A Spot at the Kotel Won’t Save Us: A Crisis in American Judaism

(originally published in Tikkun)

“Remember the days of the world; understand the years of each generation” (Devarim, 32:7)

“…that [we] may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers” (Malachi, 3:24)

Last month, the eyes of the liberal American Jewish world were fixed on the Kotel. In a rare display of unity and resolve, leaders of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements banded together to demand a mixed-gender space at the Western Wall, in a clear pushback against the institutional power of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel. So deep were we stung by this bitter betrayal, that for the first time in living memory, prominent liberal American Jews even threatened to boycott Netanyahu’s government over its refusal to recognize the liberal diaspora.

And yet, even as we are united in condemnation of ultra-Orthodox fundamentalism, the liberal American Jewish world remains more divided than ever. Day after day, the establishment sounds the alarms- rates of intermarriage are skyrocketing, and more and more American Jews are publicly opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Many cease to identify with Zionism at all, as the rift between Israel and diaspora Jewry widens daily[1]. For the establishment, the idea that masses of Jews are embracing intermarriage and abandoning Israel rings the death-knell of Jewish peoplehood in America. Such gestures, according to common-sense logic, threaten to dissolve the very ties that make a Jew a Jew.

Liberal American Jewry is utterly transfixed by these crises. In the same week that the Kotel crisis made headlines, a leading Conservative rabbi shocked the Jewish world by announcing his intention to officiate at intermarriages[2], while a new report warned of a massive drop-off in support for Israel among American Jewish college students[3]. Prominent liberal columnist J.J. Goldberg evokes this creeping malaise in his recent piece, “The Rise and Fall of American Jewish Hope”, where he laments the “strange metamorphosis of the Jewish spirit over the past century, from hopeful optimism in the face of great suffering to bitterness and suspicion amid plenty…[if], for a half-century after 1917, the dominant mood among Jews in America and Israel alike was one of optimism…in the half-century since 1967, the mood has been increasingly gloomy and cynical.”[4]

My contention is that these crises signify not the end of liberal Jewish identity in America, but its new beginning. Put simply, we are in transition towards a future where our communal identity will not be defined by support for Israel, nor will it rest primarily upon markers of blood. This is progress- in fact, far from combatting assimilation, our decades-long fixation on Israel and endogamy has sapped American Jewish identity of the vitality and dynamism it needs to survive.

For too long, mainstream Jewish America has turned the dictum of Rabbi Hillel on its head- “make Jewish babies and support Israel”, we tell our children; “the rest is commentary, and little need to study it.” We are beginning to shake loose these inherited normative frameworks, and evolve in exciting new directions. The establishment is in panic precisely because, in its gut, it knows these tremors announce the birth-pangs of a new American Jewish identity, breaking through the stultified crust of the old.

– – –

Growing Up Assimilated

As Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace, I see these transformations play out every day. I work with hundreds of Jewish college students who support BDS and, in many cases, identify as anti- or non-Zionist. Beyond these students, there are thousands more, in organizations like IfNotNow and Open Hillel, who publicly and proudly oppose Israel’s occupation as Jews. Mirroring trends across the Jewish world, many of us come from mixed families, and many ourselves have non-Jewish partners. We are no less Jewish than our predecessors.

I see these transformations play out in my family history as well. I am a product of American Jewish assimilation. I come from a middle-class, Ashkenaz, suburban family. I was raised by loving parents who married within the tribe, but didn’t really bring much Jewish substance into our home. We ate bagels and lox and watched Seinfeld; we had chanukiahsand Kiddush cups on a shelf in a living room cabinet. But these superficial expressions of identity represented the full extent of our domestic Jewishness.

I am grateful for the Jewish upbringing my parents provided me. I belonged to a Conservative synagogue, went to Hebrew school, had a Bar Mitzvah and even went to Jewish sports camp for two weeks every summer. On the level of institutions, my parents checked all the right boxes. But in my house, we celebrated only Passover and Hannukah, never Shabbat, and usually went to shul only for the High Holidays, where we sat bored and sleepy through the service. My parents were not religious, and did not have a strong connection to the many secular strands of Jewish politics and culture forged in the modern era. Basically, we knew that we were Jews, and did the basics with pride- more than many families!- but on the level of our daily lives, we didn’t much notice or care.

In college, I began to encounter Jewishness anew. At first, as a philosophy major, I found myself drawn to ideas and themes deemed, by academics, to be quintessentially ‘Jewish’ in the works of philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx. Over the next few years of self-education, I steadily assembled the pieces of a radical Jewish identity. When two of my secular friends became ultra-Orthodox and nudged me to join them at a yeshiva in Israel, I went with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. My two-month introduction to Torah and Talmud at yeshiva, though brief and not without its faults, exposed me to a depth of Jewish life immeasurably richer than anything I remembered from the dry and emotionless synagogue of my childhood.

