On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Archive for December, 2014

Home for the Holidays

Hanukkah in Tel Aviv

As I was driving in Tel Aviv the other day, a commercial came on the radio that caused me to sit up and take notice. It featured “Ma’oz Tzur” sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” followed by a resonant male voice that asked the listener to imagine what might happen if Santa Claus lit Hanukkah candles this year. Many Israelis are making a similar move, the announcer continued, trading in German-made automobiles for Cadillacs: “Shouldn’t you think of joining them?”

I could not believe my ears—but this is Israel after all, where absolutely everything (in this case Santa Claus and the decision of what car to buy) can take on major significance. One takes the ever-present weight of Jewish history for granted in Jerusalem, a city that always seems weighed down with secular/religious and Israeli/Palestinian divides. But Tel Aviv prides itself on the achievement of what classical Zionists called “normalcy.” The city abounds in parks, high-tech firms, and high-rise apartment towers. All are softly lit by Tel Aviv’s lush winter sunshine. And then a radio ad puts “normalcy” to flight. Every little thing is connected to bigger things in the State of Israel, even in Tel Aviv; every election—like the one that will take place this March—can plausibly be described as a fateful choice that will determine Israel’s very existence.

This is a major part of the meaning attached to being a “secular” Israeli, and Hanukkah, as observed in Tel Aviv, offers a wonderful opportunity to think about that meaning and about the new kind of Judaism that is emerging here. A young professor, Israeli by birth and upbringing, told me the other day that he is now raising his family in the States and confronting the realization that “my children will not be Israeli ex-pats like me.” They would have to be American Jews, if their Judaism were to matter to them at all (he desperately hopes that it will matter a lot). And, he offered, “I have no idea what it means to be an American Jew.” Would he and his family have to join a synagogue? Raise the kids to be religious? Here in Tel Aviv, Jewishness requires neither of those things. It is as obvious, utterly taken-for-granted—and as different from Judaism in America—as it could be.

The form of Judaism on view here is certainly not religious in any traditional sense. I did a double-take of consternation a couple weeks ago when I saw ham and bacon on sale in a Jewish supermarket—a common sight at Safeway, of course, but not in Jerusalem, where I usually spend my time in Israel. Most of the cafes that abound in Tel Aviv are not kosher either. It is rare to see men wearing kippot on the street (chances are better on the Upper West Side). Synagogues, while numerous, are far from ubiquitous. Shabbat, too, has a very different feel. Food stores are open, though other shopping stops for the day. Bars and restaurants are jammed Friday night. The streets, with no busses running and many fewer cars than normal, are relatively quiet until sunset on Saturday. Shabbat is a time to visit with family, catch up on reading, perhaps go to the beach. Some people choose to go to shul. Shabbat here is not what it is in Jerusalem, but neither is it the same as Saturday in America.

That is the point, I think: the men and women who walked out to a sand dune north of Jaffa just over a century ago, with the aim of founding the world’s first Jewish city, have succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams—not just because hundreds of thousands of Jews now live in that city, but because those Tel Avivim inhabit a kind of Judaism that never existed before. I am not sure how viable this form of Judaism (let’s call it Tel Aviv) will prove, or how deep it goes into the self. I want neither to romanticize nor to dismiss it. Certainly, this mode of being Jewish does not seem to work for Israelis once they leave the Jewish homeland for places where Jews do not form the majority and Hebrew is not spoken all around. Nor does it seem to work at all for Diaspora Jews in North America and elsewhere. It requires the rich Jewish scene, the vibrant Hebrew language, the power of sheer day-to-day existence, of this place. Many Tel Avivim, of course, do not take advantage of the Jewish potential stored up in what Zionism has created. They settle for a Western (largely American) style of life that happens to be conducted in the Jewish homeland and in the Hebrew language. One can have good times in this great city, but perhaps—as in many great cities—at the cost of ignoring the poverty just a few blocks away. For others, though, a rich kind of Judaism has been created that is neither “religious” nor “secular.” Hanukkah points to three crucial elements of what that “more” might be.

First, awareness of history, which in this case is not the history of divine salvation or judgment but of Jewish human beings: the miracles performed by heroes and pioneers “in those days and in our time.” The hundreds of kids who gathered in the Tel Aviv port area for Hanukkah festivities the other evening sang songs like “Mi Yemalel,” celebrating Jewish victories and achievements. They also know, or soon will, about persecution, ghetto, and Holocaust. Commercials for Cadillacs will remind them why many Jews remain wary of German culture and German cars. They will learn that they are part of a worldwide people with a long history; that they are carrying on a story first told in the Bible. This history is present all around them. Yesterday, I heard a sing-song Hanukkah ditty on the radio with the words, “Hag sameah Hanukkah, am Yisra’el chai!” (“Happy Hanukkah Holiday! The people of Israel lives.”)

