Fein & Cohen to Yoffie: Let Secular Jews Be Secular

yoffie-cohen-fein

Responding a HuffPo column by Rabbi Eric Yoffie (former President of the Union for Reform Judaism) entitled "The Self-Delusions of Secular Jews", Leonard Fein and BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen pen a defense of secular/cultural Judaism, also in the Huffington Post. Excerpts:

Secular Jews, Yoffie claims, regard themselves as "people of reason and not of faith, as champions of modernity rather than slaves to some concept of God or other outmoded patterns of belief." They seek to "throw off the oppressive power of the past."... Yoffie's description of so-called secular Jews rather closely mirrors the tradition of Reform Judaism....

True, some cultural or secular Jews can be dismissive of faith, if by faith we mean God-oriented belief. But nothing prevents honorable people from adhering to a faith pointed in other directions. One may, for example, have faith in the improvability of humankind, or in progress as the underlying cadence of the universe...

In our experience, secular Judaism is very far from withering, much less dying. Quite the contrary: A large number of Jews find Jewish identification and involvement in an entirely comfortable mode even if it is, in their view, more cultural than religious. Indeed, asked about how they define themselves in a national survey of American Jews sponsored by the Workmen's Circle and conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, just 13 percent checked "to a great extent" when asked whether they were religious Jews. By contrast, slightly more - 16 percent -- called themselves secular Jews, and a hefty 36 percent saw themselves as cultural Jews...

Yoffie wants us to believe that "values such as social justice, hospitality and mentschlichkeit (decency) ... are grounded in the sacred texts of Jewish religious tradition and ... have endured solely because of the authority that the religious tradition imposes." He does not recognize that by now these values have momentum on their own, that their derivation may be interesting to historians and theologians, but are of very little interest to their practitioners, including the thousands of Jewish social activists who champion the social and economic justice causes of labor, civil rights, peace, freedom, human rights, feminism and, most recently, environmentalism.

Yoffie complains that these allegedly faithless secular Jews continue to assemble in synagogues and to undertake acts of family life and communal celebration that are either explicitly religious or that radiate with the power of deep faith. Indeed, he may be drawing upon his familiarity with his own Reform movement. In the same survey we find that of those identifying as Reform, just 6 percent (6 percent!) see themselves as religious Jews "to a great extent." Among the same Reform Jews three times as many (18 percent) see themselves as secular, and nearly seven times as many (41 percent) call themselves cultural Jews.

The self-ascribed definitions as religious, cultural and secular blend into one another. Most who see themselves as at least somewhat religious also see themselves as equally cultural. In fact, about 40 percent of all American Jews call themselves both at least somewhat religious and at least somewhat cultural. These blurry and fuzzy patterns stand in stark contrast with Yoffie's binary view of the world, one which sharply divides the faithful from the faithless...

One wonders if Yoffie has taken to relating to cultural and secular Jews the way Orthodox Jews have often related to Reform, asserting a claim to authentic Torah-true Judaism and dismissing the distinctive virtues of the stubbornly ignorant and resistant others. Just as some Orthodox leaders can't let Reform Jews be Reform, Rabbi Yoffie can't let cultural Jews be cultural.

Yoffie wants to make claims about Judaism's authentic roots. We prefer to give primacy to Judaism's wonderfully varied branches. One of those branches is Reform Judaism, Yoffie's obvious favorite; but just as assuredly, another is secular or cultural Judaism. And it is a great pity that Yoffie cannot being himself to acknowledge the authenticity of that sensibility, much less its transcendent (shall we say, religious?) quality. And it is an even greater pity, if not irony, that one of the most articulate and compelling advocates of religious pluralism cannot bring himself to celebrate the virtues and distinctiveness embodied in pluralistic cultural and secular approaches to being Jewish not only in America, but in Israel and the world as well.

 Read the entire piece here.

BJPA publications by Leonard Fein.

BJPA publications by Steven M. Cohen

BJPA publications by Eric Yoffie

Judaism as a Consumer Good?

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Writing for eJewish Philanthropy, I react to two Forward articles this summer by David Bryfman and Noam Neusner. Excerpt:

Bryfman argues that giving away major Jewish experiences for free devalues those experiences. “Why would people want to pay for a Jewish experience,” he writes, “if… they can get Jewish products for free? And for a community that prides itself on wanting people to become more responsible, invested and committed, the very notion that we are prepared to give away things sends a mixed message…"

But what is it, exactly, that we want Jews to value? Is it specific “Jewish experiences”, or the Jewish experience, writ large? If the latter, then we shouldn’t fear devaluing individual programs; they’re the means, not the end...

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, whom Bryfman quotes regarding the strange things people will do when something is free, also writes about a different problem which perfectly describes the trouble with Bryfman’s approach. In his book Predictably Irrational, Ariely writes: “we live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules. The social norms… are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required… The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different… The exchanges are sharp-edged … When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for – that’s just the way it is.” Ariely illustrates the absurdity of confusing these worlds with the example of paying your mother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. Bryfman’s article makes this mistake, consigning Judaism to the world of market norms, when social norms are better-suited to meaningful Jewish commitment. Social norms do not preclude financial contribution, but Jewish communal contributions should be more like a married couple pooling their salaries for groceries, and less like a crowd of strangers ordering their own lunches. If this vision seems naïve, that’s because too many Jews lack a familial commitment to the Jewish people. Trying to change that by charging more fees is like trying to get kids to appreciate family dinners by having grandma collect admission at the door.

Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

 The question of whether or not it's a good idea to treat Judaism as a market commodity is (naturally) not new. Here are some other publications of interest on this topic:

Understanding the Jewish Community Center Marketplace: A Celebration of Volunteerism and the Voluntary Process (1982) David Esekenazi:

Our agencies are heading into a very difficult period, largely because there are (and will almost certainly continue to be) fewer Jews. We will be going after a shrinking and a changing market. We will increasingly compete with other vendors who (in the minds of many of our potential customers) offer similar products.

Esekenazi changed his mind somewhat six years later, in Revisiting the Jewish Community Center Marketplace:

Some years ago in this Journal I argued for the need to redirect our normal noncompetitive perspective and move more in the direction of competing with "other vendors . . . [who], in the minds of many of our potential customers, offer similar products." In that article, I embraced the field of marketing as one of the most promising means of helping JCCs to better compete in the increasingly competitive and open marketplace. While I have not shut my eyes to the marketplace reality, I now wonder about the wisdom with which input from the field of marketing is being incorporated by many not-for-profit agencies. With hindsight, I would counsel more caution today in terms of how marketing ought to be used in a JCC. Unfortunately, I did not adequately consider at that time the effects of marketing upon basic institutional purpose, nor did I adequately distinguish in my own mind the fundamental differences between what I refer to in this article as "method" and "purpose."

Markets and More? (2001). Shari Cohen:

Surely any discussion of religion in public life needs to address the inexorable reach of commercialization into every aspect of human existence. We need to consider whether shopping and working are replacing social activism, civic duty or religious ritual as the boundaries between the roles of the customer, citizen, congregant and employee shift... By looking at five main areas – the market’s monopolization of our time and attention, its increasing role in creating our loyalties and identifications, its shaping of our modes of thinking about individual choice, work’s place in our lives, and the ways in which business might involve itself in critical aspects of social change – we can begin to sketch the crucial implications of these trends for independent thought, ethical sensibilities, collective action and human expression.

The Jewish Marketplace (2004). Chava Weissler

As we know, American Jewry is struggling with the decline of traditional loyalties to congregation and community. Like other Americans, Jews live in a commodity culture, in which consumption is the main means of self-expression. There is a realization that Judaism resembles other leisure commodities offered to consumers in the marketplace, and is judged by similar criteria...

Missing: the Vision and the Values (2004). Andrew Silow-Carroll:

[D]espite experience with marketing, Jewish communal institutions don’t seem very good at it. While some individual advertisements and campaigns have been clever or appealing, they always seem to address short-term goals: How do we get you to come to this service? How can we entice you into enrolling in this course, or give to this campaign? This exemplifies a “product-driven” model of Jewish life, as if our institutions offer only discrete services to consumers. What is often missing from Jewish communal marketing is a reflection of the bedrock vision of the institution behind the ad — the core values and purposes that the institution hopes to share with its members.

Advertising Judaism (2004). David Nelson:

Why do so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the “commercialization” (by which we mean the selling) of Judaism? Some people feel that “selling” and “advertising” connote cheapness and lack of inherent worth. Should we sell Judaism like potato chips? Wouldn’t that cheapen and commodify our sense of Judaism? People don’t give up their lives, or stake their children’s future, on commodities. But there are also ads for universities and hospitals, ads to discourage drug use, or smoking, or to encourage people to use public libraries. These ads represent institutions and causes that affect our survival and our ultimate welfare. And they advertise because we live in a very crowded marketplace of ideas, images, and products.

Marketing Undermines Judaism (2004). Jay Michaelson:

To “market” Judaism, as Andrew Silow- Carroll and David Nelson suggest, contradicts exactly what makes Judaism worthwhile. Consumption co-opts our loves and energies to enhance our selfish desire (the yetzer hara), but Jewish practice reins in our selfish desire so that we can love and serve better. Marketing asks us to sublimate yearning into consumerism; Judaism asks us to restrain our consumerism and open up to yearning...

I know that some say we have to be “realistic.” We live in a society of constant marketing, they say, and to not participate will make Judaism a religion without adherents. And Judaism has always marketed itself, from the original purpose of the Hanukkah menorah to Chabad’s use of it in American public squares. But we undermine Judaism by dumbing it down, dressing it up as “cool” or oversimplifying what Silow-Carroll calls the Jewish vision of “success.” We can and should invite Jews to learn about and love their tradition. But to treat Judaism as something to be consumed is to start down a spiritual path on the wrong foot. A real religious life is not something that one buys or sells. If Judaism is to transform, it will require full participation, a yearning heart. If you can buy it, it’s not holy.

