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Excerpt of JEW VS. JEW by Samuel G. Freedman
In the first century of the Common Era, as the Roman empire reigned over Judea, the tiny nation rose in revolt. For several years, Jewish revolutionaries drove mighty Rome into retreat, seating their own regime in defiance. Yet at the very time that the empire's counterattack demanded the utmost unity from the insurrectionists, they fell into a virtual civil war. The Jewish resistance fragmented between upper and lower classes, the priestly caste and the masses, fundamentalists and progressives.
As the Romans advanced through Judea, the Jewish forces guarding the holy capital of Jerusalem turned their swords against each other. Two high priests led a siege against Zealots encamped on the Temple Mount; the Zealots, victorious, executed their foes. Thus divided, the rebels could not even agree on how to defend Jerusalem. Titus and his troops reconquered the city and burnt the Second Temple to the ground.
The Romans intended for that act to warn their Jewish subjects against ever again resisting. But as the story was retold over centuries of exile and dispersal, the destruction of the temple acquired a different meaning in collective memory. The First Temple had been razed by Babylonian forces; the Second Temple, Jews came to believe, was lost less to the Romans than to their own sinat hinam -- pure hatred, groundless hatred.
* * *
Two nights before Rosh Hashanah of the Hebrew year 5758, on what the civil calendar designated as September 29, 1997, I visited a middle-aged couple named Jane and David Marcus who had just moved out of Great Neck, Long Island, to escape their neighbors. The stories they told me of the family next-door struck all the familiar notes of a suburban grudge -- whose dog bit whose kids, whose guests made a racket. There was just one perculiar element. The Marcuses, both Jews with Brooklyn roots who had chosen to live in a quintessentially Jewish suburb, had fled it partly because their neighbors were, well, too Jewish.
For the first five years that the Marcuses shared a property line with Edna and Noam Guilor, they had considered them peers if not quite friends. They were all professionals -- David an accountant, Janet a literature scholar, Noam an actuary, Edna an architect. They were all Jewish without being particularly religious. An Israeli by birth, Edna Guilor had grown up in Haifa steeped in secular Jewish culture. Janet Marcus had arrived at a similar position by an American route. The granddaughter of the shammas (sexton) in an Orthodox synagogue, she had belonged in girlhood to a Conservative congregation and joined a Reform temple as a wife and mother in Great Neck. The Marcusesıs two boys had both been bar mitzvahed, even if the rabbi complained they had missed Hebrew school too often. On both sides of the fence in Great Neck for those first placid years, the Guilors and Marcuses practiced what Janet called a "habitual kind of non-doctrinaire, non-dogma" Judaism.
Then, in the early 1990s, around the time Noam Guilor fell severely ill with cancer, the Guilors became fanatics. Or at least that was how the Marcuses saw it. Barely a Sabbath passed, it seemed, without the Guilors entertaining five or six other families from their synagogue. If the Marcuses drove down their own street on a Saturday morning, they would find their path blocked by a procession toward shul of husbands in suits, wives wearing broad-rimmed hats, children padding alongside or riding in strollers. "Like a game of chicken," David said. The day the Guilors started started nailing together lengths of lattice, the Marcuses first thought it was some kind of home-improvement project and duly applauded. Then, when Edna and Noam started covering the wood with sheets of heavy blue plastic, the Marcuses realized this was the ceremonial booth for the Jewish harvest festival Sukkot. And not tucked discreetly in the back yard, but on the front lawn, for the world to see.
"Flaunting it," David told me.
"In your face," Janet added.
Those epithets recurred all through the next hour of my visit, as the Marcuses recounted all the ways Great Neck had grown suddenly alien to them. Their favorite butcher closed his shop because he lost too much business to glatt competitors. The local congregation of Lubavitcher Hasidim tried to erect a menorah in a municipal park. Then the Lubavitchers bought land within walking distance of the Marcusesıs home for a ten-million-dollar Chabad center. David and Janet sensed themselves being surrounded, encroached upon, and implicitly judged. A few months before I met them, they had moved ten miles away from Great Neck, to a home filled with early-American antiques on a private road in a town whose modest number of Jews were still mostly Reform.
At times, they spoke of the decision in idealistic terms. "I am an American," David said. "I live the American Dream." Janet equated the Orthodox emphasis on women maintaining the household with the sexism that decades earlier had quashed her dream of becoming a doctor. But there was a way, too, that the Marcuses had learned to delight in tormenting their Orthodox enemies. David regaled me with the story of being approached outside a hockey game at Madison Square Garden by a Hasidic teenager trying to convince him to put on tefillin, the phylacteries an observant Jew dons for weekday prayer. In the punchline, he screamed at the boy, "Get the fuck away." Janet recounted an argument with an Orthodox man she believed had cut ahead of her in a supermarket's check-out line. When he refused to relinquish his place, she remembered the little bit she knew about the religious law requiring modesty between men and women, and hissed, "If you don't get behind me, I'm going to touch you."
When I spoke subsequently to Edna Guilor, I heard a drastically different version of events. She preferred not to address every specific complaint the Marcuses had about the sukkah or the Sabbath guests, saying the Torah forbade her from spreading loshon hora, hurtful gossip. Nor did she think of herself as a fundamentalist who had grabbed onto dogma as a life-raft during family tragedy. It was true that her husband Noam had nearly died in 1990 from lymphoma. It was true that in the next two years his mother and father had both passed away. It was true that during the days of shiva, ritual grieving, the Guilors had been astonished to find a complete Shabbos dinner left on their doorstep by Orthodox families who had heard of their loss. "When youıre faced with death," Edna told me, "something makes you get more in touch with the essence of what your life is all about."
