In which I use my fond, unique, and deep outsider knowledge of Judaism to examine the Weinstein scandal and its profound reverberations throughout all corridors of male patriarchy. Braving accusations of anti-Semitism I am heeding the clarion call issued this week by my Generation X sisters-in-arms, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow. To paraphrase Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin: We are coming out of our kitchens because there are some things we have got to say, at this opportune moment in time.
...because it is plausible to me that everyone is continuing to (deliberately) overlook another element in the unfolding saga of this pathetic man. This veritable elephant in the room, like a crucial trace mineral quietly assisting in some important bodily function, is essential to understanding what he did, why he did it, why he persisted. I wish to contribute my own perspective to a comprehensive and ongoing analysis of Harvey Weinstein's particular strain of an ancient human disease. Its dehumanising rituals coil snake-like through the ubiquitous corridors and private offices of illegitimate male power throughout the Western world and likely well beyond. We must start to deliberately and carefully break these chains without demonising as devils those most ensnared by them, whom we perceive as either victims or aggressors.
Presenting My Credentials: Skim or Skip ahead to the next section if you prefer
What qualifies me to tiptoe through this particularly perilous minefield? I am a woman of Italian and German Christian heritage who was raised without a religion in Baltimore, Maryland. I was born in 1970. It was very unusual to be 'out' as an Atheist in that time and place. I wasn't taught tactful reserve around the topic of religion, so from a tender age, my atheism has provoked largely unwanted attention, concern, advice, and jibes as well as the intense conversations that result around our sacred spaces, be they personal or institutional.
It's no wonder I have had a deep-rooted lifelong interest in religions. My parents had met at New York University and lived in New York City on their own and together; the experience forever altered our familial idiolect, enlarging it to include singularly magnificent Yiddish words. I had a social scientist father who could acurately categorise people as yutzes, yentas, or mensches in the thick 1930s Missoura accent which never abandoned him. My mother knew what he meant because her best childhood friend was a Jewish woman; they attended Forest Hills High School and university together.
I have nearly always been a top student. I attended public and private schools in my home town, then I earned a scholarship to Washington University in St Louis, a sub-Ivy League university that prided itself on having a student body that was about one-third Jewish at the time I studied there (1988-1991). My major was Anthropology; one of the courses I chose to fulfil the major was Religion, Ritual, and World View. By age 21, I had had several Jewish friends. During my three and a half years at "WashU" I held the same Work-Study secretarial job where I was taken firmly under the maternal wing of a lovably neurotic Jewish departmental secretary who was my confidante through new life experiences I could not share with my own mother. I graduated, moved briefly back to Baltimore, married, and moved with my new husband to Denver. After about a year, I began employment as the part-time personal assistant to a rabbi who was one of the founders and directors of the only yeshiva west of the Mississippi River.
Thereby I learned about and got to know a thriving orthodox Jewish community within a certain radius of a part of the city of Denver--the West Side, as these people called it--as well as many Jews of other degrees of adherence to their faith and with their own corresponding institutional affiliations in other parts of that progressive city. A captivated and trusted participant-observer, I was invited not just to yeshiva fundraisers but eventually to two of the rabbi's own private family celebrations: one wedding celebration and one bar mitzvah. I had broken from the gate with more basic familiarity with religion and with Judaism, perhaps, than most of my overwhelmingly Christian peers who were raised in the traditions of one specific denomination. During my two-and-a-half years of service, I learned a fair deal about the particulars of the Jewish faith and the rabbi and his family's roles in their community.
So I write this piece with the confidence and hope that at least some of its content will prove to be helpful and healing revelations for a broad global audience.
About Two Jewish Men
Especially because the rabbi was quite scatter-brained and disorganised, he relied quite heavily on my skills and organisational talents. Although he was doing some teaching when I began as his assistant, he became unable to continue those duties not long thereafter, to his frequent sighing regret. His main responsibility, at which he had certain undeniable talent, was to schmooze wealthy Jewish businessmen to raise the ongoing funding needed to keep the school afloat. Sometimes he would ask me to drive him, in his car, to appointments with these men (there were never any businesswomen) so he could use the travel time to safely make phone calls. Technically, the car could have been considered a closed space an unmarried-to-each-other man and woman could not occupy. Indeed I remember his youngest son's trepidation the first time I gave him a lift; he was virtually trembling in the back seat of my car. I can imagine it was possible the rebbetzin had wisely forbade her husband of attempting to schmooze and drive. Could she have possibly been the one to grant him dispensation to sit next to me in the front of his car?
