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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.


Contemporary journalism gravitates toward conflict, so this emphasis on rampant Jewish strife may come naturally to Freedman, a former New York Times reporter who teaches at Columbias School of Journalism.
But the evidence he offers doesnt back it up. Yes, Jews in America brawl, and sometimes their brawls get ugly. But other American Jews work to end brawls and promote unity. One of the books most dramatic passages occurs in the chapter on the Beachwood controversy, when the senior rabbi at Fairmount Temple, the citys largest Reform synagogue, pleads from his pulpit for Jewish harmony. “Jews must take care of other Jews because no one else will,” Rabbi Joshua Aaronson tells 2,000 High Holiday worshippers. “All of you can call to mind the voluminous list of incidents in Jewish history that irrefutably proves this point… We cannot turn away this group of Jews. All Jews must be prepared to accept other Jews into their midst.”
Jew vs. Jew is an attention-getting title, but it is belied by Freedmans own examples of the “various efforts and programs afoot that seek Jewish community”—rabbis from different branches of Judaism learning together in Westchester County, the building in San Antonio peaceably shared by four very different Jewish organizations, the adult education program in Washington taught jointly by Orthodox and Conservative clergy. These efforts are “so striking,” he writes, because they “stand so lonely.”
They arent lonely. There are a myriad of similar efforts—from Project SEED, which sends yeshiva students to towns across America so they can study with Jews from all backgrounds; to Clevelands Beyachad (“togetherness”) Committee, which facilitates dialogue among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstruc­tionist, and secular Jews; to the hundreds of Hillel Houses on campuses nationwide, where Jewish students of every description meet for religious services, social activities, educational programs, and kosher meals.
Freedmans attempt to depict Amer­­i­can Jewry as a community merci­less­ly ripping itself apart is not just unconvincing, it is unnecessary. And it distracts from his much larger, much more important theme: The demise of secular Judaism as the basis of Jewish identity.
Of course, conflict and disharmony plague the American Jewish community, as they have plagued Jewish communities from time immemorial. But look beyond the infighting, to the social and demographic backdrop against which it is taking place, and it becomes clear that what has been so extraordinaryׁand consequentialׁabout the Jewish experience in America is not the hostility of Jews. It is the love of gentiles.
 
According to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, 52 percent of married American Jews have non-Jewish spouses. For Jews in the United States, marrying outside the faith has become the rule, not the exception. This marks a shift of seismic proportions.
Paradoxically, intermarriage was close to nonexistent during the first half of the twentieth century, the decades when Jewish religious practice was so minimal. “From the early Twenties through the late Fifties, “Freedman notes, “the share of such marriages crept up only from 1.7 to 6.6 percent; such shame was attached to ‘marrying out’ that Jewish parents often observed the mourning ritual of shiva for a child who did so.”
But as anti-Semitism receded, as the Jewish quotas at elite colleges faded, as white-shoe law firms and posh country clubs began welcoming Jews, the barriers that used to obstruct social contact between Jews and other Americans came down. Abies Irish Rose, an early twentieth-century Broadway hit about an intermarried couple, depicted a novelty. By the 1970s, Freedman remarks, “such a scenario looked more like documentary realism in the television sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie.”
To many Americans, in fact, marriages between Jews and gentiles came to be seen as a positive good. As the historian Jack Wertheimer has written, such marriages “are, after all, symptomatic of increased tolerance and equality, the twinned ideals that in our age seem to trump all other competing values. How better to show the harmonious mingling of Americas heterogeneous population than through the union of individuals of diverse backgrounds?”
This attitude is widespread, as an intermarriage rate of 52 percent might suggest. In the American Jewish Committees annual survey of Jewish opinion in the United States in 2000, 50 percent of respondents agreed that “it is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages.” Only 39 percent agreed with the statement “It would pain me if my child married a gentile.” Asked to characterize their feelings about Jews marrying non-Jews, 56 percent said either that they were neutral or that they favored such marriages.
A 1995 poll of teens who had recently celebrated their bar or bat mitzva in a Conservative synagogue—in other words, young people with some measure of Jewish involvement—were asked whether “it is okay for Jews to marry people of other religions.” Nearly two-thirds answered yes. It seems safe to conclude that for the great majority of American Jewry, the once-powerful taboo against intermarriage—a fundamental prohibition in Jewish law—no longer carries much weight.
In truth, it seems safe to conclude that for the great majority of American Jewry, Jewish law in general carries little weight. When American Jews were asked in the AJC survey to name the quality they consider most important to their Jewish identity, only 16 percent pointed to religious observance. Fourty-five percent answered vaguely, “Being part of the Jewish people”; 34 percent, even more abstractly, chose “a commitment to social justice” or an undefined “something else.”
For non-religious Jews, then, what does it mean to be Jewish in America? The answer to that question, says Freedman, is what “the struggle for the soul of American Jewry” is really about.
For most American Jews, Jewish identity has typically come down to “Jewishness,” a solidarity based on ethnicity and social bonds. In Camp Kinderwelt, for example, Jewishness meant Yiddish songs and the pioneering spirit of Zionism. To Bill Pluss, a doctor whose fiancee underwent the Denver joint conversion program, it meant mostly food. “If Judaism as a faith offered little to Bill, Freedman writes,
Judaism as a culture suffused him. His best friends were Jewish… He spent summers at JCC camp… More than anything, Jewish culture meant shabbos dinner… Aunt Nellie always made gefilte fish or chopped liver or brisket, and also the dishes that harked back to childhood poverty—miltz, which was spleen, and a sweet-and-sour cows foot called fees. Then came peach pie and a stroll through the neighborhood and finally Uncle Lous home movies. So what if Julius Pluss had drifted far enough from his own Orthodoxy to work on most Saturdays; so what if Rose Pluss periodically sneaked bacon onto the family menu? What were rules compared to all the heart the Plusses put into their Sabbath table?
One of the Reform protagonists in the Beachwood battle, Si Wachs­ber­ger, tells Freedman that he doesnt know if he believes in God, but he certainly believes in being Jewish. “Its a common culture,” he explains. Being “surrounded by friends and relatives who are Jewish. Having Passover dinner together, going to syna­gogue on the High Holidays—enjoyable things you did with the people you loved.” In short, “the experiences and beliefs you share without even thinking aboutit.”
A sketch of a “praying Hasid” hangs on the wall of Wachsbergers home office; in the dining room is a lithograph of “an Old World rabbi with flowing beard, a Bible in his palms.” But when a real-life Orthodox Jew sees him tending his garden on Saturday and asks, disapprovingly, “On shabbos you have to work?” he is resentful. What offends him about that question—what offends him about the Orthodox surge into Beachwood – is “the sense… of being judged, scorned, found deficient as a Jew.”


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