She felt the same craving standing atop Masada on the Sabbath in 1992 when her daughter Yasmin celebrated the bat mitzvah. At the desert fortress, where Jewish soldiers had committed suicide rather than surrender to Rome, Edna feared that if Yasmin was a typical American Jew her religious experience would end that day. The pull of assimilation was too strong; or else the Guilors had too little force with which to push against it. Not long after returning home, Edna and Noam accepted an invitation to spend a weekend across the Hudson studying with an Israeli rabbi in the Orthodox community of Monsey. On the drive back to Long Island, they resolved to live by the mitzvot. They began to worship both at the nearby Young Israel and a Lubavitcher shul. They indeed hosted many families on Saturday afternoons, because a houseful of grown-ups eating and talking about the Torah portion, a yardful of kids singing and playing, all that was the meaning of Shabbat.
There was just one thing about the Marcuses that confounded Edna. Several times she asked me the same question: Was Janet Marcus really Jewish? Was I sure? Edna never explained why she doubted it. It could have been the Southern accent Janet retained from some childhood years in Georgia. It could have been the fact she served ham. From another family in Great Neck, I heard that perhaps one of Janetıs grandparents had not been Jewish. But why, I couldnıt help wondering, was her authenticity even being cast in doubt?
* * *
Two hours before dawn on May 21, 1999, the holy day of Shavuot, I walked into the vine-draped courtyard of the Masorti synagogue in Jerusalem, already bustling with dozens of people studying, snacking, and pacing in anticipation. Like me, they were bound for the Western Wall for the traditional daybreak service to celebrate God handing down the Torah to Moses. It was my first trip to Israel and I had been advised not to miss the experience, in part for its tableau of faith in an ancient place and in part for its more recent history of religious strife.
The congregation in the courtyard belonged to one of the few Conservative synagogues in Israel and each time its members attempted to worship at the Wall with men and women together it had been attacked. On Shavuot two years earlier, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students had rained soiled diapers on the minyan. Two months after that, on Tisha BıAv, the police had shoved and wrestling the worshippers off the limestone plaza facing the Wall in the name of protecting them from assault. Last Shavuot, the congregation managed to pray while being pelted with small rocks and plastic bags of chocolate milk. Of all this the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Orthodox himself, had said, "The very fact that the Conservative Jews, who symbolize the destruction of the Jewish people, came to this place that is holiest to the Jewish people is a provocation. They have no reason to be in this place."
Just now a lanky figure in khaki slacks and an oxford shirt gathered the crowd to within earshot. He was Andrew Sacks, a Philadelphia rabbi now leading the Conservative movement in Israel, and many of his listeners were Americans, too, students in the Conservative seminary and day-school. "Weıll probably daven very quickly," he told them, using the Yiddish word for pray. "And if there is any threat of violence and the police ask us to leave, we will." Then he hoisted an Eddie Bauer duffel bag onto his shoulders. It contained a Torah. "Less conspicuous this way," Rabbi Sacks said as he led the congregation through the courtyard gate.
Already the streets leading to the Old City were thick with the reverent, moving seven or eight abreast toward the Jaffa Gate, and Rabbi Sacksıs group slid like a tributary into the broad river -- Jews in black hats and kerchiefs, Jews wearing skullcaps known proudly by the Hebrew term kippot, Jews trailing from their waists the fringes called tzitzis that remind them of the commandments, some of the Hasidim already singing and wheeling in joy. Down the crooked, zigzag lanes within the Old City went the thousands, passing over paving stones worn to icy smoothness by centuries of pilgrims. Finally, Rabbi Sacks's worshippers reached the rampart overlooking the Kotel, the wall built by Solomon, the holiest site in all of Judaism, and beheld a plaza filled to its last cubit with humanity.
"Why are we doing this?" an American high school student, suddenly fearful, asked Rabbi James Lebeau, Sacksıs colleague.
"I know why Iım doing it," Rabbi Lebeau answered. "This is my place as much as anyone elseıs."
Officially, the Kotel remained under Orthodox dominion, and as a place of worship it subscribed to Orthodox rules. By design, the Conservative congregation assembled at a corner of the plaza far from the Wall itself. The police had erected a double-line of metal barricades to demark a zone perhaps eighty feet by one hundred. Several dozen armed officers stood atop concrete pylons on the perimeter. Within this protective cordon, Rabbi Sacks hoped, men and women could worship in egalitarian fashion. The rest of the Kotel plaza, under Orthodox auspices, required the sexes to be separated by the partition called a mechitzah. As the sky altered slowly from black to faint purple, most of the worshippers passed the Conservative minyan without any more than a curious stare.
The congregation moved through the liturgy without incident -- Birkat Hashachar, Pseukei Dızimrah, Shaharit, all led by men. Then, for the reading from the Book of Ruth, two women moved to the folding table holding the Torah, and the first heckling could be heard. It came from boys clad in the black of the ultra-Orthodox haredim, the tremblers, so named for the way they shake with awe before God. Less abashed in this setting, one gave the finger to the Conservative worshippers. Another hooted until he got some congregants' attention. "Why are you looking up," he then taunted in Hebrew, "when you're supposed to be praying?"
Gradually, as if bored, the haredi crowd around the barricades thinned from three-deep to one, even showing a few gaps. The moment of confrontation, it seemed, has safely passed. But as the Conservative service neared the Torah reading, the central element of any Jewish service, the nearby haredim once more raised their voices in derision. "Make an evil plan and it will be dissolved," they sang in a tune used on Purim for the villainous Haman. "Speak something evil and it will not come to pass, for God is on our side." Another song thanked God "for separating us from the goyim."
By now, the sound of ridicule had attracted a claque. The barricades grew more crowded than they had been all morning, and it was no longer just children, or just haredim, who led the catcalls. A young man in his early twenties -- without sidelocks or fedora, and wearing a double-breasted suit -- began shouting from the perimeter. "Are gorillas accepted by your conversions?" he asked. "At a homosexual wedding, who gives the ring to who?" He had been speaking, Rabbi Sacksıs group abruptly realized, not in Hebrew but in English, and not in the thickly-accented English of an Israeli but the casual, easy English of an American.
