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My mother, the ‘wandering Jew’

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The logo of the LGBTQ Jewish group
The logo of the LGBTQ Jewish group

“I am officially a wandering Jew,” my mother, Barbara Kay, announced to the family last week, after resigning her 45-year membership in Montreal’s Dorshei Emet synagogue. The sombre tone bespoke a tale of exile, analogous to that of our desert forebears.

The Pharaoh figure here would be the shul rabbi, who signed his name to a jointly authored letter in the Feb. 8 edition of The CJN, criticizing Barbara for a column that took a socially conservative line on matters of gender and sexuality. I shall not dwell on the dispute, because the entire cut-and-thrust has already played out in these pages. But interested parties may wish to consult the three-page break-up letter that Barbara just nailed (metaphorically speaking) to Dorshei Emet’s front door, in which she describes her former synagogue as a place where people are “walking on rhetorical eggshells out of fear of giving offence to special-interest activists.” That, too, is in the public sphere.

Yet the truly shocking thing about this episode is that Barbara stuck it out for so long. How did one of Canada’s best-known conservative pundits endure more than four decades at a touchy-feely Reconstructionist congregation, where LGBTQ and BDS have been known to lock eyes lovingly at the bimah?

On an intellectual level, Reconstructionism always resonated with my mother – inasmuch as the theology of founder Mordecai Kaplan was in large part a religious codification of Émile Durkheim’s observation that social solidarity requires a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things.” Barbara has never worried much about the will of God, but, like Kaplan, took great interest in the sociological vitality of the Jewish community.

READ: THE TORAH AND TRANSGENDERISM 

Yet in recent years, Reconstructionist shuls have been seduced by pretty much every identity-politics movement that’s come down the pipe. I don’t share my mother’s social conservatism, but she’s not wrong to observe that intellectual life in some synagogues has become paralyzed by political correctness. The main cultural advantage of Jews over gentiles is that we can argue with vigour and good humour about important issues among friends, without first having cocktails. And so, while political correctness has a deadening effect on intellectual life everywhere, it has an especially unfortunate effect on Jewish society. As someone who, like Barbara, recently has shirked an institutional affiliation that I found to inhibit my style, I am confident she will find a way to turn her state of exile into pundit gold. (She might, for instance, write a series of columns documenting her search for a new synagogue. This might even be adapted for reality TV as a shul-service version of The Bachelorette.)

In light of the current social-media-fuelled intra-Jewish culture wars over Israel and gender issues, it’s easy to forget that synagogues have always had their schisms and firebrands. No one knows this better than Barbara, whose own father was one of the major players in the legendary 1970s-era split within Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation. He, too, ended up quitting in disgust, joining a nearby shul and forevermore becoming the embodiment of that old joke about the shipwrecked Jew who builds not one synagogue, but two – one to attend, the other to shun.

Will the synagogue-quitting trend extend to a third, or even a fourth generation of Kays? In fact, it already has. My mother’s letter specified that her resignation applied to the whole clan – including my sister and my sister’s children.

I haven’t joined the quitters’ club yet myself, but I’m enjoying the privileges of membership nonetheless: in the absence of a synagogue to host my niece’s upcoming bat mitzvah, Barbara has decided to host it in Israel – and she’s flying all of us there at her expense.

This strikes me as the happiest ending possible. Exiles though we may be, the Kays are headed for the promised land – even as Dorshei Emet suffers nary a single plague. Barbara is nothing if not merciful.