Rabbi Jeremy Markiz

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I’m not sure what it says about my priorities that it has taken me six years and 299 Quazes for a rabbi to appear in this space.

Through the weeks I’ve had sex workers, white supremacists, morticians, Trump voters, ballet dancers, rappers, athletes, politicians, priests. I’ve had academics, coaches, high schoolers, gurus. Some have been amazing, some have been crappy. Some have made me laugh, some have made me cry.

Never, however, was I compelled to host a rabbi. Which, again, is sorta weird … considering I’m Jewish.

Well, today the long national nightmare comes to an end. Jeremy Markiz is a Pittsburgh-based conservative/Masorti rabbi who—in his words—”seeks to explore how, through the lens of Torah, we can inspire justice, love of all people, and build healthy and meaningful relationships with each other and God.” He also happens to host a fabulous blog and podcast (Mind Lox), and is a tremendous Twitter and Facebook follow.

Soooooo … mazel tov, Rabbi Markiz! You’re the 299th Quaz Q&A …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Rabbi, I’m going to start with a weird question, and it’s probably sort of off-putting. Namely, what the hell do you know? What I mean is, you’re probably 15-to-20 years my junior. You’re too young to have experienced tons and tons of stuff. Massive death, the loss of a parent, election highs and lows, etc … etc. I mean, I know you have some exposure. Because we all do. But, going off of age, it has to be limited. So why would people turn to you, as their rabbi, in time of need?

JEREMY MARKIZ: There is a real truth underlying your question here—what does a late 20s, trauma-free rabbi have to share? I can admit, I’ve been very fortunate to have had an easy life, without much loss, no kids, etc. I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a chaplain, while a rabbinical student in Los Angeles, and I can say, most people aren’t really looking for answers. People want to know that someone is there to listen, to honor their questions and their struggles, to feel like they have someone on their team. So yes, I can’t really counsel someone on how they should raise their kids or whether or not they should pull the plug on their beloved parent (not to mention that I’m not professionally qualified for that). What I can offer is, ultimately, love. To love someone by listening, by struggling with them, and by providing any wisdom that the Jewish tradition might have to offer.

J.P.: Do you believe in life after death? Heaven and hell? Does the possibility of eternal nothingness scare you at all? Worry you? Are you comfortable if this is as good as it gets?

J.M.: I don’t know. Are you surprised? I definitely don’t believe in a heaven or a hell in the fluffy white clouds and eternal fire sense. The rabbis did describe a Gehenom, a sort of purgatory, and there are references to an underworld, but neither ever really did it for me. The rabbis didn’t have an answer and in truth, it didn’t matter. For the rabbis, and this is true for me as well, the focus was, and still is, about what we do in the here and now. How I actually treat my neighbor is more important than whether or not we’ll give each other high fives in some afterlife. That being said, the Law of the Conservation of Energy has always spoken to me. We’re not solely a body and a brain, there is a spark of energy that seems to animate us. The total is greater than the some of the parts might be a good analogy. As such, I believe that energy goes somewhere. To where? Who knows …

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J.P.: So I know you attended the University of Oregon, graduated in 2010, then received a masters degree from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2016. But why become a rabbi? When did it first interest you? What was the path? And how did/does your family feel?

J.M.: I’m not sure this will put me in the greatest light, but I went to rabbinical school for myself. I had always wanted to learn in a serious way, to study Talmud, and explore the tradition deeply. Rabbinical school was the way I did that. That isn’t to say I’m selfish, no more than anyone else at least. I have always been involved in building community, taking on leadership roles, and serving others, so my rabbinate would always include that. I remember in the sixth grade, we had to do a job shadow project. I followed the rabbi around, sitting in on his meetings, visiting the sick in the hospital. It sank pretty deep in my bones, I guess. After that, I took leadership roles in my youth group in high school, focused my studies towards Judaism in college, and was deeply involved with Hillel there. Spending time in Israel in high school and in college made a big difference, too. By the time I entered rabbinical school, it was definitely the right thing for me to do.

While I was studying in rabbinical school, I asked myself a lot about what I wanted my rabbinate to be about. A little more than six months out, I’m not sure yet, but I can tell you this for sure: helping people develop a relationship with their tradition, to own it and be literate in it, to have access and confidence in exploring it are the cornerstones of the work that I have always done and will continue to do.

My family has always been really supportive. When I decided to go to rabbinical school, you can be sure, absolutely no one was surprised.

Left to right—Rabbi Marcus Rubinstein, Rabbi Marquise, Rabbi Adir Yolk and Rabbi Joshua Buchin
Left to right—Rabbi Marcus Rubinstein, Rabbi Markiz, Rabbi Adir Yolk and Rabbi Joshua Buchin

J.P.: There are a good number of ugly passages in the Torah in regards to women, land, fighting. I’m sure you’re asked about this every now and then, so how to justify a text that doesn’t always feel/read so holy?

J.M.: Yeah, this is a tough one. First of all, I don’t read the Torah as literally true, as one might read a history book. For me, Torah is not history. It is the story that the Jewish people tell themselves. I believe that the Torah is the result of various human beings’ encounters with the Divine and the transcription of those experiences into a narrative combined with our ancient Israelite narrative. As a result of those two things and my belief that God would not have us reject people for the way they were born, I try and find another way to understand those texts or put them in the historical context in which they were written. In either case, I don’t apply them. There isn’t a circumstance, for example, in which I can understand Torah to reject LGBTQ individuals. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

J.P.: I’m always slightly confused when I see these events where you’ll have a rabbi, a priest, an imam. They’ll all gather together to pray for something, yet you all have such completely different ideas of God and spirituality. You think they’re wrong, they think you’re wrong. So why do it?