Soon after that, bottles began to fly, plastic bottles of soda from the bag lunches that yeshivas had supplied their students. Every time one crashed into the Conservative minyan, the nearby haredim cheered. When the police waded into the crowd to grab assailants, the crowd cried, "Why are you taking civilians?" Some of the haredim ran deep into the throngs on the plaza, and from that safe remove hurled more bottles.
By then, nearly two hours into the service, half of the Conservative congregation was facing outward, chanting the liturgy while scanning the air for incoming rounds. The rest huddled tightly together, close to the Torah. Every time a bird swooped low, every time a haredi shouted a fake warning, the worshippers flinched as one. Some of them, quaking, headed for the gate. One young man, speaking in the cocky American English one might hear from a ballpark heckler, shouted as they passed, "Go back to Germany. Let the Nazis finish the job."
From somewhere in the fundamentalists' ranks, a plastic bottle of cola took flight, tumbling end-over-end through the bluing sky. Seconds later, the missile struck what its launcher surely would have considered a bulls-eye -- the cheek of a woman named Tobie Strauss, a Jewish-studies teacher from New Jersey who had read earlier from the Book of Ruth. As Tobie collapsed in a heap on the limestone plaza, a second bottle arrived. It, too, found an appropriate target, striking a rabbinical student named Shira Yisrael, flush on the forehead, a few inches from her kippa. Shira recovered the bottle, this one containing orange pop. Her father was a rabbi. Her mother had been killed years earlier in their native Argentina in the terrorist bombing of a Jewish community center. Now she was being assaulted in the Jewish state by Jews. Clutching the bottle in her fist, she stalked to the barricades and began shouting at the nearest boys. "What are you doing with a yarmulke on?" one shot back in English.
As Shira retreated to apply an ice-pack and Tobie groped to her feet and a friend's embrace, the Conservative service proceeded, with a woman chanting the Haftorah, the reading from the Prophets. And the attack proceeded, too, with more bottles, a few bags of ruggelah pastry, and a song whose Hebrew words translated as "You're desecrating the mitzvah place," the commandment place. As if in reply, a man in the Conservative group muttered, "Sinat hinam," pure hatred.
Finally, a single wizened rabbi walked with police escort along the barricades, pleading with the young men to halt, even disarming one of a soda bottle. Several yeshiva girls began arguing with the boys, saying, "You're worse than they are." Ignored, the girls left in tears.
By the time the Conservative service was moving into its final section, the Musaf, a policeman approached one of the worshippers.
"How much time is left?" he asked in Hebrew.
"See if the rabbi can hurry it up."
Based on past experience, Rabbi Sacks had been hurrying already, omitting the usual repetition of the Amidah section and pushing briskly through the rest of the service. At the end, he paused long enough to give directions in English and Hebrew on how to safely exist the plaza. Then the congregation sang the Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. Two years ago, the haredim had booed it. This time, pushed back from the barricades by the police, they didn't respond.
Rabbi Sacks returned the Torah to the duffel bag and shouldered it for the mile-long walk back to the Masorti synagogue. The rest of his congregants staggered out, guarded by a corridor of police. As one of the Conservative worshippers, a teenager on a study trip from Maryland, passed through the gate, he encountered a haredi boy roughly his age, whom he recognized from the barricades.
"Hag sameach," the haredi said. Happy holiday.
The next day, the assault on the Conservative worshippers was barely mentioned in the Israeli media. And for that omission there was a logical explanation. Israel remains a country split between Orthodox and secularists, and even its secular Jewishness is firmly rooted in citizenship, Hebrew language, and military service. To the degree Israelıs progressives cared about the Shavuot incident, they cared about it as proof of why the nation needs a separation of church and state, the removal of Orthodox authority from civil life. The legitimacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism -- that was a matter for Americans.
Indeed it was. Andy Sacks, Tobie Strauss, James Lebeau, three-quarters of the Conservative minyan, and a good many of the haredim with their effortless English were American-born. As the service had broken up, I spotted the cantor's wife from my own synagogue in new Jersey. Two other members of our shul, she told me, had retreated from the service earlier in terror. An American newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, devoted more attention to the violence than did any Israeli periodical. The most expansive article in the Israeli press was a column in the Jerusalem Post by Jonathan Rosenblum, an American native, who equally castigated the assailants for misrepresenting the majority of haredim and the Conservative worshippers for having provoked them. In America, unlike Israel, the overriding issue of Jewish life was precisely the legitimacy of all branches, and the attack on a mixed congregation symbolized an attack on the authenticity of non-Orthodox Judaism. This particular skirmish may have occurred at the Western Wall, but when I considered who was fighting and what they were fighting about, it was plain to me that the larger war, the war over American Jewish identity, lay six thousand miles away.
* * *
From the suburban streets of Great Neck to the foot of the Wailing Wall, I have witnessed the struggle for the soul of American Jewry. It is a struggle that pits secularist against believer, denomination against denomination, gender against gender, liberal against conservative, traditionalist against modernist even within each branch. It is a struggle being waged on issues ranging from conversion standards to the peace process, from land-use to the role of women in worship. It is a struggle that has torn asunder families, communities, and congregations. And beneath each specific confrontation lay the same fundamental questions. What is the definition of Jewish identity? Who decides what is authentic and legitimate Judaism? And what is the Jewish compact with America?
This civil war, while building for nearly a half-century, has reached its most furious pitch in the final years of the millennium. In November 1995, a yeshiva student named Yigal Amir assassinated the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin amid a climate of theological approval developed partly by American rabbis. In the wake of the killing, the peace process so divided American Jews that they could not agree on whether a rally in Madison Square Garden should commemorate Rabin for his negotiated settlement with the Palestinians or demonstrate Jewish cohesion despite the controversial Oslo accords. In March of 1997, an association of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the Agudath Harabonim, declared that the Reform and Conservative movements, which collectively represent about two-thirds of American Jews, were "not Judaism at all." Less than three months later, the first of the haredi attacks on egalitarian and mostly American worshippers at the Western Wall occurred. The religious parties holding the swing votes in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuıs governing coalition introduced legislation to formalize the Orthodox monopoly on conversion, marriage, and burial, which is to say the entire question of "Who is a Jew?" Such was the outcry among American Jews that Netanyahu promised a national convention of 4,500 fund-raisers, educators, and community leaders, "There can be so such thing as a second-class Jew."
