I was sitting in the front row of a classroom for a lecture and Q&A session with the “Michael Jordan of Rabbis.” This wasn’t his official title, but it’s the one I gave him after hearing his peers and students refer to him as “one of the greats.”
He was in his 60s, wore glasses, a dark suit and tie, tassels and kippah. His grey beard was about the length of Woody Allen’s in the “Annie Hall” Easter dinner scene, and it seemed to grow longer each time I looked at him.
I wasn’t all that attentive to his lecture – a discussion on anger as it related to a portion of the Torah – because I was anticipating the Q&A. We were told we had free range to ask Rabbi Michael Jordan whatever we wanted, which I took as more of a challenge than an opportunity. Was it possible to stump him, or even better, force him to reevaluate his firmly-held beliefs? When I reviewed my questions with another rabbi before the lecture, he said, “You know, he may not answer those in front of everyone.”
A few minutes into the Q&A, it was time. I raised my hand and asked my first question.
“I have a thought experiment for you. There is a loaded gun to your head and a blank canvas in front of you. You have an unlimited array of art supplies at your disposal. The assailant tells you to draw your interpretation of God or he will pull the trigger. What do you draw?”
The paradox of my question is that the Torah forbids artistic interpretation of God. The second commandment states, “Do not represent [such] gods by any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land.”
My assumption was the rabbi would break the Judaic law to preserve his life. From what I understand, health and safety take priority over religious observance. For example, it would be acceptable for an observant Jew who’s injured to drive or be driven to the hospital on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
The rabbi considered my question. I considered what he might draw: a Jewish star with fingerpaints, Moses’s name in graffiti (spelled “Mo$e$”), or maybe a game of Hebrew Hangman to distract the assailant.
Then, he responded.
“I would draw nothing,” he said, smiling.
The smile grew bigger.
“I would rather be shot.”
I barely identified as Jewish the first time I went to Israel. It was eight years ago and I went through Birthright, a free, 10-day trip for Jews ages 18-26. If you’re Jewish, you’ve likely done it, and if you’re not, it’s why your Jewish friend posted a picture on Instagram of themselves riding a camel.
I learned little about Judaism on that trip. More so, I rejected it. At the end of the 10 days, our rabbi gave us self-addressed postcards. He told us to write ourselves a note about why we loved Israel and why we should return. Return? I had no interest in coming back. It was vacation. My priorities were drinking Israeli beer, buying a “Guns & Moses” t-shirt, and taking pictures with Israeli soldiers’ guns.
On the postcard, I wrote “Dear Alex, Come back to Israel!”
At the bottom of the postcard, in an ode to my favorite film, Memento, I wrote, “P.S. Don’t believe his lies.”
I never received the postcard.
My Jewish upbringing went something like this: I celebrated some holidays, had a bar mitzvah, and went to a few years of Sunday school. (In Sunday school, I remember wondering if the Jewish ghettos we learned about were the same ghettos Jay-Z rapped about.) The highlight of my bar mitzvah wasn’t reading from the Torah (I read from Genesis, which I thought was cool because it reminded me of Sega Genesis), but the party where my friends and I switched the glasses of champagne on the adults’ tables with the glasses of ginger ale on the kids’ tables.
I went to public school with mostly Irish and Italians. I was one of ten Jews in my class, which is probably why my parents sent me to overnight camp after 5th grade. There was nothing Jewish about the camp besides it being attended by mostly Jews, but I remember feeling an immediate connection to the people. They were like me – we had the same kind of parents (overbearing), expressed ourselves similarly (complaining), and worried about about the same things (everything).
After high school, I went to a big university and joined a fraternity. Like camp, it wasn’t technically Jewish, but its members were mostly Jews. The local rabbi must have thought we had potential. He’d come to our house unannounced during parties drunker than any of us. He’d stumble in with a bottle of Kosher wine, do Jewish dances to whatever Gucci Mane song was blaring, and take shots of our non-Kosher whiskey. He’d hand us fliers about upcoming Shabbat dinners we’d never go to, take a nap, and leave.
