Martha Stewart Judaism™

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In some Orthodox Jewish communities, almost everyone relates to their Judaism in a very similar way. Insular Chasidic communities are often the sort of community where everyone lives a very similar style of Jewish life and practices a very homogenous version of Judaism. Similarly, some Israeli settlement communities feature conformity and somewhat uniform Jewish experiences within their community.

But most Orthodox Jews live in relatively diverse communities where people enjoy different parts of their Jewish experiences in their own ways. Some might be more into meeting Rebbehs and Gedolim for blessings, others love learning Gemara, others seek out opportunities for chessed, yet others enjoy the music and singing and dancing, while others revel in Shabbos and Yom Tov. In other words, there are many different areas of focus that can give flavor and meaning to one’s subjective Judaism.martha103994pr_027_4x612

I think it would great to increase these options. We should be seeking more flavors of Judaism. Jewish experiences should be developed for Orthodox Jews with other areas of talent and expertise. It sometimes feels as if the modes of expression in Orthodox Judaism today were cutting edge at some point, but feel a little bit long in the tooth today.

One of the newer modes of Jewish expressions is something that my wife coined Martha Stewart Judaism™. (Which also happens to be her specialty.) This is the form of Judaism that finds great meaning and pleasure from the creative presentation of Judaism and its rituals. It’s the kind of Judaism that gave us gourmet cookbooks, party planner designed kiddushes, parsha cakes, out of this world Sukkah decorations, and amazing holiday crafts. The Super Bowl of Martha Stewart Judaism is almost certainly the upcoming holiday of Purim. The creative ideas, themes, and originality of Mishloach Manos and tying costumes into the theme for bonus points has become our modern version of the Purim celebration.

For many people, this is the part of Jewish life that they love most. It’s their favorite part of Judaism. That’s great. I am a huge proponent of exploring and exploiting new and exciting ways to inspire passionate Jewish engagement for Orthodox Jews. Martha Stewart Judaism is certainly a great example of finding niches to focus our passions within Orthodox Judaism. I love it.

The only problem is that sometimes the people who don’t love Martha Stewart Judaism feel pressure to conform to the standards that have been set astronomically high by the creative people. Not everyone likes finding a theme for Mishloach Manos. Some people just want to give a small grape juice with some rugelach in a Ziploc bag. But they feel like they can’t do that because of the social pressure. This is unfortunate. There is no rule that we all have to be Martha Stewarts. Not everyone gets pleasure out of that kind of expression of Judaism. It’s a shame that these people often feel negatively about these Jewish experiences because they feel pressure to conform to one particular form of Jewish expression.

This really applies to all kinds of different Jewish expression. Not everyone wants to “dance” (smash) in a “circle” (mosh pit) at a wedding. Not everyone enjoys singing Zemiros on Shabbos. Not everyone loves learning Talmud. One of our greatest strengths is that we provide a variety of acceptable Jewish expressions in Orthodox Judaism. We can’t force conformity to any particular version and if we do we risk alienating those who do not appreciate that they are being forced to conform. There are plenty of acceptable ways to express our Jewishness that we should not have to push ourselves to participate in programs and projects that don’t appeal to our personalities and talents.

It would also be nice if we could be less rigid about who participates in each flavor of Judaism. I am sure that there are many men who would love to be Martha Stewarts and there are probably women out there who would like to do some of the more typically male activities. Some non-Chasidic Jews might really love he tish and many Chasidic Jews might enjoy a class on Orthodox Biblical Scholarship. But these lines are rarely crossed. More choices and greater freedom to choose would be great.

I love that we have Martha Stewart Judaism. But I think that it also is a great test example of how we can sometimes box people into roles and rules that are not suited to them, thereby souring their Jewish experience. We can do a better job allowing people to find their niche within Orthodox Judaism and not enforcing arbitrary standards on everyone. This would be a great step forward in maintaining positive Orthodox Jewish experiences. And let’s not forget to see if we can think of ways that we can add more Orthodox Jewish experience opportunities that make sense in our modern world.

  • ksil

    You mention wedding, for example. “Not everyone wants to “dance” (smash) in a “circle” (mosh pit) at a wedding” well, not everyone wants to sit apart from their spouse, not everyone wants to have a huge, dense wall of a mechitza down the middle of their dance floor, not everyone wants separate dancing for the entire simcha….at some point you are excluding someone. How do you deal with that? Or is it all inclusive, fluffy, nice, everybody so happy, cool dude, ocean, LA orthodox Judaism?? (which only exists in your shul, apparently)

    • You’re bringing up a completely different issue. One that I address all the time. But it’s not the issue here.

      • MarkSoFla

        But the issue is related. Pretty closely. When Martha-Stewart-style becomes de rigueur religious practice, and people aren’t into that kind of practice …

        • tesyaa

          I think ksil is saying something different. Some people want a mixed simcha, others are offended by it. It’s impossible to please everyone. You can’t say there’s room for everyone to fit in. Even Gil Student, ostensibly MO, says there’s no room for Open Orthodoxy.

          • I am deliberately avoiding halachic discussion here. This idea is all within the confines of mainstream halacha.

            • tesyaa

              Mainstream according to whom?

              • Pretty much all Orthodox Jews.

            • MarkSoFla

              Really? I’m not so sure. For example, is it permitted to have an excessive amount (measured by cost, effort, and/or quantity) of decorations for a holiday? Is it permitted to use fruits and vegetables for sukkah decorations? Is it permitted to use gold shavings as cake decorations? etc. Or is it a form of bal tashchit?

