Monday, March 2, 2015

BREAKING: Global Coalition of Jewish Leaders Set to Unveil Revolutionary Continuity Program

BREAKING: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is now meeting with top American philanthropists and community leaders ahead of the announcement of new continuity program dubbed 'The First Mitzvah.' Details are still under wraps until official launch on Wednesday night, but insiders say 'The First Mitzvah' will be the first outreach program dedicated to increasing sexual engagement among unmarried Jews, across gender/sex/nusach. No combination is off the table, per the findings of a ground breaking strategic plan, the product of a five year study by Steven J. Cohen and Steven J. Boym. According to a Steven: "What we found is that sexual intercourse produces feel good hormones like oxytocin. Young people like sex. Like, really, really like it. Also, did you read that How to Train your Husband article in the Times? It's like that. If we can get young Jews to identify the sensation of orgasm with being near another Jew, our projections show that in-married Jewish couples may increase by as much as 18%."
What's so revolutionary about 'The First Mitzvah' is its cross denominational participation. Reached for comment at 770, Yehuda Krinsky of the worldwide Chabad moment said "Moshiach is coming and we are providing the towel. Borekh hashem" 
Funding of 'The First Mitzvah' is said to be at a mere $500 million for the first three years, until studies can be done to show whether giving young Jews lots of money to fuck can really work. An anonymous source at UJA-Federation was hopeful, though, 'No one thought thousands of Jewish teenagers would take an all expense paid vacation to Israel. Now, if we can make boning as accessible, and as lucrative, we believe we can reverse some of the most worrying trends of the last thirty years. And let's face it, after this, we're all out of ideas."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Are You There God? It's Me, Intermarriage (Part 2)


In Part Two of Identity Crises and Suburban Jews, we leave Margaret Simon and her intermarried parents and her search for a community with whom to identify. Now, I turn my attention to the story of two middle school boys, also on a quest for identification, also recently removed from extended family, grandparents and an urban environment. But the story of Leonard and Alan is a fantastic one of psychic powers, aliens and inter dimensional travel. Alan Mendelsohn The Boy From Mars is the story of the nerd as crypto-Jew. But even when I first read the book as a kid, I knew. I knew what the book was really about.

Leonard's story spoke to me just as clearly as Margaret's, though I didn't necessarily share much in common with either of them, on the surface of things. But it was the search for a bigger picture, the confusion at being separated from family and history, which rang true. And, as you'll see in the essay, there is something ultimately hopeful about Leonard and Alan's story.  You can go back home. You can find your people. It'll take a hell of a lot of work, but it's also a hell of an adventure along the way.

And if you've been wondering where the phrase 'Yiddish Atlantis' came from, it debuted in this essay.

Enjoy!

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Identity Crises and Suburban Jews: A Quasi-Personal Meditation: Part Two (excerpt)
By Rokhl Kafrissen

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret ends on this somewhat ambivalent note. Margaret gets her period and continues to keep up with her peer group. But her adult identity is unclear. With whom does she belong? And is twelve really too late to learn?
For the answer, I turn back to Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars and Leonard and Alan's quest for the stuff of identity.


Alan Mendelsohn, like Are You There God, opens immediately after a perplexing move to the suburbs, a few days before the beginning of junior high school. The narrator (and protagonist) of the book is actually Leonard Neeble. Leonard's parents have left Hogboro for the suburb of West Kangaroo Park, place without much to recommend it except lots of brand new tract housing. 
Like the Simons, the Neebles have also left behind grandparents. But the Neebles' move is never really explained, not as an escape from them, nor as an escape from the city. It goes without saying that the blank canvas of the suburbs is the American dream. Adults will naturally want a new house where they can do all the things you canʼt do in the city: barbecue every night, buy lots of new furniture, and play around with the remote control garage door opener.
But kids have different needs. Leonard is miserable, as furniture and barbecuing donʼt have much appeal to a twelve year old boy. In the old neighborhood, all you had to do was walk outside and you could get into a conversation, trade baseball cards, or walk to the corner and buy a comic book. 
In West Kangaroo Park, Leonard is the only kid in the whole neighborhood (aside from a few babies). Not only that, there is nowhere to walk to, besides which you canʼt walk anywhere- there arenʼt any sidewalks! In any case, no one is expected to walk anywhere in West Kangaroo Park. All the commerce is organized around shopping strips arranged around parking lots. Kid life in the suburbs is restricted to the discrete spaces of school and home, with its nuclear core, devoid of the encircling comforts of extended family and friends.
And, like Margaret Simon, Leonard has much more in common with his grandparents than he does with his parents. His parents are “dopey but lovable.”  But his grandparents are everything the parents arenʼt. They have no interest in material goods. They are part of an extended community (their apartment has a rotating group of vaguely related inhabitants) and they are an endless source of interesting information.
The distance between the two worlds, parents and grandparents, is epitomized in the second chapter. Leonard misses his grandparents (Grandfather and the Old One) and longs for them as he waits for his parents to prepare dinner. His grandmother, he tells us:
“believes that everyone ought to eat only raw food, except meat, which she believes nobody should eat at all. She spends all her time grinding up nuts and wheat berries and soybeans, and mashing them up together with honey and raisins and stuff. It tastes better than it sounds.”
Leonardʼs parents, on the other hand, are determined to make up for lost time. The move to the new house hasnʼt just put them in a new physical place; theyʼve created a new life and new values to go along with it. And the consumption of meat plays a starring role. The nightly barbecue has become a ritual, as Leonard describes it:
“I heard the back door slam twice... I knew what had happened-- my father had come out of the garage, stepped through the back door, kissed my mother, patted Melvin on the head, taken off his coat, and hung it on a hook, first taking his apron off the hook. The apron had WHATʼS COOKING? printed on the front, and a picture of a guy in a chefʼs hat standing in front of a barbecue with a big cloud of smoke coming from it. Next, my father had gone outside (that was the second slam) and started building a fire in the portable barbecue. This had been going on all summer....Besides the hamburgers or steak, we would have salad. My parents had been to a restaurant where they served this special salad with chopped hard-boiled egg on it, and anchovies, and all sorts of stuff....Before we moved to the new house I had always liked hamburgers and things like that. Now I was getting bored-- my parents werenʼt, though.”
Leonardʼs parents are obviously in their element in the suburbs, rebelling against their own parents and emulating the bourgeois, Caesar salad eating milieu theyʼre striving to enter. 


