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.

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...)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Intermarriage Crisis is a Scam

Another day, another skirmish in the Jewish continuity wars, this time with a partisan slant.

So, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz made some remarks a few weeks ago at a Jewish event within her district. Conservative media pounced on her speech, particularly comments in which she called intermarriage and assimilation 'problems.' Looking at the coverage of her comments, it's pretty clear that the whole thing is mostly a light breeze blown into a tornado within the right wing echo chamber. I don't think most of those covering it really care about the issue one way or another, they're just looking to score points against the woman right below Nancy Pelosi on the Republican Most Frothed Over list.

DWS's comments also got some traction within the Jewish media, as there's little better click bait than intermarriage. Intermarriage: Good or Bad for the Jews? is a perennial headline. On one side: the vast majority of American Jews who either marry non-Jews or have close family members who are intermarried. On the other side: A handful of Jewish communal elites who have chosen to isolate intermarriage as a 'danger' to the health of American Judaism and who frame it as a phenomenon which can be stopped or slowed in isolation. The 'on the one hand' 'on the other' presentation gives the appearance of balance, when in fact,  the astronomical rates of intermarriage demonstrate that intermarriage is THE reality of American Jewish life and is a product of patterns of Jewish American life going back decades.

The soi-disant 'serious' Jewish conservative media has taken the DWS kerfuffle as an opportunity to flog two dead horses - so called liberal weakness and the danger of intermarriage, wrapped up in the eminently hateable Chair from south Florida. After her remarks came to light, DWS had to walk back her condemnation of intermarriage. That just made them angrier. And gave them another chance to advance their master narrative: Liberals are hampered by their fear of giving offense. They are unable to protect the Jewish community because of their adoption of the values of multiculturalism and pluralism. Liberals refuse to call out the dangers of intermarriage. Ergo: Liberals are destroying the Jewish future.

L'moshl, writing in Commentary, Jonathan Tobin says:

Intermarriage is so prevalent that the intermarried and their loved ones are now so ubiquitous throughout Jewish life that they form a powerful interest group. Since many if not most of them have now come to regard advocacy of endogamy as an insult, it has become next to impossible for communal organizations, especially those umbrella groups like federations that revolve around fundraising, to broach the issue. Instead, they prefer to speak of it as an opportunity rather than a dilemma, a foolish position that ignores the stark statistical evidence provided by Pew that shows the children of intermarriage are far less likely to get a Jewish education or raise a Jewish family than those who marry other Jews. The result of this silence is that the issues discussed by Pew are not being addressed in a way that gives the community any chance to even slow, let alone reverse, the demographic trends.
Intermarriage is so prevalent that the intermarried and their loved ones are now so ubiquitous throughout Jewish life that they form a powerful interest group. This is the way they talk about you. This is the kind of rhetoric used to talk about the majority of American Jews. You are not fellow Jews, you're a sinister 'special interest group.'

But the majority of American Jews aren't a cancer on Judaism or a feared Fifth Column in our midst. They are our loved ones, friends, family, and they are making the choices that are to be expected from a Jewish community which has so thoroughly adopted the American values of individualism, egalitarianism, monolingualism and consumerism. As I've said this many times before, the Americanization of American Jews was pretty much fait accompli by mid-century. It is the reason that, in addition to intermarrying, American Jews have shockingly low Jewish literacy rates. 48% of Pew respondents did not even know the alef-beys. Why is no one up in arms about that? Why was the reaction to the 1991 NJPS (the one where the rates of intermarriage finally came into the spotlight) to give all American teens an identity making vacation, instead of subsidizing comprehensive Jewish education?

I don't know. I'm not a billionaire. Personally, I think isolating one symptom of Americanization, and framing it as the most urgent problem of our time, is the height of irresponsibility on the part of our leaders. 

Jonathan Tobin, and many, many like him, think that at this late date, all you need to do is hector American Jews into marrying each other and the 'intermarriage crisis' can be overcome. Like, no one thought to hand out the pamphlet on making Jewish babies and now Liberals, with their PC nonsense, are too pussy to do it. This is the intermarriage 'crisis' narrative at its most politicized, and most useless.

