Tony Judt on American Jews


Tony Judt’s body is failing him. Even if you recoiled in horror from his 2003 essay, only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by his heroic effort to be productive despite the degeneration wrought by ALS. The best reporting on Judt’s condition comes from NPR’s Terry Gross, in this interview which aired last month. 

In his latest piece for the New York Review of Books, Judt directs his take-no-prisoners intellect to the case of American Jews, and his judgment is disconcerting.

My grandparents came out of the shtetl and into unfriendly alien environments—an experience that temporarily reinforced a defensive Jewish self-awareness. But for their children, those same environments represented normal life. My parents’ generation of European Jews neglected their Yiddish, frustrated the expectations of their immigrant families, and spurned communitarian rituals and restrictions. As late as the 1930s, it was reasonable to suppose that their own children—my generation—would be left with little more than a handful of memories of “the old country”: something like the pasta-and-St.-Patrick’s-Day nostalgia of Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans, and with about as much meaning.

But things turned out differently. A generation of emancipated young Jews, many of whom had fondly imagined themselves fully integrated into a post-communitarian world, was forcibly re-introduced to Judaism as civic identity: one that they were no longer free to decline. Religion—once the foundation of Jewish experience—was pushed ever further to the margin. In Hitler’s wake, Zionism (hitherto a sectarian minority preference) became a realistic option. Jewishness became a secular attribute, externally attributed.

Ever since, Jewish identity in contemporary America has had a curious dybbuk-like quality: it lives on by virtue of a double, near-death experience. The result is a sensitivity to past suffering that can appear disproportionate even to fellow Jews. Shortly after publishing an essay on Israel’s future, I was invited to London for an interview with The Jewish Chronicle—the local Jewish paper of record. I went with trepidation, anticipating further aspersions upon my imperfect identification with the Chosen People. To my surprise, the editor turned off the microphone: “Before we start,” she began, “I’d like to ask you something. How can you stand to live among those awful American Jews?"

And yet, maybe those “awful American Jews” are onto something despite themselves. For what can it mean—following the decline of faith, the abatement of persecution, and the fragmentation of community—to insist upon one’s Jewishness? A “Jewish” state where one has no intention of living and whose intolerant clerisy excludes ever more Jews from official recognition? An “ethnic” membership criterion that one would be embarrassed to invoke for any other purpose?

There was a time when being Jewish was a lived condition. In the US today, religion no longer defines us: just 46 percent of Jews belong to a synagogue, only 27 percent attend at least once a month, and no more than 21 percent of the synagogue members (10 percent of the whole) are Orthodox. In short, the “old believers” are but a minority. Modern-day Jews live on preserved memory. Being Jewish largely consists of remembering what it once meant to be Jewish. Indeed, of all the rabbinical injunctions, the most enduring and distinctive is Zakhor!—Remember! But most Jews have internalized this injunction without any very secure sense of what it requires of them. We are the people who remember… something.

What, then, should we remember? Great-grandma’s latkes back in Pilvistock? I doubt it: shorn of setting and symbols, they are nothing but apple cakes. Childhood tales of Cossack terrors (I recall them well)? What possible resonance could these have to a generation who has never known a Cossack? Memory is a poor foundation for any collective enterprise. The authority of historical injunction, lacking contemporary iteration, grows obscure.

In this sense, American Jews are instinctively correct to indulge their Holocaust obsession: it provides reference, liturgy, example, and moral instruction—as well as historical proximity. And yet they are making a terrible mistake: they have confused a means of remembering with a reason to do so. Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents? If we fail to rise above this consideration, our grandchildren will have little cause to identify with us. 

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