Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry
by Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster. 375 pp. $26.00
In his 1908 play, The Melting Pot, the Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill romanticized the New World as a place where Jews could freely marry Christians and “where all races and nations come to look forward.” How prophetic he was: today, nearly a hundred years later, the intermarriage rate among American Jews stands at well over 50 percent.
Needless to say, this statistic, and others like it, have hardly brought joy to the organized Jewish community, which now devotes much time and money to projects aimed at discouraging intermarriage and promoting Jewish “continuity.” Unfortunately, at the same time that energies are engaged on this front, another, no less alarming threat faces American Jews from a different quarter.
Despite constituting less than 3 percent of the nation’s population, American Jews are, today, a highly fractured group, one whose distinct subcommunities have almost no connection with, much less respect for, each other. In the religious sphere, bitter and ongoing disputes divide the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements over issues such as the standards for conversion to Judaism, the ordination of women and their participation in religious services, and the question of same-sex marriage—so bitter, indeed, that the interdenominational Synagogue Council of America was disbanded several years ago when Orthodox rabbis refused to participate in an organization that included Reform rabbis. Insoluble splits within American Jewry exist on the political level as well. In 1995, organizers of a memorial service for the recently assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were forced to ban any reference to the “peace process” in order to satisfy groups opposed to the Oslo agreements.
In his provocative new book, Samuel Freedman brings this internal dissension into sharp focus. A former New York Times reporter and the author of three earlier books about life in contemporary America, Freedman writes about six communities across the United States. In a small village north of New York City and in a suburb of Cleveland, he looks at animosity between secular and religious Jews; in Denver, he reports on the ongoing struggle over the question of “who is a Jew”; in West Los Angeles, he observes the battle in the Conservative and modern-Orthodox movements to address demands by women for a greater role in religious affairs; and in New Haven, he attends to the increasing tensions within Orthodoxy itself.
Perhaps the dominant theme of Freedman’s book is the surprising reemergence in our day of religious Judaism, a development that has in turn given rise to all manner of tensions with secular Jews. (Jew vs. Jew was, of course, written well before the choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman, a member of an Orthodox synagogue, as Al Gore’s running mate, with all the complications that has introduced into the American Jewish equation.) In illustration, he contrasts the thriving hasidic village of Kiryas Joel near New York with what remains of the outlook represented by an old Labor Zionist summer camp that once stood a few miles away.
For nearly a half-century, until it closed its doors in 1971, Camp Kinderwelt was a summertime haven for Jewish youth in the New York area. It embodied what was once the dominant spirit of American Jewish life: nonreligious, socialist, Zionist, ethnic. Today, Camp Kinderwelt is both physically and spiritually dead, its brand of “Yiddishkeit” on display mostly in the archives of Jewish museums or in the works of a writer like the late Irving Howe. But even Howe, as Freedman points out, recognized at the end of his life that neither willpower nor nostalgia could halt the decline of Jewish secularism as an ideology.
By contrast, the ultra-Orthodox Kiryas Joel is booming. This hamlet, incorporated by a handful of Satmar Hasidim from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 1977, today boasts a population of more than 12,000. In an effort to re-create the self-sufficient communities they left behind in Eastern Europe, the residents of Kiryas Joel have built their own infrastructure, complete not only with synagogues, kosher food stores and restaurants, and mikvahs (ritual baths) but also with newspapers and department stores and a school system that educates more than 5,000 children. While many of the men and some of the women of Kiryas Joel commute to work in New York City’s diamond district, they do so on private buses that have been fitted with partitions to enable male passengers to pray separately from the women, as is required by religious law.
The two communities represented by Kiryas Joel and Camp Kinderwelt have almost nothing in common—except mutual disdain. When Freedman informs the mayor of Kiryas Joel that a secular Zionist summer camp once thrived just up the road but has since failed, the mayor responds: “Secular Zionism is failure.” At a reunion of former Kinderwelt campers, now middle-aged parents of mostly intermarried children, Freedman hears the Satmars dismissed in turn as “greasy Jews” who “smell like cholera” and, in the opinion of one ex-camper, are “the kind of people who are against everything I stand for.”
It is not only between out-and-out secular Jews and the Orthodox that feelings run so high. In his chapter on Beachwood, Ohio, an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Freedman describes how a small group of Orthodox Jews, seeking zoning approval for a campus containing a synagogue, mikvah, social hall, and school, ran into intense opposition by a group of local Reform Jews. Ironically, the latter had themselves faced strong resistance from the non-Jewish citizens of Beachwood in the early 1950’s; in both instances, the argument for keeping out newcomers was the same—a desire “to preserve our beautiful Beachwood community.” Inevitably, the latest battle has left casualties, and an enduring residue of intracommunal bitterness.
Among the three principal Jewish denominations, the most contentious issues of all relate to Jewish identity. They arise in part from the different standards set by rabbis in each group for conversion, as well as from the fact that the Reform movement alone embraces the principle of patrilineal descent—i.e., that (in contravention of Jewish religious law) the child of a Jewish mother or father should be considered Jewish. Most Orthodox rabbis do not accept the validity of conversions performed by Conservative or, certainly, Reform rabbis, and many children of Reform Jews are not considered Jewish by either the Orthodox or the Conservative movement.