Leonard, however, sticks out like a sore thumb in his new setting. His first day at school he sits on an ice cream bar, gets verbally abused in gym class, and in general is treated like short, rumpled garbage by his tall, dim, unwrinkled classmates. 
Heʼs lost the people who matter most to him (and to whom he matters most) and it looks unlikely he will ever find a replacement in the suburbs. He is utterly alone, surrounded by parents who bear little resemblance to him and peers who ignore or despise him.  
If identity “expresses such a mutual relation in that it connotes both a persistent sameness within oneself (selfsameness) and a persistent sharing of some kind of essential character with others” then where will Leonard find such internal and external continuity?
The answer comes with his acquaintance with the eponymous Alan Mendelsohn. A few weeks into school they meet, recognizing in each other fellow outcasts who have no desire to fit in with the creepy clones at Bat Masterson Junior High. As in Are You There God, meeting a congenial peer group and identifying with them is necessary in the construction of identity. But for Margaret, that peer group identification isn’t followed by identification with a larger group, with a past and future. 
In contrast, Leonard and Alan will not just identify with each other, they will share a mutual quest which will bring them into contact with a different world, one where their unique qualities and unique past are appreciated, and where they are able to create a new future for themselves which builds upon their pre-suburban past.
Alan Mendelsohn has also been pulled out of his context and plopped into the suburbs. In his case, his parents have relocated from the Bronx. The Bronx was much like Leonardʼs old neighborhood, with book stores, grandparents and cobblestone streets that were more than a few years old.
Alan and Leonard donʼt have much to do in West Kangaroo Park. Leonard is so alienated from his surroundings that he literally makes himself invisible. He stops carrying his books to class or doing any assignments. His teachers are happy to let him slip through the cracks as long as he stays quiet on the way down.
Leonardʼs refusal to participate in school that is the catalyst for his identity crisis and growth. Report cards arrive and Leonardʼs parents are shocked to learn that he is failing all his subjects. He is sent to a child psychologist to get to the bottom of the problem. Due to his ongoing therapy, Leonard and Alan are able to make a school day trip to the city of Hogboro and go comic book shopping.
In Hogboro they visit an esoteric bookshop and are persuaded by eccentric bookshop proprietor Samuel Klugarsh to buy into a psychic training system. While the system at first seems to be a swindle, they soon learn that thereʼs something to it, though it's unclear at first.
The key comes from Leonardʼs grandparents. Leonard and Alan have to take a trip to the old neighborhood because the Old Oneʼs vacuum is broken and she needs to borrow the Neeblesʼ.
While Leonard and Alan are there, Uncle Boris offers to show Alan Mendelsohn his home movies. One of the movies is the feet (just the feet) of his extended family, to fourth and fifth cousins. Well, it turns out that Samuel Klugarsh belongs to one of the feet featured. Leonard is shocked, as he had never before considered Boris to be more than an eccentric whose penchant for making home movies was without value.
Through Boris, Alan and Leonard learn that there is something to Klugarsh and his methods, though he isnʼt quite what he claims to be, nor is his merchandise to be taken at face value.
Because of Borisʼs recognition and affirmation, Alan and Leonard decide to go back to Klugarsh and try again to get something a little more worth their money. Perhaps a gem, like the one Uncle Boris showed them which glowed in the presence of a psychically gifted person.
Their next encounter with Klugarsh takes them much deeper into their adventure. While their first purchase enabled them to produce certain brain waves that gave them psychic powers, they havenʼt figured out what exactly those powers are good for, aside from tormenting their dimwitted classmates. 
When Alan and Leonard tell Klugarsh that they have been able to reach “State 26” (a mental state necessary to access psychic powers), he is astonished at their progress. He insists that they buy the next level of psychic training. Itʼs called Hypersteller Archaeology and, as Klugarsh explains, it will help them find the so-called lost continents of Atlantis, Mu and Lemuria. He tells them the course in hyperstellar archaeology “... will equip you to find the everyday clues to the existence of civilizations no longer with us.” 
At this point in the analysis I have to insert myself and my story again. Alan Mendelsohn the Boy from Mars is obviously a book I remember fondly from my own childhood. As a kid who was bullied, I related to the nerd as hero and the possibility that there was an adventure awaiting me and my unique abilities. But as an adult, the story has even more relevance.
I couldnʼt ask for a better description of what it feels like to enter into the study of the Yiddish language and culture than what Klugarsh calls ʻHyperstellar Archaeologyʼ. Once I started learning Yiddish, I found it everywhere. I suddenly knew what peopleʼs last names meant. I understand what gey shlofn meant. I understood why we leyned Torah and my friends had an oyfruf before they got married.
Growing up, the Yiddish world might as well have been Atlantis to me. It had existed at one point, but the way it was remembered was through its cataclysmic destruction. And just as we have no way of knowing what life in Atlantis was like, the subtext of any discussion of Eastern European culture was that its everyday life (as opposed to its death) was just as removed and unknowable to us.

Growing up, the Yiddish world might as well have been Atlantis to me. It had existed at one point, but the way it was remembered was through its cataclysmic destruction. And just as we have no way of knowing what life in Atlantis was like, the subtext of any discussion of Eastern European culture was that its everyday life (as opposed to its death) was just as removed and unknowable to us.