During these years, as my love of Yiddishkeit grew, my views on Israel/Palestine began to change as well. I was born during the First Intifada, and became Bar Mitzvah during the Second. To my memory, my family celebrated Israel the same way we recognized our Jewishness- automatically, by default, without much fanfare or attention. My parents and grandparents bought Israel Bonds for me, and spoke warmly of the state from time to time, but my parents never visited, never encouraged me to visit, and seemed to know very little, in fact, about the actual history or politics of the country. While I drank, without questioning, the standard serving of hasbara Kool-Aid in shul and Hebrew School, strong Zionism was not a constituent part of my upbringing.

Perhaps for this reason, it was relatively easy for me, in college, to re-educate myself around the conflict, hear alternate perspectives, and come to support the burgeoning grassroots movement for Palestinian rights. After my time at the yeshiva, I crossed over to the West Bank, saw the occupation with my own eyes, and decided to spend several months there as a journalist and activist. I felt angry, and betrayed, to discover that behind the idyllic image of Israel presented to me in Hebrew school, there lurked the brutality of the apartheid wall, the cruelty of home demolitions, the terror of tear gas, and the thousand small humiliations faced daily by millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Today, like many other American Jews, I support the BDS movement, identify as anti-Zionist, and dream of a decolonized Israel/Palestine where all live equal and free. Also like many others, this identity awakens in me a still greater need to understand Judaism, Zionism, and the complex, entangled histories that have brought our people to this moment. I continue to develop my Jewishness, in the many secular and spiritual forms it takes, guided by a deep love for the journey itself- a love that, had I not searched for it on my own, I may never have found.

My family’s story, and my own, is by no means universal- across liberal American Jewish life, there is great diversity in the way we relate to Jewish ritual and culture, to Israel, to each other and ourselves. Nonetheless, my family’s story, rooted in the particularities of our white Ashkenazi experience, traces an arc common across much of mainstream American Jewish life. In the latter half of the 20th century, American Jewish assimilation, and support for Israel, went hand in hand.

– – –

Zionism, Assimilation, and American Jews

My parents became b’nai Mitzvah in 1967, the year of the Six Day War. At this time, their families, like those of many American Jews, had comfortably assimilated into white middle-class American culture. The process of identification with the mainstream was, for these generations of American Jews, a complex phenomenon- at once adopted willingly, and enforced upon us by the many social pressures of post-war America; at once a means for our communal empowerment, and a response, so soon after the Holocaust, to the ever-present fear of persecution[5]. And as with many other groups, our assimilation came at a price- over the course of the 20th century, the more we became American, the more we lost many of the spiritual and secular[6], modern and pre-modern expressions of Jewish ritual, culture and community that had sustained our people’s existence for centuries.

As my parents strode across the bimah to enter Jewish adulthood, Israel strode to the forefront of the American Jewish psyche. After its victory in 1967, Israel was embraced with pride by my parent’s generation as a tangible symbol of Jewish safety, success and self-determination. Living under the long shadow of the Holocaust, Israel came to symbolize, for American Jews, the dynamic epicenter, the forward-looking vanguard of Jewish existence. As older religious and secular Jewish identities became dulled by assimilation, suppressed by McCarthyism, and otherwise diluted in the American melting pot, Zionism became an acceptable mold in which to cast our civic identities as Jews.

To be clear, these processes of assimilation and secularization were underway well before Israel’s victory in 1967[7]. Nonetheless, it can be said that for the generations of American Jews raised after 1967, Israel became “the new Torah, the new Judaism,” said JJ Goldberg at the recent ‘Israel at the Crossroads’ conference. “It used to be if you kept kosher and you kept shabbos, you were Jewish. Now it doesn’t matter what you do on Saturday as long as you support Israel….”[8] Zionism bolstered American Jewish assimilation by offering, to its believers, the allure of Jewish nationalism as an easy substitute for abandoned forms of Jewish identity and practice. By the time my generation came around, American Jewish identity had long since become doubly displaced- vanished from the home, it was outsourced to institutions like the synagogue and Hebrew school; and these institutions of Jewish life, in turn, imported much of their substance and content ready-made from Israel.

