Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On why I can't stand the word 'secular'

More blasts from the pasts... Today on Twitter I had a brief exchange with writer Dan Mendelsohn Aviv about the exquisite whims of our Jewish philanthropy billionaire class. The question of 'secular education' came up. Predictably, I rolled my eyes and (digitally) exclaimed WHAT EVEN DOES IT MEAN? AND DON'T SAY SPINOZA!
I told Dan I had an essay somewhere in the archives (from way way back in the day, in the previous incarnation of this blog) that touched on my very heated up feelings on 'secular' as a category of analysis.
I'll be real: this essay is almost ten years old and if written today, would probably be a bit different. But, if you're interested in some (a lot of) push back on the religious/secular thinking as usual, give it a read.

The New Generation Gap- What Synagogue Jews Can Really Learn from Secular Jews 

In "The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Secular Judaism", Professor Jonathan Sarna attempts to find a continuity of Jewish American secularism. This continuity includes the Revolutionary War era Free Thinkers, Louis Brandeis and, most importantly, the political Yiddishist movement of the 20th century. But there is no real connection between them, at least not in the way Professor Sarna proposes. In fact, Sarna misrepresents who the political Yiddishists were by associating that deeply Jewish, and successful, movement with individuals like philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the occasional Jewish Free Thinker. 
The political Yiddishists get a double insult from Sarna, because he also misrepresents the complex reasons (both internal and external) for their inability to maintain a mass movement into the 21st century. It's my belief that that misrepresentation is part of a larger narrative, one which reveals our failure to maintain a truly substantive, fulfilling Jewish American culture. It also reveals a desire to conflate the Yiddish language and the political Yiddishists, and then sweep them both into the dustbin of irrelevance as we say borekh shepotrani (the blessing said by a father on his son's bar mitzvah) for any responsibility to the continuity of Eastern European Jewish culture.

Sarna's so-called Jewish secular continuity supports an increasingly untenable fallacy: that for American Jews, cultural=secular=atheist=assimilated. In this equation, of course Louis Brandeis can be understood in relation to the political Yiddishists. But Louis Brandeis was a Jew in the only ways he knew how- eating pork, celebrating Christmas and visiting his Frankist grandparents when they laid on the guilt. With all due respect (I myself am a Brandeis grad), Louis Brandeis was about as Jewish as a Wonderbread bagel. It's well documented that Brandeis was very uncomfortable with overt Jewishness and a lot more comfortable with Pilgrims than Jew-ish Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe. In his book Are We One: Jewish Identity in the United States and Israel, Professor Jerold S. Auerbach notes that "Brandeis easily discovered so much in common between Zionism and Americanism because he knew so little about Judaism." Brandeis was able to discover the formula for American Zionism because that formula depended upon a conception of Jews, and future Israelis, in which Jews and Israelis were modern day Pilgrims who embodied the highest Enlightenment ideals of the West and specifically of the United States. But just because Brandeis believed (or wanted) Jewish values to be identical to American values didn't make it so.  
Louis Brandeis obviously felt a connection to other Jews and that connection motivated his political work on the behalf of Zionism. But his kind of Jewishness, (essentially kinship networks and political Zionism) left little chance for Jewish continuity. There was precious little Jewish substance to his kind of Jewish 'secularism.' Sarna points out that Brandeis found his own particular and individualistic Jewish identity "hard to transmit to his children." Why is this a surprise, to Brandeis, or to us? And why does Jonathan Sarna claim Louis Brandeis for the secular Jewish continuum at all?

In order to answer those questions, we first have to understand the conventional wisdom upon which Sarna is drawing. Our cultural narrative, the tropes, conventions and myths we use to understand ourselves, also form a set of boundaries which limit our ability to understand who we are and limit our ability to address the continuity crisis which faces us now.  Such conventional wisdom includes (but is not limited to) the belief that: 
* Secular Judaism is the same thing as Jewish culture and is intimately related to Jewish atheism, none of which have a sustainable Jewish future 
* There is a hierarchy of legitimacy which places stringent "Orthodox" observance at the top with "Jewish culture" far beneath it 
* Being passionate about Jewish culture moves us further away from 'real' Jewish observance 
Taken together, these tropes and conventions (and many more like them) create a Jewishness which has little relevance to Jews of my generation.  The activists of my generation are intuitively seeking, and building upon, a Jewishness which doesn't demand we choose between religion and culture.

