The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote almost five years ago.Â I published it in a ‘zine I used to put together called Rootless Cosmpolitan. It’s a starting place for explaining my feelings about Zionism, assimilation, and the different ways one can be a secular Jew.
I begin with a discussion of the crisis of continuityÂ in which the American Jewish establishment seems to perpetually find itself… (plus ca change). I apologize ifÂ I come off as pedantic at times. It was published in Rootless Cosmopolitan as an open letter to Alan Dershowitz, and I felt then, as I do know, that what’s good for the goose is sauce for the gander (or something like that, but with mustaches substituted for geese)
“…And what’s the solution? Fully funded trips to Israel, social clubs for young Jewish singles,Â and synagogue based “continuity” programs? All have been put forward as solutions to the problem. I would suggest that a deeper investigation into our “problem” might merit better solutions. This investigation would start with the people who created the policy and ideology that would be central to the lives of those in the Diaspora: Zionism.
Zionism as a modern movement had many important leaders and thinkers, one of the most important being Ahad Ha’am (One of the People).Â The influence of the work of Ahad Ha’am (born Asher Ginzburg) is still profoundly felt inÂ America, though he does not generally get the wide acknowledgment or interest accorded to others of the Zionist movement like Chaim Weizmann and Theodore Herzl. But it was Ahad Ha’am who worked out the formula that would allow all segments of Jewish society, secular and religious, to believe in, and work for, the establishment of Israel as a modern, political entity. He is also, in my opinion, the father of secular Judaism as we experience it in the
US. I’m not talking about formal secular Judaism, like the Humanistic Judaism movement or the Yiddishist movement of yesteryear. I mean the culture of the average,Â semi-assimilated Conservative or Reform identified American Jew (who still comprise the bulk of American Jewry).
A synthesizer of Ahad Ha’am’s power was needed because the Jewish attitude toward creating a Jewish homeland was so fragmented. Some religious Jews felt it was heresy to rebuild Israel until the Messiah came. (Some Jews, such as the Neturei Karta still feel this way). Some movements felt that Jewish security and peace was intertwined with the rights of other minority groups in Europe and that the proper course was to stay where they were and work for the betterment of everyone. Some felt that the Jewish homeland should be in places other than Israel, like Uganda. And many, many people simply could not believe that such a project could succeed at all, no matter under what banner it went forward.
The interesting thing about Ahad Ha’am is that it seems that he himself didn’t really believe that Israel as a political reality was even possible. He was certainly cautious in his hopes and he advocated extreme care in preparation for mass aliyah. He observed that many settlements had failed due to inadequate training in the necessary skills and unrealistic expectations on the part of the settlers. Underlying this attitude was Ahad Ha’am’s belief that the creation of a modern Israel was not an end unto itself and certainly not the long awaited ingathering of the exiles to Eretz Yisrael. He saw it more as a solution to the ‘Jewish Problem’ of the day (more on this later).Â Ahad Ha’am foresaw, quite accurately, that most Jews would stay in the Diaspora as conditions there improved and only those troubled by their status as Jews in golus (the exile) would go to the new homeland.
Ahad Ha’am recognized that both secular and religious Jews shared in common a desire to preserve the Jewish people as a distinct, spiritual entity. Secular Jews might leave it at that. Religious Jews would take it further. He simultaneously cut the balls out of secular Judaism while elevating the Orthodox as the gatekeepers of Judaism’s essence. This essence would be well cared for and would, theoretically, indirectly benefit everyone else. Trickle down Judaism was born. Huzzah.
I should point out at this juncture that secular Judaism, in the context of the work of Ahad Ha’am, would include the Conservative and Reform movements. Ahad Ha’am himself was born into a Hasidic family in a shtetl inÂ Russia. Of course, he left that shtetl and that way of life as soon as possible for the bright lights and modern ways of cosmopolitan Odessa. His traditional training stayed with him, nonetheless, for the rest of his life. Being raised in a Hasidic family is not something so easily cast off. On the one hand, he found the traditional world in which he was raised to be ‘petrified’. Rationally, he rejected a traditional, stagnating way of life in order to choose the flexibility of modernity. But he struggled to harmonize his rational rejection of that tradition with his emotional attachment to it. Note well the very contemporary resonance of this struggle. It produced a confused body of work devoted to finding those elements of Judaism that could be accepted by a modern person and were worth preserving. That is, what was it in Judaism that could cause one to reject it as a way of life yet cling to it at the same time? Jewish values were no longer valued in themselves, but the attachment to those values was valued. Or something like that.
But Ahad Ha’am was dead consistent in one sense- his wholesale rejection of the Reform (and by extension, Conservative) movement as a legitimate form of Jewish religious practice. He formulated his belief thus: religion is subject not to reform but to development. For example, feminists might demand (or suggest) that the Matriarchs be inserted in the liturgy wherever the Patriarchs are mentioned. They might ask for this, even though we unquestionably live in a patriarchal society where advances such as female Rabbis are looked upon askance, even in the Conservative movement, which ordains them. According to Ahad Ha’am’s formula, Israel would be the place where Jews could continue their spiritual development unimpeded. When, under the influence of the Jewish imperative of social justice, Israeli society had truly become intolerant of misogyny and supportive of equality, then, and only then, would it be the most natural thing in the world for the liturgy to reflect our deepest, most unimpeachable egalitarian feelings.
