Towards a Po-Mo Judaism

Steve Jacobson, director of The Dorot Fellowship in Israel (the program which I was on last year), writes in the most recent edition of the Shma Journal:

“OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” Anna Greenberg’s illuminating report on issues of faith among Generation Y, reveals increasingly evident insights about the disillusionment of young American Jews with the dominant institutions of American Jewry. In recent years, an increasingly vocal cadre of communal critics has identified the multiple variables that continue to enlarge the chasm between our postmodern children and the thoroughly modern institutions that seek to serve them. Greenberg’s report adds to this chorus.
Among the contributions of Greenberg’s report is its confirmation that young Jews possess fully integrated identities as Americans and as Jews. Not surprisingly, Greenberg’s report illustrates that young Jews largely reflect the values and influences of mainstream American culture. Like their peers, they are intensely pluralistic. Reared in a radically different milieu than their parents, most young Americans Jews eschew many of the very tenets of modern American Jewry — particularly the centrality and, dare I say, the superiority of Jewishness. They are products of a society in which the combination of consumer culture, unbridled individualism, and technology have enabled multiple identities to coexist fluidly in a single individual. This multiplicity is celebrated and has resulted in an unparalleled embrace of diversity, though most conventional American Jewish institutions do not share in that embrace.
Rather than focus on how Jews and Judaism might define our purposes and our contributions in the 21st century, too many of our institutions remain locked in a battle that has long been decided and thus squander vast resources on lavish efforts to turn inevitable tides. The communal obsession with intermarriage and continuity has prevented the community from engaging in a process of discourse and discovery that could define postmodern Judaism, that could draw upon our resources and our vast collective memory to inform how we might manage our fully integrated identities, and that could empower young people to take their place in the future of American Jewry.

Read on…

32 thoughts on “Towards a Po-Mo Judaism

  1. “most young Americans Jews eschew many of the very tenets of modern American Jewry — particularly the centrality and, dare I say, the superiority of Jewishness.” Hey,, with an intermarriage rate of 50%, it’ obvious that it’s the prior generation that has left the traditional tennants of Judaism. It’s the current generation that is fghting its way back to tradition. Btw, regarding intermarriage, saw supreme court justice Stene Breyer (jewish) talk about his family (he married a brit anglican) – his daughter is an episcopalian priest! Yeah, those who want to be open to outmarriage and reject jewish “particularism”, you too can have xtian and muslim religious leaders as your very own children.

  2. avi one has nothing to do with the other. just because you marry out of the faith, that doesn’t mean you abandon your jewish identity nor fail to impart jewish identity to your children. there are plenty of jews of mixed marriages who have deep connections to their jewish identity and heritage.

  3. mobius, life is a game of odds – you cross the street without looking, you will probably be just fine but the non lookers mortality rate is certainly highter than the cautious walker. same for intermarriage – you COULD have committed jewish children, the odds aren’t you won’t (one study I read said a jew who intermarries has a 1 in 10 chance his/her grandkids will be identifying jews), that’s ok if you don’t give a shit about the continuation of jews/judaism, but if you do why play against the odds?

  4. “there are plenty of jews of mixed marriages who have deep connections to their jewish identity”
    “deep connections?” what, they light the menora? they eat bagels w/cream cheese on sunday mornings? they remember their 1964 bar mitzvah? give me a break. you marry out, your connection wasn’t ever that deep to begin with. quit dressin’ it up.

  5. Chaz and others
    You’re so full of shit, I could projectile vomit.
    I’m intermarried to Black woman who is lapsed Catholic.
    She has been NOTHING BUT supportive and encouraging of my climb back into Judaism, every step of the way. I recently joined the Kol Tehillah congregation here in the Bronx, which has Black, White, Mixed, Gay members – and is the most vibrant minyan I have ever encountered.
    And while you’re busy rejecting my kids because they don’t fit in your narrow little box, you’ll be drawing from the same shrinking gene pool that introduced Tay Sachs disease into our people.