One key patron of the yeshiva was as devout as the teachers, students, and its surrounding community, but my rabbi (I do think of him that way) had to cast his net further, into the seemingly less savory pockets of wealthy businessmen who didn't adhere as tightly to the numerous rules that he followed, in his idiosyncratic way.
My rabbi's family of origin was small. Like me, he was an only child. His father was a Brooklyn hosiery merchant, his mother a housewife. He would have been born in the 1930s. He, his wife, and their four grown children physically resembled each other to an uncanny Ashkenazic degree. The rabbi's grandchildren living in Denver shared his heavy New York-style accent; their parents were following their own parents' example in living as devout orthodox Jews. I came to know and was sometimes called upon to assist two of their children, the ones who were living in Denver at the time I knew the family.
I note that Harvey Weinstein, born 1952, was the elder of his parents' two sons, he was raised in Queens, and that his father was a diamond cutter--I believe that suggests we can infer his father worked under a diamond merchant. So there are a few similarities between these two men's lives. The differences seem minor in the face of the overriding similarity of their shared culture, however gently tailored Judaism can be in its specific familial and community permutations. I think we can assume young Harvey's parents, and hence the family, were reasonably devout, however much the adult Weinstein may have parted from the observances and beliefs that mark the life of a devout Jew.
The Jewish culture is a formidably undeniable birthright. It is humanity's first persisting monotheistic faith, arising 6000 years ago in the Middle East. The orthodox variants have lasted this far with astonishingly less mutation than one might expect, given the many traumas, translocations, and transplantations its adherents have endured. Its beliefs, taboos, and traditions would have shaped both the rabbi and the Hollywood executive profoundly in their formative years.
Facets of the Gem
Next I will describe a few facets of the troubled gem of Jewish existence through the lens of my own identity, education, and experiences.
Absurd and exacting rules
To faithfully practice all the strictures of any variant of orthodox Judaism in a modern pluralistic society is virtually an impossibility, and frequently an absurdity. As one example, all Jewish men (i.e. all who have undergone the puberty rite, the bar mitzvah, which happens at age 13) must stop whatever they are doing three to as many as five times a day to recite certain minimally required prayers. Although they can do this alone, praying in a minyan with at least nine other believers is said to be ideal. As another example, a member of the rabbi's immediate family once required hospitalisation for a few days, including the weekly Sabbath holiday, which runs from sunset on Friday to that same time on Saturday. I stopped by to visit on the Saturday and on my way out, the family requested I turn off the lights in the room, as they were prohibited from performing this simple task on the Sabbath. Jews actually debate the proper choice to make if failure to execute an action prohibited during this weekly routine holiday could mean a loss of life.
As is known, Jews refer to themselves as the chosen people. They take much well-deserved but exceptional kvelling pride in having preserved their culture and traditions, far from their ancestral homeland, under the duress of frequent, cruel, and not-easily foreseen or avoided purges and other persecutory acts large and small. Understanding that this burden of their tragic history must be taken up voluntarily, Jews never proselytise. The orthodox also adhere to a strict matrilineality in that they believe one's identity as a true Jew is only via birth by a Jewish mother. Any other converts can never be fully assimilated and will require intense communal resources to make a smooth adaptation.
However, among his mitzvahs, the rabbi had assisted two men I knew of to convert to the Jewish faith. One of the converts was a Hispanic worker employed by the yeshiva who must have overheard spoken Hebrew while performing his duties. Somehow he had the courage to confide in the rabbi the words of the mortally dangerous prayer of protection he had been compelled to memorise and keep secret as a boy. Together the men discovered that the prayer was in fact the Shema, the oldest fixed daily prayer, one of only two commanded by the Torah. The Hispanic man's ancestors had carefully guarded and passed along that singular, critically cryptic, cultural identifier through the centuries since the Spanish Inquisition of 1478. In the tolerant and peaceful shelter of a modern Western American city, through an extraordinary set of coincidences, one man was able to assist another to rediscover and reclaim his Jewish soul.
When people as exceptional as this are compelled to obey a demanding set of rules, they will exercise a tendency to formulate personal exemptions or to bend them to better suit their circumstances. Many times I witnessed the rabbi elect to pray alone in his office, when he could have, at least in theory, left his office to join with other teachers and students in a minyan in the yeshiva's beis medrash mere yards beyond the administration area. I also once witnessed the rabbi, who suffered from a stutter himself, advocate for one of our students similarly afflicted, cajolingly demanding the private tutelage, at an affordable rate, that the rabbi deemed the young Jew from Moldavia would require to overcome his deficit and make himself more marriageable.
