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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Tuesday
Oct012013

Jessica Grose, Jew.

It was reported today that a new survey of Jews in the United States reported high rates of intermarriage, low rates of synagogue membership, all the usual stuff to set organized Jewry’s collective yadim (that’s “hands”) wringing. It prompted a poignant response from Jessica Grose, a gifted writer whom I have never met but with whom I have once tangled pleasurably (on the web, that is), over a family-life issue that interests us both, Christmas trees for Jews. I also read with invigorating anger her series on married couples who keep separate bank accounts.

You can read the whole thing for yourself (it’s short), but here is where it gets going, at the end:

While our baby daughter is Jewish by lineage, I’m still not sure how Jewish we are going to raise her. My family has always celebrated Passover, so we’ll continue that. And I will certainly tell my daughter about our history and everything her great-grandparents went through. But beyond that, her religiosity is an open question (like 32 percent of respondents to the Pew poll, we have a Christmas tree). The notion that American Jews are eschewing religion so broadly makes me a little sad, or worried for Jewish continuity (or guilty for being part of the problem). But I can’t see myself bringing my daughter to temple every Friday to honor a God I don’t believe in. What’s the solution?

I have a few thoughts for Jessica (if I may first-name her).

The main thing is that, clearly, Jewish affiliation means something to you. It’s important, for your own thinking, to acknowledge that, for the clarity of your own thinking. Falling back on “guilt” to explain it is, in a way, dodging the question. I left Massachusetts for Connecticut, but I feel no guilt, much as I love Massachusetts, and much as my hometown of Springfield can ill afford to lose its college graduates to a brain drain. The bottom line is, the affiliation never meant that much to me. And plenty of Jews (like plenty of Catholics, Pentecostals, Dutch-Americans, erstwhile Ayn Rand followers, etc.) feel no guilt about drifting away. That you feel some is worth acknowledging and exploring.

I don’t know you, Jessica, but if you are like a large number of Jews (and others) whom I know, your discomfort stems from what I take to be a fact about human nature, which is that people have a desire — you could even say need — to live within what anthropologists and theologians often call a “thick” culture. Brief primer (drawing on Geertz, Gilbert Ryle, James Davison Hunter, and other scholars who use the term): the new-parents’ Tuesday play group is a thin culture; the body of obsessed Penn State football fans is thicker; Amish identity is pretty darned thick. Get it? Another way of saying we desire thick community is saying that we like to be embedded in a community of people with common history, common cultural touchstones, common texts, common aspirations.

For Jews, this need is a bit of a pickle. We haven’t fared very well, historically, when we choose to make the nationalism of whatever country we reside in our preferred culture. Our ancestors have tried, at various times, to be thickly, deeply German, French, Russian, etc. — and often they have succeeded in their own minds, only to be told by others, often in violent ways, that they have failed. I don’t mean to imply any approval or disapproval of Jews who have placed their faith in other nationalisms; I’m just trying to make a historical point. And so Jews have often been held together, even the totally atheistic and irreligious among them, by a forced sense of difference. That difference also bequeathed them, among other things, their own languages (Yiddish, Ladino), that helped build a thick culture even for those who couldn’t care less about Judaism as a religion. In other words, Jewishness persisted just fine even for Jews who did not participate in Judaism. The atheists could still be fellow travelers in a language, in fun holidays, in a sense of solidarity, with their more religiously observant brethren.

But the contemporary West, especially the United States, has given Jews something almost entirely new: a country where everyone (almost) is an immigrant, almost everyone is watching her old nationalism disappear in the solvent of this immigrant experience, and there is no real threat of pogroms. And so Jews are in the same boat as everyone else: trying to figure out what our thick culture is, since it’s no longer going to be Irish, or Jewish, or German-Lutheran, or whatever.

Some people stick very hard to the old, thick culture: Irish-Americans who identify very strongly with the motherland, Orthodox Jews, many Latinos, lots of groups in the first generation or two after immigration. But for those who become mostly “American,” they have to figure out what that means. For some, it takes the form of extreme jingoism, love-it-or-leave-it. For others, regionalism: Dixie! For some, it means now-obscure snobberies, like Waspiness or prepdom. But these cultures are all rather thin; they all seem to require of their adherents a kind of shallowness, an invitation to ask them, “Really?