Still, the rage and rhetoric poured forth unabated. The chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, called the Orthodox chief rabbinate of Israel "dysfunctional" and "without a scintilla of moral worth." When the president of Yeshiva University, the epicenter of Modern Orthodoxy, endorsed a compromise solution to the conversion issue in Israel, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the powerful association of ultra-Orthodox groups, denounced him as a soneh Hashem, a hater of God. The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a group devoted to protecting Jews from external enemies, resigned from his own synagogue to protest what he called the rabbiıs "hate-filled rhetoric." The effort to conduct a census of American Jews in 2000 was riven by dispute between scholars over just who in a population marbled by intermarriage could even be counted as a Jew. The Jewish Federation/United Jewish Appeal, long unrivaled as the major communal charity, suddenly was being challenged by the New Israel Fund on its left flank and the One Israel Fund, Hebron Fund, and Jerusalem Reclamation Project on its right. Even in the pages of the weekly Jewish newspaper I read at my home in Central New Jersey, I could watch the fissures widening between Jews. "My father was a soldier in World War II," wrote one non-Orthodox man in a letter to the editor. "He fought against Germans. He did his part to defeat Nazism. Iıd like to know what the Orthodox community did while Jews were being murdered in Europe. What battle did they fight in?" To which a man from the ultra-Orthodox community of Lakewood replied, "My parents were working in forced labor camps for the Germans."
The demographic truth offers little reason for any rapid or amicable resolution of that struggle. America's six million Jews are pulling toward the extremes. For one of the few times in Jewish history, the forces of assimilation and segregation, secularism and fundamentalism, are simultaneously ascending. On one flank, rampant interfaith marriage and declining religious observance leave a plurality of American Jews with that husk of identity that Herbert Gans has called "symbolic ethnicity" -- Seinfeld and a schmear, one might say. On the other side, an assertive, charismatic, and increasingly purist Orthodoxy boasts the highest birth rate within Judaism and a sense of triumphalism to match. So while fewer than half of American Jews belong to a synagogue or temple in any branch and only one in six even lights Sabbath candles, according to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the number of religious day-schools operated or inspired by the Orthodox simultaneously booms. Every prospective solution to the Jewish identity crisis sparks a whole new set of problems. Is the solution to assimilation the "inreach" of deepening religious practice among existing Jews, or is it the "outreach" of proselytizing and converting gentiles? Is the answer to continuity numbers or quality? In the Jewish institutional world, that argument stops just short of turning physical. Caught between, flayed from both sides, are the congregations in suburbs and urban neighborhoods which once defined the Jewish entente with America with its belief that one could be both sectarian and part of a greater whole.
American Jewry, then, is not going to vanish, as a particular style of alarmist analysis would have us believe. We do well to remember the scholar Simon Rawidowiczıs famous essay, "The Every-Dying People," in which he writes, "He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora that did not consider itself the final link in Israelıs chain." But it was the very fear of extinction, Rawidowicz continues, that stamped every effort at revival. And indeed American Jewry is being volatilely reshaped and destabilized by the countervailing trends of Jewish renewal and Jewish dissipation.
The present struggle sets two archetypes against one another. One is unity and the other is pluralism, and both are likable euphemisms for more controversial agendas. As invoked by Americaıs Orthodox Jews, unity means unity if all Jews act and think as we do, accepting the inerrancy of Torah and the yoke of all six hundred thirteen commandments, the mitzvot. As invoked by America's non-Orthodox Jews, pluralism means that any variation of Judaism must be accepted by everyone, no obligations required and no questions asked. The sociologist Steven M. Cohen had described the vying camps as "transformationalists" and "survivalists," with one faction seeing Jewish identity enriched by the influence of polyglot America and other fearing that identity's erosion for precisely the same reason. Put another way, the dueling models might be expressed as "I am what I feel" versus "I feel what I am." I am what I feel: I define the terms of my Jewish identity. I feel what I am: Judaism defines the terms of my Jewish identity. I am what I feel: Jewish ethnicity exists independent of Jewish religion. I feel what I am: Jewish ethnicity arises from Jewish religion.
To recognize how irreconcilable are these versions of Jewish identity is to understand why the civil war promises only to deepen and worsen. The Modern Orthodox rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg asked in a 1986 essay, "Will there be one Jewish people by the year 2000?" He predicted, "Within decades, the Jewish people will split apart into two mutually divided, hostile groups who are unable or unwilling to marry each other." And he continued, "In the past anti-Semites built their plans on the expectation and hope that Jews will disappear. We have come to the tragic situation where good and committed Jews are predicating their survival strategies on the disappearance of other Jews."
For six thousand years of slavery, exile, oppression, persecution, and genocide, the Jewish people endured out of a nearly sacred devotion to the concept of Klal Yisrael, the community of Jews. Indeed, whatever shatters Jewish community is described as a chillul Hashem, a desecration of Godıs name. At the most practical level, a succession of gentile enemies from Pharaoh to Hitler threatened Jews as an undifferentiated mass. The Marxist, the boulevardier, and the shtetl rabbi died alike in the gas chambers, and the lesson, as the renowned American Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expressed it, was that in a hostile world all Jews were joined by a brit goral, a covenant of common fate.
Why is it, then, that the ancient bond no longer holds in modern America? Why is it that the most comfortable, secure, and prosperous Jewish community in history is also one of the most fractious? Three causes emerged during my research, and they underlay much of the human conflict I will describe in these pages.