J.M.: While there are certainly beliefs that Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others differ, there are many places in which we agree. Most importantly, I believe that most clergy people share the value of trying to make the world a better place. In the spaces in which we agree, we can make serious impact. I certainly don’t agree with everything my family believes, but that doesn’t prevent us from cooking a delicious dinner together. Often by working together we can make a greater impact than individually. This is the reason I personally look forward to when I can work with my fellow religious leaders.

J.P.: I’ve attended Bar and Bat Mitzvahs that feel like weddings. Cost $500,000, hired dancers, prize giveaways, half the people wasted, only a handful actually attend the service. And it makes me, truly, sick. How do you feel? How did this happen? And is it OK?

J.M.: I’m not a fan of that type of Bnei Mitzvah experience personally. To summarize, Bnei Mitzvah ceremonies were created nearly a century ago to celebrate a child’s entrance into communal obligation and as such bring the whole family into the synagogue. As many families have drifted away from synagogues, yet feel bound to this tradition, they shifted the celebration to the child instead of the community.

Now, I hardly wish to dictate how someone should live their lives. Instead, I’d offer an alternative experience in which our young person would learn how to access our tradition through a combination of learning skills and asking themselves self-reflective questions. From the point of their Bnei Mitzvah and onwards they would explore what being adult means, learning new life skills and engaging with real responsibilities. This could be a profound experience bridging the eight years before the graduation into legal adulthood. I bit of a grandiose image but something I believe would be deeply powerful.

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J.P.: What’s your take on anti-Semitism in America, 2016 version? Do you think it’s gotten better? Worse? Did some of the Donald Trump imagery bother you? Along those lines, can you—as a rabbi—speak out against a candidate in an election? Are you comfortable with that?

J.M.: I’m really scared by it, but I won’t let it deter me from fighting for what’s right. Standing up for those who are being attacked is more important now than ever, regardless if it is directed to Jews. I find the imagery that Donald Trump has employed to be terrifying, shameful, and entirely inappropriate. I will not accept it and will fight that type of speech every day that I need to.

As for rabbis who act and speak politically, this is a more complicated question. First of all, rabbis, much to the surprise of all, are in fact people with our own opinions. As such, we should being able to share those opinions. At the same time, we are leaders of people who are diverse in thought and political opinions who deserve to be respected.

Hate is never permissible and everyone should feel comfortable speaking out against it.

J.P.: I rarely go to services at my local Reconstructionist synagogue, mainly because while the rabbi is wonderful and the people nice, the services don’t inspire me. It’s the story of my life as a Jew—yawn, yawn, yawn. Why are we, as a people, not more Southern Baptist-ish in presentation? Why no gospel? No screams of joy? It all feels very stilted.

J.M.: Well, I think cultural background and milieu make a big difference. That being said, we Jews have lots of musical and joyous expressions. I’m a huge fan of Carlebach melodies for Kabbalat Shabbat which, in the right setting, can be quite raucous. I think that people are afraid of trying new things and feel strongly attached to “the way we’ve always done them.” For myself, I also need different types of prayer experiences at different times. Sometimes, I absolutely need the joyous, dancing type of prayer. Other times, I need the mumbling, non-musical type.

J.P.: What’s the challenge of consoling people after loss? How do you approach it, step by step?

J.M.: Everyone grieves differently. The only thing we can do is listen, to be present, and not pretend it isn’t happening. Really simple and really hard.

J.P.: How do you feel about Jews who put up a Christmas tree and hand out gifts on the morning of Dec. 25?

J.M.: People should do what they want. I’m not in a position to tell people what to do. For me, I’m very satisfied with my tradition and what it offers me. For my Christian friends, I happily wish them a merry Christmas and hope that they have the most wonderful holiday.

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• Rank the songs (best to worst): Hava Nagila, Adon Olam, Hatikvah, Dayeinu, All I Want for Christmas is You: Adon OlamHatikvahDayeinuHava NagilaAll I Want for Christmas is You.

• Who wins in a 10-round boxing match between you and Flavor Flav? What’s the outcome?: I’ve got some years on Flavor Flav, so I say me, 6 to 4.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mike Pence, iced coffee, purple, Vlad Guerrero, Chuck D, Ventura Blvd, Seattle, purple yarmulkes, Shawn Green, your middle toe on your left foot, egg nog: Iced coffee, purple yarmulkesSeattle, Ventura BlvdMiddle toesChuck D, unfortunately I’m not a huge follower of baseball, a shonde, I know, so I’ll put those fine gentlemen here, eggnogMike Pence.

• In exactly 23 words, how do you feel about Avis?: Avis is a rental car company that I rarely even notice unless it shows up in a list of other rental companies, seriously.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Planes kind of freak me out, I know they’re safe and all, so I think this a lot. I usually think about my family and all of the things I’ve left undone.

• How confident are you in the story of Noah’s Ark? Likelihood it happened as told?: To me, Torah isn’t history, so I rarely think about it. I believe there was probably a huge flood, since it shows up in lots of ancient stories, but beyond that, I don’t worry about it too much.

Wife and I debate this all the time—is it OK to serve pork at a Bar Mitzvah or Jewish wedding if the people being celebrated aren’t kosher?: I wouldn’t want to get into a debate between you and your wife. That said, I’m not a huge fan.

• How many Nirvana songs can you name sans looking them up? List them here: LithiumSmells like Teen Spirit (Man, I’m so embarrassed by this).

• Why do you think donuts need holes in the middle? Seems like you’re taking away an extra bite: Yeah, but then you wouldn’t have donut holes. Bite size donuts? I don’t think I could give it up.

• Who wins the presidency in 2020?: Van Jones (if only)