Just as often, Americans join subcultures of consumerism or entertainment. There are people whose main sense of meaning comes from rooting for the local team — or worse, their own fantasy team. And then there is the culture of the people whom I know best, the culture that — pardon me for presuming — I bet Jessica partakes of most seriously. It has many iterations, but basically it’s some version of what David Brooks called “bobo,” what one might call Whole Foods-ism, or Tiger Mom-ism, or just high Blue State elitism. This is a culture that has as its affinities: Barack Obama, wooden (not plastic) toys, ethnic food, etc. I am caricaturing, of course, but we all know what I am talking about, and it has a lot to do with the stuff we buy. For many people, perhaps Jessica (certainly a lot of Northeasterners who work in the freelance writing world — a group I know well, and am of), their main identity is not “American” (too patriotic, crass); not regional (since they move often); not religious; but a mix of a) liberal politics, and b) consumer choices. 

And here’s where we get back to Judaism: many politically liberal consumerists (in one iteration, they are liberal Puritans, a group I described here) realize, on some level, that that’s not a thick enough identity. (I mean, it is for some people, and that’s fine, but not for everyone.) There is something a bit unsatisfying about it for many. So they look to various spiritualities to substitute for the faiths of their ancestors, and to help them achieve those moments of reflection/meditation/introspection/atonement/ritual that Judaism or Christianity or Confucianism did for their forefathers and -mothers. Such spiritualities include yoga, certain life coaches, or spiritual self-help books. 

And, for many, a kind of very occasional, half-hearted Reform Judaism or, say, semi-annual Catholic mass is one of those spiritualities. It may as well be an occasional Quaker meeting, or a tai chi class. It bears little resemblance to the thick culture of the old religion, and it does little to give them a sense of common purpose or destiny with fellow religionists — which is something they actually want. It will do little or nothing to help them through, say, the death of a loved one, and it may not help sacralize their wedding day. In such people’s religious lives, the attachment to text, theology, or ritual has gotten so thin, in fact, that it can only be practiced with a sense of embarrassment — and I think all of us Jews know that sense, which comes when we’re at a Passover seder and nobody really wants to be there, snide jokes are made, the leader is unsure about how to lead, and the whole thing is uncomfortable. Sound familiar?

Getting back to Jessica: it’s this sense of unease that you are alluding to, quite rightly, when you write, “I can’t see myself bringing my daughter to temple every Friday to honor a God I don’t believe in.”

So, no, of course not. Why would you? The kind of Judaism I think you are alluding to — occasional temple attendance, purely for some inchoate sense of continuity with your ancestors — feels embarrassing because all thin observance feels embarrassing. It’s like being the old guy in the club, trying to party part 11 p.m. Or being at a radical protest only to realize that you aren’t as radical as you were in your student days. Or pretending to be drunk or stoned when you’re not. It’s not thick for you (or, at least, you’re not in the thick of it).

Jews have come up with all sorts of ways to connect thinly and poorly. Some of us drop all pretense at Jewish learning or observance and substitute an uncritical Zionism. Others, as parents, force their kids to study for a bat or bar mitzvah ceremony, even though the parents are completely lapsed — that is, we force our kids to perform Jewish continuity for us.

Now, there were about three generations of Jews who in the United States who had the luxury of being cultural Jews, in a very thick way, despite not being religious at all. If you were a radical at City College in the 1930s, or a Miami Beach transplant in the 1960s, or a Catskills vacationer, or a Great Neck suburbanite, you could still live among Jews or ex-Jewish communists or psychotherapists or schmatte salesmen and watch Woody Allen and eat bagels and complain that Philip Roth wasn’t good for the Jews, and all of that felt very thickly Jewish. (See my essay on Judaism as a native language.) Between the immigrant generation and yesterday, there were available in the United States some secular Jewish identities for people who felt very Jewish but had no interest in Jewish religious observance.

But those identities have become the victims of intermarriage and the general American melting pot. They went the way of the Lutheran identities whom Garrison Keillor satirizes on Prairie Home Companion. They live in memory and in art and occasional uses of Yiddish phrases.

