Culture, Global, Israel

Towards a new understanding of Secular Jewishness

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote almost five years ago.  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 continuity in which the American Jewish establishment seems to perpetually find itself… (plus ca change). I apologize if 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, 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).  The influence of the work of Ahad Ha’am (born Asher Ginzburg) is still profoundly felt in  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, 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).  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 in 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.”

41 thoughts on “Towards a new understanding of Secular Jewishness

  1. dear rokhl,
    a thought-provoking but problematic piece.
    i, for one, take offense to your essentializing of jewish religiosity as “orthodox.” you effectively delegitimize all believers who will not or cannot hold by the tenets of what they see as either irrelevant, immoral or simply non-convincing. simply because you, as, i assume, a semi-affiliated reform or conservative jew, have not found meaning in a rigorous religious life does not mean others have similarly failed to do so. i don’t quibble with your assessment of reality on the ground, as it were, but simply because the number of people who live by the tenets of their affiliated religious organization is not stellar does not give one the right to erase their narrative. Not only that, but positing israel as the focus of jewish identity reinforces the cultural binary of diaspora / homeland, which david shneer and caryn aviv sought to deconstruct in their book NEW JEWS. to sum up, in your piece, you have delegitimized both liberal religious and diaspora jews who take spiritual sustenance from their own homegrown communities.
    however, you hint toward a problematic with the current liberal jewish mode of change/reform. when those who are at least in touch with the religious elites (rabbis, organizations, boards) identify something that they view as unjust, they seek to have it changed. this is a very top-down approach. this is not to say it is wholesale ineffectual, but the changes encounter resistance. i agree with ahad ha’am when he writes that religions develop. and i agree with you, rokhl, when you write of those who simply do not have the necessary convictions. the essential problem with the top-down, elitist approach to change is that those who see the change as somewhat foreign to their experience will not commit to it, for they will not internalize it as a part of their lives. however, if the changes were to occur through a more grassroots mechanism, then people would need to grapple with them on a more immediate level, when they directly affect their lives. the fallacy is believing that the top-down structures will not respond to the grassroots activity. the truth of (jewish) history is that they do. the other truth of jewish history is that people are cowed into being spoon-fed their religion/culture, suckling at the teat of synagogue boards.

  2. As a student in an undergrad Judaic Studies program at a state university, I can attest to the frustration that I’ve experienced wanting to learn Hebrew in order to study texts, not to catch a bus in Israel. There’s “Biblical Hebrew,” but as I started at another school I wasn’t permitted to transfer from Modern Hebrew 3 to Biblical Hebrew 4; no, I would’ve had to have started all over at level 1. Ridiculous. So I’m suffering through modern conversation when I want to do work on traditional texts.
    Also, there’s an emphasis on “secular Judaism” and Israel studies in departments across the country. Okay; but it’s the tradition that kept the people together for millenia. What, are we now supposed to ignore it? Not become informed and educated in the roots of who we are, even if we’re not Orthodox? I assume this emphasis is happening because major funders tend to be liberal or secular Jews who want to disown their shtetl-ish roots. A dollop of self-hatred with your Enlightenment ‘tude, anyone?
    So unless one is yeshivish (I was raised with no religious training at all, zero synagogue affiliation), or can attend a rabbinical school like JTS, HUC or Hebrew College, one is SOL.
    And, to your point about Ashkenazi pronunciation, I want very much to learn Yiddish, especially because my foremothers spoke Yiddish, not Hebrew. But at my school there’s no language sequence in Yiddish that will fulfill the departmental requirement; Yiddish is advertised by the department as an occasionally available elective. I guess that works for students who already know Hebrew, but struggling with the Hebrew language requirement doesn’t exactly leave brainspace for another language.
    Anyway, thanks for a good, thought-provoking piece.

  3. invisible_hand,
    I don’t believe that Rokhl is trying to delegitimize the religious experiences of individual Conservative and Reform Jews. Rather, she is saying that they’ve failed as religious movements. C & R tried to offer alternatives to Orthodoxy, purporting to offer spirituality without what most of us have come to see as an anachronistic theology. I agree that they have, for the most part, failed in this attempt. My own Jewish education, in a suburban Conservative synagogue in the 60’s and 70’s, was as vapid and irrelevant as she describes. And I can see her point that we were all programmed to become involuntary Zionists. Certainly, Israel was held up as something of an ideal, the locus of Jewish identity. As for her assertion that this attitude descends from the writings of Ahad Ha’am – I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion (another example of my abysmal Jewish education!) – but I find her argument plausible. I just don’t know where we go from here.

