Culture, Politics, Religion

A Trip in the Way-Back Machine

Remember when Jay Michaelson declared the death of “Jewish Hipster Cool” in Sh’ma almost two years ago? (The article is old enough that it’s fallen off the bottom of Sh’ma’s own online archives.) Well, apparently nobody told D. G. Myers of Texas A&M (that bastion of Jewish thought), who writes in the latest Commentary a rant against “The Judaism Rebooters” that inspires among us, the accused, nostalgia more than anything else.
The article came to our attention — and here I use “our” to really mean the Jewschool contributors collectively — about a week and a half ago when David A. M. Wilensky forwarded around a brief blurb from Tablet about the article. He titled his e-mail to us “Someone has to have something to say about this.”
It turns out, many of us had something to say, but none of us had much to say… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Read on.
I responded, “I think it would be great if we can get our hands on a copy of the Commentary article. Reacting to a reaction to something we haven’t read first-hand isn’t so productive.”
Of course, none of us subscribe to Commentary. Only one of us had read the article at that point, EV:

I read the essay; it’s astonishingly ignorant and atrociously researched, not just re. “hipsters” or “young Jews” but about modern Judaism itself. I’m no fan of the hipster “movement” or even of the term “hipster,” but this is a new low for Commentary. Even if it had been published in 2003 — the only year it might have made any sense to publish it — it would have been almost completely tone deaf to contemporary Jewish culture.

However, EV couldn’t post about the article due to a commitment he had made to a friend who was considering a response. He did tell us, though:

By the way, the essay devotes a paragraph to Danya Ruttenberg, so maybe Danya would like to cover it.

Danya, naturally, asked for more info, so EV wrote back:

It’s implicitly snide and dismissive, but not as overtly obnoxious as the rest of his piece, as he mostly limits his “critique” to quotations:
“Danya Ruttenberg, a Conservative rabbi in her early thirties, is a leader of the effort to introduce the concerns of hipster Jews into the tradition. In The Passionate Torah, a collection of eighteen essays on sex and Judaism she has edited, Ruttenberg complains that ‘Judaism seems out of step with our contemporary ethos.’ Postmodernism, feminism, and ‘queer liberation’ have combined to create ‘a sea change in how we address sex and sexuality.’ Jews need to talk ‘about how to maximize sexual empowerment between consenting adults,’ and they need ‘to ask questions like, how might new ways of thinking about queer sexuality impact all our understandings about God?'”
Then he immediately segues into “It is doubtful that many Jewish hipsters will give all that much thought to their ‘understandings about God.'”….
ps: Ben Harris writes about it here.


Whoa, that’s taking, like, pretty much everything I wrote out of context, wildly. Very irresponsible journalism.
And of course feminism is only a concern to the hipsters…?

Reb Yudel chimes in:

I started looking around the author’s blog ( and found this passage from a critique of Michael Chabon: “the exclusion of non-Jews from the Jewish religion is what constitutes the Jews as a people” (
Probably a rather succinct summation of Commentary’s theology.


Yeah, that’s basically the style of the entire piece. It’s pretty infuriating. His view of Judaism itself is summed up when he tries to slam Rebecca Walker: “This conception of Jewishness is about as contrary to the basic precepts of Jewish peoplehood as it is possible to get. Jews do not choose; they are chosen.”


Since when has Rebecca Walker been our spokesmodel?
Doesn’t this whole thing seem terribly 2001 to you all? I thought we had moved from the clever t-shirt phase to, you know, community-building a while ago…

Aryeh Cohen joins in the fun:

Not to say anthing bad, but a bunch of us folks who contributed to Danya’s evil little volume were around to be despised as hippies also.


Sorry, Aryeh. You (and Elliot Dorff, and Esther Fuchs, and Art Waskow, and Bonna Haberman and etc.) are actually snarky little Williamsburg hipsters with asymmetric haircuts now. Your skinny jeans and guyliner will be arriving shortly.

At this point — over a week since the article was published — none of us had managed to squeeze a genuine blog post out of our discussion, so I offered to simply cut and past our e-mails into what you’re seeing right here.
Aryeh Cohen:

but when you publish it write it slower so some of us older folks can keep up.


This might be a good post to link to also, if it fits (though i still haven’t read the original article, just responses to it).

Ruby K joins the fun, responding to my offer to construct a post from our discussion:

…only if “what a douchebag!” makes it in the final edit.
but seriously, that’s kinda all I got. Idiots. Losers. Of course independent communities for 20s and 30s somethings isn’t relevant. That’s why the movements are cutting vast amounts of staff and people building their own community are succeeding, because we’re irrelevant, snarky hipsters. I’d love to spend more time fisking arguments that have been lost by their ilk and irrelevant for several years, but I’ve got to go back to co-chairing a conference for independent community leaders around North America.