What this means for Jews today is, I believe, that:

a) if you think there is no point to half-hearted synagogue attendance, you are surely right;

b) senses of Judaism rooted in Zionism or Holocaust remembrance are bound to feel quite thin;

c) if you want to have a thicker sense of connection to Judaism, you will need to do more — maybe not tomorrow, but at some point.

What is the “more”? It may be Torah study, if only to learn the stories that will give you cultural common ground with other Jews. It may be regular, inquisitive synagogue attendance, not to “pray to a God [you] don’t believe in,” which is not at all why most Jews attend synagogue, but to try to learn over time why Jewish routine and ritual can, for some, be comforting and inspiring, and at some synagogues pretty rocking. It may be celebrating more Jewish holidays than the two you grew up with. These holidays may be based on lies and historical hypocrisies, you can argue, but so are all the American holidays that you celebrate, like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July — in fact, an argument could be made that all ritual is based on social construction, often dishonest or merely pointless in nature (Sunday as the day off, anyone?). It may be reading Jewish books (free here) with your children, so that Judaism seems more native to them than it was to you — or in other ways building Jewish identity in your children so that they have a more native sense of what thick Jewish culture is than you do, and are able to embrace or reject it by choice, not default.

It may be just reading a lot about Judaism and talking about it a lot within the family, the way that many African Americans who may not go to black churches, attend black schools, or even have a majority of black friends nonetheless talk about blackness in a thoughtful, informed way. I have Spanish-American friends who treat their Spanish identity this way: not as a problem, or a quandary, but as an area of abiding concern. Of course, that comes naturally to them. They are really engaged with their Spanishness. If they just didn’t care, they couldn’t fake it.

So let me emphasize that I am not prescribing any course of action for any one person or family; rather, I am trying to answer the question posed by Jessica Grose at the end of her short blog post. On some level, she craves identification with Judaism; she does identify with it. But she cannot see where that leads her except dishonest prayer at boring Friday-night services. So I hope I have helped explain why she might find herself in that quandary and what the historical conditions of her quandary are, and I have tried to suggest a way of looking beyond them.

I have to go put the laundry in the dryer now. Good night.

Thursday
Sep192013

You win some, you lose some — and then there’s Claudia Lennear

Everyone seemed to like this essay about how learning to practice religion is analogous to learning a sport, while nobody (at least on Twitter) seemed to like this piece expressing skepticism about giving your children classical-music lessons. I hear that this Times column about synagogues and High Holiday dues spoke to some people ... but it was their holiday season, and they were too busy fasting to drop me a line.

Strangely, people who were angered by classical-music piece (mainly music teachers, I think) were very likely to start following me on Twitter. As if to give me more chances to infuriate them.

Meanwhile, Spotify helped me find Claudia Linnear’s version of “Let It Be,” recorded in concert with Joe Cocker. And that is pretty great. I mean, check it out:

 

Sunday
Aug112013

Yes, religion can make you less creative. I’ll tell you how.

Reading this post by Rod Dreher, in response to a post by Colin Wood, I can only say that I think they skip past one of the major reasons that being religious might make you less creative: if it makes you less fun or irreverent. That is to say, sure, the strictures of religion can paradoxically make you fruitful, but not if they are so strict or rigorous—so orthodox—that you become a pill. Not if you can’t take a joke, about your religion or about anything else. Not if you become so uptight that you can’t abide profanity, heresy, or apostasy.

If your religion prohibits you from using profane words, it might make you more creative, because you have to find fresher and better ways to say what you are trying to say, rather than falling back on hackneyed profanities. But if your religion has so straitjacketed your thought that you can’t even think profane thoughts, then of course it has made you less creative. One might almost say that a huge part of creativity involves lusting in your heart, then finding ways to make art of that lust; but if some brand of orthodox religiosity has worked you over too well, and you can’t even admit your heart-lust to yourself, then as an artist you are probably screwed.

There are other obvious points to make. Much art, if not all, comes from a culture of outward conviviality. Whatever beautiful seeds might grow in a monastery whose inhabitants have taken a vow of silence, we have to admit that its residents are unlikely to produce good theater. In a community that is always policing its music for hints of the secular or profane, there is unlikely to be great music composition. Some religious people have always been skeptical of theater, or critical of lewd dance (which they may see as all dance). I think the point is clear ...

