I just received the new issue of the Jewish Quarterly (London) with a new article of mine in it. (With other interesting material as well, of course.) Unfortunately, I doubt anyone in this country has heard of it, and their web site is sorely lacking. Please buy the new issue (Spring 2004, Number 193), but failing that, here's my piece.
New York’s Jews, religious and secular: Some unwelcome questions
The most popular synagogues in Manhattan are those that bestride the bounds of denominational identity with verve, creativity, or brazenness – or out of sheer necessity, because they have no other choice. Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the “gay shul,” is liturgically too traditional for the Reform movement, and too homosexual for the Conservatives. B’nai Jeshurun, which packs hundreds of single young worshippers on Friday nights into the sanctuary it shares with a church on the Upper West Side, is definitely not Orthodox (look your best for the attractive davener next to you), and, since it uses musical instruments at the Shabbat service, can’t be Conservative either.
Then there are the grass-roots mini-minyanim which have sprung up so that like-minded young people can find friendly faces to daven among. Perhaps the oldest of such minyanim, Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE), is an Orthodox prayer group meeting on Saturday mornings and holidays, which seems to tremble chronically on the edge of schism and ideological transformation, too liberal for other established Orthodox synagogues and too conservative for the other smaller groups that have sprung up. For example, Kehilat Hadar, a minyan of some hundred attendees, coming together regularly in temporary quarters, is marked by liturgical conservatism and a love of singing. Darchei Noam is a minyan that calls itself Orthodox, and indeed there is separate seating at its services – but its extensive women’s participation would be out of place at most Orthodox synagogues. Kol Zimrah, a minyan that takes its inspiration from the Reconstructionist and Chavurah movements, is another newcomer to this scene, not to mention a couple of other such groups in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Why do so many twenty- and thirty-somethings find a need to daven outside the strictures of organized, denominationally centered synagogue life? What does this say about Jewish life in New York, both among religious Jews and among those still hardy and independent-minded enough to identify themselves as secular?
There are two reasons for the mini-minyans, one prosaic and one philosophical. The first is demographic homogeneity. Many of these new prayer groups are frequented by twenty- and thirtysomethings who prefer to socialize – and to pray, sing, and enjoy a kiddush – with those of similar age and marital status. Anyone over the age of thirty-five who attends such a “demo-homo” minyan will often feel out of place, not because the daveners themselves are unfriendly, but because they are not in the in-group. But what will happen to those currently active in such mini-minyanim in five or ten years, when they are either older and married, or, worse still in the Upper West Side taxonomy, older and unmarried? Will they still feel comfortable presiding over a second-generation, newly arrived crop of fresh-faced, Conservadox Ivy League graduates?
But there is a more charitable explanation for this phenomenon. Committed, intelligent young New Yorkers are more and more coming to find that the institutional orientation of American Judaism does not overlap with their own interests and commitments. Luckily for them, New York is preserving its reputation as a sort of laboratory, where beakers of young Jews, bubbling away in dark, hip corners, produce innovative substance that can be exported to the rest of the country.
Each of the large denominations has justified its existence to the present day on the basis of a handful of issues. The Reform movement liberated its members from the yoke of halachah, only to refashion that yoke according to the individual will, and then, most recently, to place that new yoke over its own necks, a la Sinai, with communal consent. But where do social action and the ethical imperative, the highest and irreplaceable mitzvot of Reform Judaism, fit in this new rightward tilt? The institutions of Modern Orthodoxy came out of an urge to prove the success of strict halachic practice within the framework of modern American life. But neither the strict halachists (who are attracted to the fundamentalist Orthodox groups of Brooklyn), nor the adherents of modern scholarly-intellectual practice (who are splitting off into their own minyanim and seminaries) are satisfied with the trends of their movements. Will there be a modern Orthodoxy in fifty years? And the monkey in the middle, Conservative Judaism, is having its strength sheared from it by Reform on the left and Orthodoxy on the right; egalitarianism, the burning issue of Conservatism’s 80s and 90s, is now taken for granted even by the movement’s neighbors on both sides. Is there a Conservative passion left for the next millennium that will not consume the bush planted by Schechter and Heschel?
It goes without saying that many lay Jews are not proficient in the inside-baseball differences that characterize Jewish interdenominational squabbling – after all, it’s pretty late in the century, and somewhat late in American Jewish life, to blame the widely recognized American Jewish apathy and ignorance on one particular group of Jews. But many involved New York Jews go one step farther: their flexibility and experimentation in matters doctrinal, halachic, and cultural are precisely at those junctures where organizations and institutions have planted red flags. They walk across the minefield not even looking at the danger signs. So Maimonides’ thirteen principles, the authorship of the Torah, and the binding nature of mitzvot are topics freely discussed by Orthodox and non-Orthodox scholars at a number of forums. Recognition of intermarried couples and of homosexual relationships, a danger zone for the Conservative movement, is approached more and more often, albeit quite gingerly and only in lay organizations. And the Reform leadership, seemingly heedless of a disconnect with the membership such as is bedeviling the Conservatives, is inching ever closer to an appreciation, if not a binding understanding of halachah.