  6. Avi, with regards to the statistic you cite (the 1 in 10 chance), that is indeed an oft-cited statistic. However, as with all data of that sort a certain degree of context is required. The UCLA study of college freshman did indicate a higher percentage of non-identification as Jewish by the children of intermarried couples.
    That being said, the statistic does not explain why these children are more likely to self-identify as non-Jewish. It doesn’t answer the question of whether the fundamental issue is the intermarriage itself or the Jewish community’s response to intermarried couples. If a couple with a small child is shunned by the community, because one of the parents is non-Jewish, then it increases the likelihood that the child will not be raised with a strong Jewish identity.
    Ideology can certain substitute for hard data here. Idealogues on one side will argue that the community’s response is besides the point; intermarriage itself is the problem. Idealogues on the other side will argue that intermarriage is a fact of American Jewish life and the community’s continued refusal to address the issue on those terms and accept such couples in exacerbates the problem. I tend to lean towards the latter, but regardless of the truth — a refusal to consider the question will do nothing to address the problem with any success or pragmatism.

  7. Monk,
    God bless you. I would even say that an extra kudos should go out to the children of interfaith marriages who succeed in the struggle to really connect to Judaism. They are born into what can be a very difficult religious situation.
    Think about all of those people who have it handed to them and take it for granted.

  8. Hello,
    My advice and experience is this:
    I say this with experience. My generation was the first in my family to marry outside the religion. My Mother and Father were Jewish, their mothers and fathers before them were Jewish. My fathers family emigrated from Russia, from the town of Uman where Rabbi Nachman is buried. My fathers grandfather was a cantor in a Chassidic Shul. But we were brought up in ‘Middle Class America’… My brother and I were Bar Mitvzahed and both of us dropped out after our Bar Mitzvah… I strayed from the path in my late teens, dropping out and moving to California {I grew up in Stamford, CT.}. I turned into a Grateful Deadhead, following the band around California {seeing over 30 shows in 10 years}.
    First, I married a Goy and we fought and had problems. My brother married a Goy and he did OK. He had two children from the marriage… I got divorced in 2003, but have since gotten back with my exwife. Now that I have returned to Judaism, I am helping her to convert to Conservative Judaism and we are getting along better {plus she now has a job, more self confidence, etc.}. She has two children from her 1st marriage {I was her 3rd}.
    Now my brother, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of World Trade Center tower #1, is dead. He died on September 11, 2001 in the Terrorist Attack on New York. This has caused me, and my family much angst. My brothers wife is Irish Catholic… The kids are being brought up Catholic {G-d Forbid!}. I spoke with my Dad yesterday and he asked if I sent one of the children a Birthday card… I said ‘no’, because I have not even been contacted by his wife… The relationship is cold, cold, cold… I am disheartened because these children of my brother will never know of their Jewishness.
    I am a dead-end of Judaism in my family… I am the end of the line and I pray daily that my soul will be free from guilt. My advice is that you should first look for a mate with your same religious background. I find that this is IMPORTANT because your love of G-d often translates in how you love other people. It is best to have a frame of reference to better understand your mate. I found this in my relationship, and now my mate is ready to learn about G-d and how he relates to the world. I may, in the future, be able to teach my brothers kids about Judaism. May this be so…
    Bradford, the problem is not acceptance… My synagogue accepts all kinds of people, black, white, asian, whatever… As long as they have a true desire to learn Torah, and they feel the love, they can attend. Judaism has existed as it has for many thousands of years… It is important to have two Jewish parents in order to continue the chain…
    Michael U

  9. well said, bradford. correlation and causation are often confused. if we are to really get into this discussion we’ll have to think through this data. avi, i agree with you that life is a game of odds. odds are pretty good that 20/30-somethings are turned off by ethnic and racial triumphalism in contemporary american judaism, which seems to be a major point of Jacobson’s. Monk, thanks for a fantastic personal story, helping us think about how the jewish community can be more inclusive.
    i think Jacobson’s piece is correct, we ought to worry about how to make judaism relevant and use it to speak to contemporary questions. we ought cease our worrying about whether we are “better” than anyone else and worry about making this world “better”, making it holier, raising sparks, and bringing justice. if we do that, the world will ultimately be holier, sparkier, and more just, and better. it may be a lot to ask for, but i’m in.

