The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Yoel (formerly Julian) Clark

By Alex Park

Our first year at Mac, Julian Clark lived down the hall from me in Turck in a manicured room, made a temple to music. The former seemed as much of a religion as any way of life possibly could for a person, with the number of instruments outnumbering the number of items in his closet, and he kept hundreds of CDs, most in giant wallets that he kept in drawers in his desk, but a few others which for him held a special significance he stacked with care on a rack on his desk- those were the really important ones, he said. The ones which had influenced his path as an artist. Years later, music remains as important as ever for him, but the books in the desk drawers have been replaced with tomes of rabbinic law, the rack on the desk replaced with a torah, and the man known to his friends and family as Julian has since changed his name to Yoel. Earlier this week, I caught up with Yoel, to talk about his life and the changes made in the last three and a half years.

Alex Park: I have to admit, it hasn’t come easily, calling you by your new name. Yoel Clark: It’s OK. You can ask my housemates; I just accidentally wrote my old name on the wall for something. I’ve only had the name for like a month.Tell me about how you decided to change your name. Well, it’s a long process. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s not a new name, and it is my name; it’s a name I was given when I was born. Julian was my English name, and Yoel was my Hebrew name. So I just decided that instead of using my English name, I’m going to start using my Hebrew name. Of course, the decision to change my name was part of a much bigger process of being more open about my Jewish identity. This is just part of it.
What’s changed since then? When someone goes through a lifestyle change, it’s never really like Poof! I’m different now, or Poof! I’m religious or Poof! I’m a doctor or whatever you want to say. But there are turning points, usually multiple turning points when people realize things are different. I knew I was headed down a different path Yom Kippur my sophomore year. when… I sang Kol Nidre, which is the main prayer in that service. It was very nice, and it was the first time that I had done anything voluntarily, really Jewish in a leadership role since my bar mitzvah. And the Kippah I was wearing at the time, I just left it on until Rosh Hashanah, or actually through all of Sukkot— there were all these holidays in like, this three week period. I just left it on to see what it was like, and I was really shocked that, man, I really like this. This actually means something. I see why people do this. And I had many instances like that over the next year or so.

And I just kept having these great experiences with Jewish things and Jewish people, and some not so great experiences. But it all just made me realize that I needed to make this part of my life, for better or worse. I saw so many things that were flawed or that were lacking in Judaism, but it didn’t matter. Where there were flaws, or things that made me upset, or confused me in Judaism, I saw that as work that I needed to do. I was just drawn to it, no matter what.

You were born Jewish, so your experience wasn’t really a conversion, per se. It was more of a shift from non-practicing to practicing. Yes, it’s called T’shuva in Hebrew, when someone does that.

So was that process of becoming more religious entirely new, or were there aspects that were familiar? It took a while for me to realize how much of it was familiar, because I had been away from it for so long. My whole life I was involved in Jewish things. And again, this isn’t something I realized until later, that somehow, even if I didn’t care about God or the holidays, I realized that I always found the Jewish stuff to do. All through high school I went to summer camp, I went to Hebrew school on Sunday and after school classes, I went to Israel twice and I joined MJO [Macalester Jewish Organization] as soon as I got to Macalester. But none of it religiously appealed to me. It never felt like part of my identity. It was just something cool that I could do every once in a while and be different.

When I first started making Judaism my own and first started seeing like, wow, this is me, it was all bizarre. But at the same time, everything I did made sense. Everything seemed to just flow naturally from the turning points that I mentioned. It’s not like there were any big leaps or big revelations. Everything seemed to fall step by step in a totally natural progression of things. And it wasn’t until about a year of that that I started to realize what was familiar, and also what I wanted and didn’t want out of various things.

You said that everything kind of fell into place and it all made sense. But I can’t imagine it’s easy for one to make that transition, however natural. That’s true. It’s very true; there were many times that I came up against things where I was either like “pshh, well that’s stupid,” or I really felt like “I can’t do that,” like I wanted to do it but I couldn’t.

What was the most, shall I?say, shocking of those aspects of Judaism that you came across and adopted? I think the most difficult thing for me was when I became a shomer negiah [one who does not touch the opposite sex], which was about six months ago . I started at work [during the summer], and most of my coworkers and my boss were women. I just started toying with the idea like, “if I were working full time in this environment, could I be a religious Jew? Does this even work?” It was a Jewish organization, but in a business situation you have to shake hands, and this was a very touchy feely environment, so everyone was giving hugs and massages. But through that I learned what the actual laws and traditions are, and I reached a very good relationship with my boss, in that there were certain things that I would do. I would shake hands, if I have to. I won’t if I can avoid it. But in official, very formal situations, I do shake hands with women.

When I got back to Macalester, I decided it was something I had to take on. Now it’s one of the most important things to me … It’s also been the most difficult because I’ve always been a very physical person. I’ve always had a lot of female friends, and girlfriends, etc. Sexuality is whole different issue in this case. But the hardest thing has been not being able to express friendliness, or affection in a physical way with women. That’s been the hardest thing, because there are so many things that either feel natural, or that you don’t even think about that I don’t do any more.

You’ve obviously changed a lot in the last few years. Do you look at your life when you started college or before differently since you’ve become more religious? No, and I think I get this from Judaism. There’s no point of no return. It’s not like you can be so bad that no one can help you. I really see that it was a neccesary progression from one thing to the other. If I could go back and change things, would I change things? No. I don’t believe in regretting things. You do things and you learn from them and you change.

If you’re asking me like, how I’m going to raise my own children, that’s how I frame the question now, because family is so important to me now. Part of me becoming more religious is realizing how important family is, and how important my future Jewish family is. Would I just kind of sit there as my son did all the crap that I did? Probably not. Actually, definitely not. But obviously I’m going to have to learn how to deal with that, because the way I’m going I’m going to be raising my children very differently than I was raised. That’s something I think about.

I have to ask, is it right to bring up politics in all of this? Everything’s political, Alex.

Well, has becoming more Jewish affected your political outloook? Not as much as you would think. In some ways it has to, like in certain personal issues, what you might call social issues. I?don’t see for instance how you can be a Jew and be pr
o-life. Likewise, I don’t see how you can be a religious Jew and support gay marriage. I?wish someone would explain it to me, because I’ve grown up my whole life being very democratic and liberal.

You really mean pro-life? Explain that. A baby is not alive, in Judaism, until it’s outside the mother. I can show you texts that say that. There are specific texts that say the mother’s life must be saved before the child’s – always. That’s when the child is being born. When it’s inside the mother, it’s her body, it’s not even a seperate being.

What about Israel? I?was more interested in Israel, as a state, before I?was religious. I’m still interested in it now and still supportive of it now, but it doesn’t have the same hold on me as it did. When I?became religious, I got a realistic idea of what a police state Israel is, for anybody, not just Arabs but Jews too, how difficult it can be to be religious in Israel, how all the secular high-tech people have all the jobs and the religious people have very little say in government.

Now I?think less of the state of Israel, and I?think more of the people of Israel. It’s like what Mos Def says about hip hop: “how’s hip hop doing? Well how we doin’, that’s how hip hop’s doin’.” It’s the same thing. How are Jews doing? We had that Holocaust thing about sixty years ago. That sucked. Today, Jews are always fighting with each other. Especially in Israel, religious Jews are always fighting secular Jews, to the point of killing each other, unfortunately. That’s not so good, so the state of Israel is not going to be so good. We cannot relate properly to anybody else, whether they are trying to kill us or not unless we ourselves are doing well. So, I?think the state of Israel is a manifestation of how the people of Israel are doing, and not just Israelis, but all Jews.

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