Two quick articles that I read last month: The first is an article that groans about how Jewish eaters are getting so picky that it’s getting to be impossible to invite Shabbat guests. The second is an article which advises all those people who create meaningful programming for Jews to quit it, will ya? because they’re actually enabling whiny, entitled Jews (the study that he quotes is about Baby Boomers, but I think he’s generally aiming this for everyone) to continue to view Judaism as a consumer product.
Both of these articles have a familiar tone: “What a bunch of whiners Jews today are!” And to some extent, there’s something to be said for that. In the shabbat meals article, towards the end, Rabbi Rebecca Joseph comments, “This is a problem of an affluent society and an affluent group within that society.” Again, true. Indeed, homeless Jews, poor Jews and Jews struggling to make ends meet aren’t going to be picky about what is served to them at a shabbat meal – or any other (I was reminded of recently rereading the book Rachel Calof’s Story about a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia to be a pioneer bride, and while they certainly cared about kashrut, which is demonstrated throughout the book in various ways, when her husband comes home with a tin labeled herring and it turns out to be pickled pigs feet.. well, she doesn’t say that they ate, but she certainly hints at it. When there’s no other food, you eat what there is).
Nevertheless, there’s a certain oddity about these two articles. For example, let’s take the shabbat meals article: The title is, “With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough.” And yet, that isn’t actually the sense I get at all from the actual content of the article – let alone from my personal experiences. Of course, we should all be familiar with Miss Manners‘ (the irrepressible Judith Martin, whom somebody ought to give smicha just for her consistent common sense, her dry wit, and her sustained feminist bent) dictum that guests don’t make a fuss about food placed before them – either eat it, or push it around and make it look eaten, but for God’s sake, don’t talk about it! -you’re there for the company! but on the other hand, when I host a meal, I don’t usually have so many people that I can’t manage to try to find out what their preferences are. It isn’t always possible to make a meal that contains no onions, okra or grapefruit, as well as being parvetarian and kosher ( the latter two of which are consistent standards in my kitchen), but if I know that my guests detest okra and onions, I generally try not to serve them. And actually, except for a comment or two about life in the Bay Area (meaning San Francisco, not the Chesapeake or the assorted other Bays around which Jews congregate) it doesn’t seem to be a big deal to anyone else either, as the article notes – it’s common for hosts to ask if there’s anything guests can’t eat.
So what does this have to do with whiny Baby Boomers? Well, perhaps there’s a little more to chew on there (heh heh, get it? chew? Chew eat? Jew eat? ..forget it). The point that Panzer ultimately makes – that offering programming, or even worse, asking people what programming they want, makes Jews less involved, not more, because it promotes Judaism as an extra, competing with other extracurricular activities. Once that’s done, you’ve set Judaism up to fail, because then we’re offering something that takes work and long term commitment, as well as is time-consuming, and that isn’t going to pan out for most people as a hobby, anymore than most adults are going to commit themselves to becoming Olympic medalists. a few will learn to love the sport in childhood and commit themselves, some additional will do it occasionally, without much effort, and the rest, not at all.
But Panzer’s response strikes me as all wrong too, even if his analysis is right. He says,
At the Judaism 2030 conference last week in New York, a novel alarm was sounded by Dr. David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb (I quote from their article, As the Generational Winds Blow: “[I]n a recent study of highly affiliated Jewish Baby Boomers, two-thirds said that if they do not find what they want in the Jewish community, they have every intention of going elsewhere.
They conclude that Boomer support cannot be counted on automatically, and Panzer responds
If you are a Jew who is affiliating only as long as you can get “the next meaningful experience,” then, please, stop paying your temple dues, burn your ketuba, grow back your foreskin, marry a goy, and demonstrate against Israel. We don’t need you.
What I get from this is something quite different (and I admit, I haven’t read the study, but…), which is that if baby Boomers find nothing in their Jewish communities they won’t stay there, or give money to them. I agree that creating meaningful programming for “their own, more narrow interests,” is probably a waste of time, but not because these are consumer-driven people who will go find some other hobby, any more than because “young people”(or pick your Jewish demographic of choice) are selfish, consumer driven people who are (fill-in your epithet of choice). Well, so what? Is Panzer saying that even if he found his community chilly, its goals unpromising, and its rituals flat, that he would hang around anyway? perhaps as a more committed person, he’d try to fix it, or find another Jewish community, but I’ll bet that there’s something in the community that he already finds worthwhile and meaningful and it’s that which drives him.
The Jews of America have plenty of choices. We live in a nation which is overwhelmingly welcoming to us as Jews, which doesn’t, by and large, consider Jews an ethnicity (no “purity of blood” issues here), which makes it easy for us to have relationships with our neighbors of any religion or ethnicity, we can find meaning in any number of places – our jobs, our wider community, and God in this country is a buffet: people can believe in whatever they want, or nothing, which includes a very strong inclination towards “spirituality” – a word which I dislike for its meaninglessness, but which seems mostly to be: “a vague, happy God-feeling which requires no work on my part.” Nevertheless, if someone feels no meaning in the community, why should they remain in it?
What I think these two articles have in common is the attitude that the way people act has no real purpose, that people are picky for the sake of being picky, that they don’t commit to Judaism, or demand special foods, because they’re a bunch of spoiled whiny brats.
That may be partially true, or true of some people. Certainly there are people out there who make their diets a constant subject, howeversomuch it bores the rest of us, who would rather discuss that great LOLcat we saw today. But the truth is that most people are searching for meaning, and if we have to create “meaningful programming” -especially for specific target groups- we’ve already failed. Because one thing Panzer is right about: “programming” already tells those whom it’s aimed at that this is something else, in addition. the key is for people to understand that all that stuff which we’re calling programming is already part of Jewish life. That “meaning” is an emergent property of committing oneself to a community which is put here for a holy mission. This is the same the point to be made for Repair The World’s report “Volunteering Plus Values:” and good for them! instead of saying, “Those whiny millenials who have no connection to Jewish values,” what they report is that the way forward is to make clear that their Jewish values are what have led them to care about service, and to make the point that Judaism has a great deal of wisdom to help us figure out what we need to do .. in other words, show them Judaism’s mission is their mission already, and that doing Jewishly provides added benefit to their work – in other words, that it matters to be Jewish!
As far as the food article, well, okay, that’s pretty much just a light piece – I don’t most of us really care if people are eating only locally sources organic carrots (although the article itself expresses that even in the bay area this doesn’t seem to be much of an issue), but I think we ought to be taking away from it a certain skepticism about the attitude portrayed in the Jewish press, in our institutions,in our “leaders,” about how we think about the Jewish people. It’s the same attitude reflected in the institutions that claim J Street and any of its supporters are anti-semites rooting for the destruction of Israel, or at least ignorant Jews who don’t know any better. To the contrary: the millenials, the baby boomers, the J street supporters – all of these are the Jewish people, and every time we discuss them as though they were a bunch of ignorant fools who need to be programmed for so they’ll continue pouring money into (fill in your favorite institution here), we have not only missed the point, but we have betrayed Judaism, by -not them, but we- making it, against thousands of years of tradition, meaningless.