First, far from unifying American Jews, Israel now divides them on both political and religious grounds. Israel's own schism over the peace process is mirrored in this country, provoking anguished debate, philanthropic competition, and acts of violent terror. Simultaneously, the issue of who is a Jew has become more contentious than ever, as both Benjamin Netanyahu and his successor Ehud Barak have relied on Orthodox parties for the pivotal votes in their Knesset majorities. By accepting continued Orthodox dominion over Jewish status in exchange for support on political issues, both Labor and Likud governments have estranged and antagonized the non-Orthodox Jews who comprise about ninety percent of American Jewry.
Second, neither America nor the larger world presents Jews with a single foe against whom to coalesce. Egypt and Jordan, two of the aggressors in the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, have established diplomatic relations with Israel. Even Yasir Arafat, the despised guerrilla, is now a partner in the peace process. The former Soviet Union, for twenty-five years the Jim Crow South in American Jewry's equivalent to the Civil Rights Movement, has allowed more than seven hundred thousand Jews to emigrate. Disowned by his former allies in Republican and conservative circles, Patrick Buchanan has moved outside the two-party system entirely with his complaints about Israel's "amen corner" in Congress and criticism of America for fighting Hitler in World War II. The Christian Right, largely for millennialist reasons of its own, stands as a bulwark of support for Israel. When white supremacists burn synagogues in Sacramento or open fire on a Jewish community center in suburban Los Angeles, Christian churches instantly rise in condemnation. Which leaves Louis Farrakhan, blustering out all the old canards about Jewish conspiracies, and lacking both the support and the power to do anything more than bluster.
Third and finally, America has genuinely accepted Jews -- not simply tolerated them as court physicians or expedient bankers, who could be jettisoned in times of crisis, but literally loved them to such a degree that the intermarriage rate for American Jewry stands at fifty-two percent. The 1998 election left eleven Jews serving in the Senate and twenty-three in the House of Representatives, while two others held lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court. Nothing in the diasporic past of ghettos and oppression, and nothing in the Israeli present of forming a majority culture, has prepared Jews for the phenomenon of being embraced by a diverse society. Least of all did they expect that the modern American model of cultural pluralism, a product of liberal thinking, could embolden not only the less-observant Jew to join the mainstream but the fervently Orthodox Jew to resist it.
I aspire to tell the human story of the struggle for the soul of American Jewry and to tell it with the traditional Jewish means of the parable. From the Torah and Talmud, from Hasidic folk-tales and Borscht Belt shtick, Jews have looked to stories for insight, guidance, and even divine truth. In the past three years, I have traveled throughout America and to Israel as well, visiting synagogues and households and neighborhoods, conducting hundreds of interviews to capture the bitter battles pitting Jew against Jew. I make no claims for this book to be encyclopedic, all-encompassing. By design, I look at the tremendous discord in Israel only insofar as it bears on the American Jewish dilemma. Still, the parables in this book constitute something larger than their sum. They span nearly a half-century of modern history and take place in congregations and communities from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, from Cleveland to Denver, from Yale University in Connecticut to New Yorkıs Catskill Mountains. They consider the most urgent and divisive issues afflicting American Jewry, and it is my hope they do so with fairness and compassion. The current turmoil has not lacked for partisans and polemicists, but I have no desire to add to the decibel level. My goal is to fulfill a peculiarly Jewish mission, the mission of bearing witness.
* * *
The strife wracking American Jewry, unique though it is in many respects, also reflects a history of discord among the Chosen People. As modern Jews, we may joke of our disputatious nature, "Two Jews, three opinions." Yet this humor attests to a war between the impulses toward assimilation and separation, parochialism and universalism that goes back literally to the dawn of Jewish nationhood.
The Book of Exodus describes Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments only to discover that his brother Aaron has fashioned a Golden Calf for the Jewish encampment to worship. Moses shatters the tablets and orders the faithful Levites to "put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor and kin." Centuries later, with the Jewish land newly partitioned into southern Judea and northern Israel, the Israeli king Jeroboam reestablishes worship of the Golden Calf. His dynasty is detroyed in divine retribution. Eight hundred years after that, the Jewish people fragment into more than twenty competing sects, and the Roman Army destroys the Second Temple in punishment for sinat hinam.
The Hebrew words for pure hatred have remained part of Jewish parlance and Jewish thought for two thousand years because events have conspired to keep them timely. The entire religion of Christianity arose from a Jewish sect that rebelled against the legalism and ritual of rabbinic Judaism and considered Jesus the messiah whose coming Isaiah had prophesied. The lesser-known faith of Karaism began evolving in the eighth century among Jews who accepted only the Torah, not the Oral Law as formalized in the Talmud.
Three particular periods of Jewish history -- the Hellenistic era, Moorish Spain, and Enlightenment Europe -- provide the most striking parallels to the present moment in America. Then as now, religious tradition collided with provocative and potent secular culture, and the impact fractured the Jewish community. Many Jews in Palestine and Egypt adopted language, philosophy, and notions of civic life from the Greek colonists who settled in the wake of Alexander the Greatıs conquest. Under Islamic rule, Spain saw a flowering of Jewish poetry, science, and scholarship, as embodied most famously by Maimonides. The Enlightenment brought Jews in Western Europe emancipation to join larger society and the stimulus to develop a particularly Jewish hybrid of modernism and heritage called the Haskalah after the Hebrew word for understanding or reason. Both Reform Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy emerged from the cultural and intellectual ferment, as did the prototype of the irreligious Jew in such figures as Spinoza, Kafka, and Freud.
All of these golden eras had their own bitter, internal battles, not so unlike those cracking apart American Jewry today. The Maccabees of ancient Judea, celebrated at Hannukah for saving the Temple from Greek desecration, were a fervently religious faction with contempt for Hellenized Jews. Rabbis banned Maimonidesıs books for their rationalism. The yeshiva aristocracy of eighteenth-century Europe excommunicated devotees of the burgeoning Hasidic movement as "worthless and wanton men" who "worship in the most insane fashion."