After graduating, I moved to New York City. Up until this point, I associated Judaism with camp and my fraternity, and they both felt like things I had grown out of. Friends from my fraternity lived in Murray Hill, a neighborhood known for its college bars, button-down shirts and excessive hair product. In my mind, that’s what “being Jewish” meant, so I disassociated. I skipped out on going home for the holidays. I had become something worse than a self-hating Jew: a non-identifying Jew.
My perspective changed when I started writing and performing comedy. In researching its history, I learned about the Borscht Belt and comedy’s Jewish roots. It was the first time I connected my habits of teasing and self-deprecating, personality traits I expanded into stand-up, to my Jewish DNA. I realized it was these behaviors that connected me to my friends at camp and the fraternity. Comedy was my first intellectual connection to Judaism, a way of understanding how my brain worked in a Jewish way.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I learned about another “free trip to Israel” program in the most Jewish way possible: from my mother. The program was different than Birthright. There was an educational component: 10 weeks of classes at a yeshiva, a Jewish school, consisting of lectures and private learning. There were also social activities, like Shabbat dinners and BBQs.
I was hesitant and skeptical, attempting to find the program’s ulterior motive. Isn’t Birthright the only free trip to Israel? What’s this program really about? Scientology? How long until I’m an OT Level III?
After 10 weeks of classes with 30 or so other Jewish 20-somethings, we went to Israel. As an ode to my favorite scene in The Rules of Attraction, I’ll quickly summarize: repelling, Jeep rides, hiking, shawarma, falafel, sweating, a mikvah, dancing, dancing while sweating, sweating while not dancing, drawing on an Orthodox woman’s wig holder, Rabbi Michael Jordan, techno boat cruise, ATVs, studying Torah, selfies at the Wall, selfies overlooking Jerusalem, more selfies than I’m comfortable with, more falafel and shawarma than I’m comfortable with, Shabbat, l’chaims, paintball, bruises from paintball, more pictures with Israeli soldiers’ guns, waterfalls, Holocaust museum, tombs, camel rides, shawarma, falafel…
Although I had warned myself eight years earlier about returning to Israel, I’m glad that I did. The trip helped me learn the history of Judaism and the formation of the religion. It helped me understand the plight, struggles, survival and victories of the Jewish people. It helped me appreciate why Israel, a Jewish state, exists and thrives. It helped me realize that millions of people have died and suffered so I could live the life I live today and enjoy a trip to Israel where I’d overeat fried balls of chickpeas.
Did the trip make me more Jewish? On a Jewish scale of 0 to 10, 0 being Bill O’Reilly and 10 being the hypothetical love child of Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen, I netted out at about Drake. So, no, I don’t think the trip made me more Jewish. But the trip did help me accept the Jewish person I already was.
More importantly, it helped equip me with the most important Jewish trait of all: pride.
“During your journey as a Jew, what was your single greatest moment of doubt?”
That was the second question I asked Rabbi Michael Jordan, and the question the other rabbi thought he may not answer in front of people.
I was hoping for a moment of vulnerability, a chink in his Jewish armor, an anecdote of the time he almost, ever so briefly, even for a split-second, doubted God.
That’s not what I got. Rabbi Michael Jordan never doubted God.
My biggest struggle with Judaism, or any monotheistic religion, is the belief in God. I’m not there, and I’m not sure I ever will be. But for me, to deny Judaism for this reason alone is missing the point. Judaism and its history is part of who I am, and allows me to be part of something bigger than myself.
Rabbi Michael Jordan’s answers resonated with me not because I agreed (I would draw the assailant, hopefully flattering him enough to make sure he put down the gun, and I’m constantly doubting not just God, but everything), but because I saw him as a counterpoint to my former self.
For most of my life, Judaism meant nothing to me. To him, it was worth dying for.
The Jews are called the “Chosen People,” but I never felt chosen. I wasn’t able to accept myself as a Jew until I chose Judaism.
I don’t know what my future as a Jew looks like. I don’t think I’ll join the ranks of Rabbi Michael Jordan, even if I do like the idea of being Rabbi Scottie Pippen.
What I do know is Judaism will be a part of my future, now that I understand how it was a part of my past.
P.S. Don’t believe his lies.