Most relevant to Neusner's article is this Sh'ma article from just this February: Synagogue Membership: What's the Deal? Sara Moore Litt:

[I]f you are a Jewish consumer looking for value in any traditional cost/benefit sense, don’t join a synagogue. It is expensive and you can get almost all the benefits synagogues purport to offer members either for free or at a much lower cost if you buy them a la carte... But what keeps all of us renewing our memberships despite the complaints is that we have found a place where we can confront the central questions of our existence. When that happens, the synagogue becomes a place where we connect to something larger than ourselves — to our community, to ideas that can transform our world, and even to a transcendent experience. If you join that kind of synagogue, membership dues are a bargain and not a burden. They become, in consumer language, a value proposition. These intangible benefits of membership are the only ones that make the high dollar cost of being a synagogue member “worth it.” Anything less is a bad deal.

Slope-Slippage, Patrilineality, & Conservative Judaism

In the Forward, David A.M. Wilensky, a patrilineal Jew, shares his story of undergoing a Conservative movement conversion so his Conservative congregation would accept him as Jewish, and argues that he ought not to have needed to do so:

...It’s an intolerable, unsustainable situation. I don’t begrudge Orthodoxy its understanding of Jewish law — it is what it is. Conservative Judaism is another story. If Reform Judaism weren’t the largest denomination, the argument that it has irreparably torn asunder the Jewish community in accepting patrilineals might carry some weight. In the real America, though, Reform is the largest movement and the majority of American Jews don’t belong to any Jewish denomination. In my experience, these harder to categorize Jews couldn’t care less about my mom.

The Conservative rabbinate protests that it cannot recognize patrilineal descent because that would violate its understanding of Jewish law. Coming from people who drive to services on the Sabbath, that reeks. When reality, reason and the changing worldview of the Jews in the pews have called, the Conservative movement has managed to trot out new Halacha that changes the previously unchangeable.

Essentially, Wilensky makes the classic slippery slope argument, but from the pro-slip side. It's a powerful argument, the basis for which accords (as Wilensky acknowledges) with an Orthodox understanding of the ideological topography. I don't envy Conservative leaders who want to maintain status quo -- they have the task of persuading their right flank in the movement that the slope won't slip, and their left flank that it oughtn't.

Browse Conservative/Masorti Judaism on BJPA...

Our Reader's Guide to Conservative Judaism...

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

...

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

Envisioning Jewish Diversity

Yavilah McCoy

My great-grandmother, who is still alive, was the daughter of an enslaved African. My other great-grandmother, who took the name “Naomi,” was the first in my maternal family line to investigate the spiritual possibilities of Judaism and take steps toward Jewish practice.

Yavilah McCoy discussed Jewish diversity and her experience as a Jew of color for Sh'ma in 2003:

My parents converted to Orthodox Judaism, and raised me and my five siblings as Orthodox Jews. My Jewish education has included a range of perspectives: Hasidic elementary school and Yeshivah University Modern-Orthodox high school, The State University of New York at Albany, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem...

...As I reflect on my experiences as a Jewish woman of color, I notice immediately that my consciousness of Jewish identity developed in two stages. Initially my education and community environment presented me with a picture of Judaism that was unidimensional in terms of geography, gender, religious status, race, and social class. But eventually I began to acknowledge the need for a more complex and complete picture of Judaism. I began to wrestle with the concept of “otherness” — “us” and “them” — in the Jewish community...

...What does Jewish look like? Is Jewish only a physical appearance with origins in Poland, Germany, and Russia? Or do you also look Jewish if you are from the Middle East and North Africa, India, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, or Iran? By nature of our origins, we are the descendants of a brown-skinned Semitic tribe that migrated from the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, poignantly, an African- American colleague recently asked me why, if Jews are so multicultural, he has only seen in books, in the media, in leadership, and everywhere else, white people?

My husband and I are Orthodox African- American Jews raising three beautiful Jews of color. I do the work of Jewish multiculturalism today, so that they will see the day when “Jewish” will mean a harmonious representation of the diversity of our world. In the blurred space between standard and strange lies a hospitable new reality for all Jews called “home.”

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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

Jews & Black American Culture

Jews in the United States today are creating a Jewish culture that draws heavily on African American and, in the case of reggae, Afro-Caribbean styles of expression.

So writes Eric Goldstein in the Fall 2007 issue of AJS Perspectives. Continuing our Black History Month series, let us explore Fashioning Jewishness in a Black and White World:

Although this trend is being pursued by many types of Jews, it owes much of its current vogue to the lively subculture known as the “Jewish hipster” movement and its unofficial organ, Heeb magazine. Since its debut in 2002, Heeb has often linked Jews with blacks as part of its overall campaign to demonstrate that Jewishness can be “cool,” a point often made with Heeb’s special brand of over-the-top comedy. The magazine’s very first cover, for example, featured black hands placing a round piece of shmurah matzoh on a turntable, a theme echoed in a long-running satirical advertisement in which an African American man proclaims a piece of Streit’s matzoh to be “a big ass cracker!”...