Every fragile paradise, however, ended the same way -- with the blood of persecution. Pogroms ravaged Alexandria early in the Common Era, destroying the most worldly and acculturated Jewish community of the ancient world. The Christian capture of Spain in the thirteenth century led to the Inquisition and the expulsion of as many as two hundred thousand Jews. On the cusp of the twentieth century, the Jews of the Haskalah, the Enlightenment, and the supposedly modern learned like their ancestors in Alexandria and Spain that however they might physically escape the ghetto they would never be permitted to escape the gentile hatred that the ghetto symbolized. Their bitter lesson was the Dreyfus case -- the arrest, trial, and public humiliation of a French captain named Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew on the general staff, for having passed secrets to the Germans. Among those who attended the trial and who later saw Dreyfus in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire as his sword was broken and uniform shorn of decorations was a young Viennese journalist, Theodore Herzl. He wrote the following year in his Zionist manifesto, The Jewish State, a summary of what the Diaspora had taught Jews:
We have honestly endeavored everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so. In vain we are loyal patriots, our loyalty in some places running to extremes; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow-citizens; in vain do we strive to increase the fame of our native land in science and art, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers, and often by those whose ancestors were not yet domiciled in the land where Jews had already had the experience of suffering.
Extolling unity, the Talmud calls the Jewish people chativah achat, one entity in the world. Surveying history, Herzl expressed a similar idea rather more pragmatically. "[O]ur enemies," he put it, "have made us one people without our consent." If any Jew on the globe doubted him, then the Holocaust provided the tragic proof. When the Nazis slew the secular Jew and the fundamentalist Jew with indiscriminate efficiency, they left in mass graves the evidence of what exile had meant and forever would mean for Jews. Except, of course, for the Jews in one particular nation.
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America was always different. It had no state religion, no medieval past. It had a Constitutional commitment to equality, at least for white men, and a practical need for minds and bodies to build the nation. Free to practice their religion from the birth of the Republic, Jews achieved full political rights throughout America within decades. "For the first time," writes Marshall Sklare, the noted sociologist of American Jewry, "the fact of Jewishness became irrelevant in the public sphere." The United States elected its first Jewish governor in 1801 and its first Jewish senator in 1845. Less than a decade later, the rabbi of a Reform temple in Charleston, South Carolina, proclaimed, "This country is our Palestine."
For their part, Jewish immigrants were a self-selecting breed united not by class or language or national origin but the willingness to sever themselves from the theocracy of rural shtetl and urban ghetto. The first major wave, the German Jews of the mid-1800s, ranged from merchants and petty tradesmen who rose by pluck to American affluence to a small, influential rabbinical elite that propounded Reform Judaism's self-conscious modernism. For the Eastern European Jews who thronged to America more than two million strong between 1880 and 1924, immigration and with it modernization was a two-stage process. In the first step, many left their villages for cities like Warsaw and Minsk, where they often worked in factories or as merchants and tradesmen. Unlike the peasantry simultaneously streaming into America from Italy, for instance, the vast majority of Jews reached Ellis Island with literacy and urban skills, preparing them well for the pursuit of upward mobility. And a substantial, important minority, already radicalized by the pogroms, poverty, and proletarian upheavals shaking the Czarist empire, arrived here committed to various strains of Jewish socialism and in the process of developing the culture known as Yiddishkeit.
The Eastern European immigrants treated religion as part of Jewish folklife, something remembered and periodically practiced, but not the organizing principle of Jewish existence. The Orthodox establishment acutely understood that, as the historian Arthur Hertzberg would later write, "modernity is the solvent of tradition." The Christian governments of Europe, by segregating Jews, had arrogated to Jewish religious authorities much control over communal life, and such dominance could not possibly be reestablished across the ocean. It was simple enough in the shtetl, for instance, to close all Jewish shops for the Sabbath, but American cities expected Jews to work on Saturday. So while the immigrants called America the Goldene Medinah, the Golden Land, the rabbis who stayed behind disparaged it as the Treif Medinah, the Unkosher Land. Jacob David Wilkovsky, the famous rabbi of Slutzk, even traveled to New York in 1900 to plead with its Jews to come back. "It was not only home that the Jews left behind in Europe," he maintained in a speech. "It was their Torah, their Talmud, their yeshivottheir entire Jewish way of life."
His appeal failed utterly, and his fears were in certain respects confirmed. Contrary to the popular notion that religious observance has fallen precipitously among American Jews since the 1950s, the decline occurred soon after immigration. Between 1899 and 1910, as the American Jewish population rose by one million, a mere three hundred five rabbis entered the United States. And on American ground, Jews flocked to college, not the handful of rabbinical seminaries. The immigrant father clinging to synagogue and Talmud-study became in the eyes of children like the novelist Anzia Yezierska an anachronism worthy of pity or ridicule. When New Yorkıs Orthodox Jews reached to the scholarly center of Vilna in 1887 to import a chief rabbi, Jacob Joseph, his authority was so routinely ignored that when he died impoverished in 1902 he was never replaced. By 1930, only a third of American Jews belonged to a synagogue and only a quarter of Jewish children received any religious instruction. Only a fraction of Jewish households by that time bought kosher meat or owned a kiddush cup for the Sabbath blessing. It was nearly impossible to find a mikvah, a ritual bath, outside New York City.
Meanwhile, it was a Jewish writer, Israel Zangwill, who coined one of the signature phrases of the American experience when he entitled a 1908 play The Melting Pot. Nowhere was the Jewish embrace of America more apparent than in education. Unlike their immigrant predecessors the Irish Catholics, who created a system of parochial schools as their bulwark against Protestant acculturation, Jews consciously submitted themselves to the crucible of public education. In 1917, there existed only five religious day-schools for a population of 3.5 million American Jews. A generation later, Jews comprised more than half the teaching corps in New Yorkıs public schools and eighty percent of the students at elite City College. The first Hillel center was inspired not by a Jew but a Christian, a professor of Biblical studies at the University of Illinois who was disturbed that his Jewish students knew so little of the Hebrew Bible.