Also, if anybody’s interested, my Mad Libs from a couple years ago…


And Mobius has now posted about this.

And here we are. If you can get your hands on a copy of Commentary — that may involve going to a library, synagogue, or a right-wing neighbor’s house, since the online edition is only available to subscription holders — let us know what you think.
And because fair is fair, let’s give Myers the last word. Seeing what JTA and mobius had to say, he wrote a follow-up on his own blog:

Again and again, my critics complain that my abuse of hipster Jews is out of date—by four years, six years. In short, it is not hip.

Yes, that’s a bit out of context. Go read the rest of his post. But beware – he tries to out-snark his targets and it’s a little painful. And know that if you’re looking for him to respond to any of the actual criticism of the way he went after a strawman and ignored what’s actually happening on the ground in the Jewish communities we, the accused hipsters, as creating and participating in, don’t get your hopes up.
Bonus round: go back and reread his article and blog-post and substitute “hipster” and its accouterments with “Reform & Conservative” etc, and realize that this fits in to an even older chain of still-not-very-interesting articles by Orthodox men declaring the failure of all other Judaisms. (I wonder if the out-of-work Temple Priests were writing similar documents during the redaction of the Mishnah.)

22 thoughts on “A Trip in the Way-Back Machine

  1. I hate the tribal mentality. “Judaism has nothing but Jews to contribute to the world, so we should make alot of those”.

  2. I hate to say it but Meyer’s response does try to get at the heart of the matter. And unfortunately his critics haven’t really yet, other than just by reference. The heart of the matter is pretty much the question, “What is Judaism?” And Meyer makes a certain claim when he says that the doctrine of the “sovereign-self” is a concept born out of contemporary culture and can’t be reconciled with Judaism.
    And he does have a point. The Western concepts of and “autonomous subject” and even “rights” cannot be considered truly sacred by Jewish thought. They’re tools not Truths.
    But those ideas (or the concept of Truths for that matter) can’t be reconciled with contemporary thought either, and they’re not the basis of this Jewish cultural wave we’re in.
    Still, I do wanna see more Jewish “hipsters” answering to the heart of the matter (and using Jewish thought and language to address the dilemmas of post-modernity).

  3. Good thing we are not a religion, then. If you still need examples of Jewish contribution to humanity, you’ve obviously not looked hard enough.
    Itamar, you nailed it. Western socio-political development has little bearing on our Semitic heritage. Some attempt to ignore this, or to reconcile the two, smoothing over differences where they become uncomfortable. Perhaps we need to examine why some feel it so important to be “Western”, in their outlook, belief and value systems, etc.
    Certainly, for the thousand years that the Jewish nation stood sovereign in Israel, we Jews had our own distinct culture, our own distinct language, our own mannerisms, foods, laws, dress… our own cultural, legal and political identity. Today, we are left with the laws – and that’s our core as a people – but there were once rings and fences of culture and identity around those laws.
    Is it important that we once had a distinct culture? Is it important to recreate it, to reinvent it, to pry it from our texts? Should we be satisfied with the “slave names” we’ve acquired in the Diaspora, and the rest? Why is Greek philosophy king in our minds, when Jewish philosophy – richer, more complete, based a heritage of contact with the source of our existence – is deemed secondary?
    How do we eject the slave mentality? Do we even want to?

  4. The tension between Enlightenment ideals (including the importance of the “sovereign self”) and religious tradition is hardly new–in fact, it birthed the Reform movement in Germany and has more or less defined American Jewry since there was such a thing.
    Blaming the “young ‘hipsters'” for this tension is nothing short of ridiculous–many folks grapple with the same questions that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did, in contemporary form.
    But more than that, I’d say that this generation is addressing the individualism that has pervaded Jewish communal life lo these many years in an important way: the focus these days among the “young kids” is really about community (see the rise in indie minyan culture) and social responsibility (see the degree to which social justice defines the younger Jewish agenda). It’s not the first time these things have come into the picture (the havurah movement addressed both 30-40 years ago, eg) the sense of communal obligation is really on the upswing. Trying to package it as our generation being all about “hip” or “cool” just evinces how little this guy understands of what’s been happening over the last 10-15 years.