Yiddish Eastern Europe became mythic, in more ways than one. Eastern Europe was't just a place where Jews lived for a thousand years, but the crucible out of which emerged the new State of Israel. The old had to be destroyed to make way for the new.
Further, Yiddish Eastern Europe was mythic in that because it was lost, it was something to which we could never return, nor would we need to. Rather, Yiddish Eastern Europe would from now on function as a mirror for contemporary society. Just like countless generations have been fascinated by Atlantis, and have seen themselves in its life and destruction, so Jews today are able to look into the mirror of the Yiddish Atlantis and see whatever they need to. 
In the latest Pew survey, 73% of Jews surveyed said that remembering the Holocaust is essential to being Jewish. Itʼs interesting to recall here that in Sally J. Freedman, the times when we see Sally identify as Jewish is when she is absorbed in her fantasies about fighting Hitler, especially when she begins to suspect that an elderly man, Mr. Zavodsky, in her building is Hitler. In her fantasies she is courageous, independent and Jewish-- but that Jewish Sally only asserts herself in response to the perceived dangers of anti-Semitism. The only time the word Yiddish is mentioned in the book is in the context of Sallyʼs stalking of poor Mr. Zavodsky, as she observes him reading the Forward.
Lingering on destruction and catastrophe and violent expressions of anti-Semitism are very much a way of engaging with oneʼs Jewishness. But this negative Jewishness, a Jewishness of reaction and fear and violence, is obviously a highly personal one, lacking in Jewish substance. Itʼs inevitable that when the Yiddish Atlantis plays a role in our cultural narrative we will start to define ourselves, and identify Jewishly, more and more through destruction than through creation.
As Erik Erikson says, the process of identification happens when the young person judges himself according to the values and typology which she perceives to be of use to the group she is identifying with and the ideology it represents. This self-interrogation is both the process by which she finds herself worthy of being part of the group and another expression of all that it stands for.
Sallyʼs recurrent fantasies about capturing Hitler are revenge fantasies, revenge on behalf of the members of her family lost in the war (Lila and Tante Rose, Ma Fannyʼs sister and niece Europe. ) In the prologue to the book we hear Sally asking her mother about them.
-“Oh, them... the ones Hitler sent away...
-“Yes” [her mother replies] “Maybe now we can find out where they are.” -“Do you think theyʼre in New Jersey?”
-”No, honey... theyʼre far away... theyʼre somewhere in Europe.”
Unfortunately, Lila and Rose didnʼt make it out of the war and Sally never gets to meet them. But the stories she makes up for herself about fighting Hitler (and going so far as to imagine him in her backyard) is her way of connecting with Lila and Rose. Sally gets to know them solely by gazing at their pictures.The fantasies are Sallyʼs way of demonstrating her continuity and sameness in relation to people she will never meet.
Sally has no idea what Lila and Rose would be like, but the way she can assure herself of their approval is to envision a version of herself (older, stronger, more glamorous) with the strength and cunning to avert the disaster that took Lila and Rose from the Freedmans forever. And perhaps, Sally is reproducing the fierce family centered ethics of her mother and grandmother, a value system which, as Iʼve shown, places the integrity of the family unit above everything else. Just like Sallyʼs mother is willing to sacrifice anything to keep her family together (she would never abandon her daughter like the Daniels have) so too Sally, in her imagined future as Nazi fighter, is willing to put her life on the line to save Lila and Rose and make their family whole again.
I was a lot like Sally when I was growing up. I did my fourth grade famous person report on Anne Frank. I even went to school dressed as her. In seventh grade I checked out a book about Joseph Mengele and medical experimentation in Auschwitz. (I didnʼt dress up for that report.) Jewish death and destruction were what I knew, at that point, of my history and I identified with it, easily, for a while at least. But as I got older I became less satisfied with a Jewishness defined by its enemies. Our so-called chosenness seemed unjustifiable if it meant being chosen for liquidation. I needed to know what set us apart and what their lives had been like, not just how they died.
Once I started studying Yiddish I saw that rather than being a distant universe without relevance to my own life, I fit easily within the living Yiddish world. In fact, I belonged much more to the Yiddish world than to the Long Island memory hole.  Similarly, while reading their Hyperstellar Archaeology book, Alan and Leonard, of Alan Mendelsohn, are shocked to find that they are mentioned by name! Lemurian sages predicted that one day Alan Mendelsohn and Leonard Neeble would travel between dimensions and do great deeds. Alan and Leonard can hardly believe the prediction could be real, but itʼs just as improbable that their names were inserted into the book before they bought it. But the prediction proves to be more significant, and real, than they can imagine.
Shortly after discovering their importance to this other world, Alan and Leonard meet a real interstellar adventurer, Clarence Yojimbo, a folksinging Venusian. Clarence instructs them that Atlantis, Mu and Lemuria arenʼt actually gone. Rather, they are parallel planes of existence which have always coexisted with our own. We think of them as ʻlostʼ because there have always been times and places when people got glimpses into the activities on these other planes. Lacking the framework of parallel planes of existence, they explained these insights as being psychic links to those ʻlostʼ continents. Alan and Leonard learn that many of the things which they take for granted, the recipe for Nafsu cola or the special ingredient in chili, are not independent flashes of genius, but are the product of these rare glimpses into the other planes of existence. While those flashes ofinsight are rare, even rarer is the ability to travel at will between the planes. But this is what Alan and Leonard end up doing.
No longer are Leonard and Alan alienated kids whose identity is constructed mostly through abusing their fellow classmates. They have entered into a new community where they have acquired enviable skills and the respect of their elders. Their final challenge is being able to travel between planes of existence. The instructions for travel between planes is at the back of their book. There are certain places where it is possible to go between planes, but there are only a few of them. Luckily, the one in the United States happens to be in their city, Hogboro. Unfortunately, itʼs located in Hergeschleimer Gardens, an establishment which, according to the phone book, no longer exists.
Once again Alan and Leonard are forced to go back to the old neighborhood, and the old ones, to take the final step in their development as skilled masters of their psychic powers. And once again they are not disappointed. Uncle Boris remembers Hergeschleimerʼs Oriental Gardens. He even has home movies of them. Where the phone book, the library, and all other adults failed to be able to connect Alan and Leonard to their past, Uncle Boris is able to serve as that link of continuity because he is old enough to remember where it was.
Thanks to Uncle Boris, Alan and Leonard get to Hergeschleimerʼs Gardens, which is now a junkyard. There they make contact with another plane of existence, though what they find isnʼt exactly as glamorous as Atlantis. What they find is Waka-Waka, a civilization so highly developed that its residents have lost the ability to defend themselves. This leaves them vulnerable to three Nafsulian space pirates, Manny, Moe and Jack. The pirates have taken over the great Waka-Waka city of Lenny as well as the most highly prized product of Waka-Waka, the three tzitzikis bushes located at the peak of the mountain on which Lenny is built. 
Alan and Leonard are welcomed by the inhabitants of Waka-Waka, and they quickly learn of the mortal terror of its inhabitants and the debased conditions they live in (they have been living in caves since Manny, Moe, and Jack took over Lenny). Even worse, their entire society rests on the rituals around drinking fleegix, a drink somewhat like hot chocolate, but brewed with tsitskis berries. Manny, Moe, and Jack allow them to have just enough berries to get by with diluted fleegix, while they keep the rest to export to other planes at a terrific profit.
Itʼs not too hard to see the inhabitants of Waka-Waka as a certain Jewish cliche- mild mannered people whose excruciatingly high level of civilization becomes their own downfall. The Waka- Wakians are incapable of protecting themselves, even from villains as patently ridiculous as Manny, Moe, and Jack. Enter Alan and Leonard. 
Aside from traveling between planes of existence, one of their only other useful psychic abilities has been mentally commanding others to take off their hats and rub their bellies simultaneously. By coincidence, this happens to be the Nafsulian gesture of unconditional surrender. In a fast paced climax, Alan devises a plan to free the Waka-Wakians from Manny, Moe, and Jack, and at the same he makes contact with a Martian emissary (Rolzup) who happens to be there at the same time. In a private audience, Alan arranges for his family to get passage away from the West Kangaroo Park suburb and back to Mars.
And so, Alan and Leonard save the hapless Waka-Wakians, punish the bad guys (shades of Sally J. Freedman hunting Hitler in Florida?), find a way home for Alan and his family, and generally end up as totally different people than when they started out.
Then Alan is gone amid a flurry of UFO sightings over West Kangaroo Park. Leonard goes back to school a changed person. Having learned who he is, and having seen where he fits in and with whom, he is less angry and more open to building friendships at his school. He joins a new gym class for outcast kids. The teacher, Mr. Winkler, is himself a marginal character. The kids learn yoga and chess and find solidarity with each other and their new skills, rather than trying to fit in with the popular kids. (Which is what most of them had been doing.)
The book ends on a happy, hopeful note. Leonard has been able to ʻgo backʼ as much as needed to in order to access his stuff of identification. He has repaired the broken chain of continuity, both by integrating the wisdom of his elders like Boris, but has also helped heal the community of Waka Waka. In this mutual process, Leonard came to know who he was and his community recognizes him as an active, important, constituent part.
Itʼs a happy ending for our fictional nerdy Jewish boys as they successfully prepare for lives as nerdy Jewish men. But earlier in this essay, I argued that the identity crises of these fictional protagonists reflects the larger identity crisis of the American Jewish community. Assuming weʼre all, to some degree, in Margaret and Leonardʼs shoes (willingly cut off from our earlier continuities), then with whom do we collectively identify? By whose criteria do we judge ourselves and in what continuity do we see ourselves as having purpose? These are just some of the questions we need to be grappling with if we're to confront the American-Jewish future head on.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Can I Pass Along a Jewish Identity to My Children?