Decades ago, then, the religious establishment was already confounded by the seeming indifference of American Jews. What we think of as the modern phenomenon of the "three-day-a-year Jew," who attends synagogue only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, had attracted the indignant notice of The American Hebrew back in 1905:
[T]hey are evidences of that wretched state of religion which is symptomatic of the life of so many Jews. They are the outward display of the two-sided attitude of Jews who, all the year around, have no use for congregational worship, may even deride it, and yet when the fall holidays arrive, are not manly enough to persist in their indifference....Religious indifference with them is not the result of deep and serious thinking. It is due to chronic mental and spiritual deadness.
What that editorial considered dead was actually alive and thriving. But it wasnıt religion. It was ethnicity, Jewishness, a way of life that eventually came to be called Yiddishkeit. Born in Eastern Europe and carried to America in steerage with the immigrants, Yiddishkeit was less an organized movement than a sensibility. And that sensibility, as the historian Gerald Sorin has put it, "had to do with language, style, values, and behavior more than with belief." Yiddishkeit did not reject Judaism as much as appropriate it, treating religious tradition not as the ultimate expression of Jewish identity but part of the raw material for it. "In our striving toward secularism, toward the separation of the national idea from religion," the historian Simon Dubnow wrote, "we aim only to negate the supremacy of religion, but we do not wish to eliminate it altogether from the peopleıs cultural treasures." Irving Howe described the typical Yiddishist as a "self-educated worker-intellectual still bearing the benchmarks of the Talmud Torah...yet fired by a vision of universal humanist culture."
Yiddishkeit possessed the combination of tools any culture needs to transmit and perpetuate itself. It had a language shared by millions of Jewish immigrants and American-born children that was so beloved they called it their mamaloshen, their mother tongue. It had means of communication, with some one hundred different Yiddish-language publications emerging during the peak decades of Eastern European immigration, most famously of all the Forward. It had social and political institutions. While immigrant Jews were abandoning their synagogues early in the twentieth century, they were flocking by the hundreds of thousands into trade unions, Zionist groups, the Workmenıs Circle. Summer camps dotted the Catskills and Pennsylvaniaıs Poconos. Yiddish theater flourished along Manhattanıs Second Avenue. Two thousand of the mutual-aid societies known as landsmanschaften had sprung up by 1910. The Socialist Party drew up to forty percent of the presidential vote in certain Jewish districts of the Bronx and the Lower East Side. So if the affluent German Jews had counted the financiers Jacob Schiff and Felix Warburg as their heroes, then the Eastern European newcomers pointed to a pantheon of their own the writers Sholom Aleichem and Abraham Cahan; the labor leaders David Dubinsky and Sidney Hillman; the actors Jacob Adler and Maurice Schwartz.
The great paradox was that the Yiddishists depended every bit as much on the enforced cohesion of the ghetto as did the Orthodox against whom they rebelled. In the late 1920s, fully eighty-five percent of American Jews lived in a handful of Northeastern and Midwestern cities, and usually within the same neighborhoods. The Jewish anarchist who tormented his Orthodox neighbor by carousing at a Yom Kippur ball was statistically no more likely than he to marry a gentile. Alfred Kazin, the son of a freethinker father, wrote of his childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn: "[W]e always had to be together: believers and non-believers, we were a people; I was of that people. Unthinkable to go oneıs way, to doubt or escape the fact that I was a Jew."
Events outside the ghetto left immigrant Jews little choice. The size and suddenness of the Eastern European influx provoked an anti-Semitic backlash that impeded Jewish progress toward the American mainstream. The decades between 1900 and 1940 saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynching of Leo Frank by a Georgia mob on the mistaken belief he had murdered a Christian girl, the virtual ending of legal immigration by Congress, and the rise of bigoted populists like Father Charles Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith. Covenants barred Jews from elite neighborhoods and clubs, and quotas harshly limited their presence in Ivy League colleges and white-shoe law firms.
For all that, America provided incomparably the most secure and welcoming home Jews had known since their forced dispersal by Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple. Looking across the ocean to their former homelands, American Jews saw Josef Stalin ruling Russia and Adolph Hitler conquering Europe. Anti-Semitism in America, however noxious, remained an aberration, not a first principle. American Jews understood as much when they gave Franklin Delano Roosevelt the whopping majority of their votes, when one Bronx mother demanded that the rabbi at her sonıs bar mitzvah parade through the sanctuary holding a portrait of FDR alongside the Torah scrolls.
Nearing World War II, Americaıs Jews were a liberal, city-dwelling, lower middle-class people. The institutions of the Modern Orthodox movement were in their infancy. The movement into suburbia that would nourish Reform and Conservative congregations had not yet begun. The dominant mode of American Jewish existence, in influence if not numbers, was Yiddishkeit. It had shown the way to be Jewish, uncompromisingly Jewish, without being religious.
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If one had to date the beginning of the current struggle over American Jewish identity, then it might well be Passover eve in 1941. On that day, an Orthodox rabbi named Aaron Kotler reached New York as a refugee from the cataclysms in Europe. The scion of a renowned rabbinical family, the head of the yeshiva in Slutzk, Poland, and the youngest member of the Council of Sages and Scholars, the preeminent body of East European Orthodoxy, Kotler had fled into Lithuania seeking escape from both the Russian and German armies. Only the ceaseless lobbying of Orthodox Jews in America secured for Kotler one of the precious emergency visitors visas issued by President Roosevelt himself.