Those who deny the obvious ways that religiosity can stifle art are working from certain Reformed Protestant assumptions, according to which religiosity and modernity can find an accommodation, and according to which fundamentalism is a threat adequately, if not always easily, managed. In the real world, that ain’t always how it works out—not for Orthodox Jews of Boro Park, Brooklyn; not in the Mormon Church (with a poor track record of producing great art); not in Catholic religious life (where it depends vastly on what order we’re speaking of); not in much of the contemporary Islamic world; and so forth ...

None of this is to say that there aren’t deeply religious people who have made great art, art which may have been enhanced by their religiosity. But it can surely work the other way, too.

Saturday
Aug102013

Oh, I just think I’ll be a writer. Just like that.

In tomorrow’s New York Times real estate section—my wife’s (and my) guilty pleasure—there is an article about people who buy an extra apartment in their own building. It begins thus:

Freddie Gershon lives with his wife, Myrna, and his dog in a penthouse duplex with a terrace in Midtown East. The space is plenty big, he concedes — 6,500 square feet.

But apparently not quite big enough. Last month, Mr. Gershon, the chief executive of Music Theatre International, a licensing agency, closed on some additional real estate in his co-op: a one-bedroom 1,000-square-foot unit on the fourth floor.

“I have reached a point in my life where I want to write,” he said. “I have a book in mind, and I wanted a sanctuary that didn’t require me to get dressed and go outside. I wanted to go to the passenger or service elevator and just go to a different floor.”

Mr. Gershon—he of the penthouse duplex that you could fit two of my three-story house inside of, with room to spare—has managed to land squarely in the capital of pet-peeve land, as far as I am concerned. I mean, I cannot be the only one who think it is just ever so charming when amateur writers, people with no reason to believe they have any writing ability whatsoever, decide that they have a book in them. Mr. Gershon manages to demean the writing life in several ways, treating it as something that apparently anyone can do, at the same time that he sequesters writing in that “point in [one’s] life,” that is to say, in one’s retirement, when one takes up self-satisfied pursuits like gentleman farming, or running for the historical commission.

Here let me say that, as someone with a bit of a career as a writer, I actually don’t think writing is that hard. Not relative to some other vocations. If you can speak good, clear English, have an idea or two in you, and know how to read and write, you are well on your way to writing something reasonably compelling. But by that I mean only to say that Mr. Gershon may be able to write a decent 700-word op-ed piece, more surely than he can quickly learn to play lute or win archery competitions. Writing a book, on the other hand, at least a professional-quality book, is hard work. And the skills it takes to write a book, one that people want to read, are not apparently transferrable from other careers. Mr. Gershon works in music licensing—why does he think he can write a book? Does he think he can do particle physics?

For further evidence that Mr. Gershon is off to a poor start, consider this, also from the article:

Mr. Gershon said he had tried working at home. “But then I’d hear the phones,” he said. “Or I’d get distracted by the view of the river.”

I hope that Mr. Gershon proves me wrong—I hope he writes a terrific book that people flock to read. Meanwhile, however, he might consider this other characteristic of real writers: they don’t have the luxury of being distracted by a view of the river. Most of us writers, if we had done well enough to have a 6,500 square-foot penthouse duplex,wouldn’t need to buy an additional studio apartment just to put pen to paper.

Monday
Jul292013

Yes, Reader, you are a Puritan.

Big thanks to Andrew Sullivan for keeping the ball rolling on my New Republic “Fatherland” column of earlier this month, in which I argued that we liberals have sold out our liberal birthright — to be more laid-back than market-driven conservatives — by obsessing over purity and utopian notions of sanitation (among other things). Not just Sully but much of the blogosphere has been peculiarly interested in this topic, and I would have stayed in the battle more visibly if my wife had and I had not welcomed a baby just two weeks ago. But now we’re in the swing of things (hey, it’s our fourth), so I’d like to have my say again.