The Forward has a new column on inter-faith relationships called 'Seesaw.' I find it interesting, especially because the questions asked reflect concerns held by far more than just those in inter-faith relationships. Like, this week, someone engaged to a non-Jewish man wrote in to ask how she could transmit secular Judaism to her children:
I’m a woman engaged to be married to a wonderful man. He’s a non-theistic, pagan-interested Unitarian Universalist, and I’m a non-theistic Jew. Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how to raise our future children with a Jewish identity. I’m not interested in raising them in the Jewish faith (or any faith, for that matter), but I really want them to connect with the cultural aspect and hold onto that identity, just as I have. So, how does a secular Jew pass along secular Judaism to her children 

Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how to raise our future children with a Jewish identity.

I've written before about the work that the 'identity' concept has been doing for American Jews. Rather than articulating which aspects of Jewish life are important to them (prayer, history, texts, languages, history, folkways, music, cuisine etc) and then figuring out how to transmit whatever it is that is most vital to their Jewishness, generations of American Jews have been able to wave away the problem of specificity with a single magic word. Identity.


We came to believe, with perfect faith, that there was a thing called identity, a Jewish continuity with a somewhat mysterious Jewish content. Jewish feeling without Jewish doing. And, failing to teach our kids alef-beys, failing to instill a sense of connection to Israel, failing to give them even a rudimentary idea of Jewish history, American Jewish parents could tell themselves at least their kids had an identity. Maybe that identity was ultimately a shared hatred of Hebrew school and ambivalence around Christmas, but at least it was something. Right?