  4. Yes, fascinating… My own Hebrew school experiences (also at a suburban Conservative shul) were similar – basic Hebrew, being able to recite liturgy, white-washed kibbutz-based Israeli history, Hatikvah. But I was lucky to grow up with parents who lit candles and recited the blessings every Friday night, and I had a Bas Mitzvah tutor who made learning a wonderful experience – when I sang my torah portion, I understood every word of what I was chanting, and that was exciting. And those more personal experiences are the ones that kept me wanting Jewish community even when I wasn’t living anywhere near my family or a synagogue I liked – alone, I continued to have my own shabbes (or shabbat, yes) observance at home, until I finally found the community I’d been looking for, which is a very progressive mix of Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews that constantly encourages and inspires me to learn more.
    One of the most important things I’m involved with at my shul is the Hebrew school “ReImagine” project – many of us in our 20’s & 30’s may be rootless and wandering in search of our Judaisms, but the kids in the Hebrew schools now should be benefitting from our experiences, both positive and negative. I don’t have kids (yet) myself, so I have the time and energy to be working on making progressive Jewish education meaningful and useful in ways that mine wasn’t.
    I’d suggest that our generation is perfectly positioned to be the antidote to this type of (not) learning. I’m not saying that we’re all going to take positions teaching Hebrew school and revamp the whole system overnight – but if we all start to tell the education directors of our shuls what worked for us and what didn’t, they’ll start to listen. Tell them what your most significant memories are of your Jewish education; were they positive or negative, and why? How can we create programs that will replicate the positive experiences and avoid the negative ones? What do we wish we’d learned as kids? I think we have an obligation to make sure that our experiences are valued as the basis for building a better system for educating the kids in our communities.

  5. Marisa,
    I agree, but I think that teachers (including Rabbis) need to hold a deeply-experienced sense of “spirituality” (that word has become so trite through overuse, but I don’t know how else to express it) in order to transmit it effectively to the kids. Do you think that there are enough educators who would qualify?
    And I don’t know what to do about middle-aged types such as myself who came out of that system with little or no education or feeling for Judaism. It sounds as though your experience was at least somewhat better than mine; you at least came away with the ability to read Hebrew. When I go to shul, I end up saying the English to myself, as I can’t keep up with everyone else while trying laboriously to sound out the letters!

  6. I find it more than a little disturbing that the average yid today in America, with your typical hebrew school until 12/13 only education will be able to tell you the names of all the Israeli Prime Ministers, but if you ask him/her who Rashi is, well, they probably wont know.
    Its the craziest paradox, you know, here in modern day America, Jews are more educated than ever before, except about their own religion. It’s imperative we remedy this solution. We can’t guarantee “continuity”. We cant say, oh well, if we do this, our grandchildren will remain Jews. But we can at least give them the option, no? Give them all the evidence. Let them decide. A lot of the yidden I meet coming straight of high school, they know you, Shoah and Medinat Yisrael and not much else. Thousands of years of Jewish philosophy, and no one has really ever attempted to expose any of it to them. Is that what we want to continue?
    As much problems as some of yall have with the charedi kiruv movements (and im not necessarily advocating any of them), you have to really admit this: Someone has to get the education done. And a lot times Congregation Beth Suburbia is not fulfilling that duty.

  7. What I interpreted Rokhl to be doing in this essay was a cultural critique of American Judaism, not a critique of American Jewish religious movements. I think she brings up several useful discussion points:
    1a) Why not learn the Jewish language our grandparents spoke? (ie, Yiddish). Isn’t that a brilliant way to give young Jews a sense of connection and continuity to the Jewish past?
    1b) Rokhl points out something which I think is very common and becoming increasingly talked about among many Jewish American 20/30-somethings: an anger at having an arguably “ancient” and “organic” Jewish high culture (Eastern European Ashkenazic civilization) replaced by a modern, homogeneous Israeli-American popular culture that simply doesn’t resonate for them, with no suggestions of an alternative. Offhand, I can think of about fifty young Jews I know, affiliated, (Jewishly) educated and even Zionist, who say to me, “Boy, I really wish I could learn Yiddish.” Surely this means something, something that mainstream Jewish organizations should pay attention to.
    2) Why teach Hebrew as a modern spoken language in the context of a shul’s Hebrew school? Isn’t it more important to give kids a sense of participating meaningfully and autonomously in the rituals and liturgy of religious life, no matter how those things are interpreted by the various religious movements? And doesn’t that entail teaching them Biblical Hebrew, and the foundations of Talmud, even if these things are taught from a “historical” perspective?

