Monday, October 7, 2013

What Does It Mean To Be Jewish (Outside The Bubble of the American Jewish Institutional World) Part 3

"Public opinion surveys some years ago indicated that hardly 18% of American Jews attended religious services at least once a month." -Wil Herberg, 1950

"Only 13% were what might be called regular worshippers by Lakeville standards, attending High Holy Days each year, on Festivals, and on Sabbath once or twice a month or more... To Lakeville's Jews, belonging rather than attending seemed to be what mattered about religious affiliation." -Sklare, Greenblum and Ringer, 1969, based on research conducted in the 1950s

[The results of the latest Pew survey are] "devastating... I thought there would be more American Jews who cared about religion." Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner, New York Times, October 1, 2013

You'll excuse my schadenfreude, but the frenzy around the latest Pew survey has given me a bitter chuckle or two at the expense of our gedolim.

I'm a Yiddishist, which means that I've spent my entire adult life being condescended to, marginalized, erased, and generally having the shit mansplained out of me by the Jewish institutional world and its various representatives, bureaucratic and academic. So, you know, allow me a little pleasure.

Many times I've been informed that the Yiddish language itself is illegitimate (a mere dialect/jargon/pidgin/creole), that it can't be a substitute for religion (as if I would khas v'sholem suggest such a stupid thing), that I myself am a soyne yisroel for daring to suggest that Yiddish, too, is an important Jewish language (an insult to the real sonim yisroel, in any case.)

Don't you know that Yiddish in America failed because it could not reproduce its institutions or even its speakers? To which I can answer today, look in the fucking mirror, buddy and tell me what you see.

One could easily argue that American Jewish religion, as a successor to European forms of Judaism, failed to reconstitute itself in a sustainable, reproducible way. I'm hardly the only one saying this: American synagogue/Temple oriented Judaism is a failure and was a failure, almost from the very start.

I may be unique, though, in calling out the Jewish pundit class for pushing an ahistorical narrative heavy on fear and guilt and light on critical thinking.

"Many parents thought their children might marry gentiles, and most were resigned or only moderately unhappy about this prospect. Love was widely felt to outweigh religion as a criterion for marriage... Opposition to intermarriage was usually attributed to concern over possible personal difficulties rather than over Jewish survival." - Sklare, Greenblum and Ringer 

"What haunts me and the many parents I know who have children in the twenties and thirties is whether they will marry, and if so, whether they will marry Jews." - Jane Eisner, Forward, January 7, 2013

The time to worry about apathy, alienation, affiliation and intermarriage was the 1950s, when anyone who looked at the literature knew exactly what kind of demographic shit storm was brewing. But it's 2013 and the Jewish community is reaping exactly what was sown in the post-war synagogue/suburb boom. Game over. To think that at this point you can, for example, shame people out of intermarriage is so bizarre that it's hard for me to take the notion seriously. And yet, the 'fight' against intermarriage is considered by those with power to be completely legitimate. Am I the only one who thinks real solutions to our problems are never gonna come from these people?

What is to be said about the state we're in today, if we're to take some kind of historically informed perspective? I'd say something like this: post WW II, the face of institutional Judaism changed practically overnight but the people did not. A cultural disconnect is built into the very fabric of modern American Jewish life.

Landsmanshaftn, fraternal organizations, shtiblekh, Talmud Torahs, the entire Yiddish cultural apparatus, all was replaced (or at least declared dead) in the supercessionary march toward Temples, synagogues, two generation families, JCCs, Hebrew schools etc.

American Jewish life had been remade in the image of an imaginary new American Jew. The real American Jews continued to evolve, gradually, as they had been doing for decades- with declining interest in religion and an emotional and personal attachment to their Yiddish past.

Not only did the institutions change, so did the official narrative of American Jewishness. A whole lot of American Jews found themselves and their families written out. Certainly for the tens of thousands of American Jews who had been involved with radical politics before 1950, that past became so politically toxic that it could only be spoken of in the most contemptuous terms possible. Forget about learning that history in Hebrew school, ell oh ell.

But even putting aside that particular (not demographically insignificant) population,  there are innumerable ways the average Jew became alienated from him/herself, distanced from his or her own recent past.

For me, the key image is my dad making brokhes for my family at khanike or pesakh, pretty much the only time we did anything ritually in my house. My dad, having attended an Eastern European style shtibl in 1940s Philadelphia, spoke Hebrew with a lovely Ashkenazi tam. To my callow, Hebrew schooled ears, though, his Hebrew was ugly, grating, wrong.

No one ever explained to me why my dad spoke Hebrew the way he did and had I never learned Yiddish I'm not sure I would've ever figured it out. If I hadn't pursued Yiddish it's unlikely I would've been able to reconcile the gigantic disconnect between the Jewishness I learned at school and that which I absorbed at home, and it's unlikely I would've cared much, anyway.