If committed, religiously observant New York Jews don’t respect the denominational boundaries of the last fifty years, how can they be pinned down? While their principles vary, of course, one can try to summarize their approach. Institutions require strict divisions between “in” and “out” – an intermarried Jew must be thrown out because there is a chance that his or her spouse might find their way into the community, which would then, ipso facto, no longer be Jewish, or at least be less so. The truth, individuals and communities know, is somewhat more complicated, because those intermarried couples who bother to associate with a Jewish community are often more committed than couples in which both members are Jewish. This explains why New York’s Jewish cultural institutions, which play the role of venues for ideas that synagogues cannot entertain without unlooked-for repercussions, provide myriad discussion and support groups – not to combat intermarriage, as Jewish communal leaders would characterize the main goal of American Jewry, but to integrate such couples into the larger community.
At the same time that denominational boundaries are being crossed, the influence of two very large, nearly homogeneous communities is strongly felt. The fact that most Jews are to be found under the influence of one or both of these groups will determine to what extent post-denominational Judaism will succeed in the city. On the one hand, fundamentalist ultra-Orthodoxy, a group notable both for its internal power struggles (one would not be amiss in classifying Brooklyn Chasidim, for example, as three, six, or even ten “denominations”) and for its sociocultural homogeneity, like a giant mini-minyan. On the other hand are the Jewish secularists, who would probably not acknowledge, even if it were pointed out to them, their affinity with both Eastern European and Israeli mass-market, urban Jewish cultures.
Most of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox, though not all, are Chasidim, and many of the Chasidim, though again not all, are Yiddish-speaking. Though their oft-proclaimed adherence to the traditions of their ancestors occasions much admiring or scornful comment about the “shtetls [sic] in Brooklyn,” such statements betray an ignorance of the thoroughgoing yet disciplined innovation that is the source of these communities’ energy. Mass communication, popular culture, best-selling merchandise, rock-star personalities: the success of the Chasidim in creating a new culture on American soil, and their ability to convince themselves and others of their absolute fealty to the “old ways,” owes everything to these modern phenomena. At the same time, however, the uniquely Chasidic home-family nexus made possible by these modern walls of Yiddish (or merely English-language ultra-Orthodox) mass communication and consumption is also liable to be influenced precisely by the accoutrements of modernity that have made it possible. Chasidic rebbeim, for example, are ever more frequently inveighing against the influx of non-Chasidim into their communities, and the use of the Internet to popularize extra-fundamentalist tendencies. These troublesome tendencies, however, are either already used by the Chasidim or are about to enter their repertoire.
Surprisingly, then, the ultra-Orthodox communities of New York, who the city’s other Jews view with a mixture of fascination, envy, and trepidation, are confronting the same problems as the by now well-established, even traditional, American Jewish denominations. Institutional success leads to cooptation of the institution’s elements by those who would not have been originally allowed inside the tent, at the same time that looser boundaries of definition give rise to the fear that the institution will lose its native constituency. Add to this that Brooklyn’s Chasidic population is growing the fastest of any New York Jewish population (and therefore of any group of American Jews), and the question for New York Jews is obvious: if the Chasidim maintain their bloc, how will that affect the rest of us? And, by the same token, what can we expect if the Chasidim fragment, as has happened in other historical circumstances?
There are a number of Jews in New York who will understandably complain at being left out of the above summary. They call themselves by a variety of names – “just Jewish,” “cultural Jews,” “secular Jews” – but what they aren’t is clearer than what they are. They neither attend synagogue regularly, nor participate frequently in religious ritual, nor involve themselves in the minutiae of traditional observance. What, then, does a cultural or secular Jew do in New York? All manner of things, because New York is possibly the only city in the world where a non-religious, Jewish cultural diet can be pursued twenty-four hours a day, six (or even seven) days a week. Flyers and schedules for concerts (from Jewish hip-hop to klezmer to folk-inflected classical), lectures, classes, discussions, art exhibits, theater, readings, etc., etc., lie thick as manna upon the Manhattan ground.
Though it was only in the twentieth century, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, that Jewish secularism became a live option, it has quickly become the modus operandi that feels most familiar to the Jewish urban dweller. Early in the twenty-first century, however, it appears that such an option cannot live on for long as an independent choice on the committed Jew’s menu. This observation is made with regret, for a counterbalance is sorely needed to the tendency of American Jews to see their Jewish life as primarily “Judaism” – a religion bled dry of extra-legal content found somewhere between Protestantism and Catholicism. However, Jewish culturalism (if one can call it that) suffers not just from this Americanizing tendency, but the very assimilating nature of urban cultural life. That is, the questions cultural Jews have to answer include not only the same one that all Jewish religious denominations have to answer: what makes their Jewish life different and valuable in comparison to other groups? As they produce and consume an enviably rich and varied cultural output, Jews who identify themselves predominantly with non-religious Jewish culture must ask themselves: what makes their cultural life Jewish? If the denominations find it difficult to deal with their one question, rare is the cultural Jew who bothers to answer both. Let’s hope, for the sake of Gotham’s Jews, that they forthrightly discuss these matters across their picket fences, subway lines, and bagel counters.