Belief in Identity as a real, transmissible thing allowed us to avoid the hard choices faced by American Jews when being American and being Jewish are so fundamentally at odds.
As I wrote last year, identity has served as a kind of ideology:


The integration of American Jews, especially Eastern European Jews, was the great project of the Jewish elite of the first half of the century. That integration came with many seemingly irresolvable contradictions and tensions. For example, the terms of integration of Eastern European Jews were set, in part, by the German Jewish elite, a group traditionally less than enamored of Eastern European Jews.   
But the most fundamental of these tensions was a reimagining of the Jewish way of life as an American style religion. Turning Jewishness into the Jewish religion was like stuffing 10 pounds of kishke into a five pound casing. It was lumpy as hell, but it worked, sort of. 
As it happened, the vast majority of American Jews didn’t want religion or religious commitments. No matter. Identity as ideology could reframe the multitude of contradictions now at the heart of American Jewish life, including the rejection of religion by American Jews. Identity made it possible for sociologist Herbert Gans to make an observation which, 50 years earlier, would have seemed downright bizarre. In a 1951 ethnographic study he wrote: “In Park Forest... adult Jews quite consciously rejected any involvement in the religious and cultural aspects of the Jewish community, while trying to teach the children to be Jews.”
If the letter writer had come to me with this question, I would have asked her what specifically being Jewish means to her and then tried to help her figure out how to share that with her kids. Actually, I'd like to sit down with the greater Jewish institutional world, the ones always casting about for ways to 'meaningfully' 'engage' and 'revitalize', and ask them: what matters to you? What's the Jewish thing most important to you that you couldn't be Jewish without? All the foundations in the world can't fix the problem that so many leaders, and so many parents, have no meaningful connection to Jewish life and no sense of what they urgently need to pass on to the next generation of Jews.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Are You There, God? It's Me, Intermarriage

For the last few years I've been thinking about intermarriage and related trends in Jewish life. You can't talk about intermarriage without also looking at patterns of Jewish migration. How does movement from first to second to third wave settlements interact with trends in marriage, education and affiliation? These are really important questions, and all too often glossed over in popular coverage of Jewish life and its challenges in contemporary America. We talk a lot about finding 'Jewish values' to transmit, but we almost never talk about American values and how those shape our Jewish lives.

Sure, you can look at sociologists like Herbert Gans and Marshall Sklare. You can study the numbers of eminent demographers like Calvin Goldscheider. But it seems to me, you also must look to popular literature to illustrate how those lives are really lived. A couple years ago I wrote a very long (still unpublished) exploration of these themes. In the following excerpt, I go to classic Young Adult literature, some well known, some less, to see how migration, assimilation and intermarriage play out in real life.

I call this essay 'quasi-personal' because it contains so much of what animates my own personal project: the search for ancestors, for my place in history and the desire to understand why my parents (and grandparents) made the choices they did. Three of my four grandparents passed away before I was born. Both my parents moved away from their home state, away from siblings and abundant cousins. They raised me and my brother mostly without the benefit of extended family, ensuring that we grew up with a very different sense of our place in our own family history. (I wasn't even sure I had a family history.)

That lack was a painful one, but it was only through my study of contemporary Jewish history (migration and assimilation) that I developed a framework for understanding how my fractured family history was part of a larger trauma of mass migrations. Though my story is quite different from Margaret's in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret or Leonard and Alan's in Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars, something in their stories touched me, spoke to that place of hurt and alienation, long before I had a detached, academic way of talking about it.



Finally, though I wrote this essay a few years before I started my intensive study of mid-century Jewish sociology, my observations in this essay confirm much of what I've come to believe subsequently. That is, the seismic shifts in American Judaism-- the Americanization of Jews -- was complete by mid-century. Though I'm sure commentators on the right would assign the downfall of traditional Jewish values to the free love, do what you want revolution of the 60s and 70s, indeed, if you look at the data, it was the late 1940s and 1950s in which the ecumenical, mushy liberal version of American Jewishness is really cemented, setting in motion trends whose culmination we see today. In that respect, my analysis of Judy Blume's semi-autobiographical Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself is most pertinent to our discussion. Anyway...

Hope you enjoy!


Identity Crises and Suburban Jews: A Quasi-Personal Meditation (excerpt)
By Rokhl Kafrissen
The shrinking of the Jewish family coincided with a drastic impoverishment of continuity: familial, ritual, educational, spiritual. At my moment of adolescent identity crisis, I was seeking a connection to my people, the ones who had lived, not the ones who had died in the awful movies they showed us in Hebrew school.
I knew I wasnʼt an Israeli (nor did I want to be one), but I had no idea where to find those other people and little clue as to what they might be like and what I might learn from them. And that was a problem. As developmental psychologist Erik Erikson puts it, when the adolescent reaches his identity crisis:
“...the young person must learn to be most himself where he means most to others-- those others, to be sure, who have come to mean most to him...
One cannot identify, or rebel, without the stuff of identification. The inner conditions reach out to the outer circumstances in the identification process. Erikson, in his discussion of the psychosocial milieu of identification, calls this stuff ʻideologyʼ and says that before a young person can envisage his own future, he must have access to an ʻideologyʼ. It could be religion or it could be some other thing but:
“whatever else is ideology and whatever transitory or lasting forms it takes, we will tentatively view it here as a necessity for the growing ego which is involved in the succession of generations, and in adolescence is committed to some new synthesis of past and future: a synthesis which must include but transcend the past, even as identity does.” [emphasis mine]
The work of preadulthood, i.e., preparation for healthy adulthood, is absolutely contingent upon having a detailed, tangible, context and history into which the adolescent views himself as existing.
The problem is, how can the crisis of identity formation be faced if the adolescent has limited or no access to his own past? Or if access to the relevant ʻouter conditionsʼ has been abruptly, inexplicably cut off? With whom is he forming his ʻidentityʼ if his community is removed (or he from it)? In Eriksonʼs terms, what is to come of the identity formation process if the adolescent, at the moment of crisis, is removed from the place where he “means most to others”?
Iʼd argue that this adolescent search for the stuff of identity has profound implications for the American Jewish community. This quest is most poignantly embodied in the stories of young people swept up in their parentsʼ mobility and moved from city to suburb. The newly suburban preteen, removed from his urban context (and all that urban context implies) must search out a context for himself and (re)integrate what he learns, creating a unique future, and identity for himself within a community he sees himself as belonging to. That is the best case scenario.
On the other hand, the young adult in the search for that stuff of identification may meet up with that most American of ideologies, the fervent, universalist ecumenism of melting pot America. If the young person, in search of specifics (and, inevitably, in search of the past), is told that specifics not only donʼt matter, but are detrimental and divisive, that young adult will not come out of her identity formation crisis prepared for adulthood.
This modern, American Jewish quest is perfectly represented in two utterly different young adult novels. The first, Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, represents the successful recovery and integration of a usable Jewish ʻideology.ʼ The second, Are You There God, Itʼs Me Margaret, represents the triumph of ecumenism and the unsuccessful search for a usable ideology, whether Jewish or not.
Margaret Simon, of Are You There God, Itʼs Me, Margaret, begins her story the summer before sixth grade. She has returned home from summer camp to find that her parents, without her consent, have bought a house in Farbrook, NJ. They quickly vacate their apartment on West 67th Street in exchange for trees, grass and all the quasi- natural accoutrements of the suburbs.
As Margaret points out, she had previously been unaware her parents even cared about such things. All of a sudden theyʼre uprooting themselves in pursuit of a lawn? However, it is quickly revealed, the move to the suburbs is less about a lush green lawn than it is about putting distance between themselves and Grandma Sylvia. 