...The trend so apparent in Heeb soon appeared in other quarters as well. In 2003, writer-director Jonathan Kesselman presented the first “Jewxploitation film,” the Hebrew Hammer, which used similar comic hyperbole to explicitly link Jews and African Americans. Drawing on the popular blaxploitation genre of the 1970s, the film followed the adventures of a tough Jewish action hero who speaks with “a mix of Black Panther argot and Yiddish”
and “struts through the ‘chood’ instilling Jewish pride in its youth.” The music industry, as suggested above, has become perhaps the most active arena in which young Jews link themselves with black culture. The most famous example is Matisyahu (né Matthew Paul Miller), the Chabad/Lubavitch devotee who was named top reggae artist of 2006 by Billboard magazine...

...In all of these cases, it is apparent that the use of black images and style allow young Jews to link themselves to what they perceive as the assertiveness and independence of African Americans. Despite contemporary society’s claim to be a “multicultural” one, the black-white divide is still a powerful enough construct to make African Americans the most powerful symbol of difference in American society. As a result, they are an attractive touchstone for Jews who have become frustrated with the constraints placed on them by their membership in the white mainstream...

...In the 1920s and 1930s, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker and other Jewish performers were well known for their blackface routines, which lampooned blacks but also contained elements of tribute and identification... As memoirs of the interwar years record, Jewish youth frequently listened to “race records” and invited black musicians to perform at their dances. Some made excursions to Harlem and other black neighborhoods in the urban north to seek out nightclubs and dance halls and sometimes romantic liaisons...

...What, then, separates the contemporary Jewish appropriation of black culture from these earlier examples? First and foremost, prewar Jews who experimented with black culture did so under a very different set of social circumstances. Not yet fully vested as a part of the white mainstream, Jews before 1945 were often described, and described themselves, as members of a distinct “race.” Although this did not necessarily mean that they were seen as nonwhite, it did mean that they occupied an uncertain place in America’s racial constellation...

...In this context, Jews who bristled under the pressures of acculturation often found black culture to be a welcome escape valve...

...After 1965, however, two major shifts began to occur in American Jewish identity. First, a growing acceptance of difference in American culture lessened the pressure on Jews to downplay their distinctiveness. Second, the emergence of Black Power movements and civil rights legislation that identified minority status with peoples of color made many Jews uneasy with how they were now defined as part of the white power structure, a designation that cut against their own “outsider” consciousness. Ironically, having begun to achieve the privileged status they had long sought, they now felt troubled by the threatened loss of their group distinctiveness...

...The fact that Jewish integration has continued to reach unprecedented levels in recent years helps explain the intensifying appeal of African American culture, which gives contemporary Jews a powerful tool for asserting their difference. Unlike the flirtations of Jews with black culture in the 1920s and 1930s, today’s Jewish interest in hip-hop, reggae, African American-Jewish celebrities and black cultural style is part of a broader assertion of Jewish particularity.

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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

J-Vault for Black History Month

J-Vault logo

In honor of Black History Month, throughout February this blog will highlight selections at intersections of Black and Jewish history. Some such publications will make us proud; others -- like this one -- will certainly not. The Jewish community is (rightly) proud of its record in the struggle for recognition of the civil rights of African-Americans, but it is also important to remember that this record is not spotless. The Jewish community too -- and even the profession of Jewish communal service -- was capable of including professionals who might make reference to racist "science" (see the first paragraph quoted below), or refer to African culture with the phrase "tainted with African history" (further below; emphasis added).

This week, from the J-Vault: Negro "Jews" : A Social Study (1933)

The quotation marks in the title speak volumes by themselves about the author's hostility toward his subjects. Excerpts:

Negro Jews as an organization or social unit are non-existent elsewhere than in America. There is an Indian-Negro sect in the West Indies that historically taboos pork and may thus claim a relationship in consideration of its present rite, and its former questionable ancestry. The only dark skinned foreign group that is Jewish in ancestry and practice is the Abyssinian Jew or Falasha, and scientific investigation places this rather pure strain in the white race. Therefore, the Falasha Jew is not included in this study. Our specific problem as social workers is the so-called "Jewish" Negro in New York City...

...Before attempting to analyze the sociological import of these groups of associations of "Jewish" Negroes, it is essential that we be familiar with their history and background, and have a knowledge of social conditions in New York City and in the West Indies from which a large portion of these adherents derive. Exact names and titles have been disguised, without affecting the underlying facts...

...In 1900, Abraham, a twenty-year-old fish peddler of Norfolk, Virginia, and to some extent a religious mystic, convinced himself, aided by the fact of similarity of occupation, that he was the second Jesus Christ. He gathered about him a group of people, and conducted services as the "Church of Eternity." For several years, as father of the new sect, he conducted business at this stand, until 1908 when he was evicted for being a nuisance...

...His method of raising money was to select a small tradesman in the neighborhood and direct group members to deal there. Later Abraham would visit the merchant and convince him that as his customers were mostly members of the group he should join. Of course, as a member, the new constituent gave up his possessions to the church... The women who joined had to forswear their marital ties. Husbands and wives became "brothers and sisters" in their mutual relations. They gave one another up to the group; the women were supposed to be held in common, but actually they were reserved to the priests, and in time largely to. one priest, Abraham. This man had a great number of illegitimate children within the group; in the latter period many were children whom he had by his own children. Pregnant women were kept on a "baby farm" which the group owned in Absecon, New Jersey...