This by no means meant that American Jews grappled rigorously with Israel in its actuality, as a real country with whose details they were deeply acquainted. The Israel towards which the congregants at my shul prayed every Saturday dwelt, within many of them, more as an emotion, a safe haven, a symbol of Jewish perseverance and self-determination forged by Paul Newman in Exodus, Birthright, the JNF and B’nai Brith. This is why, during the Kotel crisis, liberal American Jewry seemed shocked, blindsided to discover that Netanyahu’s Israel, dominated by the Orthodox, actually had no desire to appease our liberalism. It was as if, in return for buying Israel Bonds and sending our kids on Birthright, we expected this country to remain truly our own, to faithfully reflect the contours of our progressive Jewishness back at us.

This willful ignorance of the real Israel also means that, day after day, the bulk of American Jewry remains willfully unaware of the suffering of the Palestinian people. While our communal eye was fixed on the Kotel, few of us knew of the brutal blackout imposed on the Palestinians of Gaza as a result of Israel’s decades-long blockade. We’ll write the state a check, defend its policies in the public sphere, and send our kids there on Birthright, but Israel remains for us, as Noam Scheizaf wrote in +972 Magazine, suspended “in a plane thatis separate from politics, and therefore shielded from the nativist and xenophobic ideological trends that have come to dominate Israel in recent years.” Taken together, our outcry over the Kotel crisis, and our silence around the crisis in Gaza, show that we remain blind to the moral rot steadily decaying a country founded and maintained upon the displacement and subjugation of its indigenous population, and given over increasingly to religious fanaticism.

Our fixation on an imaginary Israel also blinds us to ourselves. In a way, the American Jewish identity crafted by our mainstream institutions, and internalized by many of us, has existed in a state of perpetual displacement, a dislocated, split Jewishness fixated more upon Israel as scene of Jewish self-actualization, and less upon our own American Jewishness on its own terms, as its own entity. We are encouraged to assume that Jewish life in Israel is the center, the vanguard of world Jewry, while our own communities are secondary and peripheral to the modern Jewish narrative[9]. For too many of us, our Jewish hearts throb when we regale ourselves with tales of David Ben-Gurion, illumined with the glow of the ancient King David- but we neglect to commit ourselves to the hard work of building vibrant Jewish communities here in America, where we actually live[10].

To be sure, Zionism is not the sole force behind the emptying-out of post-war American Jewish identity; nor can we overlook the many vibrant movements, from Reconstructionism and Renewal to the Havurah movement, New Jewish Agenda, and more, that grew firmly from American Jewish soil. But such movements have tended to flourish in the margins, while the mainstream, trapped in multiple layers of displacement and self-deception, has steadily stagnated. Our communal discourse around intermarriage reveals another side to the crisis.

– – –

A Judaism of Blood and State

“It wasn’t so important to me to practice Judaism in the home,” my father once told me, “or to learn much about it- but it was very important for me to marry a Jewish woman. And not a convert, a Jewish woman by birth. After the Holocaust, I wanted to do my part to keep Judaism alive.” Thankfully, my parents always made sure to empower my brother and I to marry whomever we loved, regardless of religion. But over the years, the problematic strangeness of my father’s statement became more apparent to me. The irony is that, while endogamy has clearly been an important part of Jewish survival through centuries of diaspora, with real roots in text and tradition, this racialized conception of Jewishness- as primarily an ethnic tribe, bound together irreducibly by blood quanta- has more in common with the ‘eternal Jew’ of modern anti-Semitism, than with the ‘nation of Torah’, grounded in communal worship and practice, that our ancestors fought to preserve[11].

Clearly, my parents, and many others like them, wanted to marry Jewish in order to preserve Judaism. My father was named for a relative who perished in the Holocaust, and was taught, from an early age, to ‘keep the blood line going’, as he describes it. But the deeper irony is that, in ‘marrying Jewish’ while neglecting to really dig deep into the substance of Jewish life, mainstream American Jewry has raised kids who don’t really care about Jewishness, and won’t pass it on. Had I not rediscovered Jewishness anew in college, my Bar Mitzvah could easily have marked, as it does for many, my exit from Jewish life. Under the guise of preserving Jewishness, families like mine, by disengaging from the depth of Jewish experience, help create the conditions for its disappearance.

Why did American Jewishness ground itself in ties of blood and state, and little else? The reasons are many. As scholars like Noam Pianko have pointed out[12], the ethnocultural notion of ‘Jewish peoplehood’ was crafted as a proto-Zionist identity in the 1930s, as a tool to allow Jews to fit comfortably into a post-war America which saw itself increasingly as a patchwork of ethnicities. Living under the shadow of the Holocaust, the impulse of Jewish survival became the all-important ’614th commandment’, as Reform rabbi Emil Fackenheim put it in 1965- and for many, especially the secular, making Jewish babies and defending the Jewish state became the primary ways to fulfill this commandment.

