Sunday, March 25, 2012
The Jewish Federations of North America’s second annual TribeFest, held in Las Vegas, welcomed more than 1,400 young Jews from 81 communities around the world to celebrate Jewish culture.
Opening the three-day event at the Venetian hotel, was Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch and A.J. Jacobs, bestselling author of A Year of Living Biblically – a book that chronicled his attempt to take every one of the commandments and mitzvot literally and incorporate them into his everyday life. Jacobs pre-empted his address with a disclaimer about the role that Judaism plays in his life.
In trying to emphasize how secular his upbringing was, Jacobs said, “I’m Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian… Shockingly, until recently, I thought the Haftorah was literally 50 per cent of the Torah.”
Speaking about his experience writing his most widely-received book, he said it was difficult to follow each and every commandment and law in the Torah as literally as possible.
As a New York-based journalist, it was hard not to covet, gossip and lie. Then there were laws about stoning adulterers.
“That was a challenge,” he said.
Although he went back to his modern way of life one he wrote the book, his project did lead him connect with his Judaism for the first time in his life.
He said for his twin boys, he began to observe the Jewish holidays and he plans on providing his kids with a Jewish education so that they can make a decision for themselves if they want their Judaism to be a part of their lives.
Looking for a good reason to be more observant and connected to the Jewish community?
“Religious people tend to live longer than non-religious people," he said.
"Maybe God likes them better and wants to punish all the evil people. But scientists say it’s because being part of a community and having that kind of support is so meaningful.”
When Dratch took to the stage, she too said that although she attended Hebrew school and was bat-mitzvahed, “it all went down hill from there.
“Being Jewish may be in my consciousness but it’s not in my regular routine,” said Dratch, pictured above, signing her book titled, Girl Walks into a Bar . . .: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle.
She said her popular SNL character Debbie Downer wasn’t necessarily Jewish, “but I don’t think I could have come up with her if I wasn’t Jewish. Bringing up what could go wrong in any situation is a Jewish thing.”
She said that having had a child with a non-Jewish man made her think about what she would want to pass onto her son and realized that instilling a Jewish identity in her child couldn’t be a passive endeavour.
But then she thought about trying to explain Jewish customs to someone unfamiliar with our traditions and how crazy it could sound.
During Pesach, “we open the door so Elijah the Prophet can come in and we leave a cup of wine for him. I might as well say, ‘Oh, we wait for a ghost to come in so we can drink with him.’
“What about the 10 plagues? That could be a problem... I started thinking about how weird it would be if he’s at this dinner party and in unison we start saying, ‘Vermin! Boils! Slaying of the first born!’
She then laid into Chanukah gelt, the barely edible chocolate coins.
“Is there some ancient law that decrees there has to be just one per cent real chocolate? The stuff doesn’t even melt. And if you don’t eat that shit for three days, it turns white! We’ve got scientists, physicists - there’s got to someone out there who can up the chocolate quality level of the Chanukah gelt.”
Ending on a more serious note, Dratch spoke about why it’s important for her to stay connected to her Jewish roots.
“Like many Jews today I do feel connected culturally more than religiously, but I do yearn for Judaism to inform my daily life more. Maybe that’s why I’m here to find out how modern American Jews use Judaism to guide them.
“It’s important for me to keep my connection to the Tribe. We have a shared common experience. I know if you’re Jewish, you’re probably focused on education, you’re probably funny, and you’re probably sensitive to the suffering in the world around you. For me, that’s what it means to be Jewish.
“I may not know what Lag Ba’omer is... but I know when I’m around other Jews, I feel at home.”