...The second group of importance is known as the Church of the Promised Land and Talmud Torah. It was the parent organization of the Sons of Israel. Rabbi Joseph, formerly mentioned in connection with Rabbi Jacob, was the godfather of this institution in Harlem, with a branch in Brooklyn. Rabbi Joseph of Florida, and a "voodoo" man from a nationalistic Negro association, directed the Talmud Torah, which was organized in connection with this church. The group was incorporated July 1921. The group split up in 1922 and Rabbi Jacob organized the Sons of Israel.

Rabbi Jacob's ideas were gathered from the Abraham group, and the Garvey movement from which he had been ousted. He built up a membership of several hundred. This group was the only authentic one of all the "Jewish" Negro groups, in that services were conducted with Jewish aspects, tinged, however, with Mahommedanism. Its entire life was over six years. Rabbi Jacob employed several white Jews to instruct his congregation in Jewish ways, and arranged for the children to be instructed at the Institutional Synagogue Talmud Torah, which is under the auspices of persons prominent in Orthodox Jewish circles...

...The oldest organization, or parent group, is known as the "Church of Eternity." Its membership is composed of a group of Negroes claiming to be Jews. It is located in Harlem in New York City. The majority of the membership is of West Indian derivation... History unfolds the parable in the West Indies during the Sixteenth Century when some eight hundred Jews are reported to have been exiled from England and to have intermarried with the native and Negro populations. Although Christianity was the prevailing enforced religion, Judaism is supposed to have been/ practiced privately...

...Being left to themselves in the West Indies, the Negroes develop certain stories which are all tainted with African history and preceded by African background. And, when added to this is the story of the Bible, of the Jews being delivered by both the Egyptian and Babylonish captivities, these black natives imagine all sorts of fantastic plans for the redemption of Africa. They identify themselves with the Ancient Jews; they think of themselves as the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea...

...The only reason these groups called themselves Jews rather than something non-Jewish seems to be based on the fact that they, Abraham and Gabriel, had run the entire gamut of Christian beliefs. To do something new, and thus attractive, they could become only either Jews or Mohammedans, as only these groups would not reject them. Abraham and Gabriel could not adopt Mohammedanism because they knew nothing about it and had no way of learning because of their ignorance of Arabic. Jews always recognize Jews as fellows in persecution. Gad (the Arabian) knew Hebrew and Yiddish, and all the group knew the Bible; so it was easy for them to take over the Jewish title. They used to have letterheads with inscriptions in Yiddish and Hebrew, concerning their alleged orphan asylum, old folks home, school, etc. They were thus in a position to prey on the Jews in New York. The movement was almost purely mercenary and lascivious, although some of the leaders were sincere in their misguided beliefs.

Of the entire Negro population of the world which is estimated at 200,000,000, over 224,670 live in New York City within an - area of two square miles. Judaism is professed by four small groups in New York City fast disintegrating because of intrinsic and extrinsic reasons. There is no anthropological verity in their claims. Manifestly engendered by the African desire for free emotional expression and the personal ambition of local religious leaders rather than racial self-assertion, this movement gathered momentum under the Garvey impulse. But being founded in ignorance and self-aggrandizement it has lost power and personnel with the spread of Negro education and Negro internationalism. Therefore, upon analysis, except for its exploitation aspect, the problem resolves itself into a Negro one and, therefore, outside of the realm of Jewish social service— except from the broader humanitarian and internationalistic viewpoint.

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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

5 Million? 6 Million? What Counts as 1?

Recent reports that the American Jewish population is well over 6 million have been taken far too seriously, writes demographer Pini Herman:

With all the pronouncements about the newly found million Jews we don’t know anything more about one single Jew in the US than we did before this “PEGGING” of US Jews at the over 6.4 million mark rather than the previous 5.2 million which would have made Israel at 5.8 million Jews the largest Jewish population in the world.

It all hinges on how hundreds of thousands of US respondents answered the generic religion survey question on dozens of general surveys in the US and whether Jewish screening questions were properly applied in more specialized Jewish population studies.

One problem with a simple survey question, Dr. Herman notes, is " false positives, that is non-Jews claiming to be Jewish". A high likely rate of false positives, he argues, renders the claim that American Jewry is now larger than Israeli Jewry nothing more than a "Jewish demographic castle in the air".

While an Israel-Diaspora horse race is always fun sport, I am much more interested in an implicit problem underlying (and, to my mind, undermining) this entire discussion. Namely: what is a false positive, and what definition makes that determination?

It's easy enough  to think of a person who might strike you (and me, and every Jew we know) as a clear false positive. There do exist, for example, Christians with no Jewish ancestry who nonetheless call themselves Jews, taking the traditional Christian doctrine that, since Jesus, the church is the new people of Israel a little more literally than most Christians do.

