Language, Culture, & School

Two articles from the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service caught our attention recently, in light of our upcoming event this Monday (see flier below for details). The event will explore issues facing dual language public schools -- institutions which might be viewed by some as vehicles to preserve and transmit cultural identities, while others would seek to minimize or oppose this goal since public schools ought to serve society as a whole, rather than individual cultural sub-groups. (A viewpoint from the perspective of promoting multiculturalism might not view these two goals as being in tension.)

BJPA didn't have these articles in mind while planning the event, but they're worth excerpting in advance of it.

Leon Wieseltier: Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

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The American Jewish community is the fi rst great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered. The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin... Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America, but most of it will certainly disappear...

In America, the first evidence of Jewish illiteracy occurs as early as 1761 and 1766, when Isaac Pinto published his translations of the liturgy into English. He was acting out of a sense of crisis, out of his feeling that Hebrew, as he put it, needed to “be reestablished in Israel.” Of the American Jewish community of his time, Pinto recorded that Hebrew was “imperfectly understood by many; by some, not at all.” In 1784, Haym Solomon found it necessary to address an inquiry in the matter of a certain inheritance to Rabbi David Tevele Schiff of the Great Synagogue in London, but the renowned Jewish leader could not write the Hebrew epistle himself, and so he enlisted the help of a local Jew from Prague. In 1818, at the consecration in New York of a building for the Shearith Israel synagogue, Mordecai Emanuel Noah observed that “with the loss of the Hebrew language may be added the downfall of the house of Israel.”...

Of course, I do not mean to deny the validity or the utility of translation, which was also a primary activity of Jewish intellectuals throughout the centuries... Translation has always represented an admirable realism about the actual cultural situation of the Jews in exile. Whatever the linguistic delinquencies of the Jews, their books must not remain completely closed to them. Better partial access than no access at all, obviously.

Moreover, we are American Jews; that is to say, we believe in the reality of freedom, and we are prepared to pay its price... The requirement that a Jew know a Jewish language is not a requirement that a Jew know only a Jewish language, and it is certainly not a requirement that a Jew express only one belief in only one means of expression... My question to the Jewish writer in America is not, what language can you write? My question is, what language can you read?...

Illiteracy is nothing less than a variety of blindness, and the vast majority of American Jews are blind. The extent of this blindness—and it is a willed blindness, a blindness that can be corrected—can be illustrated anecdotally. Here is a tale. Some years ago, the exiled president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was traveling around the United States in the hope of enlisting sympathy for his cause, and he went to New York for a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Now, in his youth Aristide had studied at a seminary in Jerusalem, and he happens to be fluent in Hebrew. It seemed entirely natural and right, in his view, to address the assembled representatives of the Jewish community in what he took to be their own tongue, or at least one of their tongues. And so he began to speak to our leaders in Hebrew. After a few minutes, the negidim rather sheepishly asked their distinguished non-Jewish guest if he could make his remarks in English, because they could not understand what he was saying...

All this is not justifiable. It represents a breathtaking communitywide irresponsibility. Between every generation, not only in circumstances of war but also in circumstances of peace, much is always lost. Only a small fraction of the works of the human spirit ever survives the war against time, but the quantity of the Jewish tradition that is slipping through our fingers in America is unprecedented in our history. And it is the illiteracy of American Jewry that makes it complicit in this oblivion.

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Adam R. Gaynor: Beyond the Melting Pot: Finding a Voice for Jewish Identity in Multicultural American Schools

For the better part of a century, integration has characterized the Jewish experience in America, but modern Jewish education struggles to reverse that trend by separating Jewish youth from their non-Jewish peers and herding them into the walls of our communal institutions. This model ignores a particularly acute demographic reality: most American Jews no longer affiliate with the communal institutions in which Jewish learning takes place. Consequently, this article posits that the key to providing high-quality Jewish education with the majority of Jewish students, who do not access Jewish learning or intensive Jewish experiences, is to reach them in the multicultural environments in which they live and learn daily. More specifically, I argue that we need to create, support, and replicate programs that are integrated elements of school communities, the places in which Jewish kids and young adults spend the majority of their time...

