Editor’s View

“Ararat.” Nobody’s been there since the flood. Genesis records it as the mountainous region where Noah’s ark found safe harbor. And doubtless it was the idea of a haven from danger that in 1825 inspired the early Zionist Manuel Mordecai Noah to choose “Ararat” as his name for a future Jewish state. “Ararat” would be a “city of refuge for the Jews,” a homeland for the world’s “Israelites.” Yet the proposed nation would lie nowhere near the original mountains of Ararat or, for that matter, anywhere in the Middle East. Instead, Mordecai Noah chose Grand Island as his site—a strip of land in the Niagara River, near Buffalo, New York.

Today it seems strange to think the Jewish state would be anywhere, or anything, other than Israel. But is it really such an outlandish notion? Consider this: more Jews live in America than in any other country, including Israel; the standard of living for Jews is higher here than anywhere else at any time in Jewish history; and, in any given year, a greater number of Israelis immigrate to America than American Jews immigrate to Israel.

Most importantly, Jews in America are safe. The odd anti-Semitic incident aside, American Jews have found a land where they need not worry about violence. As the (obviously) Jewish mice in “An American Tail” sang on the boat to Ellis Island: “there are no cats in America and the streets are paved with cheese!” In Israel’s neighborhood, there are plenty of predators—vicious ones, their claws always bared. Founded on the logic that Jews could be safe only in their own state, Israel has failed, in part, as a Jewish homeland. Whereas America is able to provide physical security to its Jews, the very existence of the state of Israel endangers its citizens.

But perhaps American Jews are too safe. Israel has the threat of its enemies to help it remain an organized Jewish community—its metaphorical shtetl walls are high and, on the border with Gaza and soon the West Bank as well, the walls are (literally) concrete. Jews in this country are so safe that being Jewish is a matter of choice, an issue they don’t have to deal with. A Jew in America can simply opt out. Or, even worse, marry out. In 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey, sponsored by the Jewish Federation system, found the rate of Jewish intermarriage had skyrocketed to 52 percent. Organized American Jewry has been freaking out ever since.

Amidst wildly overheated talk of Jews “dying off” and of hundreds of Jews “disappearing” every day (one pictures Haredi men popping out of existence as they wait for the bus, their hats and disembodied beards wafting to the ground) the community has pumped millions of dollars into youth outreach initiatives. In the campaign to stave off assimilation, Hillel has been revitalized to provide religious services and organized communal life for Jewish students, Birthright ships young Jews to Israel, and a slew of “hip” cultural programs like Makor have sprung up, marketed to make Jewish life enticing for Jews in the 18-35 year-old demographic.

It therefore came as quite a shock to all concerned when the results of the 2000-01 NJPS were made public by United Jewish Communities in early September. Rather sheepishly, the report admitted the 1990 intermarriage rate had been determined through faulty methodology—namely, counting a lot of Christians as naughty, gentile-wedding Jews. It retracted the apocalyptic 52 percent figure in favor of a merely terrifying 43 percent. Jews in America are still dying off, you see, just not as fast as we thought.

Forget about the fuzzy figures for a moment and think about the kind of mindset that would spawn and fuss over such numbers. Only a community that is utterly safe in body could worry so much about whether its kids are dating each other. Your greatest fear as a Jew in America is that your children might marry out. Your greatest fear as a Jew in Israel is that the young man sitting next to you might detonate himself. There’s just no comparison.

But because organized American Jewry cannot conceive of Jewish identity as anything other than shtetl identity, it needs a threat against which to define “Jewish.” A place created by fear, the shtetl is not a shtetl unless everyone must huddle inside it. Unable to point to any real physical threat, any real crisis, the leaders of America’s organized Jewish community have done a curious thing—they have made assimilation the outside threat. The shtetl walls aren’t meant to keep marauders from storming in; they are meant to keep Jews from venturing out. For out there, in the wilds of America, assimilation is a killer.

