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.