...It is worthwhile to note that although Jews are well represented and largely successful in universities and schools, Jewish content is generally absent. Often, when Jewish content is integrated into curricula, Jews and Jewish culture are portrayed as obsolete. Jewish content most often appears in courses about Bible, representing ancient Jewish history, or about the Holocaust, representing Jewish victimization. For Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, the implicit message conveyed through these choices (in the absence of other content) is that Jewish culture lacks contemporary relevance. When prominent Jews, such as Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, and Bella Abzug, are studied, the fact of their Jewishness and its impact on their work remain unexplored. On occasion, Jews emerge in elective courses about the Middle East, but are often portrayed as a monolithic and imperialist group. The diversity of Jewish opinions about the Middle East and the complex modern history of Jewish identities and communities that have affected this topic remain unexamined...

Historically, the problem of representation in educational institutions and curricula is not unique to Jews. For traditionally marginalized and disempowered groups such as communities of color, women, gays and lesbians, and all combinations thereof, the problems described above have existed to a greater or lesser degree for centuries. However, for several decades now, other historically disempowered communities have increasingly seen themselves reflected in the curricular and extracurricular programming of public and private schools on the primary, secondary, and university levels; there is no good reason why Jewish students cannot see themselves reflected in these spaces as well...

Multicultural education has had a profound impact on the contemporary educational landscape, particularly following periods of intense student activism in the late 1960s and early 1990s. In concert with feminist theory, it has brought significant attention to the histories and literature of people of color and women through curricular enrichment and the founding of specialized, interdisciplinary departments at colleges; it has led to the diversification of faculty and student bodies; it has forced schools and colleges to reconsider discriminatory policies; and it has increased faculty professional development on cross-cultural teaching that can lead to improved achievement (Tatum, 2003). However, except for the recent growth of Jewish Studies courses and departments, Jewish content is still nearly absent from curricula, and Jewish culture is largely ignored by student services offices...

Ironically, it is the Jewish community’s own resistance to multicultural education that has prevented our inclusion in educational curricula... Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century were fierce proponents of public education; unlike Catholic immigrants who opted for parochial education in large numbers, Jews valued public schools as a route toward acculturation (Krasner, 2005). Jews have also been fierce defenders of the separation between church and state and have supported the exclusion of religion as a census category. Jews embraced the universalism of the Enlightenment, which was reinvented in the melting pot motif, as a ticket to achieve unprecedented success in America. For many Jews, multiculturalism theoretically threatened the universalism that facilitated this achievement...

The prevailing, isolationist model of Jewish education that pulls students out of their everyday lives and separates them from their peers has not inspired significant participation. Sometimes, separating and feeling grounded as a group are important, and we should honor those needs. However, if we are to inspire Jewish students to feel invested in their Jewishness, then Jewish learning has to imbue their everyday lives with meaning. The key to doing this is through high-quality Jewish education in the multicultural environments in which they live and learn daily. Our aim should be to create, support, and replicate programs that are integrated elements of students’ schools, the communities in which they spend most of their time. Multicultural education is the practical framework for this approach.

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And don't miss the event this Monday:

flier

Podcast: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests

Ruth Wisse

This was easily our most provocative event to date.

On Monday, December 5th, Prof. Ruth Wisse and Rabbi Joy Levitt joined BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the NYU Law School for a wide-ranging, passionate, broad discussion of how the Jewish community should relate to the outside world.