  8. rokhl,
    I find the article fascinating. Now I know why Jewish education was like that. I think its changing, but yes, prayerbook and biblical hebrew should be part of the curriculum
    There is a tremendous difference between the way Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew are taught. If you take Biblical Hebrew 1 you will chafe at the bit while everyone learns to decode for the first two weeks, but after that you will find that the intricacies of grammar are explored far more deeply, and you will receive payoff in that way. Even decoding is a bit different – Shewas on open syllable and certain Kamatzes are read differently.
    I’ve been studying Biblical Hebrew with a chavura for a while now, I’m probably about the equivalent of second semester right now. But I know my grammar in ways I never came to while studying modern, and I know what words mean in the biblical context that have other meanings in Modern Hebrew.
    Because of all this, your university’s requirement is not unreasonable – If I were to take Modern right now, I would expect to start at the beginning. I would chafe the first few weeks, but after that, I would be learning new stuff.

  9. Israel is a black hole in Jewish education, sucking light and energy from Judaism. The further away one is from Israel, the closer one can be to the ancient traditions, the religious values, and the sensibilities of our foremothers.
    In other words, the farther away one is from placing Israel at the ideological center of the Jewish universe, the more items of value will be free to receive attention.
    Israel is the second largest graveyard of authentic Jewish culture – where the remnants of the Holocaust were sent to be finally extinguished.

  10. Cipher – I agree! Of course having been a teacher myself, I can say with absolute certainty that it’s hard to maintain sanity in a class filled with kids who have already been sitting and learning all day, much less a sense of spirituality.
    But approaching it from a teaching perspective… well, I know I’m a better teacher when I’m teaching things I like. And for every 20 kids who’d love to learn Yiddish, there’s at least one person who knows enough to start teaching it. (and yes, I agree wholeheartedly with y’all that Yiddish is a fabulous thing to teach, but that the Biblical Hebrew should come first, because of the hopefully increased interest in the liturgy!)
    And no, this isn’t a movement issue at all… I’ve heard complaints from friends who grew up in day schools and yeshivas, in addition to the friends I grew up with at my Conservative shul and the friends who went to the Reform shul down the street.
    This isn’t to say that I think we shouldn’t teach about Israel – but it can’t be the focus of 8 years of Hebrew school leading up to a bar/bat mitzvah, and frequently it is. I think I would have enjoyed my Hebrew school a lot more if we’d been learning Biblical Hebrew and reading texts… becoming really proficient in something after all of those hours for all of those years!

  11. Good post and many of us will agree with its spirit, but I’m left wondering where we’re going? Why not suggest to us positive examples that can be emulated? What are examples of congregations that are doing it well? Who are the leaders that are to be emulated? What resources can we look at? Lets be a little proactive and share the best practices.

  12. One thing that I disagree with about your article is that American Jewish culture should focus on Jewish Eastern European culture and that if we do learn Hebrew it should be with Ashkenazi pronounciation. Although, the majority of American Jews are of Eastern European dissent (including myself) not all of us are. For example, there are large Persian Jewish communities in Los Angeles and New York. Yes Ashkenazi Jews need to be proud of our ancestor’s culture, but I but I feel you are completely disregarding the need to recognize the diversity that exists in our community. Ashkenazi Jewish culture is important but we need to realize that we are not the only types of Jews in this country.

  13. Yeah, what about the Sephardi & Mizrahi communities? Sometimes the only options we have are synagogues that are mostly Ashkenazi, and I don’t want to be limited to learning just the Eastern European stuff. How about Ladino or Arabic?

  14. I wish I had the time and power of concentration to retort to the parts I disagree with and wholly embrace the rest – but three short notes:
    1. Yiddish is easy. Especially for English speakers. It is a germanic language, there are similarities in the vocabulary and the grammar isn’t half bad as Hebrew Grammar.
    2. American shuls are not religious institutions. THey are Zionist institutions. Really – what other law committee of what other organized religion would turn a food-taboo (wine) into a promotion for the produce of a certain country (Israel)?
    3. Ashkenazi Laining should come back into American Jewish life. It rings better with the English accent, sounds much more natural, and it a part of your heritage. It is even better Hebrew: ever wonder why there were two a-sound markers and two e-sound markers in nikkud?
    And another short note: the sephardi heritage can and should be promoted by the sefaradim. How about Askenazim worry about their Torah and their History before they worry about political correctness? B/c today there are hardly any ashkenazi Jews who read torah the way they historically did.

