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Jewish Identity: Is the Magic Gone?

George Salamon
April 2, 2014
by George Salamon “No one speaks for the Jews. We are the people of the great fraction; the whole of us must always be described as the number of Jews divided by the number of Jews.” —Earl Shorris PeretzThe "Great Fraction" — it made Jewish communities in the Diaspora alluring and infuriating. It was a source for Jewish prickliness and vitality, and it infused Jewish contributions to the cultural and social life of their host countries. Jews were not “one” by national identity, as much as they tried to be — for example, in Germany in the three decades prior to the Third Reich. What was it, then, that united Jews before the establishment of their own nation and their absorption into America’s establishment? Shorris suggested that we Jews “are a nation by belief, by ethics, and by history.” (The classic Yiddish writer, Y.L. Perets, named "the vital questions" as "conscience, freedom, culture, ethics.") Today, among America’s six million Jews, only Shorris’s third pillar of unity and identity remains indisputable. That is the conclusion gleaned from “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” published by the Pew Research Center last fall. After a flurry of articles and comments in the Israeli press and in Jewish-American journals, the report’s findings were forgotten and only the most noted media “take-away” stuck: that "Americans — not just Jews — increasingly eschew any religious affiliation.” Hardly looked at in the context of Jewish history and of Judaism itself was what the numbers in the Pew survey of 3,475 Jewish-Americans reveal about substantive, deeper and longer-range implications about “Jewish identity” in America: what it once was, what it now is and where it might be heading. JewsWhat Jewish spiritual leaders, commenting in the Jerusalem Post or Haaretz, found most alarming in the Pew findings was that 22 percent of those surveyed described themselves as “having no religion,” and that a whopping 62 percent insisted that “being Jewish was mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.” The second of the two assertions was not explained — yet it is the one that calls for more discussion and understanding and for being connected it to the first. But, as they say on radio, first let’s do the numbers. The Pew report chronicles the split among America’s Jews through four generations, dividing them into those who assert their identity as “Jews by religion” and those as “Jews of no religion,” or “cultural Jews.” From generation to generation, the numbers reveal a steady five-to-seven-percent decline of “religious Jews” and an increase of “cultural Jews” by the same percentages. The numbers are, for the two groups respectively in each generation: The Greatest Generation (b. between 1914 and 1927): 93% and 7% The Silent Generation (b. between 1928 and 1945): 88% and 14% The Baby Boomers (b. between 1946 and 1964): 81% and 19% Generation X (b. between 1965 and 1980): 74% and 26% Millennials (b. after 1980): 68% and 32% Like-what-youre-readingThe table illustrates a huge change in how Jewish-Americans perceive their identity. Jews who see themselves as Jews by religion have decreased by one quarter, while those who identify themselves as cultural Jews have quadrupled. What does that mean? What’s an “identity,” anyhow? And what “culture” are America’s Jews increasingly identifying with as they abandon their religious affiliation? And — what matters as much — is this an unstoppable development leading to Judaism in America as a social club rather than the world’s oldest religion? Erik Erikson taught us to see “identity” as “vague, ambiguous, unfathomable, and naïve,” as a simplification. We’ve been instructed to think of a “family of identities” that each of us shapes in our lives, and Leon Wieseltier, in “Against Identity,” warned us not to confuse self-expression with identity, and that therefore “to assert your right to be something is not yet to be something.” Thus forearmed, what can we make of the sea-change in Jewish identity in America? The dwindling importance and practice of religion in the lives of American Jews has lead to a loss of the Hebrew element. The philosopher William Barrett (in Irrational Man, his study of existentialist philosophy) described what is meant by that: “The Hebrew is concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Right conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew, right thinking that of the Greek. Duty and strictness of conscience are the paramount things in life for the Hebrew; for the Greek the spontaneous and luminous play of the intelligence. The Hebrew thus extols the moral virtues as the substance and meaning of life, the Greek subordinates them to the intellectual virtues...” Modern Jews, after the Enlightenment permitted them entrance into national cultures, produced much great work suspended between the Hebrew and Greek pursuits, inspired often by the creative tension between the two. That tension is indeed what characterized “Jewishness” in the works of writers like Saul Bellow: “The overall perspective of his works is essentially Jewish and, to an extent religious in its moral concern,” is how one critic put it. It is possible, of course, to gain such “moral concern” from Kant or Camus as well, but that has always been and remains a road less accessible to most. The study of Judaism encourages embarking on a path to that moral concern, in a uniquely Jewish style. Scholars point to the opening lines of the Hebrew Bible (when compared to the King James version): “In the beginning of” versus “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth.” In the beginning of what? No wonder Jews who studied the Hebrew Bible were exposed to questioning unfolding into questioning, often “stiff-necked” and quarrelsome, and eventually humorous as well. Religious Judaism was instrumental in shaping