After a brief ceremony honoring Gail Chalew for her 20+ years as editor of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (the digitization of which on BJPA was the impetus for the event), Rabbi Levitt spoke of her decisions, as Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, to reach out to non-Jewish poor and minority communities, as well as the Muslim community leaders affiliated with the Cordoba Center / Park 51 "Ground Zero mosque" now known as Prayer Space. Prof. Wisse spoke of Israel under attack and an American Jewish community lacking in moral confidence, and judging Judaism based on liberal standards instead of liberalism based on Jewish standards. Our fearless leader, Prof. Cohen, acted as moderator, but without setting aside his own positions on the issues.

Click here to listen.

The Israeli Ad Campaign and Some Essential Truths

(Cross-posted at Makom.)

The imbroglio over these videos should not obscure some essential truths.

One is that massive numbers of American Jewish people and families are indeed being lost to the Jewish People, both through cultural challenges and to the downstream impact of intermarriage, as it seems that less than 10% of the grandchildren of marriages between Jews and non-Jews identify as Jews.

Second, the Israeli Jewish public is convinced that high levels of assimilation characterize American Jewry.

Third, that perception is a matter of national pride among Israelis, one rooted very deeply in the classic Zionist ideology that undergird the Yishuv and then the State in its early days.

There’s a flip side. American Jews are convinced that Israelis exhibit tendencies that are anti-democratic, super ethnocentric, excessively nationalistic, and borderline theocratic (some Israelis would agree). For their part, Israeli Jews take offense when American Jews give voice to their critique of Israeli society.

In short, (many) Israeli Jews think American Jewry is excessively universalist and cosmopolitan. And (some) American Jews think that Israeli Jewish society is excessively particularist and parochial.

A good and honest dialogue around these issues would be helpful and healthy. We Jews, despite our cultural penchant for discourse and disputation, haven’t quite figured out how to conduct that dialogue.

36 x (<36) = The Jewish Week

36

The New York Jewish Week has released its fourth annual list of 36 Under 36. Behold the next generation of Hebrew hotshots, "dedicated lay leaders who are reordering our legacy organizations alongside community activists and social justice crusaders whose startups are chock-full of innovation."

BJPA's growing horde of documents (now over 11,000!) includes some publications by the mighty 36, but of course, given the fact that some of these rising stars are still early in their careers (perhaps more accurately described as protostars, or even nebulae) the pickings are more limited than would be the massive pile of publications we would have to feature if the Jewish Week had profiled 72 Over 72. (Gary Rosenblatt, if by some chance you're reading thisI think 72 Over 72 would actually be a great feature.)

Anyway, here's what we've got from the latest lamed-vavniks:

 From Matt Bar, Bible Rapper (31), we have (unsurprisingly) "Bible Raps: All Tatted Up"

From Forward opinion editor Gal Beckerman (34), we have a gloss on a gloss on a Mishnah. (See the bottom of the PDF download.)

From Arabic scholar, education junkie, and Renaissance Woman Elisabeth Cohen (26), we have an argument in favor of argument.

Finally, from Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, human rights activist, we have an article about the cost of kashrut and another about the institution of the kitchen.

As for the other 32 leaders of tomorrow, we say: get writing the next generation of Jewish policy documents for us to post! (And upload your policy-relevant material using our user upload feature.)

Interview: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, President of the Jewish Life Network / Steinhardt Foundation, sat down with BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and discussed his vision of an American Jewish community in which it is expected that Jewish young adults will give one or two years of service, either to the Jewish community or to a population in need.

Watch on YouTube, or below:

Jewish Camping: Cohen's Comments

In the latest installment of Cohen's Comments, BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen says two new studies prove the benefits of Jewish camping, both for overnight camps and for day camps. Watch below, or on YouTube.

Jewish Jews Need Jewish Friends - Cohen's Comments

BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen says you just can't "do Jewish" without a Jewish social network. Any opportunity for young Jews to make Jewish friends is ipso facto a critical component of Jewish education.

Watch the video below, or on YouTube.

Next month, BJPA will be partnering with New CAJE in presenting a webinar on this topic:

More Jewish Friends: the Key to a Jewish Future
Wed., March 16, 2011 - 6:30 pm EST

More information will follow as the date of the webinar approaches.