My assertion that such people are not really Jews is, however, entirely subjective -- as is Dr. Herman's implicit assertion that there is even such a thing as a false positive. After all, there are many possible definitions of Jewishness, and one of them might well be that anyone who claims to be Jewish is Jewish, by virtue of claiming so. This definition would admit our over-literal Christians, as well as Messianic Jews, as well as anyone with a Jewish fourth-cousin-in-law who wants to identify as Jewish, as well as anyone else who wants to jump instantly on the bandwagon for any reason at all, with no requirements of any kind.

I think most Jews would find this definition too permissive, and I certainly join them. Indeed, my personal views of the definition of Jewishness follow my personal devotion to the Modern Orthodox type of interpretation of halakhah -- which means I personally find the definition(s) used by the Reform movement far too permissive as well. Yet most of America's Reform Jews (who far outnumber the American Orthodox) would strongly disagree with me. My point is that it is impossible to count Jews in any context without first defining Jewishness, and defining Jewishness is an issue upon which the Jewish community as a whole is vehemently and painfully splintered.

What can be said, then, of an argument between some scholars counting 5.2 million Jews and others counting 6.5, when all five-or-six-million Jews are in the middle of a massive argument about what it means to belong to the group being counted? I'm sure each of the research teams in question used precise definitions, and I imagine in this era of sophisticated social science the definitions used in various different studies most often match one another. But since no one definition can command anything even close to consensus among the Jewish people, of how much value is all the precision?

5.2 million Jews... 6.5 million Jews... Maybe if we could agree about the definition of one Jew, the rest would be a little bit easier.

(See also: the October 2010 issue of Sh'ma, focusing on "Counting Jews" and our August 2011 newsletter, focusing on the Jewish Population.)

Hanukkah and the Other December Dilemmas

Hanukkiah

Hopefully you saw our December newsletter on intermarriage, but as the Festival of Lights begins, it is appropriate to note that not every "December Dilemma" has anything whatsoever to do with intermarriage. Tonight begins Hanukkah, a holiday defined in America by its awkward juxtaposition with Christmas -- a juxtaposition which is the source of much consternation, but also, perhaps, an entirely appropriate layer of meaning. Here are a few publications on the subject.

High school student Jessica Schutz tells the story of her family's "Hanukkah bush" and her own response: "I was forced to question my identity as a Jew. What kind of Jew was I? What entitled me to bear that title, besides birth to a Jewish mother?"

Nancy Wallack looks at Hanukkah cards and doesn't like what she sees:

Jews' beefing up of Chanukah celebrations to console our children (and perhaps ourselves), has crept into cards mixing Christmas and Chanukah, gentile and Jewish imagery. Mealy-mouthed "seasons greetings" are joined with wishes for "Shalom." My guess is that the Shalom is a straight translation of the Christian concept of the coming of or the promise of peace, in the birth of the Prince of Peace. Carolers sing, "Peace on earth, good will to men," why not extend this to our friends the Jews?

Steven Greenberg seeks "a plausible meaning of Hanukkah" that can be shared with non-Jewish friends and neighbors, specifically thinking of the common situation of explaining the holiday to public schoolchildren. He settles on two:

1. Hanukkah celebrates the strength it takes to be different. The Jewish people had a different way of looking at the world than their Greek neighbors. Although they learned much from Greek culture, Jews were proud of their very different way of living life. Everyone knows what it's like to be in the minority. We all are, in some way, different from the pack. It takes a lot of courage to be unique, to like yourself when you march to a different drummer. It takes even more courage to fight for what you believe in. Hanukkah celebrates the freedom everyone needs to be a little, or sometimes a lot different, from the majority.

2. Hanukkah means rededication. When Judah rededicated the Temple, he was also rededicating his people to their vision of the world, the Jewish dream of a world of justice and goodness. Justice and goodness are easier to talk about than to do. It takes a lot of work. Anyone can get tired working for even the greatest of goals. That's why rededication is so important. We all need a "Hanukkah" to remind us of our dreams as we work in small ways to make them happen, little by little, every day.

A final thought, in synthesis of these three perspectives: if a holiday can be seen as, in addition to a time to celebrate, a challenge to us to live up to that holiday's message, then Hanukkah's juxtaposition with Christmas could not possibly be more appropriate. As Wallack laments, it is true that Christmas often threatens to engulf Hanukkah and replace its native meanings. But, as Schutz discovers, this confrontation can crystallize the questions we must ask ourselves as Jews, and force us to ask them. The season may be a difficult time to be different, but as Rabbi Greenberg notes, it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to being different.

Ḥag urim sameaḥ!

Matisyahu and the Spiral of Authenticity

By now you've heard the (apparently earth-shattering) news that Matisyahu has shaved his beard.

Beardless

The pundits of Jewry are abuzz with interpretive chatter -- and no surprise, since Matisyahu was already (in his hassidic incarnation) an icon and byword for all manner of Jewish discourse about culture, religion, and identity.

A very recent case in point: in the most recent issue of Sh'ma, Stuart Z. Charmé uses the hassidic Matisyahu as the denouement to his article, "The Spiral of Jewish Authenticity". Responding with circumspect detachment to his teenage daughter's announcement that she doesn't consider herself Jewish (since slam poetry is her true identity), Charmé notes that, as his research has shown, teenagers and the adults they grow to become have ever-shifting relationships to Judaism:

Ultimately, what I wish for my daughter is a Jewish journey that is intellectually and psychologically honest, vibrant, and creative; one that values questions more than answers, while avoiding the pitfalls of premature closure and rigidity. I trust that she will discover authentic forms of Jewish expression for herself as she redefines her past and plans for the future. I can’t predict whether slam poetry will be part of that process, but if the singer Matisyahu could use reggae to find a sense of Jewish authenticity for himself, then why not?

