To the Teacher Who Freed Me From My Ultra-Orthodox Taboo – Kveller
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To the Teacher Who Freed Me From My Ultra-Orthodox Taboo

I grew up in New York City, in the ultra-Orthodox community of Washington Heights.

I remained in that community until our family moved and I started high school, where I discovered that Judaism has many shades of gray, and much more tolerance and flexibility than I had been led to believe.

After four years in a Modern Orthodox (traditionally observant, but often less stringent and less insular than ultra-Orthodox) high school, I felt mostly “cured” of the superstitions of my childhood,

But not quite. When I began college, I took the Art Humanities course at Columbia University. The survey course, part of the core curriculum of the college, starts in ancient times and finishes in post-Modernism, but let’s be honest: At least 80 percent of art, music and sculpture has some connection to Christianity.

This was difficult for me, because I was taught as a child that if you say the name of Jesus out loud, a lightning bolt will immediately strike you down. And if it happens not to be a stormy day, at the very least your immortal soul will be doomed.

As an outside-the-box person with some artistic talent, I loved and embraced that course and participated well, and I found a way out of my soul-damning predicament.

Whenever there was a Christian image, I would describe the “central character” or the “focus of the work.” It’s amazing how high-level intellectual snobbery covers up a whole group of sins, so to speak.

But I couldn’t keep it up forever. At some point in the middle of the semester, our teacher, a Jewish PhD student named Michael Rosen, caught onto my superstition and my pseudo-intellectual ruse. He himself was writing his thesis on religious imagery in MTV videos.

During one class, he stopped me in the middle of my exposition and said: “And what exactly is the name of the central figure?”

I was stunned. It seemed to me that his interruption had nothing to do with the painting that I was describing. Michael Rosen repeated his question several times, and made it clear that the class would not proceed until I answered.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, purposely slurring my words and saying the name at light speed. And then I held my breath waited for the lightning bolt to strike me dead…which never came.

Michael Rosen smiled at me and nodded in understanding, and the class continued on.

I don’t think anyone else in the class realized the life-altering moment that had just passed, and I don’t know that Mr. Rosen understood himself, what kind of gift he had just given me.

It was the gift of speaking with freedom.

All these years later, I remember him, his dedication to art, and the way in which this small silly story helped me break free of my misconceptions and my judgements that were so deeply ingrained.

To this day, I am still involved in art and photography, my way of thanking Michael Rosen, wherever he may be. And as grateful as I am to this teacher, I also feel I should apologize to Mr. Jesus Christ—whose name I invoke on a regular basis when I am driving in Jerusalem traffic.

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