But who cares about me? What about all these Jews of no religion? This 30% of unchurched Jews? Are they people whose grandparents were khas v'sholem Communists? Or, let's be honest, what about this large majority, with or without 'denomination', who just don't care about religion? Are they like me, everyday Jews turned off by an educational apparatus which did more to alienate than educate?

Who can say? Jane Eisner is the editor-in-chief of the most important Jewish newspaper in America. Her word can summon the resources to conduct a million dollar survey. I'm a nebekh nobody with a blog, So, obviously, I'll take a page from her playbook and put this out there, Pew Trust peeps, if you're looking to do this whole thing over, I've got some ideas:

I just met Pew
And this is Crazy
But I've gotta survey a couple thousand Jews regarding their cultural and educational experiences
So call me maybe?

To be continued...


  1. Could you say more about the Jewish establishment and Talmud Torahs being "declared dead"?

    I once worked for a Jewish historical society. One of the biggest shocks I ever found in our archives were a few documents/statements from the 1950s opposing _any_ state aid to private schools. Since the proposal was for small expenses like aid for nurses and textbooks, this struck me as highly ideological and ungenerous. Since the Orthodox were struggling to set up Jewish schools at the time, I thought it was also indifferent to the desires of the most religiously-committed section of the Jewish community as well. Obviously, this is a complete contrast to the Catholic approach.

    The archives from my historical society are not online, but the gist of the story is the same as this article from 1964 in Canada.

  2. I meant Talmud Torahs as part of the first settlement/inner city/immigrant culture which was shunned in the rush to assimilate post-war. (This is obviously a simplification, but for the moment it's useful.) I think that if you dig, you might be surprised to find that it's Jews within the Establishment (whether federal government or Jewish Establishment) who oppose funding for overly particularistic or un-American Jewish education. I'm thinking of this incident from 1916 Milwaukee:

    1. The Milwaukee case is insulting, unliberal, and unJewish. If I had a time machine I’d go back to 1916 Milwaukee and protest on behalf of the Folkschule.

      We all have our pet peeves, but one of mine is the Jewish establishment’s opposition to any government funding for private schools. I primarily feel this way because I believe that school choice is beneficial for educational reasons, but also I believe that Jewishly if we had had a larger network of Jewish schools, akin to parochial schools, Jewish literacy would be far higher than it is. The lack of any public support for private schools has
      1) financially forced kids to attend public schools and receive a thin Jewish education
      2) exacerbated the plight of lower-income towns and cities whose middle-class residents has left in order to live in quality school districts which has had an effect on Jewish neighborhoods and Jews, primarily lower-income ones.

      I think the fact that Jewish dayschools provide a more thorough Jewish education (either cultural Judaism or religious Judaism) than 2-3x per week Hebrew school is self-evident. I need not say more here. It’s also self-evident that if there were any public support for private schools that they would be less costly and better equipped. In Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer talks about how filthy Lower East Side cheders were compared to public schools and attributes defection from Orthodoxy partly to bad memories of Jewish education. I think there were other reasons for the high attrition rate from Orthodoxy that the Pew poll reported, but I’m sure that it was partly because “Orthodox” kids in those days did not receive the type of Jewish education that they receive now.

      The objection to public funding for private schools is the Jewish community’s obsession with church-state separation and an ideological love of “equity.” The obsession with church-state separation just indicates how tone-deaf the Jewish establishment is to the needs of religious Jews. The love of equity is just misguided and hypocritical. If you live in an upper-income town with high-performing and lily white public schools you are not a champion of equity for sending your children to public schools.

      The public school monopoly has been very harmful to cities because it links educational quality with the affluence of one’s neighbors. If people are middle-income and cannot afford private school while living in a city, but can afford a home in the suburbs, then they have a powerful educational incentive to abandon the city for the suburbs and take their tax dollars and spending-power with them. Thus, never mind about cities having middle-class kids in their schools, by the 1990s the worst-off cities had no middle-class people period and had schools that were as racially segregated as anything that existed under Jim Crow.

      Middle-class flight didn’t just happen because of education and the victims were people of all backgrounds, not just Jews, but I think the lack of private school options was one reason Jewish neighborhoods changed so much more rapidly than Catholic ones. Had Jews been educated in private schools, either yeshivas or Yiddishe schules, aspirational Jewish parents would not have had to escape to the suburbs to find good education and Jewish neighborhoods would have stayed intact longer.

      Has suburbanization been "good for the Jews"? On an individual level maybe, on a group level, I think not. It seems to me that Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, North Philly, Weequahic etc had more Jewish cultural vibrancy than what exists in the suburbs.