  15. There is no doubt that the Jewish education provided to moderately affiliated American Jews through Conservative and Reform synagogues in the past generation has been a miserable failure. Rokhl offers a useful insight in pointing out that this educational failure is not due simply to incomptence, but is also is the result of specific choices made by an American Jewish community which embraced civic Judaism (of which cultural Zionism lite was only a part) as its principal form of Jewish identity.
    My biggest problem with this essay is that it claims that the failures of American Jewish education were somehow an intended product of the American Jewish community rather than the result of flaccid leadership, misallocation of resources, and a failure to set priorities.
    Israel education does not have the mantle of privilege that Rokhl suggests it does. American Jews have been no more successful at handing down warm feelings towards Israel to their children as they have at passing down liturgical literacy. For Conservative Hebrew schools, the lion’s share of the 6 hours of week of class time is aimed at the Bar Mitzvah – scrambling to teach basic Hebrew reading skills in short bursts of time when language study of any kind requires daily reptition. To the extent was left over from rote Hebrew learning and Holiday celberations, as children grew older, Israel took a back seat to another pillar of civic Judaism – Holocaust remembrance. I guarentee you that most Jews in their 20s and 30s can name far more Nazi villains than Zionist heroes.
    The experiment in American civic Judaism was the result of a compromise, but not the one Rokhl describes. At mid-century secular Yiddishkeit had already lost its grip on the American Jewish community. No matter how much neo-klezmer bands like Golem rock,
    the idea that the Lower East Side could have been transported to Long Island is unsubstantiated revisionism. Modern American Jews were deeply ambivalent about their Judaism. They wanted their children to be Jewish, but not too Jewish. They wanted a modern Judasim, one in which they could participate fully in American life, while honoring tradition. 3-day-a-year Jewish religion lacked meaning depth, however. This void was filled civic American Judaism based around Israel, the Holocaust and Federation, three pillars that even moderately affiliated Jews could rally around. And for the generation that experienced these events first hand, or grew up in the shadow of these events, American civic Judaism kinda, sort of worked.
    What is clear now is that form of civic Judaism was wholly unsuitable to be passed down to the next generation. If the goal is providing young Jews with a coherent, positive Jewish identity, there is simply no substitute to passing along religious and cultural literacy. Moreover, it is clear that 2-6 hours a week of “Jewish time”, absent reinforcement, is insufficient to accomplish this goal.

  16. Marissa, your comment (#11) hit it right on the head. I teach primary grade Hebrew school at a Conservative shul and from the start I’ve been teaching tefilah, parasha and Pirkei Avot, with very little time devoted to Israel, Zionism, etc. My kids live in the diaspora and they need to have the skills to thrive as Jews in the diaspora.
    While most of the parents are with me in my philosophy, I have one who feels that I’m teaching too much religion. “Well”, I asked him, “seeing as this is a religious school, what do you propose I teach?”
    It initially came as a surprise to me that some parents actually want their kids to have a nice fluffy feel-good experience. They feel as though we’re judging them by teaching their kids about mitzvot and Torah and all that other stuff that they, with their enlightened minds, have rejected. The obstacle is not the Conservative movement and it’s not the Hebrew schools. The obstacle is limited home exposure to Judaism. And before you blame the Conservative movement for that, keep in mind that even the Orthodox shuls have members like these.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no real solution. If parents make it clear to their kids that religious education is important, we’ll have students who take it seriously and will learn. But until parents stop viewing their kids’ Hebrew school education as a necessary evil/babysitting service, we’re going to have to settle for what we’ve got.

