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From Rosa Luxemburg to Jewcy

From: Jack Wertheimer To: Joey Kurtzman Subject: No Torah, No People…What's the Future of Jewish Life?

Dear Joey,

You call yourself a reporter and in fact your last letter is a fascinating report from the field about the perceptions of a certain segment of your generation. At this point it is hard to know how many of your peers share your outlook and experiences, but I believe you when you argue that you have come of age in a very different world than earlier generations of Jews.

This is my understanding of what you report: 1) You live in a world of “cosmopolitan pluralism” where you interact with people of many backgrounds (e.g. your experience with Korean-American friends at a Baptist Bible school), and, more broadly, you are immersed in a “polyglot, postmodern American creole culture.” 2) You take it for granted that society is so open that there is no barrier between Jews and non-Jews and certainly no way to prevent intermarriage, even if you wanted to—which you do not.

I believe there is yet an additional factor shaping your generation, which has great bearing on our discussion of peoplehood: You live at a time when well-educated Americans marry late, if at all, and have few children, if any. The fact that the responsibilities of parenting are far down the road for most of your generation further disconnects you from what used to be conventional Jewish life.

By contrast, your Orthodox peers for the most part live in a different world. Since they tend to marry when they are 10-to-15 years younger than most non-Orthodox Jews and have children at younger ages, they assume a set of responsibilities that bring them into contact with organized Jewish life and have a greater and more immediate stake in the collective Jewish present and future.

I can understand why you would regard all these circumstances as a wonderful gift. You feel free and unbounded—no family, no children, no people, no limits, just the great wide world. Little wonder that you latch on to the great causes of our time: “Darfur and mass child death-by-malnutrition” give your life meaning. But do they? I don’t question your concern with these horrors. Which thinking person would not be shaken? But forgive my skepticism, Joey: If you cared deeply about these causes, you would pick yourself up and join the Peace Corps or volunteer for any of the myriad of service organizations sending Americans to do good in the world. Instead, you are content to invoke the mantra of Darfur and malnutrition, as if the brutalities of war and poverty are some new invention.

There is something profoundly adolescent about all this emoting, which is about right because your generation is living out a delayed adolescence, but you are convinced that it is all a terrific gift. Rabbinic Judaism, by contrast, understood long ago that unbounded freedom is a trap. No family, no children, no people, no limits amount to … very little. I doubt your immigrant forbearers would shep nachas.

There is a quality to your writing about Jewish ethnocentrism that is highly reminiscent of the not-too-distant past. Ninety years ago, Rosa Luxemburg declared she had “no room in my heart for Jewish suffering.” Because of the “screams … of the unheard,” she wrote, “I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.” Three years after writing these words, she was murdered for her revolutionary activities by German nationalists.

After World War II in countries throughout Eastern Europe, other Jews also proclaimed their eternal fidelity to international socialism, only to be lined up in front of firing squads for being “rootless cosmopolitans.” Don’t be so quick to assume that the easy pluralism and globalism you take for granted is forever, any more than is the post-nationalist era proclaimed by the Tony Judt’s of the Jewish world. And don’t assume your non-Jewish peers are as indifferent to group allegiances as they might claim. Your Jewish spiritual ancestors with their flights of internationalist fancy learned this lesson too late.

You and I can’t seem to discuss the peoplehood issue without reference to intermarriage. Let me try to clarify where we differ: I never suggested that intermarriage is the cause of all that bedevils American Jewry. Of course, intermarriage is a symptom of profound social transformation and the collapse of social barriers.

The reason I labeled intermarriage a disaster in my opening letter is that it promotes further erosion in Jewish life. How? First, because intermarriage fuels more intermarriage: it depletes the market of eligible Jewish males (who intermarry at higher rates than Jewish females) and thus forces many Jewish women who seek to create a Jewish family but do not want to intermarry to choose between a life without children or single parenthood or marrying a non-Jew. Second, when only 30 percent of intermarried parents claim to be raising their children as Jews, we are losing a large majority of the next generation. And, third, many among those who are raised with some Jewish content, are exposed to such confused messages that they struggle to reconcile their incompatible heritages. All the happy talk so fashionable in today’s Jewish community about intermarriage merely obscures these underlying realities.

I reject your contention that we are obsessed with “bloodlines and marital practices.” The religious and communal leadership of the Jewish community has capitulated on this issue, avoiding serious discussion about what is really going on, and prattles endlessly about “outreach” as if there is a vast horde of intermarried families clamoring for engagement with Jewish life, but is somehow shut out by the “bloodline” police. Nonsense. Everyone from Chabad to Reform to birthright Israel is engaged in outreach. Their efforts cannot mitigate the reality that large majorities of intermarried families and their children are lost to the Jewish people.

Why is this reality not spurring you and your friends at Jewcy to action? Why do you spend your time defending the status quo, rather than fighting for the revitalization of Jewish life? In 1969, a group of young Jewish activists forced their way into the General Assembly of the then Council of Jewish Federations to demand greater investment in Jewish education. This was during the era of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war demonstrations. The Jewish students protesters were supporters of those causes too, but they invested their energy in challenging the Jewish establishment for being insufficiently Jewish in its priorities.

Today, by contrast, you and other young Jews are busy worrying about the ethnocentrism of the Jewish community. I am not a big fan of baby-boomer self-absorption, but in this case, a portion of my generation had it right. And you have it wrong: the problem of American Jewish life is an insufficiency of Jewish pride and connection, not a surfeit of ethnocentrism.

I wish your version of generational rebellion would focus on the unbearable lightness of Jewish life in American. I wish you would stop with the self-congratulatory routine about “the self-confidence of this generation of Jewish Americans” to look at the hollowness of Jewish life. Yes, you are confident that no barriers will impede you as you strive for socio-economic success. But the collapse of those barriers is hardly your achievement. Are your peers self-confident in their Judaic literacy and the ease with which they can negotiate their way around a synagogue religious service, a Jewish text, a neighborhood in Jerusalem?

Most of your generation attended mediocre if not worse Jewish educational programs; most are illiterate in the national language of the Jewish people; most have only a glancing familiarity with the riches of our Jewish heritage. Instead of being angry about the terrible waste and demanding of the establishment that it
gets its priorities straight, you resort to motherhood and apple pie talk about Darfur and malnutrition, as if that requires a great sell.

Your concluding observations about the death of ethnocentrism, reminds me of a conversation I held last summer with a group of American Jewish college students. One of them declared: “I believe it is immoral for Jews to give priority to aiding fellow Jews when so many other people are in greater distress.” In reply, a different student shot back, “Don’t we have a greater responsibility to take care of our own family? Jews around the world are our family.”

As I read your impatient remarks about those who believe “ someone is a less appropriate object of our love and commitment because of the particulars of their genealogy,” I can only conclude that either you don’t accept that human beings have a special responsibility to give back to their own family or that you don’t regard the Jewish people as your family. Given the world in which I grew up, these are unthinkable options for me.

But if you truly accept no special responsibility for fellow Jews, if you cannot bring yourself to rank concern for fellow Jews uppermost in your priorities, then I am left to wonder what being Jewish means to you. Taking care of your own people does not cut it for you; assuming the yoke of Torah, which among other things issues a religious commandment to build a Jewish family in the time-honored fashion of marrying a Jew, does not seem to resonate. So, Joey, what do you believe ought to be the content of a Jewish life?


Next: The Coming Jewish Schism

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