  10. Michael –
    I hate to say it, but it sounds like your relationship with your sister in law is strained because she’s a bitch, not because she’s Irish Catholic. I’m sorry for your loss, but that’s how I read it.
    I grew up in a single family Jewish household and my brother and I grew up very connected to our heritage.
    Most two-parent households are stable, not just Jewish ones.
    Your story’s got heart, but not much logic.

  11. This is an impossible debate, one which there are only losers, it seems. But, I thought I’d relay this story from the trenches. Among the kids I teach are quite a few products of intermarried parents, and though some are approaching bar mitzvah, they’re still not very clear on Jewish tradition/ritual (I take some responsibiity for sure, but it’s very hard to give them a great deal of info in one hour a week and zero familial reinforcement).
    Last week, I asked a 12 year old student why he thought we blessed the wine on Shabbat.
    He said “well it represents the blood of… oh wait”
    Yeah, I’m glad he caught himself (I had to keep from screaming), but I think that’s basically the deepest problem for kids of intermarried parents– lack of consistency, lack of clarity, lack of identity.
    So Dan, you might be right, some end up committed– one of my good friend’s dad is a protestant minister, and he is nevertheless studying at Pardes, served in the IDF, made Aliyah, worked in Hillel, etc. But he is the exception– many more of my friends from mixed families are only loosely connected to the faith (one of my best friends’ nonjewish grandmother brought a ham to the passover seder one year… so they ate it. I would venture to say that even having a seder is rare amongst most of these
    In my mind, the only way to raise committed Jewish children is to committ to having a Jewish family life and to providing (preferably extensive) Jewish education. Can that happen in an intermarried context? yes, but it’s not easy, and I wouldn’t recommend trying.

  12. michael, i read the story you tell differently and have a different conclusion. it seems the issue was that the judaism you were brought up with wasn’t compelling. you “strayed from the path”, perhaps, because you didn’t see anything on it. the intermarriage was symptomatic of the probelm, not the problem itself.
    we need to stop trying to cure symptoms, and start looking for the underlying problem. i think that problem is a judaism that does a poor job speaking to most people most of the time and communities that often lack warmth. these are difficult problems to “cure” but as long as we are trying to “cure” intermarriage, we will fail. though intermarriage might be viewed as a problem, it is not the underlying problem.
    intermarriage might be viewed as a problem though, it is also a tremdous oppurtunity. we could be growing rapidly if we did well at invovling, investing, and including non-jewish spouses in a way that interested them in conversion. if our communities become as exciting as they could, intermarriage could ultimately drive rapid growth. that said, it creates complicated family dynamic issues.

  13. monk —
    you have “climbed back into judaism” — having a jewish life wasn’t a value for you when you were younger. neither was marrying in. as i said, your connection was obviously not that deep.
    and please, with the gene pool business. what’s your point, intermarriage is essential to jewish survival? that without non-Jewish genes, we’re going to all become weird mutant aliens? c’mon… you can do better than that.
    and i don’t “reject” your kids. my uncle and cousins all have intermarried, and i don’t “reject” their kids, either. i love them and respect them because they are beautiful human beings who deserve love and respect. i just wouldn’t call ’em up for an aliyah at my shul, that’s all.
    you’ve got your shul, i’ve got mine.

  14. Chaz
    My connection was sound as a pound, kiddo. My mother worked in Jewish Community Services for 17 year and raised us with a strong cultural attachment to Judaism.
    What the continuity-obssessed keep forgetting is this: To grow up in America in the late 20th/early 21st century is to grow up in The Era of Decentralization. There are no strictly Jewish neighborhoods anymore, unless you live in Muncy or New Square – and they have congenital birth defects that would terrify a Marvel comic book character.
    You grow up in a flush of diversity where it is hard enough finding a life partner without driving yourself to drink; let ALONE one in a closed community that you have to physically seek out and exert energy to become a part of. There were about 15 Jews at my college – a secular American university. 4 of them were women, 3 of them dated white guys.
    So. I should have single-mindedly sought out a nice Jewish girl to fulfill someone else’s definition of CONNECTEDNESS to my COMMUNITY? Please. That’s not ‘connection’, it’s poor self esteem.
    It goes back to the point of the initial article: THERE ARE OVERLAPPING IDENTITIES in the modern western world, and Judaism is not adapting to meet that.
    Judaism has since its inception been an evolutionary dialogue. That’s not the same as the present day definition of ‘liberal/progressive’ – it means that Judaism, as a culture and religion, has been about growth and journey. It’s why there are Midrash and Mishna: commentary and investigation of Torah. So that WE CAN ADAPT AND SURVIVE.
    Go on with it.
    See you at the kids’ Bar Mitzvahs.