But how do you distinguish a dead Jew from a live one? How do you know if a Jew has disappeared? Consult the NJPS—it’s a veritable Jewish mortician’s handbook. Judging by its categories for “Jewish connections,” to not be dead: half or more of a Jew’s friends must themselves be Jewish, the Jew must attend Passover seder and light Chanukah candles, fast on Yom Kippur, keep Kosher, belong to a synagogue, visit Israel, and contribute to a Jewish federation campaign. In other words, to be a live Jew, you must be a member of the organized Jewish community.

That there should be a rigid test for Jewish identity is preposterous. A test, like a wall, separates—it marks Jew from non-Jew, me over here from you over there. Yes, Jews will continue to “disappear” as long as one searches for them at Hillels, synagogues, or on marriage licenses. If only the shtetl defines meaningful Jewish identity, then only those within its walls will count as Jews.

Here’s Jewish communal heresy for you: intermarriage doesn’t matter. Jews aren’t disappearing. And Jewish identity and culture aren’t shuffling off their mortal coils any time soon. The organized Jewish community only draws these conclusions because it conflates “engaged,” “observant,” “pro-Israel,” and “married to a Jew” with Jewish identity. \t\t\tThe only thing in real danger of disappearing is the organized Jewish community itself, not because Jews are dwindling but because the identity it provides is becoming irrelevant.

The Jewish community as a whole is becoming increasingly disorganized, diverse, and American—in both the sense that Jews are becoming more American and America is becoming more Jewish. It’s not that mainstream American culture is devouring Jewish culture. They are feeding off each other. And, if anything, the mainstream is more ravenous for Jewish product—Seinfeld, the Beastie Boys, Madonna’s Kabbalah fixation. Even Yiddish insults like shmuck and putz have become part of the nation’s vernacular.

America is growing ever more multi-ethnic and diverse, its individual identities ever more fluid and complex. Census categories are breaking down, forcing the creation of new “mixed heritage” boxes to tick. Cross-cultural pollination is producing glorious hybrids. Take the Coen Brothers’ classic “The Big Lebowski,” whose narrator is a lonesome cowboy with a ten-gallon hat, a droopy mustache, and a penchant for tuchus metaphors. Or groups like Golem and Yidcorps, who blend punk, rock, and klezmer to produce new musical forms.

Instead of embracing these trends, organized Jewry has transformed them into the terror against which to define Jewish community. Hence every report sponsored by an organ of the Jewish community shows young Jews in “crisis.” We lack for everything—a strong connection to Israel, a sense of Jewish history, a feeling of communal obligation. We are unobservant, unengaged—we’re causing the community to become undone by committing mass cultural suicide. In its parochial paranoia the community reaches out hoping only to pull us back in, it claws at any figures it can get to show body counts of young Jews “engaged.”

Experts like Frank Luntz (see page 12) counsel Jewish professionals to employ “hip” methods, to celebrate Jewish culture by sponsoring comedy events, theatre performances, music and film—the works. But these cultural celebrations aren’t seen as communal goods in and of themselves. Funders want to see results—marriage and candle-lighting rates, tables and statistics. And so the performance of a group like Golem is solicited only as an “engagement tool,” in service of convincing young Jews to support Israel or marry each other.

You should support Israel because you feel it deserves your support, not because you’re a Jew. You should marry for love, not for Judaism. Its enough that Mel Brooks is funny, that Allen Ginsberg was a great poet, that the Coen Brothers are magnificent filmmakers. They are both the product and the producers of Jewish culture—we don’t need them to be anything more. These shouldn’t be radical notions.

The organized community needs to stop running on dread. Stop trying to “sell” Judaism to the next generation of Jews—we’re creators, not consumers. Why not devote those massive resources to the pure celebration of Jewish culture, in whatever form it takes, and no matter how many Jews or gentiles in the audience? Why isn’t that enough?

Worrying, measuring, testing—these things only stifle the organic growth of identity. If all effort is bent on getting Jews back inside the shtetl, Jewish communal culture will be only about the wall. And a wall, on its own, is nothing but dull, lifeless stone.

Comments are closed.

WordPress Backup
Read previous post:
Jewish Jocks

When religion and athletics compete