Today, Birthright Israel embodies perfectly the biopolitics of blood and state Judaism. Created to combat assimilation in America, Birthright Israel flies young Jews to Israel and encourages them to fornicate with each other[13] there. ‘Make Jewish babies and support Israel’- this central message of Birthright ensures that values of blood and state will underlie what, for many, will be the formative Jewish experience of their adult lives[14].

According to the logic of the establishment, ‘make Jewish babies and support Israel’ is the very formula that can assure the survival of American Jewry in a fast-changing world. Of course, this logic dictates, endogamy is the obvious way to preserve communal boundaries in the vast American melting pot; and, of course, only a Jewish ethno-state can ensure Jewish safety, continuity and self-determination in a world marred by the permanent threat of persecution. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the same right-wing, fundamentalist Israeli Orthodoxy that denied us a spot at the Kotel insists, with smug satisfaction, that we are doomed to vanish in the ‘second Holocaust’ of intermarriage and assimilation[15]. And so long as liberal Jewry is bound by the same logic, it can provide no real rebuttal to its interlocutors; it can only view its present condition as one of catastrophe, anxiously awaiting the next Pew study to confirm its self-pity and despair.

Today, however, we see that this strategy for combating assimilation has backfired, that the values of blood and state only serve to accelerate the emptying-out of Jewish identity and community in America. A Jewishness reduced to the simple imperatives to preserve a blood line that is increasingly intermingled, and to defend a nation-state whose policies are increasingly indefensible, cannot last- its children will quietly drop the torch. And why would they do otherwise? What is exciting, energizing, enlivening about a Jewishness framed solely as a defensive struggle against extinction, a Jewishness lived in the shadow of death?

What is lost, for a Jewishness that rests easy within the ready-made containers of nation-state and blood-tribe, is the ritual and song that made our ancestors tremble; the texts they pored over by candlelight; the values that girded their footsteps; the secular Jewish theatre, dance, and poetry that enflamed their hearts; the proud traditions of radicalism that gave direction to their days. What is lost, most of all, is a sense of Jewishness as struggle and commitment, as the hard work of being klal Yisrael, those who wrestle with God. This is the deep crisis faced by liberal American Jewry- and traveling halfway around the world, to beg the ultra-Orthodox for a spot at the Kotel, won’t save us.

To maintain a robust Jewishness in a modern world of distraction, it is not enough to hold Jewish identity merely as a feature of blood or genetics, or to root for a nation-state as if it were a football team. Even as, today, we are relatively free from persecution, we still must say, as did our ancestors, that shver tzu zein a yid, ‘it is hard to be a Jew’- our Jewishness must be molded, shaped, questioned, held before our eyes, and on our lips, again and again, the length of our days.

– – –

A Way Forward

How to renew a Jewishness dismembered by assimilation, dulled by overemphasis on blood, warped by worship of state? This hard work will take many forms. Some will work to revitalize neglected spiritual traditions; some will work to remember forgotten histories; some will work to build new institutions of learning and community; some will fight to end our communal complicity in Israel’s occupation and apartheid, and our own complicity in systems of oppression here in America. My intention is not to legislate any of the myriad ‘paths of return’ as more authentic than any other, nor even to insist that every Jew must do this hard work to win their badge of authenticity. But the future of liberal American Jewishness will be secured when more of us put in this hard work, and stitch together new collectives bound by revitalized myths, rituals, beliefs, histories, radicalisms that will again sit at the center of our shared existence, illumining our comings and goings with meaning, beauty, purpose and transcendence.

And in truth, deep changes are already afoot in American Jewry. As more young Jews join movements like JVP, IfNotNow and Open Hillel to fight Israeli apartheid, challenge the hegemony of Zionism and confront the moral vacuity of our communal leadership, we are fortifying our commitment to Jewishness, even as we call for its radical transformation. In questioning Israel, our Jewishness itself becomes a question for us. In dislodging Zionism, that which it had submerged comes again to the surface. We discover anew our forgotten histories, our discarded modes of practice and ritual, our long-neglected muscles of activism and organizing. And what terrifies our elders, anxious to maintain their grip on the only Jewish identity they know, is precisely that, in saying ‘no!’ to Zionism, we are saying ‘yes!’ to Jewishness.

