Have you ever felt a sense of shame when you’ve been caught off guard by a Jewish holiday, or when you’ve tried to lip-sync a prayer or song you didn’t know?
Yeah, me too.
There’s a lot to remember — rituals, melodies, holidays that seem like they were made up this year. A beet on the seder plate? Is that new?
Believe it or not, marketing pros and founders of JewBelong Archie Gottesman and Stacy Stuart have trademarked a term for this feeling. They call it JewBarrassment.
The term comes from the experience of many Jews, including Stuart’s. As the least observant member of the Wexner Jewish leadership program, “I was always walking into land mines,” she says. “At one meal, I’d never seen the pitcher for hand washing before, and, preferring room temp water, I grabbed the pitcher and brought it to my table.” It wasn’t until she sat back down that she realized the pitcher wasn’t for drinking. “There was no getting out of that one.”
Stuart and Gottesman decided that shedding light on the common phenomenon of JewBarrassment was the best way to make Judaism more accessible.
And it is a common phenomenon: In an entirely unscientific study of a few acquaintances, I learned that a lot of people have had this experience. One person, Ben, shared that as the former director of a nonprofit that brings together people from different faith backgrounds, he arrived in Jerusalem — his first time in Israel — on the eve of Shavuot, a holiday he knew nothing about. “Everyone was asking whether I planned to be up all night studying and if I was planning to visit the Western Wall at dawn.” His reaction, aside from confusion, was to think he must be a bad Jew.
“It’s so easy to feel like you’re not enough,” Stuart says. “I think it’s very unusual for someone to say plainly, ‘I don’t know what that means or why we do that.’ The whole Jewish thing is so charged for people.”
JewBarrassment applies to religious Jews, too, especially as they develop deeper practice or when they find themselves surrounded, as Stuart did in the Wexner program, by people with deeper knowledge and experience. At a talk Gottesman gave at Manhattan’s JCC, two young men from Yeshiva University described how often JewBarrassment occurred for them at the Orthodox institution.
This phenomenon strikes me as akin to Impostor Syndrome — the condition of feeling inadequate despite one’s qualifications. But perhaps it goes deeper. One woman, Sharon, suggested the Holocaust and centuries of persecution granted us the feeling of obligation to carry on traditions that we may feel otherwise divorced from. Failure to identify or practice them may be a direct line to a generational memory of oppression and a connection to hate crimes on the rise today.
Rachel Yehuda, the daughter of a rabbi who does research in epigenetics, talks about how trauma is passed generationally — it is literally encoded in our molecular biology. On the podcast On Being, Yehuda says, “You cannot run from your past, but maybe you would run farther if you carried your past with you.” When we feel like we aren’t “carrying it with us,” we feel like we are failing our personal histories, our parents’ parents’ parents, maybe even God.
Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, director of Chabad of Downtown Seattle and Chabad Young Professionals, wants people to feel at ease. “There’s no such thing as a ‘bad Jew,’” he says. “Regardless of what you did yesterday, today you can do a mitzvah.” And on the flip side, he says, “Someone doing a ton of mitzvahs doesn’t become a super Jew. The healthiest Jew,” he says, “is growing. The same way that the sign of health in humans is movement, the same is true for Jews.”
We can keep our past mitzvahs in mind when we feel that rising dread after a faux pas and remind ourselves, as Levitin says, that “every mitzvah is eternal.”