I will admit to experiencing a moment of schadenfreude this week when I read of the indictment of the self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones,” Rabbi Menachem Youlus, on charges of fraud. Youlus presides over our local Jewish bookstore, and I often shopped there, and listened to his elaborate stories of rescuing torah scrolls hidden from the Nazis. Prosecutors now charge that he was telling tall tales, and embezzling funds from his own “Save a Torah” foundation. But why should I gain any satisfaction from what now appears to be an appalling scam?
I am confident about my own strong connection to Judaism. And yet, entering a Jewish bookstore like the one Youlus runs can be intimidating and frustrating for members of interfaith families. I know I am going to run smack into questions like “what shul do you go to?” It is always hard to explain why I am shopping for ritual objects for my children (a Torah study guide, a mezuzah), and why they would be learning Hebrew when they are (patrilinial) “quarter-Jews,” and why we don’t belong to a shul at all. I understand that a Rabbi who runs such a store will often come from an Orthodox background, and will not consider me or my children Jewish, but I really don’t want to get into defending my identity when I’m just trying to buy a Bar Mitzvah gift. In Wheaton, it was always hard not to engage with the loquacious and entertaining Rabbi Youlus.
Growing up in an interfaith family practicing Reform Judaism, I had no real cause to shop for ritual objects. My Jewish father had the necessities: a kiddush cup, Shabbat candlesticks, a brass menorah. In Sunday School at our temple, my siblings and I embroidered a yarmulke for my father, a challah cover for our Sabbath table, a matzoh cover for the Passover seder. We needed little else.
After forming my own interfaith family, my self-designated religious role has been to build my children’s knowledge of and affection for Judaism to the point where they feel a right to claim that identity in adulthood (while remaining open to the possibility that they will choose a Christian identity, or some other identity). Part of that process has meant exposing them to as much “authentic” Jewish practice as possible, in some ways going beyond the somewhat minimalist practice of my own Reform Jewish childhood. Ironically, part of that exposure has included exploring our local Jewish bookstore, owned by Menachem Youlus.
So, on multiple occasions, starting about five years ago when we were planning my older child’s interfaith coming-of-age and Bat Mitzvah ceremony, we have shopped at Y0ulus’s musty emporium, crammed to overflowing with phylacteries and havdalah spice boxes, yads and Hebrew lotto sets, tomes of Jewish history and prayer books. The shop happens to be located in one of my favorite urban corners of the world, in the diverse and bustling DC suburb of Wheaton, within a block of both West African and Brazilian food (and thus a corner that seems to represent my entire cross-cultural journey, which is somehow very satisfying).
Usually, we have been the only customers in the bookshop, and we would immediately face the well-meaning but irritating questions from the shop clerks, playing Jewish geography and probing our tribal membership. For our interfaith family, and many others, you could say this membership exists only through the force of our stubborn collective imagination.
Perhaps as a strategy to deflect simple identity questions with complex answers, I fell into a pattern of redirecting Rabbi Youlus (which was easy to do) to regale us with his swashbuckling exploits of rescuing torahs from former concentration camps and other exotic locales. We would visit his workroom, piled with scrolls in various states of repair. We admired torahs already purchased and awaiting pickup, displayed in velvet mantles with the names of benefactors embroidered in gold.
I feel sadness now for those apparently bamboozled by Youlus, for the patrons who paid high prices for his torahs and repeated what now appear to be romantic confabulations as truth. As a self-identified member of the tribe, I also share the sense of collective shame as Youlus joins the notorious “not good for the Jews” roster.
But for me, and for my children, the comeuppance of Youlus, if he is found guilty of these charges, will also serve as a reminder that neither tribal membership nor elaborate practice with all of the correct ritual objects serves as proof of goodness, or even, as far as I’m concerned, proof of superior or essential Jewishness. Objects are necessary for ritual; their value is based in part on esthetics and in part on family and communal history. And the torah plays a central role in Judaism. But fetishizing objects, and their history, can be risky. The Judaism (and the Christianity) I want for my children is about justice, kindness and truth. These values can’t be purchased at a religious bookstore, even from a Rabbi.