That is the key message of Israeli civil religion, in my view: the heart of Jewish commitment not just in Israel but for Jews around the world, and the second core element of Tel Aviv Judaism. Israelis find meaning, significance worth living and dying for, in the very fact of who and where they are. Continuing threats to Israel’s existence give that meaning reinforcement. Politicians exploit it shamelessly. Street life that elsewhere would be just that matters more here because it is Life and takes place on a Jewish street. Add the other elements of any culture—the arts, work-life, leisure-time pursuits, all of which take place here in the amazingly reborn Hebrew language. Mix in a generous dose of especially intense family relations, reflect on shared confrontation with army, bureaucracy, missiles, in-your-face fellow Israelis, and Jews from around the world, and one has a rich tapestry of Jewishness that, while hardly “religious,” is not without transcendence.

Finally, there is ethics. This morning I was watching Orly and Guy, a popular morning talk show, and found myself enthralled by a heated conversation over whether workers at a supermarket check-out counter might have been gossiping with one another rather than attending to customers because they are alienated from jobs that do not pay them a decent wage and employers who do not give them enough respect. Need I say that I have not heard such a discussion recently on American morning programs? Israelis, of course, have a long way to go in the area of social justice as of personal ethics, if they want their country to be an ethical “light unto the nations.” The distribution of wealth grows more and more unequal. Tens of thousands of African refugees crowd into south Tel Aviv. Palestinian Israelis suffer widespread discrimination. The health care system is severely underfunded. And yet there is so much good being done here, so much kindness and mutual concern, so many respects in which Israel is showing the way, “repairing the world” as Judaism wants Jews to do. This, too, is Tel Aviv.

I wish this form of Jewishness success, even as I hope more Israelis will take advantage of the somewhat different (but closely related) form of Jewishness, lately growing by leaps and bounds, that is neither Orthodox nor “secular” but Masorti, “traditional,” Conservative. I’m a Jew who loves the synagogue; thanks God daily for the opportunity to study Torah; cannot imagine life without Passover, Yom Kippur, and—perhaps Judaism’s greatest gift of all—Shabbat. I hope and trust that more and more Israelis will find ways not yet imagined of joining that set of commitments, shared with me and so many others, to the sort of Judaism unique to the Land of Israel. Just as my kind of Judaism, the kind we teach and model at JTS, is far more than “religious,” theirs is far more than “secular.” Our Judaisms meet in the space of Tel Aviv Hanukkah, knowing that great miracles have happened here of late, and more are yet to come.

From Toronto to Hollywood in Search of the Key to Jewish Cultural Survival

Author David Bezmozgis, in dialogue with me a few weeks ago before an overflow audience at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, put his finger on a basic point of Diaspora Jewish life that to my mind is too often skirted, ignored, or denied. Namely that “for a community to survive and thrive, there has to be something forward-looking or distinctive” at its core; for North American Jews, who are overwhelmingly secular, it is not at all clear what that “something” could be. Bezmozgis had only one candidate for the role: Hebrew language and a vibrant Jewish culture to which Hebrew is central. He was also clear about the implication of this truth for Jewish communal policy: either massive resources will go to education built around language and culture, enabling parents like him to afford sending their children to day schools if they wish, or the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in North America is bleak. The Jewish story in this Diaspora would soon come to an end.

I found myself quibbling with details of Bezmozgis’s formulations—after all, I am an American-born scholar of modern Judaism whose very being as a Jewish baby boomer is wrapped up in religious belief and practice, while he is a Russian-born writer of fiction who, as a member of Generation X, states flatly and without fanfare that he respects Jewish tradition but is entirely secular. Still, I agreed with most of Bezmozgis’s premises. We Jews of North America are trying to do what no previous Jewish community has done before, and that is to live fully in two civilizations. Jews like me want to be 100 percent American (or Canadian) and be Jewish through and through; we want to participate with all our hearts and minds in the society and culture of which Jews are an integral part, and we also want to be deeply engaged with, and anchored in, our Judaism: its texts, history, practices, and traditions.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, writing half a century ago, pronounced this effort an “experiment” that might well fail. Mordecai Kaplan, in his great work, Judaism as a Civilization (1934), extolled the virtues of living in two civilizations but conceded that the dominant civilization for American Jews would always be America’s, while Judaism would necessarily remain “subordinate.” Kaplan urged Jews to adopt Jewish names, promote Jewish arts, observe Jewish holidays and rituals, study Jewish history and texts, support Zionism and build strong communal organizations—much the same path that Bezmozgis advocated that evening in Toronto. The question in 1934—and still more in 2014—was whether this program for Jewish survival could work, and particularly, whether Jewish culture and community can hold together without the “glue” of religious belief and practice.

Sadly, I doubt that they can. The Pew report of 2013 laid bare the degree to which the great bulk of American Jews have come to take pride in their Jewish identity at the same time as they know next to nothing of Jewish history or tradition, practice few of the rituals that mark and perpetuate Jewish distinctiveness, fail to provide a decent Jewish education to their children, and are therefore—not surprisingly—disappearing from the ranks of Jewishness in record numbers. American civilization is utterly dominant in their lives. Judaism is entirely subordinate. Religious belief and practice, for most, are almost completely absent. Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, reanalyzing the raw data of the Pew report in a recent study, have demonstrated that there is vitality and hope in the non-Orthodox sector—and particularly in Conservative Judaism—but only when Jewish commitment is matched by serious Jewish education and “thick” participation in Jewish life.