Sylvia is Margaretʼs Jewish grandmother. We donʼt meet Margaret's non-Jewish grandparents until the end of the book. According to Margaretʼs mother and father, Sylvia is too pushy, too present and, the subtext is pretty clear, too Jewish. So, off to the suburbs it is, where all the houses looks the same and everything is, as Margaret notes, exactly seven years old.
On the familyʼs first day in the neighborhood Margaret is welcomed by a neighbor her own age and taken to her house to be initiated into her new life.
The main area of conflict, and concern, for Margaret and her new friends is their own physical development. The friend who welcomes her to the neighborhood, Nancy Wheeler, immediately interrogates Margaret about her development, coolly noting Margaretʼs lack of a bust.
Nonetheless, as the school year opens, Margaret develops a group of girlfriends all of whom are more or less at the same stage of development and share the same concerns. So, while the girls bond over their shared journey towards physical adulthood (this is their horizontal community) Margaret quickly finds that she is confused as to where she belongs in terms of vertical community.
She reveals to her club, the Pre-Teen Sensations that she has no religion. One of the other members asks her bluntly, “But if you arenʼt any religion, how are you going to know if you should join the Y or the Jewish Community Center?”
Itʼs not just membership in one or the other social center, but a question of Sunday school, and, because Margaret and her friends are 12 years old, the question of which will she participate in-- confirmation or bat mitzve? JCC or Y, confirmation or bat mitzvah, Hanukkah songs or Christmas songs as the end of year pageant? Margaret is confronted over and over with choices she is unprepared to make because her parents, one Christian and one Jewish, have decided that she should choose a religion when she is “grown up.”
But Margaret finds that the question of religious and social identity will not be put off. There are too many implications, even for a twelve year old, to wait to choose. So Margaret decides that her year long personal research project will be choosing a religion. Her parents are opposed to her exploration of religion, but donʼt prevent her from exploring the options. Over the year she attends services at a Methodist and Catholic church. 
For her Jewish service, she asks Grandma Sylvia if she can attend her synagogue. Sylvia is overjoyed, with tears in her eyes, she exclaims that she has always known that “her” Margaret would be a Jewish girl. Margaret immediately pulls away, emphasizing that her attendance is for research purposes only.
What Margaret finds is that all three services are essentially the same. You say a bunch of prayers that donʼt mean much, a guy gets up and talks for a while and thereʼs a lot of stand up and sit down. Margaret finds herself counting different kinds of hats at all three services.
If all three services are pretty much the same, and the religions, in their suburban incarnations are pretty similar, why are Margaretʼs parents so dead set against her contact with any organized religion? Why have they gone to such extremes to remove Margaret from the Judaizing influence of Grandma Sylvia?
The explanation lies in her parentsʼ own trauma. Margaretʼs parents are still scarred by their respective familiesʼ reactions to their interfaith union. Grandma Sylvia was not happy about getting a non-Jewish daughter in law, but learned to live with it after Herb and Barbara eloped. She clearly had confidence in her own persuasive abilities and influence over any grandchildren that would result.
Barbaraʼs Christian parents, however, were less tolerant. They disapproved so strongly of the marriage that when forced to choose between their religious values and their own family, they chose their religion. Barbara has not had any contact with her parents since her marriage twelve years before. The climax of the book, for Margaretʼs religious journey, is her non-Jewish grandparentsʼ surprise visit to New Jersey. On a whim, her mother had sent them a Christmas card which, in turn, spurred them to pay their first ever visit to see their granddaughter.
The visit is, predictably, a disaster. Margaret is forced to give up her long planned vacation in Florida with Grandma Sylvia to be at home when the other grandparents show up. When they do arrive, the scene is tense, with the grandparents offering to take Margaret to see a minister to get things “straightened out”. The grandparents end up cutting their visit short and moving on to their next destination, New York City, after causing an uproar in the house and ruining Margaretʼs vacation. If they canʼt mold their granddaughter to meet their expectations (by having her be Christian) they are just not that interested in her.
Right after the grandparents leave, Grandma Sylvia unexpectedly shows up. Sylvia had decided that she would not allow Margaretʼs vacation to be ruined and, while sheʼs at it, she canʼt help but want to meet the other grandparents on the field of battle, as it were, for the loyalty of the only grandchild. She immediately wants to know if the other grandparents tried any “funny business” like taking Margaret to church. Sylvia is clearly fighting a battle not just for loyalty to her as the favored grandparent, but also for Margaretʼs potential loyalty to her team- Jewishness.
Margaret, however, is disgusted with the partisanship of both teams, Jews and Christians and says to herself “Sometimes Grandma is almost as bad as everybody else. As long as she loves me and I love her, what difference does religion make?”
Indeed, the way religion is portrayed, itʼs hard to see what all the fuss is about. How can it be worth sacrificing so much if theyʼre really all the same? Ultimately, Judaism ends up looking comparatively better, but only because it is the Jewish grandparent who is able to accept the ecumenical, assimilating trend reflected in her sonʼs life choices. In America, it would seem, our similarities matter more than our differences, and most importantly, the only value worth committing yourself to is love.
This isnʼt the first time this theme shows up in the work of Judy Blume. I would argue that Margaretʼs literary forebear is found in another Blume young adult novel, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself. Set in the years 1945-47, the book is quasi-autobiographical. It follows Sally, the protagonist, as her family leaves their comfortable New Jersey home for the healthier climate of Florida. Sallyʼs brother needs to recover from a devastating illness. (We should note that the move from the Northeast to Florida is part of an important wave of migration of American Jews to Florida and California, as described by historian Deborah Dash Moore.)
In Starring Sally J. Freedman, strict religious observance is again associated with self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Most of the families in the Freedmanʼs new building are Jewish. But not too Jewish.
The family down the hall, the Daniels, are the only traditionally observant Jews we see in the book. When they stop by the apartment on Friday evening Sallyʼs mother tells her to put away the scissors she was using to cut paper dolls. Sally doesnʼt understand why she has to, but her mother says ʻIt doesnʼt look nice.ʼ Sally describes the Daniels, who donʼt use electricity from Friday night to Saturday night as ʻvery religiousʼ. Everyone has a mezuzah, but they actually kiss theirs. 
