We talk over the phone for an hour today. Listen here.
From Chicago, Tamar, 24, lives in New York. She recently got her MFA in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt.
Luke: "Tamar, when you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Tamar: "I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven. I recently found a whole bunch of stories I wrote at that point. The only other thing I really wanted to be was a farmer."
"The practicalities of being a farmer are not attractive to me but the ideology of being a farmer is really nice… I don’t like living far away from other people."
Luke: "Could you tell me the story of you and Judaism?"
Tamar: "I grew up in a family that was not a member of an offical synagogue. My parents started a minyan when they were just married. It is unaffiliated and doesn’t have a rabbi and is lay-led. It’s a fantastic tight-knit community. We kept Shabbat and kashrut in the house. My sisters and I went to Jewish day school. [Tamar is the middle child.] I went to a Modern Orthodox high school. I was pretty unhappy. It was Modern Orthodox getting less modern and more orthodox. A lot of what I was hearing in classes was, ‘If you don’t do this, then you’re not a good Jew.’ Sometimes it was framed in a not-a-good-person kind of way. My family didn’t do a lot of the things they thought we should do. It was a complicated and upsetting experience. I should’ve talked to my parents about why they made the choices they made.
"I went to the University of Iowa where myself and the Chabad couple were the only shomer shabbat people. That was strange but also great because I didn’t have people looking over my shoulder and telling me I wasn’t being frum enough. As a result, I became much more religious than I would of if I had gone to a school with a huge Jewish community.
"I studied abroad. I had an excellent experience in Oxford, which has a small but fantastic Jewish community. When I graduated, I had half a year teaching and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life and was offered a position at a graduate program at Vanderbilt in Nashville… The Orthodox rabbi in Nashville is married to a friend of mine. When I saw that the two of them were doing OK, I decided to give it a shot. I loved Nashville and had a positive experience with the Jewish community there.
"I spent the summer between my two years at grad school learning at an egalitarian yeshiva in New York City. It was a renaissance for me in terms of how fun it can be to learn, what it can mean to be part of a community that is into the same things you are.
"After grad school, I made my way to New York City where I’m an editor for MyJewishLearning.com."
Luke: "Is it interesting that you made no reference to God while describing your Jewish journey?"
Tamar: "It’s somewhat interesting but not really because my relationship with Judaism has changed a lot but my relationship with God has not changed at all… I believe in God wholeheartedly but I don’t have a super-clear vision of what that means. If I didn’t believe in God, I’d be done with Judaism entirely."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about Orthodox Judaism?"
Tamar: "I don’t want to say that I hate it more than I love it, but I am definitely not Orthodox. For me, the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. I don’t want to say that I hate it. The things that I hate about it are how often it is close-minded, the narrow understanding of what it means to be Jewish, always trying to out-frum each other… I love the incredible warmth, how well they take care of each other in times of need, and the learning of Torah, which unfortunately is not as big a deal in non-Orthodox communities…"
Luke: "When will we see a book from you?"
Tamar: "I don’t know. I’m working on a novel. It’s about a family who moves to Ireland. It focuses on the mother figure. In the midst of writing it, my mother got ill and died. I’m not overjoyed about writing a novel about a mother right now."
Luke: "There’s a Tamar Fox who wrote a book on Holocaust survivors. That’s not you."
Tamar: "That’s not me, though a lot of times on first dates people are like, ‘I see you’ve written a book on the Holocaust.’ I’m like, no, but thank you for Googling me."
Luke: "How important is it to you to count in a minyan?"
Tamar: "Pretty important… It feels really debasing and upsetting [to not count]."
"I’m upset that a lot of my religion bores me now because it has been reduced to being pro-Israel and against intermarriage."
Tamar says she’d prefer to live in Chicago or England. It doesn’t affect her happiness whether she lives among Jews or non-Jews.
Luke: "How do you notice the practice of Judaism affecting people?"
Tamar: "I went to a minyan on Sunday. It was a lot of young Modern Orthodox guys who were all in jeans and sweatshirts. I ran into them for Ma’ariv. It occurred to me that these guys are in the same room twice a day. If you spend that much time with people, that’s a big deal and is going to affect your life in many ways. Not every Jew I know is socially adept, but it’s going to make you comfortable in certain situations. You’ll get to know communities pretty well pretty quickly, especially if you move to a new place. The way people interact with text if they’ve done serious Torah learning is different."
"I find that people who are seriously involved with a Jewish community are usually pretty socially graceful. That gets you pretty far in life. I sometimes find myself wondering when I’m watching movies and stuff where there’s a real bad character, I think that I don’t know anyone who fits that bill. I can’t think of ever having met any of them. I do think that most people who are really invested in a religious community are likely to be [decent]. Most of the people I know who are religious are pretty self-critical. They’re thinking about what they do and are not just going through the motions."
I ask Tamar about men.
Tamar: "I am one of those people who’s monogamous because the thought of having to deal with more than one man at a time is horrifying. I really like my boyfriend but I don’t think I could deal with anyone on the side."
Luke: "Do you think men and women can be friends without one side wanting more?"
Tamar: "I wish that I did but I don’t think so. I don’t have any guy friends that I’ve never felt like some tinge of something with, which isn’t to say that I hook up with my friends. I think there’s always a little bit of sexual chemistry. I don’t think that’s a problem."
Tamar wishes she could go out on Friday night once. "I have no idea what happens in the real world on Saturdays. I’m always in shul or with friends or napping."