Proliferating Hebrew Language Charter Schools

The Jewish Week has two separate stories on Hebrew language charter schools today, covering one in Bergen County and one (proposed) in Harlem.

It is easy enough to find reasons for being concerned about this trend; how can Jewish religion be kept from creeping into the curriculum, tearing down the wall between church and state? If, on the other hand, that wall is somehow well-maintained, then will not Jewish children whose parents choose the schools as free alternatives to Jewish day school find that their children’s education is far less complete than that offered at a day school, bereft (as it must be) of Jewish values, ideas, messages and meanings?

In an exchange in the Forward in February 2010, Richard D. Kahlenberg raises precisely the former objection: “Using public funds for schools that cater to specific groups dangerously undercuts the unifying purpose of public education,” he writes. In the same exchange, Rabbi Irving Greenberg raises the latter objection: "The problem with charter schools,” he writes, “is that to qualify for government funding, the community must strip out the Jewish content, religion, values and advocacy from the educational program. I fear that such schools will fail to transmit Jewish identity.” Rabbi Greenberg does concede that these schools might “succeed when supplemented with Hebrew school education or Jewish camping. Therefore, I favor this experiment.” Still, he concludes, “the most likely outcome is that charter schools will teach language but lose the identity battle.”

Peter Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla Charter School, writes (in the same exchange) that

A Hebrew-English charter school education is not a day school education. However, a student completing a K-12 Hebrew-English charter school would have a strong, deep and intellectually based Hebrew language, history and culture education. That student would also have had the opportunity to easily enhance his or her religious education outside the public school setting.

I think these schools are tremendously exciting. Jewish education has many components, but if one component had to be chosen as the keystone and crown jewel, surely Hebrew language skills must be it; Hebrew opens the door to the vast majority of all other Jewish learning. Rabbi Greenberg is right that a Hebrew education would be an incomplete Jewish education, but think what texts could be presented in a supplementary school (or camp) if the students came in with solid, practiced Hebrew reading skills. That there is a significant trade-off cannot be denied, but life is full of such choices. Different families and sectors of the community will face them differently, which is one more reason to include this new choice on the menu of options.

Consider also the benefits to the Jewish community of having a significant number of non-Jewish students learn Hebrew and Jewish history and culture. Non-Jewish parents, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to see their children learn a legendary language with a fascinating literature, the classical form of which is of massive importance to Western history – a language which was once (in earlier, stuffier eras) de rigueur for the complete education, alongside Latin and Greek. The idea that such schools, as Kahlenberg puts it, “cater to specific groups” is certainly true in the sense that Jews are primarily advancing such schools, and Jews might primarily take advantage of them. But non-Jewish students would have their academic and intellectual lives enriched just as surely by such schools as would Jewish students.

Another aspect of the potential benefits of these charter schools is indicated by the work of BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein of Tel Aviv University in a chapter in the new volume 5 of the International Handbook of Jewish Education. The chapter, entitled Jewish Identity: Who You Knew Affects How You Jew, argues

that Jewish education, like all forms of education that take place in a social context, exerts its impact in part by creating, sustaining, and reinforcing Jewish friendships. And we need to recognize that Jewish friendships, apart from Jewish education, exert an independent effect upon adult Jewish identity outcomes... The impact of Jewish education can be augmented by the creation and sustenance of strong Jewish social networks. If so, then mere Jewish association... can play a valuable role in building Jewish social networks, Jewish community, and lifelong Jewish engagement... These circumstances, then, argue for a broadening of the very concept of “Jewish education” to embrace the formation and bestowal of Jewish social networks.

If Cohen and Veinstein are correct, then the mere fact that Hebrew language charter schools will attract substantial numbers of Jewish students will have positive effects not only upon Hebrew skills, but upon Jewish identity as well -- even if Jewish identity is studiously never "preached." Furthermore, Jewish parents who want their children to have a genuinely diverse group of friends would be able to choose a school that included substantial numbers of Jews, and substantial numbers of non-Jews, serving the students' Jewish and American/democratic identities simultaneously.