  15. I find the notion of postmodern religion paradoxical to say the least. It sounds nice in college when everyone wants to do their own thing. It doesn’t work in real life because religion, particularly ours, has communal elements that cannot be jettisoned at the drop of a hate. Concepts like these are partly responsible for the schism between orthodox Jews and everyone else, because the orthodox frankly don’t have these problems of intermarriage and assimilation ad absurdum.
    I really can’t accept defenses of intermarriage. The instances where it works, it seems to me, are in the very small minority. My extended family is one where intermarriage is more common than Jewish marriage, and the results are self-evident. I love my distant cousins; they’re great people, but they are not being raised Jewish. Intermarriages where children are being raised with two religions are inherently problematic; besides psychologists recommending against it because it confuses the child, Judaism is destined to lose in a basically Christian country. If this were Israel, it might be a different story. If your partner loves you that much, he/she can convert to Judaism, seriously convert. Most likely, the other religion can take the hit.
    The mistake Jewish organizations have made is to treat intermarriage as the problem when it is really a symptom of the problem. The problem is really the lack of Jewish education, both the lack of its availability and the lack of its affordability. Hebrew schools are mostly a joke and a chore. Intermarriage is just the logical result of children being taught not to care.

  16. The other thing to remember about that 1-in-10 statistic, kiddos, is that it (necessarily) draws on data from two generations ago!
    I think the TRUE test of the effect of today’s intermarriage won’t come for some time. Our grandparents lived in a generation where kids were mourned after having intermarried…maybe things will be different now that today’s interfaith families are welcomed into Judaism with open arms.
    It’s worth hoping for, anyway.

  17. i am not sure the data on orthodox continuity is as clear as you are suggesting. what data are you discussing? are your ideas about orthodox assimilation guesses?
    anyways, the National Jewish Populations Study (NJPS) shows that only 41% of jews who identify as being raised orthodox continue to be orthodox. this leads me to believe that raising kids in orthodox houselholds is not the answer either.
    day schools are clearly important. but segregating students and teaching them in only jewish environs underprepares them for their eventual movement into a diverse world.
    here is an interesting solution: team up with korean, african-american, japanese, and other communities and run multi-ethnic schools. let children/parents choose which classes the kids will go to. all math/english/lit/scienc e classes will be multi-ethnic. there will also be hebrew, korean, tanach, catholic doctrine classes. presumably jews will have mostly jewish torah classes taught by knowledgable jewish teachers. this could teach kids to integrate their jewish identities into a diverse set of identity early on.

  18. monk —
    please don’t “kiddo” me, kiddo. “OVERLAPPING IDENTITIES” does not have to equal “OVERLAPPING BLOODLINES.”
    i grew up in your “Age of Decentralization.” you make it sound so freaking epic. i was awash in this “diversity” that you speak of, which really wasn’t all that diverse, because McDonalds and Coke in santa monica looks and tastes the same as it does in palookasville. i sewed my wild oats with many varieites of non-Jewish women. then i went to Israel, studied in yeshiva and realized that having Jewish children who truly valued their Judaism just wasn’t gonna happen without a Jewish wife. a “strong cultural attachment” to Judaism wasn’t gonna cut it for me, and I still highly doubt whether it cuts it for anyone.
    The “adaptation” and “evolution” going on the Gemarra was almost certainly targeted at keeping the Jews involved in learning and practicing the Torah, which, according to the Gemarra, *IS THE KEY TO JEWISH SURVIVAL*. it was most certainly *not* targeted at getting the Jewish people to marry out. nope, nope, nope. sorry.
    go on with it yourself.