And to have my say, I need only point to the utter wingnuttery of the reader Sullivan quoted today, addressing my column. See my comments below, interspersed with his or hers:

As a progressive liberal parent, parenting in progressive liberal Seattle, I’m finding the lopsided caricature of liberal parenting presented recently on the blog to be rather unfair. In the specific case of fluoridation, it is by no means proven that fluoride is harmless –  some studies have linked fluoride to disruption of the endocrine system, leading to metabolic disorders and thyroid problems.  Could America’s obesity rates be somehow linked to its obsession with fluoridating its water?  The case against fluoridation is given here.

OK, so science is not this parent’s thing. Everything is toxic at a high-enough dose, but millions of Americans over many decades have grown up with fluoridated water — in fact, Portland is one of the last large cities in the country not to have fluoridated water. We have millions of case studies of the effects of fluoridated water, and the effect seems to be ... healthier teeth. Speaking of which, our country's obesity spike occurred well after cities began putting fluoride in the water. In short, this line of argument is worthless, as well as elitist: note that the author doesn’t seem to care at all about the profound need in poor communities for the dental-health measures that the author can take for granted.

But in general, I would consider being against fluoridation to be a somewhat conservative stance. To me the idea of adding medicines to drinking water seems to be the nanny state operating at its finest (there is no other reason for adding fluoride to water beyond the prevention of tooth decay).  If I want to use fluoride, then it’s super simple for me to just buy a fluoridated toothpaste, giving me a degree of choice and control over what I put into my body that federally-mandated fluoridation just doesn’t give me.

Indeed, I made the point that anti-fluoridation is, properly, a stance of the far right. It used to be, as it happens, a stance primarily of the far right. As to "simple ... just to buy fluoridated toothpaste," this is doubly offensive. First, the author misunderstands the science — having fluoride in the water helps the teeth grow in strong — and, second, the author smugly forgets the children growing up in homes without a regular supply of toothpaste, or supervised tooth brushing. They need this public health measure most.

On a more general note, I’m a firm believer in “you are what you eat”. I don’t think it’s an accident that my daughter is very rarely sick.

 I can only say that millions of parents are laughing along with me right now. “My daughter” — you mean your only child, the one without siblings bringing home colds and fevers to share? When my wife and I had just a “my daughter,” we used to be smug about how rarely she was sick. Now that “daughter” has become “daughters,” we laugh less. They are sick more. And by the way, we’re vegetarians, our kids eat very healthily ... and still they get sick.

It’s because she generally gets her five fruits and vegetables a day.  But I have to be vigilant over what my eight-year-old daughter puts in her body because no one else is doing it for me.  Added sugars, salt, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated fats are routinely added to processed foods, often when you would least expect them. Why do juice boxes require added sugar? Wherever she goes – camps, after school activities, birthday parties – she is presented with an overwhelming abundance of boxed pizza, boxed mac ‘n cheese and processed sugary treats. Try finding a vegetable, or even fruit,  on any kids menu in America. And that’s before we get to the barrage of propaganda on behalf of (government subsidized) Big Ag that she’s subjected to every time she turns on the TV.
Oh boy. I guess I should be grateful this author is proving my point entirely: some so-called liberal parents are totally bonkers, like Lyndon LaRouche, gold standard, Ayn Rand bonkers. “Five fruits and vegetables a day” — what do you do if she goes to bed with only four? Wake her up and force-feed her a cumquat? (Did I spell that right?) You guard against sugar and salt — both totally fine consumed in moderation? In fact, necessary? And no boxed pizza? Is this childhood, or Orange Is the New Black — with Mom as the Porn-stache the guard?
It seems to me that “conservatism” is all about preserving the status quo of Big Ag and Big Pharma, whereas it is we progressive liberals who are seeking to return to and conserve an earlier simpler world where we can all have access to nutritious food grown in proper soil by local farmers. If we occasionally seem paranoid and over-zealous – and we are sometimes – it’s because that simple goal is nowadays really difficult to achieve.
Well, that is one way of looking at it. I was calling on progressives to take a different point of view: that our politics should be, in part, about stress reduction, and that sometime simpler, stress-free living might mean ordering Domino’s pizza (in a box!) and not having to wash off the sin in “proper soil” the next day.