In the same sense, whenever a Jewish community commits to welcoming into the communal tent intermarried couples, patrilineal Jews and all others excluded by our narrow fixation on endogamy, that community is asserting that the Jewishness they share is no longer founded chiefly upon blood. What, then, will sit at the center of their collective Jewish experience? As more of us ask this question, we are shaping the contours of an American Jewry bound, as a community, by ties deeper, holier and more lasting than that of an ethnic tribe. It is no coincidence that in these diverse and pluralistic Jewish communities, one is more likely to find Jews critical of Israel’s occupation, Jews who no longer identify as Zionist. For taken together, these twin trends are at the cutting edge of what 21st-century liberal American Jewishness will look like.

To be sure, the work of progressive Jewish communal renewal in America runs deep, and the battles raging in our communities over endogamy and Zionism can only mark the beginning of this work. Without a larger revitalization of liberal American Jewish practice, culture and community, these battles may be mere epiphenomena for a community en route to extinction. But the angst of the establishment shows that we have hit a nerve, that by rattling the shaky foundations of yesterday’s Jewishness, our movements can open the floodgates for the most profound transformation American Judaism has experienced in decades.

– – –

Watching the grainy ’90s home movies of my childhood in suburban Maryland, one moment in particular warms my Jewish heart. My parents and grandparents stand over my brother and I as we light Hanukkah candles, in the dark kitchen of our middle-class home. I was 10, my brother 8. Our faces are lit by the candles while the dim outlines of two generations are faintly visible behind us. The voices of my late grandmother and grandfather, my mother and father, my brother and me, merge as we sing together: ‘Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam…

Even as I trace the shortcomings of their generation, I cannot blame them for what has come of Jewishness in America. I can only thank my grandparents, may their memories be a blessing, for raising a family, helping found a synagogue, navigating the currents of post-war America as best they could; I can only thank my parents for doing all they could, in ways large and small, to raise us with love and blessings, as Jews, into this time. I can only offer to their generation, not anger for what was lost, but gratitude for what remains; not scorn, but tochecha (compassionate rebuke) for the shortcomings that, between then and now, have led our communities astray.

May we merit the strength to mourn that which was lost, and to remember that which was forgotten; to smash that which has obscured, and to lift that which was submerged; to confront that which has grown harmful, and to preserve that which remains strong; to inherit it all as one piece, the good and the bad, and to build, with love and with gratitude, the American Jewishness of tomorrow.

I’d like to thank my parents, Jonathan Gelernter, Lex Rofes, Benjamin Powell, and everyone else who provided feedback and support around this piece.

[5] As we assimilated, we assumed the many privileges of race and class enjoyed by the white middle class then flourishing under mid-20th century American racial capitalism. These privileges, past and present, must be entangled and confronted as we build a new Jewish identity in America. Though this writing focuses on the crises of endogamy and Zionism, the crisis of our communal complicity in white supremacy is closely related.

[6] For more on the disappearance, through assimilation, of the rich traditions of secular American Jewishness, see April Rosenblum’s piece, ‘Offers We Couldn’t Refuse’, in Jewish Currents- http://jewishcurrents.org/offers-we-couldnt-refuse/.

[7] On a deeper level, the secularization of American Jewry continues the ambivalent legacy of Jewish Enlightenment, which began in 18th-century Europe.

[9] In his book A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, professor Daniel Boyarin writes that in the early centuries of the 1st millenium CE, “the Babylonian center” of world Jewry, “notwithstanding a certain degree of residual self-doubt, considered itself fully the equal, and even the superior, of the Palestinian center” (65)- that is to say, Jewish communities in the Babylonian diaspora viewed themselves on an equal footing, spiritually and culturally, with Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael. Can we say the same regarding the modern relationship between American Jewry and the state of Israel?

[10] The recent words of Haaretz columnist Ofri Ilany come to mind- “it’s easy to be swept up by the propaganda of Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett and to think that Israel is the center of Jewishness today, while the liberal Americans are just a pain in the neck,” he writes. “But that’s a biased picture. Even though there are nearly seven million Jews in Israel, it’s American Jewry that concentrates the meaningful Jewish cultural, economic and political clout in our world.” http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-1.799606

[11] In his work Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, Solomon Schechter, architect of Conservative Judaism, outlines the classical Rabbinic view that “[the Jewish people] is not a nation by virtue of race or of certain peculiar political combinations. As R. Saadya expressed it, ‘Because our nation is only a nation by reason of its Torah’.”

[14] It should also be noted that blood and state Judaism, by valorizing the Jewish womb as the chief anchor of Jewish continuity, helps reinforce patriarchy at the deepest levels of Jewish identity- though a full consideration of these matters is beyond the scope of this essay.

[15] As one columnist put it, “Netanyahu’s circle sees liberal Jewry as a transient phenomenon that will disappear on its own in another generation due to intermarriage and lack of interest in Jewish tradition or Israel.” http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.802602

 

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