  19. Chaz
    “Overlapping BLOODLINES”?
    “.. i sewed my wild oats with many varieites of non-Jewish women. then i went to Israel, studied in yeshiva and realized that having Jewish children who truly valued their Judaism just wasn’t gonna happen without a Jewish wife.”
    … yeaaaah.
    You’ve officially leapt from having a valid argument to basically being a California dilettante who travelled to Israel to ‘find himself’.
    “overlapping bloodlines”
    you missed me with that shit, kiddo.

  20. The real problem, the way I see it, is Christmas.
    Intermarry, have your spouse convert, keep shabbes. But everyone wants a Christmas tree and presents.
    I say, why look at ourselves when casting blame? Blame the Goyim with their cute little holiday gift orgy that makes children go spastic.
    And Jeez.. like my colleages do here at work.. remind everyone that the tree is really for Odin, not Jesus. They’re little gifts of Odin for some reason or another.
    But seriously folks.. we left the ghetto and the shtetl. Judaism’s gotta change with it. The problems with Reform are the problems with the Enlightenment, the problems with Reconstruction are the problems of the 1970s. The problems with…
    We’re all doing good work. Let’s keep reaching out to everyone around us, expressing what we see as totally awesome and fulfilling in Judaism.
    I have no problems saying “Merry Christmas” (with a wink) to my colleages, because they bought me candy on Purim! Why? Because I told them what Purim was.
    Pray hard, maybe we’ll get another movie like Ushpizin so we don’t have to look like cultural nothings.

  21. How come no one is questioning the value of being “products of a society” in which “consumer culture, unbridled individualism, and technology” reign supreme? Shouldn’t that scare us young Jews even a little? Think about it:
    consumer culture:
    i.e. I should shop around until I find just what it is I want, then buy it (hmmm…should I put in a “Stairway to Heaven” reference for fun?)
    unbridled individualism:
    i.e. It is about what I want, believe, or think. I don’t need history or tradition telling me what’s real or valuable or even informing my decision. Me. Me. Me. Wow. And our generation is supposed to be socially responsible?
    Do we really want what we used to consider a tool to become a definition of ourselves? Ulp.
    Some people who are “fighting the tide” are not so much supporting strict traditionalism as opppsing the above trends.
    For example, maybe saying “Marry in!” is not really a statement against the non-Jew you wish to marry. Maybe it is pointing out that there are some values and ideals that are or should be…gasp!…greater than ones own desires.

  22. monk —
    “santa monica” was just used to illustrate a point —
    i am really from daytona beach, FLA.
    not too many “dilettantes” in that area, just beer-bellied rednecks with 4x4s and shotguns.
    middle of jewish freaking nowheresville.
    there wasn’t a single other jew in my elementary, middle or high school class.
    i was the only jewish kid in attendance at my own bar mitzvah.
    i still managed to marry a jewish woman.
    if you’re not willing “to physically seek out and exert energy to become a part of” the jewish community… then you might as well marry out!
    oh and p.s. there is absolutely nothing wrong with going to israel to ‘find’ yourself, especially if you are a young jew. find one person on this blog to disagree with that statement. i don’t see why my ‘soul-searching in Israel’ should invalidate any argument that i would make about intermarriage and ‘deep committment to judaism’ being at odds. on the contrary — i think my experience makes my argument stronger.

  23. Besides the fact that Monk sounds like he’s got a truck load of guilt and a blog to dump it on (thought the guild spews in well written prose), this comment:
    “raised us with a strong cultural attachment to Judaism. ”
    speaks volumes.
    For those of us who grew up with the JCC, gold chocolate shekels on Channukah, fear of gentiles, etc….it’s clear that this type of experience doesn’t produce, what Heschel calls, “awe and wonderment”. It’s taken me 16 years of struggling, learning, rejecting to discover some of the treasures of Judaism.
    As a fan of psychodynamic psychotherapy, I don’t need stats to confirm what my innards know, and that is: the children of intermarriage will most probably embrace Christian culture due to the sexiness/mass appeal of the thang.

