Positioning your position

By Joost Blokker

In the picture above, you see me reading along with Hebrew psalms and prayers during a synagogue (shul) service on simchat torah. Simchat torah is a festive day celebrating the reception of the Torah. On this day, shul members actually dance while holding Torah scrolls, and there are even alcoholic drinks available during the service. This was the second time I ever participated in a shul service inside a synagogue building, after joining online Zoom services for half a year during the research period of my master thesis. I was able to practise my Hebrew during online participation, by studying the phonetic pronunciation of Hebrew signs and by reading along in prayer books during services.

I already knew many shul members who participated in the Simchat torah service. I spoke with them online and by telephone and I attended an event whereby board members of this shul distributed Seder packages for an online celebration during Pesach. On Seder evening, Jews celebrate and commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. While attending the Seder distribution event, I learned that some members thought I was Jewish or in a giyoor (conversion) process. I realized that many people actually become Jewish later in life, as I met quite a few converts during my research.

The fact that such a conversion is possible and that shul members perceived me as Jewish blurs boundaries and complicates any clear ‘position’, contrasting me with an ‘other’. Participation in rituals and being able to read along in Hebrew blurred these boundaries even further. I imagine that many other anthropologists will go through phases wherin perceived boundaries between them and people they meet seem to fade. I invite ethnographers to reflect on experiences of shifts in their position while joining pre-supposed ‘others’ in their daily lives, instead of merely reflecting on the level of perceived structural positions, such as ‘ethnic background’. I will illustrate my experience of communal inclusion through ritualized reading of the Torah, in contrast to dominant perspectives in narratives stipulating my exclusion in such matters.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ron Almog

Summoned to read Torah

The most intense moment during the Simchat Torah service was when the Rabbi summoned me to read from the Torah. She (the Rabbi) summoned me and another guests to step on an elevated platform in the shul called a bimah, to recite blessings (berachot in Hebrew). She loudly announced: ‘and the roof is not falling down upon us!’ She expressed this because some may consider it blasphemy to summon non-Jews to read from the Torah. I felt somewhat nervous as I could not find a prayer book to read the berachot while reciting. Surprisingly, I was able to recite most of it by heart, for which I received compliments when I returned to my seat. When the rabbi gave us personal blessings in Hebrews and Dutch while I stood on the bimah, I felt like I was soaring from the sky, as the blue colours in the carpet on the platform seemed to gravitate me into the depths of time.

Other rabbis who I met during my research would regulate my participation in rituals more strictly, in accordance with how they position me vis-à-vis others. Such a positioning would probably align with dominant interpretations of rabbinic laws, stipulating that people participating in certain rituals should be Jewish. As rituals establish a sense of connection between participants, my in- or exclusion in them relates to how rabbis- as gatekeepers- produce boundaries between me and a Jewish community. However, we should not take for granted a priori, that other members of a community share the perceptions that such gatekeepers have of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We can think of communal boundaries based on religion, ethnicity or another form of groupness as ‘symbolic’, along the lines of Anthony Cohen. 

The symbolic aspect of the community boundary… to say that community boundaries are largely symbolic in character is, though, not merely to suggest that they imply different meanings for different people. It also suggests that boundaries perceived by some may be utterly imperceptible to others (Anthony Cohen, 1985, p.13).

Cohen’s argument for symbolic boundaries means that all members of a community- not just rabbis in this case- perceive communal divides differently. Some members might not even perceive the researcher as an other at all. Pondering on the symbolic nature of boundaries, makes me realize that our ideas of ‘structural positions’ are perceptions of boundaries that gained dominance within our societies. We, as ethnographers, should account for all the perceptions of borders of people deemed part of a community, instead of aligning our views with clear-cut divides professed by dominant actors and calling them structural. By accounting for experiences whereby we as researchers and people we meet overcome so-called structural boundaries such as ‘ethnicity’, we can disengage from forms of ontological selfing and othering. 

 Joost Blokker is an alumni who graduated in Cultural Anthropology at the VU. 

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