  5. Danya wrote,
    the focus these days among the “young kids” is really about community (see the rise in indie minyan culture) and social responsibility (see the degree to which social justice defines the younger Jewish agenda).
    This is a sliver of the younger Jewish community, and not who was being targeted. Who are you kidding? Your camp is too tiny, except to the large extent that it overlaps with the mainstream, hyper-affiliated Liberal Jewish community.

  6. “This is a sliver of the younger Jewish community, and not who was being targeted.”
    DK, it was at least some of who was being targeted. Or at least this particular target rolls that way.

  7. Blaming the “young ‘hipsters’” for this tension is nothing short of ridiculous
    Absolutely right. These are not the people who chose to “break” with tradition. They are the great great great great grandchildren of Jews who made that choice. Some raise a question, in my mind worthy of contemplation, of how many more Reform generations can exist, before being nullified utterly into the mainstream secular culture. I hate to say it, but I see it among some of my contemporaries – 25-30 years old. Barring unforeseen events or “a descent from above igniting an ascent from below”, it’s difficult to see continuity in perpetuity.
    In other words, are we there yet?

  8. DK writes:
    This is a sliver of the younger Jewish community, and not who was being targeted.
    And thus Myers’s argument is totally unfalsifiable. Since no one (especially in 2009) identifies themselves as a “Jewish hipster”, any person or group brought up as a refutation can be claimed to be “not who was being targeted”, and Myers’s condemnation of an elusive straw man is left pristine.

  9. Absolutely right. These are not the people who chose to “break” with tradition. They are the great great great great grandchildren of Jews who made that choice. […] Barring unforeseen events or “a descent from above igniting an ascent from below”, it’s difficult to see continuity in perpetuity.
    Really? No sense of contradiction or irony here?

  10. The modern Reform Jewish movement has now lasted longer than the united Israelite monarchy or the tannaitic period.

  11. And speaking of those who resist breaking with tradition, how are the Karaites doing these days, anyway?

  12. Just a quick note here. I posted a critical, but polite comment on Myers blog and he seems not to be posting it along with deleting other comments that he previously decided to post. If you put any effort into writing a comment there, save a backup or post it somewhere else.
    I guess nurturing a discussion of contrasting ideas is also an flawed innovation of hipsters.

  13. dd – I noticed the same thing, but it’s also possible that he’s simply backed up and not approving comments every day. Although it is interesting that in my comment I asked if he had actually read Danya’s book, and now a book review appears…

  14. There were a few comments on one of his posts that disappeared so either Blogger is having problems (very possible) or he’s actively deleting comments. I think it was actually your comment and his reply on his 7/3 post that is now deleted.
    Sadly the full book review still doesn’t make it seem like he read much more than the first paragraph of each chapter.

  15. Danya, clearly the tension between Enlightenment ideals and our Jewish tradition is not at all new. It not only birthed the Reform movement, but also the Orthodox movement in response.
    And so it is impossible to blame our generation’s searchers and creators for the source of that tension. But it is definitely worthwhile to ask if they’re finding resolution.
    Community and social responsibility are most definitely a start. But can we be both deeply Western and deeply Jewish. I believe we can but I don’t really see it all around me, even in New York City. For example, the basic building block of culture is language. How many young alternatively engaged Jews speak Hebrew enough to understand the words of the liturgy, much less truly express themselves in this language that’s filled with layers and layers of our history and tradition? Hell, I was born in Israel and I can’t even express myself so well in our own language.

  16. BZ and dlevy, I wrote improperly. The issue to me is not the Reform community going away. Those who identify strongly with the Reform community – and many writers here are passionate activists within the Reform movement – are absolutely committed to a future for the movement and working to realize it. In that sense, Reform will continue.
    The question, to me, is whether those less passionate, those who went to their Reform synagogue because mom made them, went through the whole Jewish day school thing and come out thinking that Jews believe G-d is a magical man in the clouds with a big white beard and that the Torah is something their old granny cared about… whether these Jews, some friends of mine, will ever choose a Jewish life.
    This isn’t a critique of the Reform movement, or the Conservative movement for that matter, just my experience. Growing up I was dropped from Jewish day school in 6th grade because my parents didn’t make enough money and ended up going to public school. In some ways, I’m thankful for that – I was given the chance to choose a Jewish life without having it awkwardly stuffed down my throat.
    I look at us 20 years later – me drawing closer to Jewish life, and some of my friends, whose parents made all the right (significant) investments in a Jewish day school, Conservative or Reform Synogogue, a big Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Young Judea summer camp, BBYO, etc. wanting no part of it – and wonder if getting dropped from the Jewish day school wasn’t a blessing in disguise.