  17. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about Jewish education and religious school, but if it’s always about the kids, what happens when those kids grow up? I acknowledge that this crisis is mainly one in the Reform and Conservative communities. Shuls turn into Bar/Bat Mitzvah factories, and once you’re 13 you never darken the door again. But if parents have a reason to actually care about continued Jewish practice at home, and if the synagogue creates a culture in which it’s not weird for an adult to be interested in their Jewish identity, I can’t complain. Maybe it takes a mindless devotion to Israel, seemingly-unnecessary lessons on Torah and Talmud, or an apologetic, halting pace from a Rabbi who’s not sure if everybody fully understands the Hebrew. If it works, mor power to you.
    On a side note, I’m confused — I’ve heard a comment before that was similar to Amit’s here, stating that Ashkenazi pronunciation is superior to Sephardic. So it’s better Hebrew to have a pronunciation system by which 3 letters can make the same sound (ñ/ú/ù), as opposed to one in which 4 nikkudot only account for 2 separate phonemes? I’d call it a toss up, if I had to pick.
    Of course, in our shul (Reform), we split the difference. Tav is always T, segol and tsere are pronounced discintly, and qametz hatuph is always O.

  18. cipher –
    but don’t you see that the view point you are propounding is severly limiting and serves to force jews into cultural boxes into which they should not have to be put.
    argue all you want about the success / failure of liberal jewish movements, in the end it’s irrelevant. orthodoxy is not “succeeding” (though that, too, is questionable) because of its institutionalism, it’s because of the people involved. so your emphasis on movements and institutionalism is not where the real meat of the argument is.
    the fact of the matter is, in this postmodern age, jews are figuring out more and mroe mechanisms through which to be jewish. these mechanisms are not imposed by a hierarchical power structure, nor dictated by rabbis. also, many of these fresh new models are religious, not strictly cultural, in nature. and they are most decidedly not strictly orthodox.
    what about the jews who are sincerely religious/spiritual but don’t want to buy into the patriarchy and dogmatism of orthodoxy? do you say tough shit, become a cultural zionist? i am sorry, that is simply unsatisfactory.
    you write how jews are programmed into being knee-jerk zionists. what is coming across here is frightening and distressing. you (and rokhl) seem to believe that people are passive learners who absorb what they are told. to compound the problematic elements of this piece: what about the religious jew who does not believe in orthodoxy and does not support a state of israel? where is their place?
    to the rest of the commenters: the sum of anecdotes is not data. simply because liberal institutions have failed in certain respects (and i am not disputing that they have) does not mean that civic judaism is the only path for the non-orthodox. in fact, if you read the actual academic literature on this subject, then you realize that the vast majority of jews in america are spiritual beings (like the rest of the nation) even though they do not feel overly attached to any jewish institutions. see THE JEW WITHIN by cohen and eisen.
    for a view of the jewish world that does not rely on the binary opposition of zionist homeland / diaspora, see aviv and shneer’s NEW JEWS.

  19. also:
    rokhl is hardly excoriating liberal jewish movements when she declares that if jews really cared about religion, then they would be orthodox. she is effectively delegitimizing any sort of authentic jewish religious experience/identity that does not match with her fetishized notion of what a religious jew looks like / believes.

  20. Rich (comments 8 and 10):
    If you’re referencing my comment about Yiddish and our foremothers — yes, of course, and our forefathers. But I wrote “foremothers” deliberately, because most girls and women in Europe (especially in Eastern Europe) weren’t taught Hebrew. There were no cheders for girls. So there’s an entire genre of literature — prayerbooks, devotionals, secular books — that were aimed at women. Most were written by men, but some were authored by women. Therefore, in order to understand European Jewish women’s “spiritual” lives, especially prior to the modern era, Yiddish is essential. Important for studying men’s lives, too, but not so exclusively as in the case of women. Anyway, didn’t mean to step on any toes there.
    And thanks for the info on Biblical Hebrew vs. modern.

  21. invisiblehand,
    please go back and re-read this piece. It was not I who said “be orthodox if you care”– I was glibly restating the position of AHAD HA’AM!! Much of what you took as MY opinion was HIS.

  22. “Israel is a black hole in Jewish education, sucking light and energy from Judaism. The further away one is from Israel, the closer one can be to the ancient traditions, the religious values, and the sensibilities of our foremothers. In other words, the farther away one is from placing Israel at the ideological center of the Jewish universe, the more items of value will be free to receive attention. Israel is the second largest graveyard of authentic Jewish culture – where the remnants of the Holocaust were sent to be finally extinguished.”
    Um, none of the sages or patriarchs of Judaism, Biblical or rabbinic, would have agreed with you. Israel sure was central to them. How can you experience the ancient traditions etc without being struck by that? It’s pervasive. maybe you’re in some alternate universe where all this happened in China or something?