cultural Judaism. And much of the Jewish cultural contribution to America has now become a piece of American culture. But if religious Judaism continues its decline, will Jews continue contributing anything distinct, or distinctly Jewish, any longer? Not if we look at recent trends among religious and cultural Jews among the Millennials. For a dozen years, now, a group of affluent and highly successful young Jews are tapped to attend a session of Reboot at a luxurious ski lodge to “discuss their ethnic and religious identity” between sessions in the gym and whirlpool. During three days they discuss such topics as “what Mel Gibson was thinking when he made ‘Passion of the Christ” or “whether giving a travel itinerary to your mother is an inherently Jewish thing.” “They (Reboot attendees) want to make it hip and cool to be identified as a Jew,” NYU professor and cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff said of them. And what pieces of their Jewish identity do they discover during the three days? “I find myself in tears,” one Rebooter recalled." I had some weird sense-memories of childhood rituals, lighting candles and drinking wine." As a result she found “it’s ridiculous how Jew-y I’ve become.” As Woody Allen might say, “Jew-y yes, Jewish not yet.” Reboot does not aim to acquaint those it anoints with the harsher and darker elements in Judaism and in Jewish history. “For so many years being a Jew was defined by the Holocaust on one side and Israel on the other. Now the conversation is about something other than that,” says Rachel Levin, a Reboot founder who is also an associate director at The Righteous Persons Foundation, created by Steven Spielberg. Yet the Reboot conversations cited by the New York Times recall a character in a Peter DeVries novel, set in suburban Connecticut of the 1950s, who says about another: “Down deep he’s shallow.” Reboot aims to connect to “religious” Judaism. What about those one million Jews who seek, according to Pew, only “expression and engagement outside of synagogue life?," who meet as non-religionists to “emphasize communal ties, with belief and even behavior of secondary importance”? What do Judaism and Jewishness have to do with them? Nothing really, except the desire to recreate the Jewish college fraternity or sorority that provided a sense of belonging in the real world. To some, it’s a “I’ll bring the gefilte fish and you the potato latkes and let’s be Jewish together” Judaism. What is the meaning of this trend towards sunny-side-of-the street Judaism among Jews since the mid-1970s? It coincides with what America's churches offered, too, to attract or keep their younger members, what Christopher Lasch described as “spiritual consolation . . . by the assertion of their collective identity.” Lasch called it a “therapeutic exercise.” It does not impose the challenge of rigorous questioning or that of strict ethical behavior. It also coincides with America’s rejection of Jimmy Carter’s challenge to add both spiritual and communitarian elements to the material one in the American Dream. Carter proposed for Americans a more Spartan outer life but a richer inner one. Americans chose Reagan’s vision instead, that of a richer life on the outside and a vacuous one inside. As a Jewish undergraduate at Harvard quipped: “We hated Reagan, but we loved his revolution.” The Pew survey confronts Jewish-Americans with the consequences of all that. Identifying themselves as Jews “has grown shakier with each decade” since. A real Jewish identity once robbed you of your sleep regularly, Wieseltier wrote. Who still wants to live like that in the age of positive psychology and seven-step programs to happiness in every area of life? Not too many younger Jews. They want Judaism with a smiley face. They don’t much remember the faces of those intense Jewish college kids who sat on buses to civil rights marches in Alabama or occupied college offices to protest the war in Vietnam. What happiness was there in that? Quite a bit. But to attain it demands an intense seriousness and an equally intense sense of humor. The Jewish perspective once had bite, awe for the great and irreverence for the absurd, admiration for the good and condemnation for evil. It did not seek likeability. It gained acceptance in America nonetheless for its intellectual achievements and the confrontations its sense of humor hurled at convention and conformity. Too often today the search for Jewish identity represents a search for conformity. Jews have achieved unprecedented assimilation into American society. Except for the Orthodox among them, they are hardly distinct from white, Christian, middle-class Americans. How, then, do they want to revisit and revive a Jewish identity that does not set them apart and yet makes them distinctly Jewish? They might remember, before finding a way, that for Jews (as we return to earl Shorris one more time), “riches have never guaranteed more than the comfort of the moment. Nothing has lasted for Jews but Judaism.” As Professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard Ruth Wisse proposes, let America’s Jews get acquainted with their own religion, with its history, with its spirit and its laws and its practices. As she noted, they know little of Judaism but the Holocaust. They hardly understand Jewish humor any longer. Once they do that, they are on the road to earning a Jewish identity. It is not meant to be inherited, as has been pointed out. And there is such a wonderful battle cry available for the struggle ahead: Torah! Torah! Torah! George Salamon taught German literature and culture at several East Coast colleges, served as staff reporter on the St. Louis Business Journal and senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He has contributed articles to The Washington Post and The American Conservative and poetry to New Verse News. For the past five years he has been a regular contributor to the Gateway Journalism Review.