What do you think? Can Hebrew language charter schools satisfy the demands of living in a diverse democracy? For Jewish families, will these schools supplement Jewish religious education, or destroy it by being treated as a replacement?

Generation Gap?

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs recently published an interview with BJPA director Steven M. Cohen as part of their Changing Jewish Community Series. In that piece, Cohen shares reflections from his decades of work in Jewish demography, with a particular focus on what 'younger Jews' (under 40 - being Jewish is like drinking the fountain of youth, is there another community so generous in its definition of young?) are like today.

The interview contains a lot of tidbits that probably won't surprise people - younger Jews tend to feel less attached to Zionism and Israel, tend to place a lower value on denominational and ideological affiliation, to resist coercive expectations, to more highly value choice and individuality, and to place emphasis on Jewish principles and culture rather than Jewish security.

But one of the more unusual and most interesting aspects of the interview is Prof. Cohen's self-reflectiveness as a baby boomer looking outside and forwards from his own generation.

"In the year 2000, together with Arnold Eisen, now chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary [JTS], I had written The Jew Within.[2] It explained how our generation, the Baby Boomers, differed from that of our parents who came of age during the Depression. After finishing the book, I honestly thought that American Judaism had taken individualism to the most extreme form possible. I couldn't imagine that there could be even further growth of this version of American Jewish individualism.

The idea that baby boomers see/saw themselves as the pinnacle of civilization is a common enough critique. Is Professor Cohen's apparent conclusion that the next generation has done a similar thing as his own, only taken it further, another instance of that, or its opposite?

Given my own background and the way I view such matters, I regard the current younger generations as extending the principles of the Jewish sovereign self that Arnold Eisen and I first described in The Jew Within. They are extending and elaborating the major elements we discerned: autonomy, volunteerism, personalism, nonjudgmentalism, and journeyism. As I said earlier, I just could not imagine anyone taking those principles any further. It never occurred to me that the next generation would, albeit with firm and passionate Jewish commitment, take the principles of individualism and sovereign self even further than we had observed among Boomer types in the mid-nineties.

Studies of secular society have shown that there is in fact less of a generation gap between the boomers (especially later boomers) and their children than there had been between the boomers and their own parents. Cohen's interview notes that a lot of the support for the new kind of Jewish ritual, work and culture that the younger generation is creating comes from established Jewish organizations. Interestingly, too, the younger generation often agrees with the boomers that the boomers did it (whatever it is) better!

If we accept Cohen's view of the situation as the younger generation following in the Boomers' footsteps (just perhaps further and faster), it does create an interesting paradox. On the one hand, this younger generation is in continuity with the Boomers, and on the other, Cohen posits that every generation tends to see itself in opposition with preceding ones:

Each wave of Jewish innovation sees itself as at once alienated from its predecessors, bringing more excitement to Jewish life, setting new norms, and overcoming unnecessary boundaries. I'm sure the founders of B'nai B'rith, Hadassah, Young Israel, and the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] all saw themselves that way. Certainly, my generation saw its elders' Jewish ways as alien, bland, and boring, and coercive around the wrong issues.

In terms of the new generation's 'alienation from its predecessors,' Cohen presents an ABC of critiques:

A stands for alienation, in that younger Jews feel alienated from conventional and longstanding Jewish institutions, customs, practices, and so forth. B refers to the sense that they find established institutional life bland and boring. It seems predictable in tone and content and populated by a predictable demographic of upper-middle-class, middle-aged, in-married, family people. C refers to the coercive features of Jewish life, especially its strong preference for in-marriage and seemingly unquestioning support for the state of Israel. And D stands for divisive. Younger Jews see their parents' generation sharply dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from other Jews - such as along denominational lines - putatively Jewish culture from non-Jewish culture, and Jewish institutional turf from non-Jewish turf.