Kotler typified the Orthodox clergy and laity who considered America the Treif Medinah, who had persevered in Europe through pogroms and expulsions, survived the hatred of Christians who believed that Jews not only had killed Christ but slew little babies to use their blood in Passover matzah. For them, a golden age was not one that offered liberation but one that afforded peaceful isolation; their homeland was not a place but what the Talmud called "the four cubits of halakhah," the body of Jewish religious law. Were it not for the impending Holocaust, in other words, Aaron Kotler might never have touched these shores. But he did, and he stayed, and he entered the atmosphere of American Jewry like a charged ion, altering much around him by a principled refusal to compromise. "Torah is above time and space," he said once, "and if the American context is not cause for undermining Torahıs integrity, neither does it give reason to alter the character of the yeshiva."
Within two years of arriving in the U.S., Kotler opened a yeshiva on the classic European model called the Beit Medrash Gevoha in the fading resort town of Lakewood, New Jersey. From an initial dozen students, the academy grew to four hundred fifty in 1971 and seven hundred sixty from twenty-two states and fourteen countries by 1979. His alumni went on to lead yeshivot and rabbinical colleges of their own in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Denver, and to help establish Talmudic centers in Los Angeles and Detroit and operate several Orthodox publishing houses. Like the religious minorities that had founded America, Rabbi Kotler and his followers used its freedom to segregate themselves and preserve their ways.
Nor was Kotler alone in reviving the yeshiva world on American ground. From the remnants of European Jewry other Orthodox scholars and rabbis emigrated with the same fierce, desperate passion to recreate in the New World what the Nazis had sought to incinerate in the Old, and thus to prove it was God and Torah that once more had permitted Jews to survive. In Brooklyn neighborhoods, Abraham Kalmanowitz established the Mirrer Yeshiva, named for his former academy in the Russian town of Mir, and Joel Teitelbaum set the Satmar Hasidic dynasty he led as grand rabbi. Mordecai Katz and Elijah Meir Bloch, driven from their yeshiva in Telz, Rumania, founded in Cleveland a successor they called Telshe.
All told, fewer than a hundred thousand Orthodox Jews entered the United States in the generation after the war, and yet their effects were profound. "[O]nly the religious believers had a clear and unshakable answer to the question of why be a Jew," Arthur Hertzberg has written, and these particular believers "asserted the most uncompromising, separatist version of the Jewish religion." The effect of the refugee influx on Orthodoxy is a subject to be treated at length later in this book. For now, let us consider its influence more generally in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. For the first time in modern American history, the secular, humanistic impulse of American Jewry, as expressed most powerfully by Yiddishkeit, faced the challenge of a vibrant, charismatic, and almost completely antithetical belief system with institutions and folkways of its own. The Yiddishists and most other American Jews surely thought they had left all that behind in Europe decades earlier.
At the same time, Yiddishkeit was being undermined by another unexpected source: affluence. The postwar economic boom lifted millions of Americans into the suburban middle class. For Jews, the passage was speeded by the collapse of anti-Semitic quotas and covenants, which looked positively un-American after the Holocaust. Between 1940 and 1957, the share of Jews in white-collar jobs soared from ten percent to fifty-five percent. One-third of the American Jewish population moved from cities to suburbs in the twenty-year period after World War II. In the process, they spent an estimated one billion dollars building a thousand new synagogues, the overwhelming majority of them in the Conservative and Reform branches. The Conservative movement in 1950 bent religious law to demographic reality and allowed members to drive on the Sabbath. Sixty percent of American Jews were affiliated with a synagogue in 1960, three times the level in 1930, even as religious observance remained static at the low level it had sunk to in the 1920s. With their clubs and sisterhoods and fund-raising dinners, these institutions were updated, polished versions of the immigrant landsmanschaften as much as they were houses of worship. Yet if in many ways the burgeoning style of Judaism was "belonging without believing," in the Reform scholar Eugene Borowitzıs phrase, then it is also true that, as the sociologist Chaim Waxman argues, synagogue membership was an acknowledgment that religion was what conferred identity on a Jew. And that proposition, of course, stood in counterposition to Yiddishkeit.
Beneath its placid surface, then, postwar American Jewry was roiling. Philip Roth captured the turbulence in his 1959 short story, Eli, the Fanatic. The Eli of his title is a lawyer who has just moved into a largely gentile suburb, only to discover to his shock that two Holocaust survivors are operating a yeshiva in a tumbledown house. One of them, even worse, strolls through town in the black garments of a Hasid. On behalf of the suburbıs Jews, all of them ashamed at this vestige of the shtetl past, Eli tries to persuade the survivors to comply with local laws, if not move out altogether. Ultimately he settles for donating a business suit that the old man can wear on his strolls. Shortly thereafter, Eli finds a bundle of Hasidic clothing on his porch. After he puts it on, strangely drawn to its ancient integrity, he is whisked off to a mental hospital.
What Roth rendered as farce, the Jewish movement into the suburban mainstream, Irving Howe perceived as tragedy. In the final pages of his masterpiece, World Of Our Fathers, he wrote:
America exacted a price. Not that it "demanded" that immigrant Jews repudiate their past, their religion, or their culture; not that it "insisted" they give up the marks of their spiritual distinctiveness. American society, by its very nature, simply made it all but impossible for the culture of Yiddish to survive. It set for the east European Jews a trap or lure of the most pleasant kind. It allowed the Jews a life far more "normal" than anything their most visionary programs had foreseen and all it asked -- it did not even ask, it merely rendered easy and persuasive -- was that the Jews surrender their collective self. This surrender did not occur dramatically, at a moment of high tension. It took place gradually, almost imperceptibly...
It took place, among other settings, at a Labor Zionist summer camp in the Catskill foothills. There, as much as anywhere, the paths of Orthodoxy and secularism crossed, the one asserting itself, the other deteriorating. And in those dynamics lay the essential preconditions for the coming civil war.
Excerpted from Jew vs. Jew © Samuel G. Freedman 2000