Even less observant Jewish boys will be exposed to the rabbinical tradition of debating the finest minutiae of the Torah as they prepare for their bar mitzvah. Jews are comfortable with the concept that it is not only sinful, but the sign of a perfectly healthy curiosity to question the existence of Hashem, their word for G-d, yet they so revere the concept that any paper containing that name must be buried underground and not burnt or disposed of as other garbage would be.
Jews and the Other
It is worth noting that Jews have always lived in societies including other people. It is entirely fair to say that their dress signals their identity as Jews or, to the less savvy, as "different to us". To be exceptional as a people and to stubbornly maintain that belief, one must cohabit alongside an Other judged to be both inferior and unexceptional. Yet as others, we Gentiles (or, derisively, goyim) have quietly become indispensable to Jews over time. Our religious tolerance enables them to openly observe their customs and traditions. In the United States, Jews can take time off work or school to observe holidays that are known by no more than their name to the vast bulk of the population. I was involved in the rabbi's yearly tax preparation and observed that he availed himself of deductions for his acquisition and maintenance of personal religious accoutrements. I recall that during Passover, one or more families in the area used to "sell" certain halfway used foodstuffs to the yeshiva's lead secretary, since at that time Jews are prohibited to have the smallest crumb of chametz (yeast-containing food) in their house. As soon as Passover had passed over, the secretary would symbolically sell these frugal Jews their own goods back.
This brings us back to the phenomenon of my rabbi traveling within Denver and to observant communities in faraway places such as New York; Lakeside, New Jersey; and Los Angeles to conduct his fundraising activities.
One might ask: why would other Jews--specifically wealthy males who are succeeding in business in a predominantly Gentile environment--who have rejected and perhaps even disdain many of these ancient meshuganah (crazy) practices choose to lend critical financial support to communities of Jews who are truly immersed in them?
Truly immersed: the children of that orthodox community in West Denver did not attend public schools, but rather their bespoke separatist parochial schools, which offered only the bare minimum secular curriculum required by Denver and Colorado school boards. Their families did not have televisions and only listened to AM radio. Most of the adults spoke with a pronounced New York/New Jersey accent and their children sounded like their children. (In contrast, I was raised by a St Louis native and a New Jersey native in Baltimore and I sounded like a Baltimorean as a child.) Not only must their food comply with kashrut (kosher) laws, so must their clothes.
If only to fulfil an academic sort of curiosity, I am quite proud that some Jewish people in the United States, much like the Amish, are able to continue this demanding, fascinating, and singular lifestyle. I suspect at minimum the businessmen who opened their purse to the rabbi shared this sense of pride and joy.
The trope of Jewish guilt, especially that induced by a prying and overbearing mother, is well known. Exploited for comic relief, it is a staple of American popular culture, even if the characters bearing and perpetuating it are not actually Jewish. Seinfeld's presumptively Italian-American George Costanza would be one type specimen of a very Jewish, very neurotic, very New York character but we can also find hints of the type in characters as seemingly diverse as WASPy Rachel from Friends and finicky Texan nerd Sheldon of the Big Bang Theory. American comedy would not be what it is without this strong Jewish contribution.
What is the primordial source of the never-ending spring of Jewish guilt? While working at the Yeshiva I learned that Jews harbour a belief that if only, if for once, every Jew, EVERY Jew, EVERY JEW ON THE PLANET, could carry out Sabbath observances in PERFECT fidelity, the Saviour would come at last. As the sun sets on yet another Saturday when this increasingly elusive occurrence had yet again failed to eventuate, one can imagine the entire Jewish race exclaiming a beleaguered "Oy", resigning themselves to another week of quotidian pursuits until their next weekly opportunity to redeem humankind. The Saviour they faithfully attend would actually save the whole world, even including we unclean, inferior, genocidal Gentiles, the authors of so much of their suffering, whether out of deliberate cruelty or out of sheer ignorance.