  23. “what about the religious jew who does not believe in orthodoxy and does not support a state of israel? where is their place?”
    They live in Mea Sharim.
    I think you’ve all been programmed into your reflexive disdain for Zionism. Probably by your college friends. You can’t be Zionist and cool at the same time.
    What kind of intellectual schizophrenia do you have to engage in to want to study religious texts yet avoid any acknowledgement that the words Israel and Jerusalem are all over them, that the people who populate them lived there, that the ancient Hebrew you feel you’ve been deprived of was the language of that nation? That your Ashkenzic ancestors revered it as their homeland and spiritual center?
    Why would you want to TRY to do that? Are you that terrified of not being seen as “progressive’ by all your anti-Zionist friends who were programmed into their anti-Zionism by decades of Arab and leftist propaganda?
    It’s the nation of your ancestors. Jews have lived there for 3000 years. Its climate determines the holidays you celebrate (trees don’t bud at Tu Bshvat in Lithuania). What are you so ashamed and repelled by? Have a little guts and unprogram yourselves.

  24. Batya,
    No worries, I was just making a bad pun there. Whenever my rabbi says “Our foremothers and forefathers” I always think, in keeping with the avot/imahot count “But there were four mothers and THREE fathers.” Esp. since she pauses between the syllables.
    I hope the Biblical hebrew thing works out for you. When we were starting our havura, someone dropped by who thought we should be doing Modern because it will be more useful in Israel. “Well if ALL you want to do is read the TANAKH, Biblical Hebrew is fine, but modern hebrew lets you do that AND get around in Israel.” It’s really a different mindset – close reading of text vs. getting around town.

  25. the erets yisroyel my ashkenazic ancestors reveared as their homeland was imagined, not real. it was a concept, the ‘idea’ of homeland, not an actual piece of dirt. nationalism would have been wholy foreign to them.
    beyond that, i think the ‘what about the mizrakhim/sephardim?’ response is legitimate, but a little knee-jerk. it’s utterly clear from rokhl’s essay that she’s talking about an ashkenazic context, asheknazic shuls, ashkenazic hebrew school, etc.. Really, talking about anything denominatonal is already contextualized as ashkenazic. I think those of us calling for more grounded cultural specificity shouldn’t be held accountable for not including cultural elements that are outside the purview of that specificity.

  26. Invisible hand,
    I’m really not promoting a point of view, and I’m certainly not trying to force Jews into boxes. And yes – Conservative and Reform failed as religious movements because of the people involved. Who’s arguing? As far as our being “knee-jerk Zionists” is concerned – perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “programmed”, but I was agreeing with Rokhl that, rather than an authentic spirituality, we were given a worldview in which support for Israel was seen as an almost “religious” requirement. It was a substitute for religion, if you will.
    I don’t mean to take away from anything that individual Jews are doing to reclaim a sense of spirituality. The options available today – and we have Reb Zalman, the Havurah movement, probably Shlomo Carlebach to thank for their existence – weren’t as widely available when you were kids, and they weren’t available at all when I was growing up! I never even heard of Reconstructionist Judaism until I was an adult – and I didn’t grow up in the boondocks! I applaud the efforts of individual Jews (particularly young Jews) in their efforts to implement new religious mechanisms. It can be difficult to sustain these efforts without institutional support – but I’m not saying that they shouldn’t try.
    And I would have defended Rohkl as well against the accusation of pushing Orthodoxy, but she beat me to it. Neither of us is saying that it’s the only legitimate alternative.
    Rokhl is simply trying to explain, in her view, how we got from there to here. As I said earlier, her explanation seems plausible. I’m sure there are other valid arguments as well. There were undoubtedly a lot of factors involved.
    Really, I think you’re reading too much into this.

  27. I’m just really sick of this assumption that somehow Yiddishkeit is more authentic than other Jewish experience. For one thing, I think the whole notion of authenticity is pretty creepy in itself. Despite insisting itself to be human-centered and experience-centered, it really foists an idea onto a reality that is more complex and more supple.
    Yeah, maybe when American kids tie kerchiefs around their heads and pretend to be on a kibbutz, they’re doing make-believe. And maybe they’re also covering up real difficulties with Zionism. But you know, when we speak Ashkenazish, with our tushbechasas and nosens, and when we get really into Yiddishkeit, we’re also doing make-believe.
    There’s a real chauvinism in asserting the supremacy of Yiddish culture for the Jewish experience. I also think that Yiddish culture is far from perfect, and contains a lot of chauvinism that we don’t want in Judaism today.
    If Yiddishkeit does it for you, that’s fine. But don’t tell me it’s more authentic. And definitely don’t tell me that Hebrew “sounds better” with a Yiddish accent. What, it just “feels right”? This sort of aesthetic argument, grounded in nothing, really takes the cake. And aesthetic arguments like this have been used many times to justify anti-Semitism.