These issues are tearing at the seams of American Jewry, and defying the best-intentioned efforts at resolving them. One such effort was started in the mid-1970’s in Denver, where, as Freedman reports, a group of rabbis representing each of the three principal denominations began a bold (and largely secretive) experiment in joint conversion. The basic rules were that any prospective convert would be trained principally by the rabbi of his or her denomination, then evaluated by a panel consisting of an Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbi, and finally converted by an Orthodox bet din, or rabbinical court. During its six-year history, the project “graduated” 175 students, the vast majority of them brought in by Reform rabbis.
Throughout the experiment, however, the three Orthodox rabbis felt both that their role was extraneous to the process and that their participation was “theologically fraudulent.” (They often met the prospective converts for the first time at the ritual bath, immersion in which marks the penultimate moment before conversion.) Further exacerbating tensions was the decision of the Reform movement in 1982 to adopt patrilineal descent; in that same year, the program imploded.
The Denver project spotlighted not only the rift between Orthodox and Reform Jews but, Freedman explains, a division within Orthodoxy itself, a movement increasingly torn between its “modern” and its “ultra-Orthodox” or “haredi” wings. In Denver, ultra-Orthodox Jews condemned the three participating Orthodox rabbis for their willingness to officiate at religious ceremonies in the company of Reform Jews, and even the Rabbinical Council of America, the group to which all three belonged, mounted a formal investigation into “their reliability, credibility, and integrity.”
Nor are the Orthodox the only group riven by internal dissension—and neither, finally, are the fissures in the Jewish community limited to matters of religion. In a chapter on Jacksonville, Florida, Freedman tells the story of a young man who, in his zeal to thwart the Middle East peace process, placed a bomb in a synagogue where Shimon Peres was scheduled to deliver a lecture. This leads Freedman into a discussion of disagreements among American Jews concerning Israeli politics, itself an exceedingly complex subject.
The portrait Freedman paints is, in sum, discouraging. Not only, to hear him tell it, is there far more discord than common ground in American Jewish life, but none of the traditional unifying forces—the need to combat anti-Semitism, the consensual embrace of liberalism, even support for Israel—is as relevant as it was in the past.
To replace these outmoded indicia of Jewish identity, Freedman looks, perhaps paradoxically, to religion itself as the one force that over the long term can yet protect American Jewry from assimilation. And when it comes to religion, he writes, it is the “Orthodox model” that “has triumphed” and deserves to triumph. This does not mean that only those Jews will survive who are Orthodox themselves; rather, “the portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future—and is flourishing already against a backdrop of ever more assimilation—is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion defines Jewish identity.”
To support this conclusion, Freedman cites indications from the last decade of a creeping “traditionalism” even within the Reform and Conservative movements. Thus, the governing board of Reform rabbis has commended “the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot”—reversing, as Freedman observes, that movement’s “historical contempt for ritual and religious law”—while the Conservative movement has recently mounted a campaign to encourage its laity to read a chapter of the Bible every day (mirroring the Orthodox practice of studying a page of Talmud daily). He also notes a 1996 statement by the American Jewish Committee, a secular organization, that places Torah atop a list of five fundamental values for Jewish continuity.
But despite these heartening developments, Freedman’s portrait ends on a pessimistic note. Not only does Orthodox Judaism demand more than most American Jews are willing to give—“a pattern of obligations and responsibilities, a web of mutuality”—but the contentious state of Orthodox Judaism itself suggests that this movement is in no position to help overcome the dissension that plagues the larger community. As the Denver episode illustrates, the modern Orthodox are on the defensive vis-à-vis the ultra-Orthodox, while the ultra-Orthodox themselves, with the notable exception of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, have little use for the millions of nonaffiliated American Jews, and perhaps even less for Conservative and Reform Jews who, they believe, treat the dictates of Jewish law as if they were items to pick and choose on an old-style Chinese menu.
Which leaves Freedman, and his readers, in a bit of a black hole: if Orthodoxy is not a realistic prescription for the whole of American Jewry, what then? A Zionist thinker who considered this very question early on was Ahad Ha-am (the pen name of Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927). In pondering how the Jews of modernity could ensure the survival of their spirit and culture in a post-Enlightenment world, Ahad Ha-am proposed an educational program blending the secular, religious, cultural, and nationalistic elements of Judaism into what he termed a “national spiritual center.” “Learning, learning, learning; that is the secret of Jewish survival,” Ahad Ha-am wrote in 1910. “We have to make our synagogue itself a house of study, with Jewish learning as its first concern and prayer as a secondary matter.”
As it happens, one of the few bright spots on the American Jewish landscape has been the proliferation of Jewish day schools—not just Orthodox but Reform and Conservative as well. Over the last 35 years, the number of such schools has more than doubled (from 323 to 670), and the number of students enrolled in them has risen from 63,500 to over 185,000. As the historian Jack Wertheimer wrote last year in these pages (“Who’s Afraid of Jewish Day Schools?,” December 1999), the challenge to the organized community is not only to make such schools more affordable, but also to make them academically attractive to families whose first priority is getting their children into top colleges. While some may believe that the most important Jewish endeavor is to fight the remnants of anti-Semitism, others to memorialize the Holocaust, and still others to support Israel, even more critical than these worthy efforts may be a sustained, well-financed campaign to educate the Jewish young.