So which is it? Are we in line with our parents but just don't like to see it? Were the Boomers less out of line with their parents than they thought? In terms of Jewish innovation, where does the creation of the Federation system in the very early 1900s fit in? The massive organizational effort behind early Zionism? The very creation of the denominations/movements which we're now innovating away from? Are we actually moving in some direction, or just responding to the successive cultural situations in which we find ourselves, and playing out our parent issues in the mean time? Does it always make sense to talk about trends in generational terms?

Peoplehood

Suddenly there was a voice from the corner of the room. An Israeli, part of the contingent of soldiers who joined the group for five days, spoke in halting English: "Don't you understand? If there were a war in America against the Jews, I'd fight for you. The people of Sderot-- they are our people. We are one people."

That's the vision of Jewish peoplehood - and of Zionism - that I was raised with. As a youngish North-American-raised Jew, sentiments like these seem to put me firmly in the minority.

At least, that's the impression one gets from the discussions in the BJPA and the UJA-Federation of New York Commission on the Jewish People's four part seminar on "Interrogating Jewish Peoplehood," held over the course of 2010. In the context of an urgent anxiety about the future of Judaism in general and the American Jewish community in particular, a group of committed, and mostly older, Jewish leaders discussed their understandings of the notion of Jewish peoplehood and how that notion can or should or will be played out in the next and coming generations.

At the conclusion of the seminar, Clare Hedwat, Planning Manager of the Commission, produced a report that summarizes and reflects on some of the content, questions, and conclusions that arose over the course of these conversations. The quote above frames the report.

It is fitting that the report would open on that note since the issue of the Jewish state, its meaning for young Jews and the meaning and consequences of the rift between generations on the proper role of Israel in Jewish identity and activity runs throughout the report:

We fail as a community if we unwittingly ask the younger generation to make a choice between universalism and particularist Jewish concerns. If we ask young people to decide between the two, intentionally or otherwise, we are not guaranteed they will stay within our pews. 

Our greatest communal challenge lies with those who don’t care enough, don’t know enough or are too turned off to voice any opinion at all. JStreet does not constitute a problem of Jewish peoplehood. J Streeters voice criticism of Israel: put simply, they take Israel seriously enough to critique and aspire to change. The real problem for Jewish Peoplehood in our time is presented by those who totally reject the notion that the Jewish People or the state of Israel has any claim whatsoever on them. In our conversation, Prof. Steven M. Cohen referred to such Israel-rejectionists with the rabbinic term, Rasha, referring to the wicked son in the haggadah who claims to see no value in Judaism’s precepts and commandments.

The issue of Jewish responsibility to the Jewish state, Israel, flows into a discussion of responsibility to the Jewish "nation,"... beginning with a Biblical passage about the Gadites and the Reubenites and how they came to participate in the conquest of the land of Israel without coming to permanently settle there. And so even the scriptural-based discussion of what it means to be on the inside of the Jewish/not-Jewish boundary and Jewish responsibility to Jews is, at least, framed by the relationship of the People to the Land.

In the scheme of history, the decades since the founding of Israel constitute the shortest blip. But whatever combination it is of the prevalance of concern with Israel (whether positively or negatively) in the American Jewish community and the thousands of years of religious tradition connecting the People to the Land scripturally and liturgically, it seems nearly impossible to talk about the notion of Jewish peoplehood apart from the Jewish land, even when the mission statement of the seminar barely referred to that whole can of worms at all.

The other theme that arose was kinship and family - the idea that our connection to each other as Jews can best be understood,and presumably emotionally experienced, the way we experience and accept the notion of family.