  28. I’d just like to point out that “yiddishkeyt” literally means jewishness- religious and cultural. Please say “yiddish” if you mean yiddish.

  29. it is aesthetic. exactly! but aesthetics are way more important to religion and culture than we give them credit for.
    As one example, i feel pretty confident that the majority of folks who are affiliated with conservative shuls go to those shuls instead of reform, not because they have a nuanced analysis of conservative theology with regard to halokhe and the literality of the torah, but because pipe organs and acoustic guitars don’t ‘feel’ like the kind of jewish they want. For me, the sound of israeli hebrew is right up there on the list with the pipe organs.
    Of course Yiddish culture is far from perfect, like any culture. But the fact that the history and specificity of that culture has been intentionally institutionally erased for almost entierly political reasons is unjustifiable. Most people’s engagement with Yiddish culture is so simplifed and reduced that it doesn’t even allow for them to see that it’s far from perfect…it all just gets painted as ‘cute’.

  30. Believing that Hebrew school shouldn’t be exclusively focused on Israel is not an anti-Zionist position. Yes, Yehudit, Israel is central to the experience of being Jewish, both historically and in it’s current existence. But learning about the modern state of Israel can’t trump all other Jewish learning.
    And I actually personally resent your assumption that anyone has been “programmed into their anti-Zionism by decades of Arab and leftist propaganda.” As far as I’m concerned, my own leftist views include being critical of Israel at the same time that I love it. And I know I’m not alone. Being politically left-wing does not automatically include being anti-Zionist, and I can’t think of a single left-wing, progressive thinker among my friends who would ever say that Israel shouldn’t exist. (and, by the way, this reminds me of the “feminist” backlash, when no woman wanted to admit to that word, even if they still wanted equal pay for equal work… the word itself has become so politically loaded that most critical thinkers would prefer to avoid it.)
    It is important that the Hebrew schools teach about Israel, yes. But they’re already doing it – which is what we all seem relatively agreed on. Does it take 8 years to teach a kid to love Israel? Somehow I think we could be doing more, and giving kids roots in their own Jewishness without those roots depending exclusively on Israel.
    One of the amazing things about the Jews is that we managed to remain a vital, thriving culture for thousands of years when there was no state of Israel. If Israel was wiped off the map tomorrow (spit, spit), would American Jews still have a common set of tools to sustain us through another thousand years? If not, then our systems of Jewish education need to change.

  31. Sometimes I feel like the only Jew of my generation who doesn’t give a damn about spirituality. But I think that when some people are talking about a need for (or desire for) spritituality, they’re talking about a way of partaking in Yiddishkeyt (the total jewish experience) without necessarily participating in everyday ritual and observance.
    This is what I’m talking about when I say “secular Jewish culture”. Today’s secular jewish culture tends to be either ridiculously watered down, bad photocopies of original source material (endless takes on “Fiddler” and the “cute” side of Yiddish), remnants of foodways like lox and bagels, or a nebulous pride in sucessful shtetl descendents, like Woody Allen and his New Yorkish ilk. Or, more problematically, it is a “civic” culture (as someone put it) of Zionist patriotism. But can “lox and bagels” alone sustain a people in exile? Hardly. I want a secular culture that’s substantively Jewish, something I’ve found very rarely in the mainstream Jewish culture. This essay was a starting point for thinking about why that is (the exigencies of Zionism etc).
    I look to our Eastern European history as a time when a new, thriving secular Jewish culture was in a constant dynamic interchange with its traditional, Talmudic based counterparts. And that’s what I’m trying to build today, with a like minded group of people, some traditional, some thoroughly secular, and some who have gone back and forth.
    I hope to post a part two to this essay soon, with some thoughts on the “where do we go from here” question. Much respect and props to everyone who responded.