The Daniels family, self-righteous and insufferable, are the only traditionally observant Jews in the book and weʼre not meant to like them- they stand out, they keep to themselves, they make other Jews uncomfortable with their own ways of doing things.
The Daniels get their comeuppance soon enough. Their daughter, Bubbles, has been secretly seeing a non-Jewish boy. When she runs away to marry him, rather than accept the situation and welcome their new son-in-law into their life, they cut her off and literally pronounce her dead by sitting shive (the traditional Jewish mourning rite.) (The abandonment of Bubbles foreshadows that of Margaret Simonʼs mother by her own parents.)
Sally and her family are aghast. Their Jewishness is a maximalist one, centered on the family and home above everything else. Their Jewishness is enacted, effortlessly, unconsciously, through the rituals of domestic life. While at home, Sally eats specifically Jewish meals. For example, we note that Ma Fanny serves either meat or milk meals, unobtrusively keeping the family space within an easy Jewish cultural continuity. However, what happens outside the home is fair game.
One of the dramatic highlights of the book is Sallyʼs fatherʼs visits to Florida. (He has had to stay behind with his dental practice in New Jersey.) While in Florida he is befriended by Big Ted, a character meant to evoke Mafia associations. Big Ted invites the entire Freedman family out for dinner at a very fancy restaurant. The highlight for Sally is a big steak dinner followed by an enormous bowl of her favorite treat, whipped cream.
Now, itʼs clear that Sally would never have the opportunity to eat a mixed meat and dairy meal (in violation of the laws of kashrut) at home. But what happens outside the home is just life. Sallyʼs mother is a lot more worried about Big Ted and her familyʼs safety than she is about whether her family keeps kosher outside the home.
Itʼs not too hard to see how the values inculcated in Sallyʼs generation (of the 1940s and ‘50s) come to fruition in the generation that would be parents in the 1970s, like Margaretʼs. Jewishness is embedded, more and more, in particularistic, non-transmissible locations (grandparents, home life) and not transmitted systematically. The ʻlove is all you needʼ ethos, and hostility to cultural particularities which may divide us, leads, perhaps inevitably, to an unsuccessful identity crisis when an inner attachment is cultivated without the outer conditions of cultural continuity.
In this light, when the Simons (of Are You There God) flee Manhattan (and Grandma Sylvia) they are doing more than fleeing a person. Grandma is a practicing Jew and is deeply enmeshed in her Jewish community, both globally and locally (in New York City.) Sylvia embodies the Jewishness (practical and historical) community which, if Margaret had stayed, would be one of the communities against which she would have defined her identity.
Blume repeatedly shows how Margaretʼs relationship with Grandma Sylvia is one of the most important, and meaningful, in Margaretʼs life. It is Sylvia who treats Margaret like a person, not like a kid. Itʼs Sylvia who initiates Margaret into the world of adult tastes and activities (they have a season pass to Lincoln Center.) As Margaret says “”Now some kids might think, who cares about seeing a grandmother? But Sylvia Simon is a lot of fun, considering her age, which I happen to know is sixty.”
According to Erik Erikson, one cannot have an identity alone- identity only occurs in community and in relation to others; identity:
“...points to an individualʼs link with the unique values, fostered by a unique history, of his people. Yet, it also relates to the cornerstone of this individualʼs unique development...It is this identity of something in the individualʼs core with an essential aspect of a groupʼs inner coherence which is under consideration here: for the young person must learn to be most himself where he means most to others-- those others, to be sure, who have come to mean most to him.” (emphasis mine)
For Margaret, religion isnʼt just knowing which place youʼre supposed to be bored once a week. Itʼs not even where you play basketball (Y or JCC) or which songs you sing at the Holiday pageant. Religion embodies all the things implied by Eriksonʼs invocation of ʻunique valuesʼ, ʻunique historyʼ and ʻpeopleʼ.
Religion necessarily means valuing one thing more than another, some people more than another, some places more than other places. Religion brings with it prejudices and preferences, obligations and restrictions. It means having to import kosher deli meat all the way from New York City to Farbrook NJ (as Grandma Sylvia does) because it just canʼt be substituted anywhere else. And that, above all, is what the move to the suburbs rebels against. It is Margaretʼs parents insistence that the food in Farbrook is just as good as the food in New York City. One food is as good as another, just as one city is as good as another.
The move to the suburbs leaves the adolescent high and dry when it comes to identification. Margaret may fit in with her peers in the transient world of school friends and cliques, but she has so far failed to identify with them outside anything related to the automatic processes involved in sexual maturation. That is, Margaret hits the landmarks of boobs and menstruation, along with her best friends, but at the end of the year she is no closer to knowing who she is and what community defines her and her future. Indeed, her year long personal research project had been to investigate different religions to find where she belonged. But as she writes in her final report:
“I have not come to any conclusions about what religion I want to be when I grow up-- if I want to be any special religion at all...”
No surprise there, as Margaretʼs only contact with religion has shown her that though the different religions offer nothing obviously unique, they still cause disproportionate sadness and isolation.
But Margaret doesnʼt reject religion. Indeed, the framework of the book is her reaching out to ʻGodʼ at each crisis point in her life. Itʼs right there in the title. Margaret instinctively knows what she needs, but the circumstances of her life make it impossible for her to get it. She knows that the problem isnʼt with religion per se, but with the way it has been presented (or not) to her:
“I have not really enjoyed my religious experiments very much and I donʼt think Iʼll make up my mind one way or the other for a long time. I donʼt think a person can decide to be a certain religion just like that... If I should ever have children I will tell them what religion they are so that they can start learning about it an early age. Twelve is very late to learn.”
The book ends on this somewhat ambivalent note. Margaret gets her period and continues to keep up with her peer group. But her future as an individual is unclear. Is twelve really too late to learn?
For the answer, I turn back to Alan Mendelsohn and his quest for the stuff of identity.