              • This has nothing to do with cost.

                • MarkSoFla

                  Sometimes it does. And sometimes effort. And sometimes quantity. As I noted.

          • MarkSoFla

            I know. I was saying that once MS-style perfection becomes a religious requirement, when people aren’t comfortable with it, it will be treated similarly to everything else that is suddenly considered “beyond the pale.”

      • ksil

        eh, maybe i read a different piece than the one posted here?!?!
        You are basically saying that everyone can get along, there is room for all of us in the big orthodox jewish tent, and I am saying that is pure nonsense in the “real” orthodox jewish world that most of us live in. even the modernishe – as mark points out below, cant accept people that are different, and are tolerant of the intolerant and ungreatful (this was in reference to Gil essentially endorsing the recent charedi protest against the state of israel – i barely can type that without gagging – its unbelievable)
        unless this piece was a wish, like a disney theme. if you believe in your dream eli, your dreams will come true

  • EA

    What we do impacts others whether that’s fair or not. It’s one thing to Martha Stewart at home, on your own Shabbos or yontiff table, and something else entirely to “show off” in your Mishloach Manos, even if you really are doing it because you love it and it feels like hiddur mitzva. We can take more responsibility for our community by keeping our extra special stuff more private, and keeping the public standards lower (e.g. simpler, fewer mishloach manos, more zdaka instead) and more inclusive.

  • tesyaa

    The frum world is obsessed with external perfection. This obsession leads to tragedy when people feel the need to create a veneer of fake perfection rather than get help for psychological problems (for example). Martha Stewart’s ethos of a perfectly aesthetic home and kitchen is a great parallel.

    • MarkSoFla

      This is a new thing, it’s actually VERY recent. It might even be a “this generation” thing.

      • tesyaa

        So the question is, how and why did the community adopt this mode of behavior?

        • MarkSoFla

          My observations tell me that it is part of the growing affluence (and the accompanying entitlement mentality) of the orthodox community.

          Despite @efink:disqus’s claim below that “cost has nothing to do with this”, he’s wrong, in many cases, cost has a lot to do with it. A big part of Martha Stewart style is to show off to others. So, for those gourmet cookbooks, people design special shelf cabinets in their custom kitchen. And the party planner designed kiddushes add thousands of dollars in many cases. Those fancy parsha cakes take a lot of effort, or a lot of expense when custom made by the local bake shop. The out of this world Sukkah decorations take a lot of effort to create, or more likely money to buy. And as for the amazing holiday crafts, some of the new houses come with “craft rooms” nowadays.

          Meanwhile, in the pre-affluence world, in the world where people still live in [small] apartments in the city, just having ready access to a sukkah period is celebrated! And those large dining rooms where you can host 25 people simply don’t exist.

          • If you’re relying on money to be creative you’re no Martha Stewart.

            • MarkSoFla

              I don’t think you’re understand exactly what I mean, but I was responding to your sentence – “It’s the kind of Judaism that gave us gourmet cookbooks, party planner designed kiddushes, parsha cakes, out of this world Sukkah decorations, and amazing holiday crafts.” Most of these things have costs (or effort, etc) associated with them, as I mentioned below. And generally, the people that take them further to the extreme incur greater costs and expend much more effort. It’s not a value judgement, it’s just a statement of fact.

              When I was a younger, we had 2 cookbooks, maybe 3 (“The Joy of Cooking” and grandma’s hand written one of course). Now we have a full shelf of them, including 5 or 6 volumes of the wonderful Kosher by Design series. When I was younger, nobody ever even heard of a “party planner” (if it even existed at the time), now they are a common service used for weddings and bar mitzvah parties … and now even for kiddushim. When I was younger, our sukkah decorations were made by the children and were simple.

              • And you don’t understand what I am saying. You can do all that stuff I mentioned in that sentence without spending a lot of money.

          • tesyaa

            Mark, I totally disagree that the pretense of a perfect life is due to affluence (even though I can’t entirely pinpoint the source myself). You see it even among the poor, and it’s often not related to material things (although, as you point out, it often is). Even very poor people can take pride in their perfectly behaved frum children (and of course, there’s no place for an OTD or questioning child in such a lineup). Even the very poor can be proud of their wonderful parenting skills, which ensure that none of their children will ever need to see a counselor or a psychologist. Even the very poor can be proud that their high school boys learn 16 hours a day, or that their daughters are so dedicated to tznius.

            If I can think of any reason why the frum velt tries so hard to present perfection, it may be the influx of BTs into chareidi circles. The normally insular chareidi world might, despite its protestations, feel some measure of defensiveness when its lifestyle is exposed in detail to these newcomers. If people in the frum world have many of the same problems as the nonreligious, how can it claim to be a better lifestyle? Therefore, the claim to perfection.

            • MarkSoFla

              Tesyaa, The things you are listing here are COMPLETELY different than the things previously given as examples of “Martha Stewart style” that I was responding to previously. The things you are listing are more in the “ruchniyut” domain (good behavior, learning, good parenting, high tznius standards, etc), while the things listed in this post are more in the “gashmiyut” domain (party planners for kiddush, out of this world sukkah decorations, custom parsha cakes, etc).

              And I completely agree, affluence has nothing to do (at least not directly) with the things that *you* listed.

              I wonder if @efink:disqus agrees with you that the Martha Stewart style Judaism also applies to the [thin] veneer of perfection that is painted over everything orthodox Jews do?