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The Ethnocentric Cult Is Finished

From: Joey Kurtzman To: Jack Wertheimer Subject: Reporting, not Prophecy

Well, we do agree on some things, Jack. I have to admit that when I first read you described as the Cassandra of American Jewry, I scoffed. It gives you too much credit and your ideas too little. “The man’s no prophet,” I thought. “He’s a reporter.” I’m a reporter, too. I use words like mongrelization not to insult myself, but to describe myself, and to convey the enormity of what’s taking place among this generation of Jewish Americans. And when I say “Judaism and Jewishness have never had so limited a claim on the identity of young Jews,” I’m neither conceding a point nor, I think, showing any great insight. People who are raised with multiple cultural influences will simply not have the same relationship to Judaism as people who are raised in a “Jewish-only” environment. I don’t believe intermarriage is the cause of all this turmoil, but rather a consequence. Jews are marrying non-Jews because we’re also growing up, studying, working, and socializing with them. Do you really believe that when all these barriers have fallen, endogamy can be sustained? Your enemy is not intermarriage, but the pluralistic, endlessly permeable culture of the modern American city. To me, this is no “disaster,” but the realization of the dream for which my great-grandparents uprooted themselves from Europe in the first place. They came to America for a better material life, of course, but also because they desperately wanted to live where they would be free to practice whatever profession they chose, associate with whomever they chose, and generally live their lives how they chose. When they got here, they found that America wasn’t quite the Promised Land they’d fantasized about. They could be Jews in the home and men on the street, but only in the eyes of the state. Their fellow citizens had different opinions, and great swathes of American life remained off-limits to Jews. No longer. Today’s America is the one they dreamed about. We are now free to be whatever we want in the home, the street, or anywhere else. This is why the cosmopolitan pluralism of American life is very much my “patrimony.” I think you are wrong to scoff at the word. This polyglot, postmodern American creole culture may not be the world of my fathers, but it surely is the world my fathers gave to me. My great-grandparents did not grow up, as I did, with more close Christian friends than Jewish ones. But they made it inevitable when they left the ghettos, shtetls, and corporatism of European life to go to a country that sought to make all associations voluntary, all men equal before the law, and all decisions of faith a matter of free choice. So my Sundays at Baptist Bible study with Korean-American friends were as much their legacy to me as were my years of Hebrew School. I disagree with your assessment that all this amounts to a “fractured” identity. Personally, I feel quite whole. Those around me in the Jewcy offices do not seem fractured either. We’re confident in who we are, we feel excited and privileged to live in such a singular time, to have received so unprecedented and exceptional a heritage. If you want to find people who are confused and fractured, I think you’d find better specimens among Orthodox baalei teshuvah who reject their complex cultural backgrounds and instead claim to be simply Jews, “unambiguous” Jews, Jews like their ancestors were Jews, when in fact they are nothing of the sort. You mention young Jews who defend Israel. I am, it’s true, not a Zionist. I think it’s a disproven proposition that a Jew can live a full life only within a Jewish state. Herzl’s dilemma has been solved. He thought Emancipation had failed, and that only disappearance or a nation-state could solve the problem of antisemitism. But America has delivered on the promise of Emancipation. If Herzl had had the option of hopping on an Austrian Airlines flight to 21st-century Los Angeles, do you believe for one second that he would have written Der Judenstaat? Even Zev Jabotinsky might have been impressed by the self-confidence of this generation of Jewish Americans. Still, I am intensely pro-Israel, feel great affection for the country and culture, and go as often as I’m able. I spent several years in college in Europe defending Israel against the absurd insults and ignorant mischaracterizations of the European left; I defended Zionism, too, as nothing akin to the defamatory caricature so many in Europe prefer to imagine. I mention my thoughts on Israel only to demonstrate that we do not need to “pick one people” in order to engage enthusiastically and confidently with Jewish identity or Jewish thought. We Jewcy Jews are hungry to make Jewishness an important part of our lives. Of course we know that Judaism is different. Of course all traditions are not the same. They have different strengths, elaborate concepts in different ways and to different depths, and have different insights to offer. We are at Jewcy because we believe that the Jewish tradition has the brilliance and depth to help us navigate in this new world.
We do not want mealy “I’m okay, you’re okay” pablum. Obviously, that’s inadequate. The future of Judaism may not be okay. Our world is not okay. We are confronted every day by the most intense imaginable moral challenges: Six million children die every year of severe malnutrition and consequent infections, while people of privilege, people like us, waste ever-greater wealth on ever-more-frivolous luxury. The challenges of our world are intense. We crave Jeremiahs who can offer coherent, principled approaches to these challenges.

But Rabbinic Judaism is not enough. Portable Judaism is not enough. It’s not portable enough to travel into a world without peoplehood, a world of intense impurity and diverse influences and loyalties, where binary definitions of “Jew” or “not-Jew” grow increasingly inadequate.

Jewish identity based on ethnocentrism is not just undesirable to us, it’s deeply alien to us. It’s from another world, a world we can read about, but to which we can’t return. You ask an "unambiguous" Jewishness which is difficult for us even to comprehend. Can we be "unambiguously Jewish" when we have such a swirl of cultural influences, and so many loyalties outside the Jewish community?

And yes, ethnocentrism is horribly inadequate to the moral challenges of a world in which Jewish Americans are empowered and privileged, but masses elsewhere suffer unthinkable violence and deprivation. It's a world in which genocide in Darfur and mass child-death-by-malnutrition make a moral monstrosity, an inestimable averah, out of these obsessions with the bloodlines and marital practices of one of the world’s most privileged communities.

And finally, yes, ours is a world in which it is unspeakably alien, almost laughable, to imagine that someone is a less appropriate object of our love and commitment because of the particulars of their genealogy. The fantasy is not in imagining that Jewishness can survive in this world; it’s in imagining that cries of “We are one” can ever again resonate with a significant portion of Jewish Americans. People like you, Jack, are who we hope can be our new Zakkais. You’re the ones with the knowledge and seriousness and brilliance to create a new Yavneh, to refashion Judaism for this world. But first you have to accept that the old battle is lost, the old ethnocentric cult finished.


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