Why don't you live with your own kind?
What follows is inspired by a post of Naomi Chana's.
On Sunday I attended a Chasidic protest in Williamsburg as research for a story that Steven I. Weiss (of Protocols) and I are working on. More on that later. From a sociological and psychological point of view, though, the visit provided yet another opportunity to marvel at how one can have a great deal in common with a group yet feel completely out of place among them.
No, this is not going to be an omphalocentric meditation on Identity, the Mystery that is Me. But I am going to talk about one of my preoccupations: the creation of an ideology that takes advantage of contradictory ideas without being beholden to the entirety of their sources.
Let me be more specific. I would like more Jews to appreciate the Yiddish language, and I would like to help strengthen and expand our almost nonexistent (but what an "almost"!) community of secular-minded Yiddish speakers. "Secular" is meant not as an exclusion of religion (I am observant myself), but as a denial of fundamentalism.
Since I am a Yiddishist, I am fascinated by the particular brand of the language characteristic of American Chasidim, both in its colloquial and literary registers. As Joshua Fishman has pointed out time and again in his articles in the Yiddish Forward and elsewhere, secular Yiddishists have one large thing to learn from the Chasidim: that speaking a language in the home-family-neighborhood nexus, not theater, newspapers, or literature, is what makes a spoken language intergenerationally transmissible.
So why don't I move to Borough Park or Williamsburg, where spoken Yiddish is a lot more secure than in downtown Manhattan? An acquaintance of mine, an intelligent ultra-Orthodox woman, asked me more or less this question after a talk I gave a few months ago at a conference in Baltimore of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. In response, I said, "I'm not a Chasid. I am not against Chasidim; I appreciate their use of Yiddish. But my religious observance and philosophical approach to Judaism is quite different, and I think it worth my while to try and build a liberally Jewish, philosophically cogent, Yiddish-speaking community where I live."
In other words, I am devoting time and frustration to a near-impossible contradiction in terms. I am a traditional Jew in an egalitarian Conservative congregation speaking Yiddish with my family. Such traditional Judaism, in my personal context, raises another contradiction. I am observant of the Sabbath and holidays and kashrut, and I study Torah regularly, albeit with a critical eye. Regular readers of this blog already know that I frequently despair about the Conservative movement's many flaws. Why then -- some of you might ask -- do you not flee to the Orthodox movement, or even take advantage of the Reform movement's increasing observance?
Such questions could be asked of many contradictions I live with. How can I support Israel while realizing more and more that American Jews need to find other, extra-Zionist preoccupations that invigorate their own community? How can I study epidemiology while retaining a healthy skepticism about the risk-free messianism peddled by so many advocacy groups?
To create an ideology, and then to try and convince others of its usefulness, one needs a modicum of stability. One cannot constantly migrate from group to group, even on the basis of deep-rooted frustration, until one is sure that the most fruitful frustrations are not to be found in one's current home. If I am dissatisfied by the multiple contradictions I negotiate, I am also inspired by what is possible precisely because of these contradictions. If I were completely satisfied by my community, something would be terribly wrong.