  32. What exactly is a “new understanding” of secular Jewish identity supposed to accomplish? Are we talking about supplementing the religious identity of moderately affiliated Reform and Conservative Jews, or providing some sort of neo-Yiddishist alternative for unaffilliated Jews? These are two very different questions. The discussion has naturally veered off into a analysis of the failures of synagogue schools, but increasing the gefilte fish to falafel ratio served to Jewish children is not going to solve the problems of religious illiteracy plaguing synagogue schools.
    If you want to talk about reaching out to unaffiliated American Jews through Yiddish culture as an alternative to cultural Zionism, that raises a host of other questions – mainly, whether or not it is a worthwhile use of community resources. However, when reaching out to non-affiliated Jews, it would seem that presenting Yiddishist nostalgia and cultural Zionism as mutually exclusive alternatives is counter-productive and denies the possibility that an individual Jew might find meaning in both aspects of Jewish civilization.

  33. I don’t think that was ever an option, mhpine. I think the whole point is to find meaning in whatever you find meaning in, regardless of whether it’s Israel or Yiddish language/culture or gefilte fish or Talmud. The idea that it’s secular just means that you still feel Jewish identity through something even when you’re not in the sanctuary, right? So all of the above could be part of that without any of them being mutually exclusive.

  34. “The discussion has naturally veered off into a analysis of the failures of synagogue schools, but increasing the gefilte fish to falafel ratio served to Jewish children is not going to solve the problems of religious illiteracy plaguing synagogue schools.”
    I don’t think that all religious schools are failures/full of illiterates, but I do think that the question of Jewish education is central to this discussion. And rokhl has valid concerns about Jewishness extending beyond the shul. The question is not how can we condemn synagogue education more, but what would be good things to teach, good experiences to create, so that kids coming out of the Hebrew schools have some idea of what kinds of Jewish culture exist and have the desire to figure out which things will give their own lives meaning.

  35. i can’t speak for rokhl, but i’m not talking about using yiddish culture as a tool to reach out to ‘unaffiliated’ (whatever that means) jews. yiddish culture is valuable in its own right, inherently, not because it might recruit some apathetic yidn back to jewland. it’s been silenced and reduced from both the inside and outside, and needs to be (re)embodied, because that process of silencing has fucked us up. it’s not about yiddish as propaganda to reach out to the apathetic masses with, but that the internal repressing/opressing/silencing of yiddish (i.e. the lack of a substantive, holistic ashkenazic culture) is part of why the masses got apathetic in the first place.

  36. beyond that, i think the ‘what about the mizrakhim/sephardim?’ response is legitimate, but a little knee-jerk. it’s utterly clear from rokhl’s essay that she’s talking about an ashkenazic context, asheknazic shuls, ashkenazic hebrew school, etc.. Really, talking about anything denominatonal is already contextualized as ashkenazic.
    Not all Ashkenazim spoke Yiddish either. Some of us spoke proper German. 🙂

  37. Wow.. really interesting discussion… first– i work and learn in a learning center, for men and women, where that exchange between our tradition and our present is ever playing out… check out the websites, speak to alums— come and visit—— these are places engaging both sides..
    and that’s what it’s about to be a jew today– reclaiming our personal heritage and applying it to the project of our people inna dis ere’ time… So learning biblical and modern is really the way to go- ( i would advise learning biblical in school and developing the bedrock for which a few months in Israeli society will nurture your modern fluency).
    I’ve found, that the american raised jewish experience reaches some serious impasse when it visits’ israel— From america i have a romantic image of shtetl, chasidim and yiddish, while in the modern israeli society, those are the subjects of jokes, ire and even serious discrimination. ( completely justified in some ways, except for the necessity (mitzva) to find love for another jew).
    But living out that paradox in the path to a healing of our nation, for us to honor and enrich our own spiritual piece of soul, and seek to bring that light into the whole.
    In some ways, yiddish is totally the realm of exile, but to move forward to redemption without processing, reclaiming and uplifting the sparks of exile will not work.
    Experiencing the vibrancy of a living, young jewish community, where holidays and ritual life bring the community together as opposed to cutting us off from ourneigbors is imho an essential part to returning life into ourpeople… I have found this only in the unique happening of yerushalayim, and as such, that’s where I’m throwing in my 120 years… THe tasting and seeing of what can be is the inspiration that I believe guides great teachers who will be live wires of transmission for the soul of our Judaism ,in whatever denomination it manifests…
    thanks for the forum and the sharings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.