  24. “i don’t see why my ‘soul-searching in Israel’ should invalidate any argument that i would make about intermarriage and ‘deep committment to judaism’ being at odds. on the contrary — i think my experience makes my argument stronger.”
    Amen. And Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz would agree with you.

  25. Shtreimel,
    Christian culture is sexy? I think we know by now that it’s the minority culture, the culture of historical struggle, that has acquired a “sexy” allure in contemporary America. And that culture is not Christianity.

  26. Shtriemel:
    Guilt is for the guilty.
    I’m embracing aheritage that is as much mine as your, and ensuring that I can pass it on to my children.
    From what I see on here, all you do is pass judgement, shake your fist, and pound your chest.
    People like you are one of the main reasons it took me so long to come BACK to Judaism in the first place. I see you.
    As for Chaz… I apologize for being condescending, but that’s about it. I vehemently disagree with your viewpoint.
    Which is fine.

  27. “From what I see on here, all you do is pass judgement, shake your fist, and pound your chest. ”
    Hey, the truth stings. I’m no different than you pal. Growing up with a HUGE distaste for synagogue, Jews, etc…took me a long time digest the bitter pil than I’m presenting to you. You don’t like it, that’s your problem not mine. Fact is (and I’m basing this on anecdotal and personal experience i.e. 5 year stint as a Youth Director at a Conservative Shul, 4 year stint at CJA/UJA), we lose Jews to intermarriage. It’s been documented and discussed to death. Haredim don’t. Modern Orthodox folks do a little bit better than fur hat wearing friends. The stats for Conservative/Reform/Rec on/Renewal is abysmal.
    But, I don’t fault Jews for intermarriage. A well respected rabbi in Montreal stated: “Biology over theology”. Hence I blame our rabbis, shuls, CJA’s for caring/catering to the whims of wealthy Jews, and in the process, creating a Judaism that’s boring, insipid, rote and Hellenistic.

  28. “Christian culture is sexy? I think we know by now that it’s the minority culture, the culture of historical struggle, that has acquired a “sexy” allure in contemporary America. And that culture is not Christianity.”
    EV…good point. Still, the minutiae of Halachic Judaism will never appeal to the pleasure over pain culture than we live in (nor will Islam). A few minutes of Yoga/Meditation and some shopping on Christmas will.

  29. “Modern Orthodox folks do a little bit better than fur hat wearing friends.”
    should read
    “Modern Orthodox folks do a little bit worse than their fur hat wearing friends.”

  30. I think you’re all missing the point here.
    Those who wish to intermarry…will intermarry.
    No matter how much money you put into banners, flyers, billboards, bumper stickers, and speeches about how it’s (a sickening example, but a real one) “like continuing the death camps”.
    Those who wish to assimilate, will do so.
    Jewish organizations should refocus their manpower and money towards programs which allow Jews, young and old, to use their creativity and efforts to do good.
    And most definately, there needs to be better efforts to help those who can’t afford a Jewish education to get one.

  31. I think we know by now that it’s the minority culture, the culture of historical struggle, that has acquired a “sexy” allure in contemporary America. And that culture is not Christianity.
    Well, it’s certainly not Jewish culture. I mean, have you picked up Heeb lately? Jewish culture is apparently an embarrassing Ashkenazi childhood in and around New Jersey, and is to remember through ridicule.

  32. “the real problem is christmas”
    Whish is interesting, because, we’ll recall, the solstice (Colandos Januarius) is an Adamic holiday, according to the gemara in avodah zarah 9b., belonging to all people, in every generation. remember the story?

    http://www.coejl.org/Hanukkah/… for a version with commentary. Obscure detail that comes with this story: The Bnei Yissaschar maintains, or so i’ve heard, that the Israelites kept the Adamic holiday one the solstice, only changing it to Channukah after the defeat of the greeks.
    The first year after wards, there was some confusion: are we gonna do it on the traditional solstice day or on the 25th of Kislev? It so happened that that year, the 25th of kislev came out first and, well “the spirit of the holiday was already in the air…”

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.