Assimilation’s Retreat

Reviewed by Jeff Jacoby

Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry
by Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster,385 pages.

For much of the twentieth century, traditional Judaism in America appeared to be a hopeless cause. Nearly one million Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States between 1899 and 1910, but only 305 of them were rabbis. When the chief rabbi of New York died in 1902, no one was recruited to replace him. In an editorial a few years later, The American Hebrew, a weekly newspaper, lamented “that wretched state of religion which is symptomatic of the life of so many Jews”—like those, it said, who never set foot in a synagogue except on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. “Religious indifference with them is not the result of deep and serious thinking,” the editorial concluded “It is due to chronic mental and spiritual deadness.”
On the eve of Americas entry into World War I, there were 3.5 million Jews in America, but only five religious day schools. In 1930, only one American Jew in three belonged to a synagogue, and three-fourths of Jewish children received no religious education. Outside New York, mikvaot (ritual baths) were very few and far between. Kosher butchers served a tiny clientele. As late as 1955, one prominent sociologist saw Orthodox Judaism in America as “a case study of institutional decay.” With good reason, it seemed, had the Orthodox rabbis of Eastern Europe discouraged immigration to what they considered not a goldeneh medineh, or “golden land,” but the treif medinehׁthe “unkosher land.”
Yet half a century later, religious Judaism in America is thriving. Classic yeshivot exist in major cities nationwide. From five in 1917, the number of Jewish day schools has exploded to nearly 700. And though they account for only 10 percent of American Jews, the Orthodox exert great influence on Jewish culture, politics, and commerce. Just how far their clout extends became apparent in 2000, when the Democratic Party nominated an Orthodox Jew, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, as its candidate for vice president.
“The Orthodox renaissance,” writes journalist Samuel G. Freedman in his absorbing and thought-provoking book Jew vs. Jew, “stands as the most striking and unexpected phenomenon in modern American Jewish history.” That renaissance has been the cause of countless effects, from the vast array of classic Jewish texts now available in English translation to the abundance of packaged foods bearing a certification of kashrut that can be found in any American supermarket. It has also been the catalyst in “the struggle for the soul of American Jewry,” the subtitle and subject of Jew vs. Jew.
Freedman introduces his subject starkly. “From the suburban streets of Great Neck to the foot of the Western Wall,” he writes, “I have witnessed the struggle for the soul of American Jewry. It is a struggle that pits secularist against believer, liberal against conservative, traditionalist against modernist even within each branch [of Judaism]ֹ. It is a struggle that has torn asunder families, communities, and congregations.” Jew vs. Jew illuminates this struggle in a series of six case histories, each marked by the deep reporting and sympathetic narration that distinguished his earlier books, including Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church (1993) and The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond (1996).
He begins in Kinderwelt, a summer camp in the Catskills that was once a showplace of secular Labor Zionism—the kind of Jewish environment in which Yiddish conversation was highly prized but Tisha Bav, the most sorrowful day on the Jewish calendar, “consisted of little more thanֹ the Kinderwelt children forgoing swimming for the day.”
By the 1960s, it was clear that Kinderwelt was losing its appeal; in 1971 it closed for good. Meanwhile, just two miles away, the Satmar Hasidim were founding the all-Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel. It quickly became a boom town, growing from 525 residents in 1977 to 12,000 in 1998—and with families averaging nearly seven children each, it seems certain to flourish, and to perpetuate its intense religiosity, for years to come. “More than anything,” Freedman reports, “Kiryas Joel poured its resources into inculcating the next generation with the Satmarer way, creating a system of thirteen schools overseen by four hundred teachers and administrators and teaching five thousand children.”
From the Catskills, Freedman turns to Denver, where in 1977 a group of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis created a joint program for conversion to Judaism. Prospective converts were required to take a twenty-week class in basic Judaism, to undergo immersion in a mikveh, and to accept a list of duties called the “Ten Commitments.” Much of this list was kept deliberately vague. Converts committed to keeping a Jewish home, for example, but what that entails was not specified. “Did a Jewish household have to be shomer shabbos, Sabbath-observant? Was it permissible to drive or watch TV on a Saturday?” The rabbis didnt say.
Indeed, it was “a rule of the rabbinical council, a foundation of its comity, not to discuss halacha,” traditional Jewish law. But under Orthodox doctrine, a converts willingness to accept the yoke of halacha is indispensable. Before long, the participating Orthodox rabbis began to feel like frauds, giving their approval to what were essentially Reform conversions. Within six years, the joint program fell apart.
In subsequent chapters, Jew vs. Jew takes up a Conservative congregations skirmish over the insertion of feminist language in the amida prayer, tells the story of an Orthodox Jew so outraged by the Oslo peace process that he planted a bomb in a Florida synagogue to disrupt a speech by Shimon Peres, and revisits the case of five Orthodox students who sued Yale University in 1996 over its requirement that all freshmen live in a coed dormitory.
In his longest case study, Freedman describes the heated battle that erupted in Beachwood, Ohio, an affluent and largely Jewish Cleveland suburb, over an Orthodox plan to build two synagogues, two mikvaot, and a religious school for girls. Beach­woods Reform Jews, determined to preserve what some of them called ׂthe secular nature of our city,׃ went to war to block the project. If it were to be built, they warned, even more Orthodox Jews would pour into the city. “You started to feel pushed, crowded,” one of them told Freedman. “You didnt want Beachwood to be a ghetto.” They fretted that the city would turn into a “little Jerusalem” and that the public school system—which the Orthodox tend to shun—would go “down the toilet.”
There was some hypocrisy in the vehemence of the Reform opponents. More than four decades earlier, their own plan to build a synagogue, Beachwoods first, had been bitterly contested. Then, too, the claim had been that the citys quality of life would suffer—but in 1952 that argument was made by anti-Semites anxious to prevent “an alien influx” of Jews. Now it was being made by Jews to keep out other Jews. “Not in a hundred years,” writes Freedman, summarizing the feelings of one of the Orthodox leaders, “would Beach­woods Jews have blocked a church the way it was blocking the campus. Only when it came to Orthodox Jews were they willing to carry on like bigots.”
Among contemporary American Jews, Freedman suggests, such hostility has reached crisis proportions—a “civil war,” he calls it at one point. His narrative is sprinkled with examples of ugly name-calling and worse. To mention a few: A secular Jew screams obscenities at the Luba­vitcher Hasid who approaches him outside Madison Square Garden with a pair of tefilin. Alumni of Camp Kinderwelt revile the Orthodox Jews of Kiryas Joel as “greasy Jews” who “smell like cholera.” A group of black-clad American haredim, or “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, assault a gathering of Conservative Jews holding an egalitarian prayer service near the Western Wall.
Such episodes are disgraceful, but they hardly add up to civil war. In trying to prove that an “overarching climate of division” is pitting Jew against Jew, Freedman overstates his case. He goes so far as to open his prologue with the Talmuds famous declaration that the destruction of the Second Temple and the terrors that accompanied it were caused less by the Romans than by the Jews own sinat hinam, groundless hatred. Disputes may roil the American Jewish community, but they do not come close to that level of bitterness. Even Harry Shapiro, the Florida Jew convicted of planting a bomb in a synagogue, insists he had no intention of actually hurting fellow Jews. (The bomb never exploded, and Shapiro claimed it was only a dud.)

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