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

Posted on Dec 04, 2014

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.