(Emphasis, of course, is added.) How unlucky for Stuart Charmé, one might think, that merely two weeks after he publishes a piece which uses the hassid Matisyahu as an example, Matisyahu goes and shaves and de-hassidifies.

But in this case, one would be wrong to think so. In fact, Charmé's point regarding Matisyahu not only still stands, but stands even stronger. Much of the article, read in hindsight following "ShaverGate," read as if they were written with the apparently-now-misnagdic Mat(thew? isyahu?) in mind:

I have described the experience of Jewishness over the course of one’s life as a loose spiral. We circle back to revisit a variety of issues related to Judaism and Jewishness; each time, we approach the experience of Jewishness from new perspectives and with new investments and understandings that emerge in response to other changes in our lives.

For many Jews, the feeling of Jewish authenticity involves a sense of connection to a romanticized or idealized image of the past... Much has also been written... about the postmodern freedom to “construct” or “invent” Jewish identity in a myriad of ways ranging from contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy to Torah Yoga and Jewish “mindfulness.”...

It is obvious that claims about authenticity can never really offer a scientific test of purity, a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, or a warranty against change. Some of what is now accepted as authentically Jewish will eventually be abandoned and some of what is now rejected will later be reclaimed. In this sense, each individual’s search for Jewish authenticity is a microcosm of the collective process of redefining Judaism at different moments of history.

The desire for Jewish authenticity, therefore, has both retrospective and prospective dimensions. On the one hand, it situates one in relationship to one’s personal and group history; it provides a sense of existential orientation and protection; and it, thereby, offers a provisional home in the world. But the goal of authenticity is simultaneously a warning to be careful of claiming too much certainty at the present moment — recognizing the permanently destabilizing power of the future to shatter and rebuild the foundations of our world in ever-new ways... There is probably some Zen-like truth to the idea that those who claim most adamantly to have found or achieved Jewish authenticity are also those who lack it in a deeper sense.

For those who responded to Matisyahu's naked face with disappointment, then, as well as for those who responded with anti-Orthodox glee, we might all do well to borrow some of Stuart Charmé's detachment and attention to the long view. Life keeps going on, the spiral of authenticity keeps spiralling, and we might all turn out to be someone a little (or a lot) different tomorrow.

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.

Insisting on Forever

Jonathan S. Tobin is incensed in Commentary that Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh doesn't accept the formula of Israel as "a Jewish State." Nusseibeh feels that the term "Jewish state" implies either a theocracy (if Judaism is a religion) or apartheid (if Jewishness is racial or ethnic). He instead suggests "that Israeli leaders ask instead that Palestinians recognise Israel (proper) as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish."

As Tobin correctly points out, "that is what it is now and what Israelis and those who support it understand to be a Jewish state." Nusseibeh's is a classic distinction without a difference.

Still, I can't seem to bring myself to care as much as Tobin what Palestinians think about Israel being a Jewish state. "The reason for Israel’s demand is simple," writes Tobin. "Unless and until the Palestinians specifically accept that the part of the country they do not control is forever Jewish, the conflict will not be over."

Forever Jewish, he wants from them? Forever is a pretty big deal. Will Israelis agree that even one inch of the West Bank will be forever Palestinian? (Giving up entirely the messianic visions of the Hebrew Bible.) Forever is an entirely unreasonable demand to make of either side. Maybe it's just me, but I say let's work on a practical peace deal for the forseeable future and leave the question of forever to a higher Authority. Both parties should be willing to let the other nation live in peace in its own state, and both parties will doubtless continue to dream of the messianic utopian day in which our side gets all the land back. As long as everybody's stays calm and respectful in the here and now, who cares about competing dreams of forever? Let the songs and dreams embrace and contain the conflict, and let the practical reality contain only peace, tolerance, and mutual dignity and security.

Tobin is right when he says that "Jewish identity is complex, and Israelis may well spend the rest of eternity trying to define themselves." (What a Jewish state means is a topic of constant debate among Jews.) That's all the more reason to say it's an unnecessary waste of time and diplomatic capital insisting that Palestinians call Israel a Jewish state.

From the J-Vault: Diversity in Democracy (or, Jewish Difference and the Common Good)

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"[T]here are some among us," said Isaac B. Berkson, during an address in honor of a Columbia professor, "who hold that the retention of Jewish cultural characteristics is not consistent with the processes of democracy. These believe that only such differences as maybe termed religious should be retained by the Jews. It appears to me that such a view rests on an unfortunate misunderstanding of the nature of the democratic process."