(To be continued...)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

More on Intermarriage (Part 1.5)

What's been missing from the thousands (millions?) of words written about the Pew survey is any kind of serious critique of that institutional apparatus which surveys, comments on, and claims to lead the group we call American Jews. Why do these so-called leaders keep writing surveys that do little to measure the Jewish lives of actual Jewish Americans? And what is really at stake in the so-called intermarriage crisis? I might even add, whose crisis is it? I categorically reject it as my own, so I'll get that out of the way now. 

Am I committed to marrying a Jewish man? Yes. Am I in my late 30s and still single? Yes. Do I sometimes suspect that valuing New York City and its unique Jewish community AND trying to find a Jewish partner in the most screwed up dating pool in the country renders my own particular hopes moot? Obviously.

And while I couldn't imagine not having a Jewish partner, I understand, intellectually, that the decision to marry belongs to each individual and is hers alone to make. Emotionally, yeah, I get a little sad seeing my Jewish friends choose non-Jewish partners. Not because I worry about the looming demographic crisis, but because I want my friends to have the same kind of deep connection to Jewishness that has shaped my entire adult life and given purpose to everything I do. In my more judgmental moments, I wonder what choice they would make if they had a more positive, more intellectually rewarding, more joyful connection to Jewish life. And then I step back and ask, who the fuck am I to judge them?

I know plenty of committed Jews who would make the exact same judgment about me, a bacon eating, non-shabes keeping, non-procreating single Jewess. I'm sure they wish that I could experience the kind of rich Jewish life that they do, with the warmth of holiday and shabes meals, nakhes from kids, the security of a community and faith. 

Could I start keeping kosher at any moment? I sure could. And my friend who marries a non-Jewish spouse, could that person convert? I've seen it happen. Could the non-Jewish spouse commit to raising Jewish kids without converting? Absolutely. Could two apathetic Jews marry each other and raise children with zero affirmative connection to Jewish life? Do I even need to answer that?

The best, and most dangerous and scariest thing about Jewish life in America today is its dynamic quality. I call this potential Dynamic Yiddishkayt, and it privileges process over result, journey over destination. Dynamic Yiddishkayt recognizes that Jewish lives aren't flat, ahistorical objects of study, but ever changing potentialities.

On an individual level, almost anything is possible in American Jewish life and in any permutation you can think of. But on a macro level, the lives of American Jews, intermarried or not, will reflect the depth, or lack, of connection to Jewish history, culture and life. 

And, if you ask me, that's where our greatest problem lies. You can't look at intermarriage statistics without looking at every other marker of Jewish life. Jewish literacy is shockingly low. Forget about knowing any Hebrew or Yiddish (or Ladino or any other historical Jewish language), half of American Jews don't even know the alef-beys. A third (and realistically, probably more) identify as Jews of no religion. 

As I've been laying out in previous blog posts, the downward trend as regards pretty much every substantive aspect of Jewish life in America has been noted and studied for decades.  What's scandalous to me is not that so many American Jews don't care about religion (per the Pew study), but that a member of our media elite could express surprise about it, as Jane Eisner did in the New York Times in 2013. 

The demographic trends we see today were set in motion decades ago and anyone familiar with Jewish American history before 1990 would know that.  I'm less concerned about the choices of average American Jews today than I am with the narrative told and re-told by those with those with the  power, leaders like Jane Eisner. And for the power elite, intermarriage (and its less inflammatory cousin 'continuity'), not literacy, has been privileged as the key to a Jewish future. Why?

That's where British sociologist Rogers Brubaker comes in. Brubaker's understanding of ethnic groups (and ethnic conflict) can provide a different perspective onto the puzzling relationship between American Jews and their putative leaders. Perhaps it's not an accident that those leaders are so out of touch with the average American Jew, but rather a function of the leader-group dynamic.

Brubaker has written extensively about nationalism and ethnic conflict, especially in Eastern Europe. "Ethnicity Without Groups" addresses what he sees as the problem of groups and 'groupism' in the study of ethnicity, race and nationhood.  Groupism means "...  the tendency to treat ethnic groups, nations and races as substantial entities to which interests and agency can be attributed."  

The very act of surveying American Jews (as with the Pew study), whether on intermarriage or anything else, is a kind of group making project that serves the interests of the ethnopolitical entrepreneurs as much, if not more, than the members of American Jewry. 

(To be continued...)