"Jewish Without an ‘Off’ Switch" by Robert J. Saferstein
Robert J. Saferstein
by Robert J. Saferstein (bio below) for Sh'ma, A Journal of Jewish Ideas
I stared across the table, awaiting a response. It would be a few moments before he spoke. When he did, all he said was, “Wow. I had no idea you were soJewish.”
So Jewish. The words stung. “Too Jewish” is what he meant. But what does that mean?
The exchange happened on a recent evening while I was out on a date with someone I had met online. Initially, our correspondence was not all that interesting. But following a lengthy repartee over Google Chat — the tone somewhere between snarky and flirtatious — we decided to meet.
We had quite a lot in common. Raised in observant households, we shared similar interests in the visual and performing arts, and we were each self-described urban anthropologists looking to absorb everything New York City had to offer. Everything was going perfectly until he asked: “So, what is it exactly that you do?”
I expected the question. After all, this was a date, and inquiring about each other’s preoccupations is par for the course. What I feared — “the problem” — was what was about to unfold as I responded.
“Well,” I started, “aside from working in the visual and performing arts, I am the online director of a Jewish intellectual journal. And I’m also quite active in the larger LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) Jewish community.”
As I went on to explain my life and my work, it became increasingly obvious that I was losing him. I could all but hear his silent pleas for mercy as he feigned interest in what I had to say. By the time I came to my involvement in the ROI community, the summit for Jewish innovators funded by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, it was clear that I needed to segue into something else.
His comment, “So Jewish,” stayed with me. It was disheartening to hear, but unfortunately all too familiar. There seems to be a threshold of how “Jewey” a prospective companion can be. In fact, asking, “What do you do?” is almost always a problematic question, because the revelation that one is a Jewish professional conjures up a set of assumptions that are rarely complimentary: He must be some sort of religious fundamentalist; no one would “willingly” work in that field.
These perceptions present an even more difficult challenge when it comes to observant LGBTQ Jews who feel rejected by their communities and Judaism. Finding little room for reconciliation between the Judaism they identify with and their sexual identity, many choose a more accepting secular lifestyle that is, at most, only culturally Jewish. It can be difficult to understand why someone who is LGBTQ would choose to be so deeply involved in Jewish life, both professionally and personally. It appears counterintuitive and could be mistaken for self-loathing. And it is most definitely not sexy.
I tried to remain composed while we waited for the check to arrive. As we walked out of the restaurant, my date turned to me and asked, “Why are you so Jewish? Why choose to be so involved?”
I have been asking myself the same questions for years. I’ve always immersed myself fully in my work. I’m your textbook definition of a workaholic: I’m terrible at setting boundaries and I rarely carve out time for myself. If I’m working for “the Jews,” I’m completely enmeshed in that world. This is further exacerbated by the fact that my downtime is equally as “Jewish” as my profession: My friends are Jewish; I regularly attend synagogue; and I lead and participate in a number of different Jewish groups and extracurricular activities.
What is most challenging about living such an integrated life is that Judaism is no longer reserved solely for my own spiritual fulfillment. It seeps into and occupies every sphere of my personal and professional life so that they are virtually indistinguishable from each other. This further complicates my already difficult struggle to balance work and life, and it begs the question that by always being “on,” could I endanger the very value Judaism provides for me in the first place?
It is something to be careful about. And, ironically, I feel pulled to be more involved. Wherever I have found myself, I have always been drawn to creating or strengthening community. It is in this interconnectedness and belonging that I find meaning, and why being “so Jewish” fulfills the various facets of who I am.
Robert J. Saferstein, the online director for Sh’ma, specializes in online media, photography, music composition, and film production. Active in the LGBTQ Jewish community as an organizer and advocate for change and equality, Saferstein is the founder of Friday Night Lights, a series of sophisticated Shabbat dinners for gay professionals. He is a member of the ROI Community and is a PresenTense Social Start trainer for social entrepreneurship.