Posted on | June 1, 2009 | By Anxious Ima | 25 Comments
My Toughest Jewish Moment.
In my other life—when I’m not being Anxious Ima, I’m a freelance journalist and it isn’t an easy road. Good writing gigs are hard to come by so it was with great delight that I snagged one — interviewing Ayelet Waldman for a top national webzine.
I didn’t know much about Waldman, just that she was a home girl, married to Pulitzer prize winner novelist Michael Chabon and that she’d written a new essay collection intrigningly titled called “ Bad Mother, A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. ” Anxious Ima meets Bad Mother. It sounded so perfect that I got goose bumps just thinking about it.
I emailed the publicist for an advance copy—for free, a journalistic perk and embarked on what started out as a fun, easy read.. Waldman has a good message, that mothers should give up on judging themselves, an engaging style and a wicked sense of humor. Several of the chapters are gems . My personal favorite was the one detailing her nearly superhuman efforts to express breast milk for her newborn cleft palate baby.
Another chapter explores Waldman’s own handicap, hereditary bipolar disorder and its role in her wrenching decision to abort a possibly deformed infant. I know that she’s taken a lot of flack for that, but I wasn’t troubled. In my halachic mind, I sensed ample grounds for a heter, though Waldman didn’t seek one out (she probably never even heard of that option) chosing instead , to confess her “sin” publicly before her reform (Jewish) congregation on Yom Kippur. To my orthodox mind, that was somewhat misguided, a bit odd but not enough reason to make me wish the book had never been published.
It was when Waldman veered into the area of sexuality that I started to wish that censorship would come back into style. True, Waldman lives in Berkeley, not Meah Shearim, but am I the only one out there who thinks that placing a bag of colorful birth control devices in a preteen boy’s medicine cabinet is over the top? And when Waldman gushed about how delighted she would be if one or both of her sons turned out to be homosexual I was about ready to empty the contents of my lunch onto the book.
With gay marriages rapidly becoming legal all over the US map is this the new normal,? I certainly hope not and it certainly isn’t for us orthodox Jews who take their cue from Leviticus 18:22.
Now I had a dilemma. How in the world was I supposed to interview someone who wrote stuff that went against my deepest core values?
I could called Waldman on what I saw as her garbage, but the publication was so left-liberal that raising the red flag of protest, would have most likely resulted in a rejection for my piece. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the risk of alienating this publication. They had given me the best gig I’d gotten the whole year, perhaps in my whole writing life. Wasn’t there a way to do this job and be true to myself and G-d.
A local Rov suggested that I focus on Waldman’s good parts and ignore the bad but I heard a reluctance in his tone, that he didn’t feel good about his advice.
I thought about following his advice and somehow finessing the interview but it just seemed like a whitewash, not the kind of journalism I wanted to do. I wanted to be real but how. Waldman’s book had unleashed an existential crisis in me, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since I was a teen. With grey hairs and wrinkles sprouting each day, I stood in the mirror and asked myself who I really was,—a Yiddishe Mama with a sheitel and black hatted sons in yeshiva or a media hipster? Could I be both? For years, for years I told myself that I could. Now, I was no longer sure it was possible.
With the deadline looming near, I consulted another Rav, a son and nephew of gedolim, sages, who has known me and my family well for years.
“This book espouses views that are anti Torah. Why do you want to have anything to do with it,” he asked. His words got to me, I think because he said them so softly, lovingly without even a drop of condemnation.
Yes of course he is right, I thought feeling that brief flush of joy that our wise men say comes with the resolution of doubts. Then, before I could change my mind, I sent out two emails, one to the publication and the other to Ayelet signing off. No explanation. I couldn’t imagine that any explanation I could give would make any sense to them.
And now I see that the book getting good press all over the media. When I read the reviews my heart sinks a little. No one seems to notice what I noticed.
I’m alone here, like Abraham the Patriarch, looking on from the opposite side of the river with a tear in my eye for Waldman, a talented Jewish woman so far away from her essential soul that she can take a public stand against her Creator without even realizing that she’s done something wrong.