed!

  1. My girlfriend linked me to your blog, since I'm Jewish and she intends to convert. I just wanted to say how much I agree with you. The way my Rabbi sees it, he's in agreement with you as well. That it's a process, that can sometimes take years, but that the idea is to take on what you can, when you are prepared for it. Forcing someone to go faster than they're able can backfire. I also love reading posts like these, seeing people like you, who converted, and they aren't just brainwashed by the majority. I hope you can help lead other converts to follow in your footsteps and stay true to themselves as well!


  2. Rav Kook, in Orot ha-Teshuva, speaks of teshuva initially causing a constriction of both the good and the bad in a person. Explains Rav Kook, the yetzer ha-ra is not really the “evil” inclination, but is really the prime vital energy force in man. Thus, the Gemara says that the yetzer ha-ra is responsible for marriage, business, etc. So, says Rav Kook, if your teshuva involves limiting the yetzer ha-ra, then you'll end up limiting the yetzer ha-tov no less, since the yetzer ha-ra is the source for all of man's deeds, good and bad alike. Rav Kook likens this to electro-shock therapy, in that it destroys the good with the bad; we'd say chemotherapy today. What Rav Kook says is ideal, is for the person to keep his yetzer ha-ra at full strength, but to channel its energy from bad to good. Don't destroy evil; sanctify it. Take all the energy you used to use for evil, and use it for good.

    (Rav Kook's approach is followed in Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits's “A Jewish Sexual Ethics”, in Crisis and Faith and in Essential Essays on Judaism (ed. Hazony).)

    My rabbi in yeshiva would take this passage of Rav Kook and use it to explain how so many baalei teshuva become nebukhs, real pansies, with no energy or interests. My rabbi would say, if you you play guitar, keep playing it, only now as a religious Jew! Don't stop being yourself just because you're religious now too!


  3. Good for you Aliza. There is a trend to block out the secular world more and more and while I certainly see much out that that is objectionable–like the woman in front of me on the line at the mall with large rhinestone studs right on each cheek of her ass (pardon my crudeness but I was embarassed to look at her) I don't think that Judaism requires us to throw out the baby with the bathwater. There have always been two oppositional approaches, the East European, chassidic influenced, where the local goyim were drunken Cossaks and where the attitude was understandably STAY AWAY and the West European Hirschean school which believed in keeping ones head screwed on straight and taking what was good from the big bad world and leaving the rest. Hirsch was a big fan of Kant, who while not quite the Sookie Stackhouse of his day was perhaps the Malcolm Gladwell. Much of the orthodox establishment, especially the “right wing” is dominated by the East Europeans and they exert a strong influence on the school system but the other way is equally legitimate and for people like us who've been educated in that other culture, it may be the only sane and viable choice. Best


  4. Thank you. This was great Aliza. It just made me feel good reading it. Sometimes we need to remember in all the excitement and desire to do things “right” as we convert that Judaism expects you to ask why. In addition, we need to be careful not to be idol worshipers of the people and structures created in those vulnerable moments as a convert.


  5. Not being a convert, I can't comment on how easy/hard it is to make the change. However as a JBB who has grown in religious practice, I think that the marriage of the secular and religious is the right path. If one is strong is their religious beliefs, movies, TV, books, theater, etc. shouldn't be threatening. Nothing will challenge or change by belief and love of Judaism — not my Christian friends or anything else.


  6. <3

    Thank you.

    I'm someone who is looking into converting and so many people I know, Jew and Gentile alike, are so convinced that it will COMPLETELY change my life. When it'll only change some of my practices and intentions


  7. Arielle, it will completely change your life…but exactly, not in the way most people think. Underneath this spiritual journey, you'll always be the same Arielle you've always been and I think that freaks people out: Jews who are wary of converts and whether or not they've really accepted Jewish doctrine and non-Jewish friends and family who think you've been body snatched).


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