The diligence required to carry out such awesome Shabbos tasks was simply not in my rabbi's character or nature, yet he touchingly strove to do his part, which he must have known would never be enough. I cherish the memory of him descending into the Yeshiva's kitchen of a Friday afternoon to haggle with the stroppy female head cook, over similar weekly Shabbos dinner meals she was directed to prepare for a nonagenarian Jew living more than 40 city blocks due east: roast chicken, a kugel of some description, a salad. The formidable Amy had served in the Israeli army and no doubt found this task an irritable distraction from what she understood was her own serious prime obligation: to prepare enough food to sustain a horde of male teenagers through the coming 24-hour shabbos period. With a barely contained impulse to mutiny, each week she stoically endured unnecessary rabbinical exhortations along the lines of: "Use the meat from the bottom of the carcass, it's soft." The intended recipient was a childless German Jew, a refugee from Nazi Germany who fled at the last possible moment to China. From there Herr Vasen and his wife had eventually settled in Denver, allegedly earning a small fortune through their business. When I knew him, he was living on his own in an apartment on the East Side of town; his wife was institutionalised, suffering from severe dementia. I was dispatched like a one-woman Meals on Wheels to Herr Vasen on my way home, early enough on Friday afternoons that I could return to my own home before sundown. The rabbi was seeking to spare him the need to turn on any appliances once it grew dark. I remember Herr Vasen fondly, particularly for his way of simply using the German word for any close enough cognate. The two of us shared an abiding affection for Amy's gurkensalat.
May I humbly suggest that next to your mounting contributions to the growing weekly collective shame of the chosen people for failing to redeem humankind, surely any personal individual faltering must pale?
Women of Valor
Jews, particularly orthodox Jews, harbour sometimes conflicting beliefs and attitudes about the value and role of women. A sampling:
A culture that requires men to recite a daily prayer of thanks that they are not female while also producing A Woman of Valor, an exultation of feminine power, is a culture whose men will be more confused about women than the contemporary mean.
A Few Questions
Next, perhaps more succinctly, I will attempt to answer a few questions we are encountering in the wake of the Weinstein revelations.
Why did he do it?
I have deliberately avoided poring over the grotesque and sad details of the suite of sexual behaviours Weinstein hoped to elicit, extract, indulge in, or share with his victims. Every honest human has sexual preferences and kinks or lack thereof. Not having personal experience with Weinstein's peccadillos, I will refrain from speculation concerning their particulars.
Instead, I will tell you about an incident which occurred early in my two-and-a-half-years of employment by the rabbi. This incident may even have occurred in my first day on the job. The rabbi was seated at his desk in the small office I shared with him. Our door to the main office space was kept open because Mike Pence is not the first man to observe religious taboos concerning men and women in closed spaces. I had reason to stand next to to the rabbi to show him a document. As we discussed this business, he casually reached out a hand and started to fondle my tuchus. I use the Yiddish word for this body part because I happen to know it. In my time in that community, I never learned the Yiddish for breasts, which were in nearly the same level of constant use, as the orthodox do not condone the practice of birth control.
I believe the rabbi did what he did because it is human nature to try it on. Some men are crude and impulsive; others compliment your eyebrows while engaged with you in highbrow conversation at a Mensa gathering. Some outliers are too inhibited, shy, respectful, or otherwise civilised to ever flirt with any potential sexual partner or object of physical attraction in any way, shape, or form.
I believe Weinstein was like other men in this regard. His initial inappropriateness might have been relatively innocuous. My experiences with the rabbi and other men makes me wonder if his egregious behaviour could have been nipped in the bud before it snowballed into the full-blown train wreck that has ruined his life and reputation, not to mention the damage he has caused his victims.
Did he realise it was wrong?
Why are we asking this question? [In New Zealand at least we are: last week Kathryn Ryan, host of the Nine to Noon programme on Radio New Zealand, asked an interviewee if it was possible Weinstein didn't realise what he was doing was wrong.]
A Jewish man shouldn't ever be alone in any room with any woman who is not his wife. Perhaps we've now re-learned the reason behind this ancient, seemingly laughable proscription. Perhaps deep in Weinstein's conscience lodged the notion that any woman willing to accompany him alone behind the closed door of an office would surely know that aberrant behaviour could be expected to result. Indeed, in agreeing to accompany him, however reluctantly, she was signalling that she could plausibly be open to sharing an illicit sexual experience.
A Kiwi who spurned Weinstein's advances reported that she emerged from a bathroom in a hotel suite to find him sitting on the bed, clad in a bathrobe, and crying that it was his obesity that made him unattractive to her. The circumstances of his offences permitted him to perform the mental masturbation needed to reach the conclusion that whatever had happened wasn't enough of his fault for his conscience to step in to prevent reoffending, his primal boorishness perhaps solidifying into an addictive power-tripping habit of entitlement as his list of victims grew unabated.
There are simply too many intervening potentially corrective touch-points in Weinstein's life: from the parenting he received, to his schooling, to his inevitable Jewish acculturation, to his knowledge of the mores of the greater society in which he partook for him not to know his behaviour was morally and legally wrong.