Indeed, why this focus on intermarriage at all? In her recent book Jewish on Their Own Terms: How Intermarried Couples Are Changing American Judaism Dr. Jennifer Thompson* argues that leaders focus on intermarriage because doing so creates a false sense of insider-outsider discourse. We can clearly see by the actions of intermarried Jews that they are on the outside of the normative Jewish community. But, she argues, what makes an intermarried Jew so different from (or worse than) the average in-married Jew who has no Hebrew literacy, does not keep kosher or shabes, and has little connection to the Jewish institutional world? Thompson's fresh, outsider perspective forces us to ask some tough questions about targeting intermarried Jews and the way we use them, and the intermarriage 'crisis' to construct ourselves as 'good' (or better) Jews.

The obsession with intermarriage strikes me as bizarre. Not just bizarre, but sadly ahistorical. American Jews are American and must be reckoned with as Americans with American values, intermarried or not. To do otherwise is to make a lot of self-important noise, but accomplish nothing.

*Full disclosure, Dr. Thompson is an old friend of mine whose work I respect very much.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Rest is Comments...

Now go study...

In case you haven't heard, Tablet Magazine has launched an offense against the world of online trollery. Tablet will now require readers to pay for the privilege of commenting. The fee is modest, $2 gets you all the comments you want for a day. The idea is to put a speed bump, not a wall, in the way of overexcited commenters.

For the record, I think it's a great idea. We'll see how it shapes the comments on a high traffic site like Tablet. I think it will be for the better. But...

Small time outfits like this blog have a very different problem. No comments! No one's paying me to blog. Indeed, I put an enormous amount of effort into what I write (which is why my output tends to be infrequent) with little to no reward, other than the satisfaction of the writing itself. Which is nice, but it would be a lot nicer if there was more feedback from my readers.

So, I'm thinking of starting a new commenting policy of my own. From now on, you will have to pay if you read something you like and don't leave a comment. I'm using a super secret technology that may or may not have come from a scavenged UFO at Roswell. Like velcro and night vision goggles, but bloggy.

What do you think?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Yiddish Revival in a Bus Station? Oy Gevalt!

Oy Gevalt is right.

Rootless Cosmopolitan special Israeli correspondent Shayna sent this to me. It's a Times of Israel piece about Mendy Cahan's Tel Aviv bus station Yiddish center. (By the way, the article calls it a museum. Is that what we're calling it now? That seems new. And significant. But anyway.)

Yung Yiddish has been the subject of numerous, basically interchangeable, articles in the last few years. Tablet, Haaretz (2008), Haaretz (2012), Eretz, Israel Story (Public Radio). If you don't feel like reading those, you can read my breakdown of the standard Yiddish in Tel Aviv Bus Station narrative here.

I like this story. You get two excitingly hacky tropes for the price of one.Yiddish!Revival! as well as Yiddish!In!A!Bus!Station! What's always funny about these revival stories is that the headlines says revival, but the language of the piece is always so dour, so ahistorical, so indicative of anything but a bright future for Yiddish.

My mother always says that Yiddish is the music of the soul and language of the soul,” said [musician Gal] Klein. “It’s burned into our tradition. It doesn’t matter who we are and how far away we get away from it, it’s always a part of us.” 
But it’s a fading part. In the Diaspora, Yiddish was the glue that held communities together, a shared language and culture. In Israel, there’s no need for that shared identity.
“We’re at a point we have a country and a culture here, so the culture from long ago is a lot less important,” said Klein, who tours around the world with his band Ramzailech, a fusion of ecstatic rock and klezmer. On Tuesday, he played with his other band, the Di Gasn Trio, which means “The Streets” in Yiddish.
"In Israel, there’s no need for that shared identity. 'We’re at a point we have a country and a culture here, so the culture from long ago is a lot less important...'" I mean, I literally LOL-ed. LLOL. I find the total ignorance, and erasure of recent history, to be funny.

For the record, Yiddish didn't just happen to end up occupying the literal margins of the Israeli body politic.The position of Yiddish within Israeli culture and life is highly politicized-- it is a product of history and politics and conscious language planning. You can't really engage with Yiddish in Israel without understanding the context of what you're doing. Or... you could, and then you would get every asinine article ever written about Yiddish in Israel. So, yeah. There you go.