Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Difference Between Anonymity and Belonging

Much has been written in The Jewish Week recently about Deborah Feldman's memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. And it was telling that the title was out of stock at Barnes and Noble retail outlets in New York City for a week following the book's publication. There is something alluring about be granted access into a world that seems so distant and so opaque.

The story is a fairly typical coming-of-age narrative that just happens to be set in the Satmar community of Williamsburg. The guiding, if not self-conscious, question is this: How does a young woman individuate in a world that privileges conformity over personal autonomy? Although one cannot help but feel compassion for someone who has experienced so much hardship and loneliness, Feldman's answers are neither nuanced nor novel. And I was disappointed to learn that the book's most compelling quality, the brutally honest story-telling of its author, has itself been called into question.

In her closing pages, she raises one point of interest. In college, having discarded her Hassidic garb in favor of jeans and a V-neck, she writes without so much as a hint of irony: "I must look just like everyone else here. Finally, the blessed feeling of anonymity, of belonging; are they not the same?" The girl who has tried so hard to set herself apart, ultimately craves the feeling of fitting in.

But anonymity is not belonging. In fact, the former is quite the opposite of the latter. To be anonymous is to be without a name. And a name, as is so often in the case in the Torah, is a prerequisite for a relationship. Anonymity militates against connectedness.

Belonging is the feeling one gets when one is known. How uplifting to be recognized by others - to have an identity of one's own.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it most beautifully in connection with the priestly blessing:
"You are in a crowd. In the distance you see someone you recognize. This person is well-known. You met him once, briefly. Did you make an impression on him? Does he remember you? Does he know who you are? Briefly your eyes touch. From the distance, he smiles at you. Yes, he remembers you, he knows who you are, he is pleased you are here, and by his eye contact and his smile he communicates these things to you. You are relieved, lifted. You are at peace with yourself. You are not merely an anonymous face in a crowd. Your basic worth has in some way been affirmed. That, in human terms, is the meaning of 'May the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.'"
In my experience, anonymity is overrated. Even those who purport to seek it - celebrities and those overexposed to the limelight - are all-too-happy to be recognized. And what are we to make of the fact that the author uses her real name instead of a pseudonym?

But Judaism teaches that with belonging comes responsbility - not only to ourselves - but to the fellow members of our community. I hope Ms. Feldman not only finds the feeling of connectedness she craves in her new present, but that she develops a sense of care and concern for the people who sought to love and embrace her in her past.

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