Why did he persist?
Covered immediately above, but my experience with the rabbi leads me to a another troubling speculation. I temper my analysis further by acknowledging the differences between myself and Weinstein's victims and between the rabbi and Weinstein: I did not need the rabbi to think well of me or to do me any favors. Unlike Weinstein's victims, I did not need to work for the rabbi. I had a husband who was earning enough to support us both. Furthermore, I did not belong to the rabbi's community and culture and did not fundamentally care how any in that community, himself included, may have felt about me. My job at the yeshiva was convenient in hours (flexible) and location (a short drive) and generous in hourly rate. I could easily and happily perform my duties and walk away from the yeshiva, filling the remainder of my life with household duties, voluntary work, and recreation.
I have drawn a sad and controversial conclusion: Weinstein persisted because his victims failed to resist.
As soon as I'd overcome my underwhelming sense of shock at the sensation of the rabbi's hand, I reflexively slapped that hand away with measured indignation but without a word exchanged between us. That encounter was over 20 years ago and I remember nothing more, except that I felt a sensation of sheepishness on the rabbi's part. He never touched me inappropriately again, and we worked effectively together for the next two and a half years, when I quit the job to have and care for my son. I believe in that brief transgressive instant, my sexagenarian rabbi's mental age was much less than my own 23 years and that the punishment I confidently meted out aptly fit his boyishly cheeky crime.
As I said, I've avoided exposure to the salacious details of Weinstein's exploits, but I did catch one snippet of the recording of his exchange with Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. In it, he attempts to cajole her to allow him to touch her breasts by saying other women permit him this pleasure. She queries this assertion in astonished horror.
It is a shame a stroppy woman of valor such as Ambra wasn't Harvey's first potential victim. It is a shame such women evidently didn't cross his path when what may have started as a relatively innocuous quirk was morphing into a disgusting and far too common abuse of male wealth, power, and influence.
Although I do often despair that it is so hard for women to achieve what would be an advantageous solidarity in the face of such toxic patriarchal masculinity, I am not for a minute suggesting that the power or indeed the obligation to stop Weinstein was only, much less exclusively, in the hands of his victims. Surely Weinstein has unindicted, unidentified co-conspirators.*
Where Does It End?
It takes chutzpah to suggest as I have done, that his Jewish heritage and upbringing played a large role in the dereliction of Harvey Weinstein. Clearly, not all Jews behave so badly, and clearly his behaviour is far from limited to Jewish men. In fact, I can imagine the Weinstein affair is causing much consternation behind synagogue and yeshiva doors throughout the world.
This essay runs the necessary risk of having its careful and compassionate analysis branded and dismissed as anti-Semetic, a potentially heartbreaking occurrence that would further shore up the tragic division between the Jewish and Gentile worlds. If I am hateful, what I hate about Judaism is the unnecessary, now clearly maladaptive constrictions under which Jews needlessly suffer profound lifelong psychic pain in various degrees. And I hate the knee-jerk, reptilian-brained tendency of any human individual or group to inflict the pain that they have borne, sometimes even magnifying it, onto fresh victims. With the rigor with which they approach a Talmudic debate, I would respectfully ask all Jews to seriously consider the likelihood that an unseen deity has chosen only the members of their tormented race to redeem our species, and to modify their practice and update their customs accordingly.
I would also ask all readers to pick up the troubled gems of groups they affiliate with. Do they see exacting rules that individuals feel empowered to modify or break at will? Does their culture, nation, or religion promulgate a belief in its own exceptionalism? How does their culture define, view, and relate to the Other? What might members of their culture feel guilty about, deep in their souls, perhaps entirely un-excavated by conscious thought? Most important and relevant to the Weinstein matter, what beliefs and practices does that culture maintain to sustain a world view where half the adult population are second-class citizens? White men need to open and keep open their eyes to see how an unfair advantage in innate physical power has led to a reduction in the sense of safety and in opportunities women can enjoy.
Wherever we find patriarchy--a 6000-year old religion and culture could hardly be immune--this patriarchy oppresses and subjugates its men as much as its women. Individuals of both genders are rendered less whole thanks to beliefs and traditions transmitted to them from the earliest moments of their lives.
*On November 6 it emerged that Weinstein employed a veritable army of lawyers, spies, and investigators with the aim of keeping his victims quiet and intimidated.
Bar Mitzvah a Jewish culture in Israël
By Peter van der Sluijs - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0