I myself have been critical of the dichotomous distinction of “religious versus secular” precisely because Judaism is always much more than “religion” for Jews who care about it greatly. The word “secular” for its part does not do justice to the commitment of active, non-synagogue Jews such as Bezmozgis, in the shadow of the Holocaust and the presence of Israel, to spirituality, social justice, high standards of personal ethics, professional achievement, and collective Jewish survival. The community needs to act swiftly and decisively to do what needs doing to perpetuate the Judaism to which both sorts of Jews are devotedand to make it affordable.

Bezmozgis’s new novel, The Betrayers, portrays a Jew whose entire life—from discrimination in the Former Soviet Union, through emergence as a refusenik, subsequent betrayal to the KGB by a fellow Jew, and long imprisonment in the Gulag to eventual emigration to Israel, where he rises to prominence as a politician and cabinet minister who opposes the dismantling of West Bank settlements—is shaped, even determined, by the inescapable fact of his Jewishness. Baruch Kotler is Jewish in every fiber of his being, not least in the stern moralism that accompanies him even as he runs off on vacation with his mistress. Almost all of Kotler’s thoughts and actions can be found among non-Jews too, but the way they work together, the history and circumstances in which they play out, the languages in which they are expressed give Kotler the distinctive Jewish “something” that most contemporary American Jews lack. “For Benzion [Kotler’s Orthodox son], the God of Israel was the giver of the law. For Kotler, God and His Law merely provided inflection for the Jewish people. To be a Jew, one did not need to worship, only to be sufficiently inflected.” (p. 185)

I’m not sure how or if this could happen for Diaspora Jews who lack the think framework of Jewish observance lent force and meaning by active participation in a religious community. American and Canadian Jews do not live inside a distinctively Jewish time and space, nor do they speak (or dream in) a Jewish language. In the absence of those givens—which guaranteed the perpetuation of Jewish life for centuries and still do inside ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the borders of the Jewish State—it seems that only a powerful, “immersive” framework of Jewish education can do the job. That means either K–8 or K–12 education in first-rate day schools (such as the Schechter network) that bring soccer, Shakespeare, and chemistry into a vibrant Jewish reality every day, or comparably exciting and rigorous supplementary education that continues through high school and is complemented by immersive summer experiences in substantially Jewish camps such as Ramah. Day school plus camp is a still better solution, one that is already producing a significant percentage of the lay and professional leaders who will serve North American Jewish communities and individuals in the coming generation.

As if in comic coda to these reflections about Diaspora continuity spurred by my dialogue with Bezmozgis, I went to Cinema City in Jerusalem one recent motzei Shabbat to see This is Where I Leave You, a Hollywood presentation of shivah in contemporary America. The film could serve as exhibit number one for the Pew report’s case about the failings of what passes for Diaspora Jewish culture today. I know, I know: it’s a comedy, and should not be taken overly seriously. Precisely because it was so funny in spots, however—at times both well-acted and well-written—I could not help but see the film in the context of the issues raised by Bezmozgis. At the entrance to the shopping mall where the movie theater was located, a guard checked bags for suspicious objects. Outside, on the streets, Jerusalem was tense, but at the movies, on screen, Jane Fonda—as a non-Jewish widow—was telling her four adult children that their father’s dying wish was that they all sit shivah together. Relationships deepen or come unraveled over that intense week of mourning; profound as well as stupid things are said and done; the rabbi, a childhood friend of the youngest and least mature son, is regularly called “Boner” and touched playfully in his private parts in between attempts to clarify the rules of shivah and conduct dignified religious services. The Jane Fonda character confesses at the end that she had made up the story about her husband’s last wish. She knew shivah would prove a good idea for her family.

It does; the film in that sense honors a well-known tradition of Judaism, even as it shows the value of fidelity, respect, and love—all Jewish values, to be sure. It also takes intermarriage for granted and assumes near-total ignorance of and disinterest in Jewish practice and belief. The Pew report, remember, highlighted this very same combination of pride in being Jewish and lack of knowledge about what it means. Asked “what does it mean to be Jewish,” 42 percent said “having a good sense of humor,” right up there with “caring about Israel” and far above “being part of a Jewish community” or “observing Jewish law.”

I laughed a lot at the film, but the situation that it portrays, and to which Bezmozgis pointed in Toronto, is deadly serious for the life of the Jewish community in North America. “Are we serious about this?” Bezmozgis asked again and again, and I think that question is right on target. If we are, we will invest in Jewish education as never before; we will make “thick” Jewish experience of meaning and community available, compelling, and affordable to ever larger numbers of North American Jews.