The Radically Self-Loving Jew: Part I

The Jewish world needs radical self-love, but not merely in a Star-of-David-necklace manner.
April 10, 2024
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Until now, I’ve never been a fan of the words, “self-love.” They’ve always seemed indulgent and totally individualistic. And in the past decade, I’ve unfairly associated “self-love” with “Give Us Your Money to Relax” weekend retreats, complete with gurus who speak about how they quit their lucrative careers as attorneys because they hated themselves when they were lawyers, and love themselves now that they’re golf ball divers.

A cursory Amazon search revealed that one of the top books on the subject, 2015’s “Radical Self-Love” by Gala Darling, offered the following description: “When you love yourself, life is limitless. It’s time to throw off the shackles of expectation, and start living from your heart. It’s time to astound yourself with how beautiful your life can be. It’s time to treat every single day like a celebration … Cake, candles and confetti very much included!”

I love Darling’s passion. But as a Jewish woman in a post-Oct. 7 reality, I would alter some of that wording, based on my own subjective experience. My description would be closer to, “It’s time to throw off the shackles of internet trolls and start living from your heartburn-triggered stomach. It’s time to treat every day like you’re just learning about Oct. 7 for the first time … Horror, abandonment and Xanax very much included!”

I’ve struggled with the concept of “self-love,” but I’m also not a fan of the words, “self-hating.” As a Jewish pro-Israel advocate, I’ve always associated those two words, “self-hating,” with a third word: “Jew.” If any readers were previously uninterested in the concept of a self-hating Jew, they probably are paying closer attention now, in the aftermath of the recent disastrous Oscars acceptance speech I call “Glazergate.” 

The Jewish world needs radical self-love, but not merely in a Star-of-David-necklace manner.

First, it’s critical to note that the radically self-loving Jew does not define himself/herself by the radically self-hating Jew. No, the self-loving Jew does not exist to constantly espouse messages of anti-antisemitism; rather, this Jew actively loves being Jewish, regardless of religious observance, and even regardless of antisemitism, because being Jewish is a worthy and wonderful identity to own.

The self-loving Jew may feel a lump in his throat as he eats breakfast and reads about how the Associated Press and one of its photographers — who was undoubtedly embedded with Hamas because he simply happened to be there to capture the violated and deceased body of Shani Louk, z”l, in the back of a truck — was named one of  the Pictures of the Year by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Though the lump-in-the-throat Jew will sometimes have a hard time enjoying life’s best pleasures, including food, he will not deprive himself of satisfying treats, badly-needed sleep, or the melodies of his favorite rock song, which he has already played over a dozen times today because, as we know, music soothes.  

I have seen many friends in Los Angeles, especially women, who have not eaten well, slept enough or even smiled much after Oct. 7. I, too, have struggled with this, but I finally began taking better care of myself when I realized that an over-thin, sleep-deprived, smile-less Jew is exactly what Hamas wants (and worse). The thought of that always sends me straight to a local kosher bakery for a real butter croissant, and for a brisk, healthy walk to the drugstore for more melatonin. 

The self-loving Jew understands that most events related to Israel and Jewry worldwide are out of her control, including the terrifying concern that all-out war may erupt between Israel and Iran after Israel’s recent airstrike in Damascus that targeted major IRGC heads. 

Yes, I am referring to myself. But after six months, I have finally realized that what Israel does is out of my control; what Iran does is out of my control; and the best way I can affect anything is to educate my elected officials and to vote as a proud, Jewish American whose vote aligns with her values.

The radically self-loving Jew actively partakes in practices, rituals and events that spark Jewish joy, even if that means loading up on a dozen boxes of those little raspberry-jelly rings that are always on the shelves during Passover.

The radically self-loving Jew has given up appeasing his friends and acquaintances by hoping they will never discover that he, perish the thought, likes Israel and has a connection to the country. This Jew has finally realized that in order to continue hiding, he would have to hide for the rest of his life. If his dark secret about liking Israel is eventually going to be found out one way or another (hello, uncovered Birthright photo from 2005), he knows that he might as well “come clean” now and join his own people.

The self-loving Jew creates and upholds clear boundaries around social media use and interacting with trolls, bots and other antisemites, as well as incessant doomscrolling. She has realized that she gazes into her phone screen more than she looks into her children’s eyes, and that being obsessively immersed in her phone, despite her good intentions of wanting to know the latest on Israel, is a disservice to her family. 

This Jew has finally realized that it’s not fair. Few Jews can be their best with their loved ones after being constantly exposed to horrifying news and images about Israel. The hostages weren’t released at 6:30 a.m. when she first reached for her phone in her New York bedroom, nor at 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m. or any other time that day. Their fate will not be decided by her anxious phone use. 

But positive thoughts, pained prayers, daily tzedakah (even in small amounts) and dedicating good deeds and mitzvot to the hostages and soldiers — and to the peace and safety of the one country that stands between us and the hideous radicalism of jihadists — can only bring good. 

Along the same lines, the self-loving Jew understands that there is space for both worry and calm, and despair and joy. And he also allows himself to post about subjects other than Israel, despite a certain accompanying guilt that, after Oct. 7, inevitably comes with sporadically posting a hilarious cat video, a feature story about local residents paragliding off abandoned L.A. skyscrapers, or a story about a Southern California woman who just lost half of her $1.08 billion lottery winnings, thanks to the IRS (true story). 

The radically self-loving Jew actively partakes in practices, rituals and events that spark Jewish joy, even if that means loading up on a dozen boxes of those little raspberry-jelly rings that are always on the shelves during Passover, and consuming them on Friday nights as a way to sanctify Shabbat and, let’s face it, self-soothe. 

This Jew carves out time to call friends and loved ones as an act of self-love, because, as we were reminded during a recent pandemic, loneliness kills. She also tries harder to tend to her errands, because there is a lot of self-love in the mundane, and because she knows that few things feel as good as checking off one’s to-do list (unless those things involve enjoying an entire box of those little raspberry jelly rings). 

Finally, the radically self-loving Jew realizes that labels are powerful, but ultimately fleeting, and doesn’t define himself or herself through the woefully shallow lens of identity politics. Whether an Orthodox Jew or an atheist, he or she understands that after 120 years, the only symbol that will be carved onto their headstone is a Star of David; not an elephant, a donkey, a leaf or even a camel (the official symbol of the pro-temperance Prohibition Party beginning in the 1860s). No one has ever walked by an arbitrary Jewish headstone and proclaimed, “Now there was one of the biggest Democrats in the village.”

I realize how easy it is for me to suggest these ideals for the self-loving Jew; I don’t have children who serve in the IDF and are currently fighting in Gaza, nor do I have loved ones whom Hamas has cruelly taken hostage for over six months. I am not an Israeli. And I am no longer a campus pro-Israel student leader.

But I know that we need to take better care of ourselves. And next week, I’ll share advice from both Jewish mental health professionals and activists who have the audacity to practice radical self-love. In the meantime, I need to buy some more raspberry jelly rings.

Tabby Refael is an award-winning writer, speaker and weekly columnist for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. Follow her on X and Instagram @TabbyRefael.

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