  17. Well, ironically, the article made for the jumpingest Jewschool article and comments since about 2003. Yum! Instant nostalgia, for when we were young and capable of playing with “controversy” as opposed to just building maginificent and stable structures, and promoting them.
    It’s funny to think of the hipster phase as regressive, but isn’t that when it seemed like there was the most interest in possiblity and engaging abstract ideas and theories, rather than just promoting our projects? They’re good projects one and all, but I do miss the conversations, maybe even more than I appreciate the fliers.

  18. yoseph leib – stay tuned, I’ve got a doozy I’ve been working on but haven’t had the chance to commit to a post yet.

  19. I have yet to wade through Myers’ piece because Commentary only allows you to read online if you already have a subscription —elitist bastards! However, I can fill you in a little on Texas A&M ”that bastion of Jewish thought,” the surrounding community, and the esteemed Dr. Myers.
    True, TAMU tends toward conservative and goyish. There are elements on campus who want to preserve that image, and by preserving that image suppress dissent. You can usually identify these groups and individuals by their propensity to cite “Highway 6 runs both directions,” it being understood that one direction is toward hippy, liberal Austin.
    Nevertheless, the local Jewish community is —dare I say it— vibrant. There are numerous Jewish faculty members at TAMU, and a sizable Israeli community. [As an aside, we even have a Blue Bunny franchise that competes with the palateros, and a Dead Sea cosmetics kiosk in the mall… how those Israelis could tell I was an MOT I don’t know, I wasn’t wearing a kippa or khai!] Altho’ TAMU has yet [I think] to develop a Jewish studies curriculum, a number of Jewish studies courses have been taught. TAMU‘s Cushing Library Mexican Colonial Collection contains documents relating to the Inquisition in New Spain, and for the second year, TAMU has sponsored a Crypto-Jewish Symposium. The local Texas Collegiate League team, the Bombers, was brought to town by the locally-raised son of an Israeli TAMU professor.
    TAMU is located in College Station, which is actually younger than the school. Bryan, the county seat, is adjacent and older, founded in 1821. The original Ag and Mechanical School was founded in 1876, south of Bryan along the railroad, hence “College Station.” The combined population of Bryan and College Station [B/CS] is about 153 thousand —I’m unsure if this figure includes students— and manages to support three and a half synagogues, including a Chabad. The non-TAMU affiliated “alternative” public radio station featured a weekly Jewish music program for over ten years. KAMU —the university station— has picked up that programming as quarterly Jewish music specials.
    While it is also true that the GOP spends little advertising money on Brazos Co. for national campaigns, because they can rely on it [and the campus] to go Republican, there is a strong and growing liberal presence. Remember, Texas did send Lyndon Johnson to Congress. My former neighbor-lady, an old-time Texan [and a gentile] remembers when Johnson brought rural electrification. When I moved to this area 20 years ago, incumbent county officials had only just changed party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. and now they are beginning to switch back. Okay, we Texas liberals are really embarrassed by the creationist, Don McLeroy, being elected —again— to the SBOE, and he _is_ from College Station. But we _did_ try to warn the rest of the country about Bush: Texas may be a BIG state, but the guv’ner has little executive power.
    In 2004, Brazos Progressives was founded as “a coalition of progressive groups, businesses, and individuals working together to build community in the Brazos Valley.” Some of activities under their umbrella include the local Farmers Market, a First Friday event to promote downtown Bryan [local] businesses, an annual independent film series, and the Café Scientifique forum to bring science issues to the public. Many Jews —myself included— are affiliated with the Brazos Progressives and regularly take part in events. Basically, I have a lot of hope for Jewish life, liberal life, and liberal Jewish life in B/CS.
    When I last had contact with David Myers, he had a wide contrarian streak, styling himself the lone conservative in the wilderness. While that may be the case within his department [English] and the Faculty Senate may trend towards liberalism, there are more than enough conservatives on campus to keep him company.
    While Dr. Myers teaches at TAMU, he lives in Houston and it has been several years [10?] since Myers has lived locally. Consequently, he may be disconnected from the B/CS community with the exception of faculty/administration politics. Earlier I boasted of the vitality of the B/CS Jewish community, nevertheless, we are a small part of a small ”metropolitan” area. We may not see every Jew in town on a daily or even weekly basis, but most of us are aware of each other, and are aware that there is considerable diversity of politics and practice in this small Jewish community. Among Houston’s millions, however, Jews can prob’ly manage to associate with mostly like-minded coreligionists and lose sight of such variability. In that respect, I suspect Dr. Myers has become less than representative of the B/CS Jewish community.

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