With me so far? If you cared you’d move to Israel. If you really, really cared, you’d remain a traditionally observant Jew. And what about everyone else? Good question. Ahad Ha’am explicitly believed, and wrote, that the new Jewish homeland would serve as a ‘focus of emotional identification’ and a ‘source of spiritual values for the rest of the Diaspora’. Starting to sound familiar? Problem was, the former was easy, too easy. And the latter? I’m still waiting.
We’ve arrived back on familiar ground. A cursory investigation into the foundations of Zionism shows today’s ‘Jewish Problem’ to be intimately connected to yesterday’s ‘Jewish Problem’. Education of all kinds has been touted as the answer to today’s crisis of Jewish alienation. But let’s be honest about the kind of education that’s been on offer. Drawing on my own experience, and many of those of my generation, it becomes obvious that the Conservative and Reform movements have been far too collusive in their own spiritual obsolescence. That is, in return for, what (?), the educational aims of these movements never included creating a truly Jewishly educated and observant people. The goal was to create a group of people, like the platoon in the Manchurian Candidate, who cared about the survival of the Jewish people as a unique spiritual entity- though they didn’t quite know why. Their actual knowledge of Jewish practice and culture would remain low, but their identification with Israel would be high. Israel as a project would be successful. Jewish culture in America would become a disaster.
For many of us in our 20s and 30s, the education we received seemed haphazard and mediocre at the time, but its larger usefulness and clarity of purpose appears upon further examination. For example, a Hebrew school memory shared by many of my peers is the process of being taught to read Hebrew. Fine, so far. When it came to learning what the words meant, one might think that we would be taught the language in the context of the liturgy. That is, for 90% of us, the synagogue was going to be the only context in which we would ever use Hebrew. So why not teach us what we were saying rather than let us chant nonsense syllables? But no, whatever Hebrew was taught, for the most part, was conversational, modern Israeli Hebrew. My name is Rachael. I’m hungry. Pleased to meet you. Come Friday night we might as well have been chanting nam-ho-yo-rengi-kyo for all it meant to us. Further, we were all taught with the standard Israeli/Sephardic pronunciation. Of course, for many, many students (myself included), our parents spoke Hebrew with the Eastern European Ashkenazic accent. So, even when there was ritual practice in the home, the difference in accents, often glaring, struck a note of discord where there should have been harmony. I recently mentioned this to my brother. Hadn’t he noticed that our father pronounced Hebrew so differently than we did? Yeah, he had noticed. He just thought that Dad had been doing it wrong all those years. The examples are endless. My Hebrew school teacher was a Holocaust survivor from Poland. Her native pronunciation of Hebrew would undoubtedly have carried a deep Ashkenaz accent, though I never heard it spoken. I wonder today if this switch bothered her and if, when she went to her own shul (the orthodox shtibl across the street from my conservative synagogue) she spoke in the old way or not.
More importantly, if the ultimate goal of teaching us Hebrew had been to enrich our practice of Judaism, my teacher would never have had to so tortuously hide her true self. No, we were being prepared for the role Ahad Ha’am saw for us all those years ago, the undifferentiated, vaguely sentimental mass with a big guilt complex and checkbooks at the ready. We would not be able to participate religiously because we had been so inadequately prepared. No matter, Conservative or Reform observance isn’t real, after all. And should we find, through some accident, that we wanted to increase our Jewish connection, or if we were even just searching for something meaningful in general, the Zionist suggestion was there, awaiting activation. My friend, A, just told me a great story about her own Hebrew school experience. Most of what she remembered being taught were things like the difference between holiday observance in Israel and here and stuff about kibbutzim. I commented that I remembered how the teaching of Hatikvah (the Israeli anthem) and the shma were given equal gravity. Weird, I thought out loud, how they chose seemingly random things to focus on. Hatikvah, kibbutzim. What was the point? How useless! Then my friend told me that after graduating from college she had been at loose ends as to how to mark the occasion. A cross-country trip? Back pack through Europe? A friend of A’s was going to work on a farm for the summer. That seemed cool, a totally different experience. My friend A mentioned this to her mother. Her mother, who had dragged A kicking and screaming to Hebrew school all those years, suggested: why not go to a kibbutz? DING! Would you like to play a game of solitaire? Why not go to a kibbutz? Needless to say, the plan didn’t go far after interviewing with the people who send folks like us to kibbutzim. Nonetheless, my friend, who up to then had been pretty much as unaffiliated and alienated from Judaism as possible, had been ‘activated’, however temporarily. Her true purpose had almost been fulfilled. Almost. Now all she has to do is make a lot of money and donate it to Israel and she really will be a true daughter of Zion.
Ultimately, the real story here is how, whether we wanted to or not, we all became Zionists. Not because we believed in it, but because we had no choice. That is, by consciously cutting off American Jews from their culture (most of which is Eastern European in origin) and substituting the deferred culture model envisioned by Ahad Ha’am, a deal was struck. We’re paying now for what we thought we wanted then. And our dividends from Israel, spiritual and cultural, have turned out to be less than satisfying.”