We may question aspects of Israeli society without doubting the inherent link between Israel and world Jewry and the responsibility we have to Israel as a Jewish people. On the other hand, we intuitively understand that Messianic Jews (who believe in Jesus), or Jews who do not recognize the state of Israel, are effectively ‘outside’ of the family and the Jewish peoplehood conversation. Halachically speaking, one cannot “de- Jew” oneself. In terms of Jewish peoplehood, we are able to identify those who have removed themselves from normative discourse on issues pertaining to the Jewish nation. As David Mallach noted, we recognize what peoplehood is not. As Rabbi Gordon Tucker elaborated, we understand the implications of kinship.

It does seem true that we viscerally understand the implications of kinship. But modernity is also challenging the notion that 'you can't choose your family.' Our understandings of family, both cultural and legal, don't necessarily seem static enough to rely on even as a metaphor. And too, how much work can a posited shared emotional 'understanding' do in making connections among Jews, if not defining them?

The report concludes, as many good Jewish efforts do, with the promise of more questions and more talk:

Perhaps the greatest challenge as posed by the series is how to provide venues in which the conversation can continue, and how we may channel them in ways that provide new directions in which we may work, increasing the opportunities of engagement with Jewish peoplehood in relevant and creative ways.

I do get the sense that in the mean time, at least, we do seem stuck being the People Israel, and the people of Israel - but of course that may well be due to my bias because of the emotional standpoint where my particular Jewish family experience  has stood me.

The full report is available on BJPA, as are more resources on Jewish peoplehood, Israel-Diaspora relations, and Jewish attachment to Israel.

 

 

Jewish American sensibilities, Priv-lit, and Mussar

Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen recently wrote about "The American Jewish Revival of Mussar" for the Institute of Advanced Cultural Studies at the University of Virginia.

To summarize and paraphrase all too quickly, the Mussar movement arose in the early-mid 1800s. It emphasized the development of personal virtue as a Jewish religious value, asking practitioners to devote time and energy to introspection, self-criticism, and the development of a position of humility and service. The original movement was largely wiped out by the Holocaust, but it has recently experienced a revival in the United States, and largely among the non-Orthodox community.

In discussing the attractions and challenges that Mussar holds for modern Jews, Claussen repeatedly refers to the 1998 study, "The Jew Within: Self, Community, and Commitment Among the Variety of Moderately Affiliated," by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen. On the one hand, the personal and individualistic nature of Mussar practice resonate with some of the common values that, the study found, are common among modern and particularly young Jews. On the other hand, the demand for personal sacrifice and subjugation of the individual will to the greater values found in the religious tradition seem to go against the grain of many of the modern tools for personal development - therapy, self-help, empowerment, etc.

Bitch Magazine recently published an emphatic critique of some of these current trends in personal development (particularly focused on women). In "Eat, Pray, Spend", Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown coin the term "priv-lit" to refer to a certain corpus of modern publishing, encompassing books like the personal memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" to, well, most of Oprah (according to the authors). They criticize a culture that seems to conflate consumerism and personal development, that seems to place an obligation of happiness/personal development on women - an obligation that requires the expenditure of, in these times, increasingly scarce personal income, and which seems to offer personal development as a commodity to a privileged class that can afford to pay for therapy, yoga, and travel.

If there are Jews who are feeling a need for personal actualization and individualistic Jewish practice/identity, and who are also either poor-to-poorish, or riding anti-consumerist trends (and there do seem to be!) the Mussar movement, with its humble, personal approach to virtue-building and character development, seems like it could be a great vehicle for engaging the 'moderately affiliated.'

The Mussar Institute offers a 13 lesson 'Season of Mussar' program for $100 - whether that's more expensive commoditizing of personal development or a cheap investment (that pays overworked and underpaid Jewish professionals) for personal development depends where exactly along the spectrum of wealth/anti-consumerism one stands. In any case, the philanthropic wealth that currently supports all kinds of efforts to engage Jews and support Jewish continuity could probably make opportunities like this (and others) go quite a long way. Perhaps there are some issues about the commoditization of the mussar movement for Jewish outreach to be considered - but maybe it would be good for all of us anyway.