Secular Judaism is the same thing as Jewish culture which is intimately related to Jewish atheism?

The conflation of cultural, secular, and assimilated, and the denigration of secular Jewish culture, all continue to be obstacles for the older generation of Jewish leadership which seeks to understand my generation. You only have to look at Heeb editor David Deutsch's recent response to Sarna to understand this. Heeb's passion for Jewish culture has nothing to do with a rejection of religious observance. Deutsch points out in his response that the editors and writers of Heeb are a diverse bunch, running the gamut of the religious spectrum. Heeb, Reboot, and the National Yiddish Book Center, all cited by Sarna as secular, are projects of Jewish culture. Their purpose is reconnecting with and researching materials which are actually meaningful to our Jewish lives and which reflect a truth about our own histories.  But it is their 'cultural' focus which Sarna mistakes for 'secularism.'

This analysis leaves Sarna incapable of understanding the most important trends among engaged young Jews. It also reveals his deep prejudices against the culture my cohort is trying to reclaim as well as our implicit rejection of Modern Hebrew, American synagogue based culture and an institutional agenda which places continuity (Jewish babies) over substance. My generation has been pounded over the head with the refrain of 'Never Again, Never Forget', so much so that I often hear people my age (especially those with marginal Jewish affiliation) talking about wanting to 'pass on the Holocaust' to their kids.  For a lot of people my age, the Holocaust is what they want to pass on because it's all they know! The Holocaust has been used, disgracefully, as a weapon of guilt, one which shamed us into retaining a Jewish identity, but taught us nothing about how to live a joyful, functional Jewish life. I guarantee that if you interviewed the kids I went to Hebrew school with, many would remember the grisly Holocaust movies we were forced to watch, more than anything we ever learned about how to function Jewishly.

These empty educational values and the hysteria over continuity have become a sick parody of communal concern. How we dishonor the victims of WWII by pledging ourselves to remember how they died, at the expense of learning about how they lived!

What's more, by defining 'real' Jewishness solely within a synagogue paradigm, we alienate not just parts of our people, but parts of ourselves. The excision of Yiddish American culture, both low brow and high, hurts us. It hurts to see our families and histories erased from Jewish history. It hurts to feel stupid and ignorant about the basics of our own culture. It hurts when we are made to believe, in a myriad of ways, that the culture we grew up in, one that is rooted in Eastern European Yiddish culture, is weak, illegitimate, and deserves to die.

Waiting impatiently for Yiddish culture to die (and we've been waiting a while) is as shameful as waiting for our grandparents to die. And the fact is, when they die, they live on in us. The question is whether we will be true to ourselves, and heal the wounds of discontinuity, or whether we will repress that which we dislike and don't understand. If we don't work to re-integrate these repressed aspects of our narrative, we may find that it is deracinated continuity, not assimilation, which is our biggest problem.

Supporting Jewish culture moves us further away from 'real' Jewish observance? 
The Jewish institutional community has grave reservations about funding Jewish cultural projects, no matter the demand for them among their 'clientele'. I recall being at a conference in honor of the new Six Points Fellowship in September 2006. One of the UJC lay leaders told the audience that the proposal for the Six Points program (large grants for young Jewish artists) had sat on his desk for a whole year. And why? Because he was more than wary to commit such an enormous amount of money  (over a million dollars) to such a dangerous proposition. But what was so dangerous about funding Jewish culture? Not that the program wouldn't be successful, but that it would indeed be too successful. He went on to warn of the dangers of Tikkun Olam and Yiddish. The message was clear (though the reasoning was muddled): Jewish culture, taken too far, could be an off ramp away from 'real' Judaism.

