The night after Joel Hoffman filled in for Dennis Ross as CAJE’s keynote speaker, Hoffman’s father, Larry Hoffman, gave the conference’s second keynote address.
The elder Hoffman, who is the author of some 30 books on Judaism and Jewish thought, proposed to the CAJE-ians that every generation of Jews has a project that it must complete to pass on Judaism to the next generation.
That project for American – non-Orthodox – Jews of this generation is to figure out how to pass on a Judaism that has moved over the last 150 years from Germany and Eastern Europe to America – and from the American city to the American suburb.
Hoffman boiled it down this way, warning that ethnic identity dies within four generations: Bubby and Zaidy are genuinely European and Jewishly ethnic. Embarrassed by ethnic identification, their kids spurn it. The grandchildren cling to the culture of Bubby and Zaidy for nostalgic reasons but have no real connection to the ethnic component. By the fourth generation, nothing’s left.
We are the fourth generation: American Jews who are no longer connected with their European identities and are in danger of becoming totally detached form their Jewish identities, Hoffman said.
Finding Judaism devoid of spirituality, some Jews found it elsewhere, Hoffman said. “During the 1960s, Americans discovered spirituality,” he said. “They traveled and found Eastern ideas about God and spirit, and we did not know from that. We had been largely socialists.”
The challenges now is to infuse Judaism with spirituality, he said.
“Ethnicity becomes nostalgia, and as they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” he said. “That is why we need to go to spirituality. We need to start talking about God.”
Hoffman got a standing ovation.