This week, from the J-Vault: Education in a Democracy: Democracy and Jewish Culture (1937)

Do Jewish particularism and a commitment to Jewish culture detract from universalism and a commitment to the common good? To the contrary, said Isaac B. Berkson:

Far from running counter to democracy, the maintenance of such cultural elements is a mark of democracy. Among other things, this may act as one of the important barriers against mental regimentation... [A]djustment to American life does not mean utter conformity.

Sub-cultures, religions, and other sources of genuine difference and diversity make the whole society stronger for being different, Berkson argues, and even where they introduce conflicts of opinion, this enhances democracy:

[D]iversity of opinion is a fundamental characteristic of democratic society—really more than that, is a necessary attribute of democracy. Tolerance of divergent opinion is in itself a great advance in the history of thought, but the democratic habit of mind goes much further than benevolent toleration of differences. It has faith in the value of diverse opinion as a positive factor in government and civilization. It uses the dissenting opinion as a means of arriving at the truth, of properly emphasizing aspects of the situation otherwise neglected, of correcting weaknesses in dominant, current view.

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Intermarriage and Complexities of Antisemitism

rings

Jewish Ideas Daily recently highlighted a fascinating gem from the Atlantic Magazine in 1939: I Married a Jew, an anonymous personal reflection by a German-American woman married to a Jewish American man.

The article is an amazing read, deserving of much more detailed discussion than I have time to devote in this post, but I will say in briefest summary that the mix of sympathy for Jews as individuals and revulsion for various expressions of Jewishness which this author displays is incredible. She loves her husband and his family (unless they're all together as a family), and she will even countenance a little (not too much) Jewish pride, especially as relates to Biblical figures such as Moses, Solomon and (naturally) Jesus, but she is also very put off by Jewish cultural distinctions, favoring complete assimilation, and speaking of the world's "Jewish problem" as a product of oppression on one hand, and of Jewish (stereotypical) villainies, which she takes to be very real and very problematic, on the other.

What strikes me as so important about this article is not its being out of date, but rather its relevance to the present. If one removed the dismissive comments about Hitler being unfortunate yet not particularly unique or worrisome, and made only a little subtle revision to the terms, emphases and frames of reference, then this woman's viewpoint could just as easily have been written yesterday as in 1939. (Indeed, a few reader comments below the article reveal that some people apparently thought it was written in the present. Not that internet comments prove anything.) Modern American culture does not embrace all of the anti-Jewish views which are affiliated with traditional Christian anti-Judaism, but modern American culture certainly does share with this author a distaste for Jewish "clannishness" and particularism -- witness the ubiquity of intermarriage among Jewish characters on TV and in movies. Hollywood's usual portrayals of intermarriage assume that intermarriage is not only acceptable, but actually desirable. This perspective differs in many ways from our 1939 author, who blames the Jews for their own persecution during European history. But it shares with her the fundamental assumption that Jewish assimilation is the answer to Jewish problems. This reflexive sense that Jews are okay as long as they aren't too Jewish is very much alive in 2011.

Intermarriage as a catalyst for the exposure of uncomfortable disagreements is another element that makes this 1939 article strangely up-to-date. These marital dynamics are echoed in this recent blog post by Allison Benedikt, another deeply personal reflection centering on an intermarriage, this one from the perspective of the Jewish partner. In the post, which has prompted many strong reactions, especially from Jeffrey Goldberg, Benedkit describes her unquestioningly Zionist childhood and her transformation, as an adult, into a passionate anti-Zionist, influenced significantly by the strong anti-Israel views of her non-Jewish husband. I hasten to add that I'm not making an equation or a conflation with this juxtaposition of the two articles. By comparing them, I don't mean to equate Benedikt's husband to the 1939 author of I Married a Jew, or to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. But I do mean to note that in both cases, an intermarriage has the effect of forcing the couple to take a stand on an extremely divisive issue of peoplehood. Writing in response to Benedikt's piece, Julie Wiener notes that Intermarried Does Not Equal Anti-Zionist. She's right, of course, but it would be folly not to admit that a marriage across the religio-ethnic divide is more likely than an in-marriage to force a conversation on these, and other, difficult topics.

Not that conversation is a bad thing. One difference between today and 1939, perhaps, is that conversations about these feelings do not tend to occur as openly. Nobody wants to be branded a bigot, and these days Americans of all persuasions tend to throw around such labels quite freely. We seem to think of antisemitism, like other forms of intergroup hatred, as a binary, all-or-nothing phenomenon. To listen to contemporary American discourse, a person is either "an antisemite" (a noun and an identity), or else a "normal" person, who is presumably completely free of anti-Jewish bias. (The same underlying assumption could be cited with regard to homophobia, sexism, racism, etc.) Reality, of course, is much more complicated, as this 1939 article reveals. Love and hate can be present in the same person. Faulty assumptions, negative emotional reactions, and prejudices can (and usually do) coexist in the same brains with genuine love and respect for the "other" group in question. Admitting as much might allow everyone to be more honest with one another, without anyone being afraid of being labeled a bigot, and without anyone else being afraid to point out when an idea is bigoted. The trick is to be able to criticize ideas (even quite strongly) without demonizing the people who hold them (except in the most extreme and obvious cases of open hatred). That would leave space for quite a few difficult -- and necessary -- conversations.

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