That 'real' Judaism of Jonathan Sarna and UJC leadership is synagogue based, compartmentalized 'religious' Judaism. Sarna minimizes the political Yiddishists as a 'sub-culture' whose very success depended greatly upon its proximity to religious (i.e. real) Jews. For example, he identifies factors upon which the success of the secular Yiddishists depended. The first is Yiddish, but Yiddish only insofar as it was a common language which built group identity. Another factor was the secular Yiddishists' proximity to religious Jews in urban areas. "Secular Jews absorbed that atmosphere, [created by traditional Jews] and therefore never lost touch with the traditional rhythms of Jewish life."

But the secular Yiddishists of whom Sarna writes hardly needed 'real' Jews to remind them of the rhythms of Jewish life. Children enrolled in Workmen's Circle shules celebrated Jewish holidays, learned Jewish songs and dances, and were connected in a very real way to the traditional life of Eastern European Jews. Furthermore, those kids functioned in a Jewish language. It's most likely that the neighbors of the secularists already had children who functioned solely in a non-Jewish language (English), and whose relationship to Hebrew was segregated to synagogue time. That is, the synagogue affiliated Jews had already compartmentalized their Jewishness to a specific time and place whereas the secular Yiddishists, who functioned day to day in a Jewish language and culture, never severed their Jewish from their American lives.

Furthermore, Yiddish was much more than just a language shared by the secular Yiddishists. It contained a Jewish world view- to speak Yiddish was to express oneself as a Jew in a Jewish language, and to be connected to Hebrew and Aramaic (constituent elements of Yiddish) in a profound way that monolingual English speakers can scarcely comprehend.

Yiddish belonged, and belongs, to Political Yiddishists and has no relevance to 'normal' Jews? 

It should go without saying that Yiddish is as real a language as English. Calling Yiddish a folk language, as Sarna does, is similar to calling it a creole, pidgin or 'zhargon.' Use of the slur 'folk language' (and it is a slur) communicates the idea that Yiddish is an illegitimate Jewish language not worthy of respect or protection.  The use of the term 'folk language' denies the existence of Yiddish high culture, and even denies the legitimacy, and honor, of our 'folk.'

But even more disturbing than his condescending attitude towards amkho (ordinary Jewish folks), is Sarna's willingness to sign away an entire 1000 year culture to the care of a particular movement, in this case, the secular, political Yiddishists of the 20th century. Why otherwise would he automatically label the Yiddish and cultural (and Yiddish cultural) activities of members of the National Yiddish Book Center, Reboot and Heeb as secular? He must be aware that thousands of devotional, religious songs were composed in Yiddish. Entire prayer books were written in Yiddish. Why would Sarna insist that Yiddish culture (and Jewish culture in general) isn't relevant to religious Jews? Don't religious Jews need songs, dances and folkways, too? 
Yiddish culture in its entirety belongs to all Jews, secular and religious, and that culture has everything to do with who we are today. We need it to repair the wounds of WWII and the destruction of European Jewry. More than that - we need a Jewish culture in which we can be ourselves, even if we choose not to go to synagogue. (Which, as Jewish demographers tell us, is millions of American Jews.) What is threatening and disruptive about Yiddish is that it reminds us that we don't necessarily need the Synagogue, or the State of Israel, to make us Jewish. And Secular Jewishness, especially as embodied in Yiddish, can have a substantive and meaningful content.

People my age are intuitively seeking an organic approach to Jewish life, what the great Yiddish theorist and pedagogue Avrom Golomb called Integrale Yiddishkeyt. I spend most of my time with other young Yiddishists and far from being a group of areligious, Red Diaper babies, we are an incredible mix of every type of Jew. This includes Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, converts, Baalei Tshuva, as well as the religiously indifferent. We come together because we believe that the old divisions of 'orthodox', 'reform', 'secular', and 'religious' are meaningless and only serve to divide us. We each partake of Jewish religious and cultural traditions but to the degree which makes sense for our lives. 
I look around me and I see my friends and colleagues creating a new, integrated Jewish identity. We're leaving behind the useless taxonomy of historians and administrators. The question now is whether our leaders will be able to see us for who we are, or who they want us to be? 

1 comment:

  1. I offer up this photo of the Faust Family Band from Galicia as an example of how Jews of different levels of observance lived together despite those differences. It didn't hurt that they were mispocheh and they made music together. I agree with you about how things have evolved in America to approach a Protestant reformation for Jews.