Brokedown Palace


Once upon a time there was Jewish unity.

Not all of the time, perhaps not even most of the time, certainly not in the biblical era, and not in the pre-Holocaust European era either. Nevertheless, “unity” was the Eleventh Commandment, if ever there was one.

That unity is now as gone as the steam locomotive. If there is one ominous truth to be found in UJA-Federation of New York’s new cultural and demographic “Jewish Community Study” of New York City, Westchester and Long Island, it is that Jewish identity, let alone unity, has never been more vague or solitary than it is in 2012.

The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of the chasidic movement, taught that one must have “mesirat nefesh (total self-sacrifice and dedication) for the love of a fellow Jew, even towards a Jew whom one has never seen.” Love was the soul of unity.

In those days, it was possible to imagine loving a Jew whom one had never seen. A shtetl Jew from the Carpathian Mountains could walk into a town a thousand miles away, in Casablanca or Copenhagen, and Shabbat’s rhythms and readings were the same; kashrut could be trusted; and a bed and meals would be offered to an unfamiliar face in shul, for no Jew was a stranger. Everyone felt like family. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, “nothing feels better than blood on blood.”

A little more than a century ago, in the era of the Dreyfus trial, there was such Jewish unity and a sense of shared fate, that as Sholom Aleichem joked, when it rained in Paris “they opened umbrellas” in Ukraine.

Almost a half-century ago, after the Six-Day War, The New York Times observed, “It was apparent in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem … [that the Jewish citizens act] as if the life of the nation was everything and their personal lives were incidental.” It was understood; Jewish life wasn’t about you but about our unity. You didn’t wait for someone to outreach to you, you outreached to the community to find out what you could do.

Pamela Cohen, who had been president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews in the 1980s, mentioned recently while visiting The Jewish Week, “It’s hard for some people to believe today, but I knew people who would take a second mortgage on their house to help a Jew in the Soviet Union that they never even met. You tell that to people today, they don’t understand it. We knew everything that was happening to Soviet Jews, as much as it was possible to know. They were like family to us.”

Jews around the world knew that Dreyfus and Soviet Jews were Jews like family, a child of a Jewish mother, or a convert, the traditional standard. When the Reform movement, in 1983, adopted the standard of a Jew being someone who had a Jewish father and was raised Jewish, it created a fissure, but there was still agreement that Jewish identity required some combination of genetics and praxis. The split led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, one of this generation’s great advocates of denominational coexistence, to ask in the 1980s, “Will there be one Jewish people by the year 2000?”

Well, here we are in 2012, and, according to the population study, we now have those who identify as Jews despite having neither a Jewish mother nor a Jewish father, nor a conversion, “even while identifying with Christianity or another non-Jewish religion (many more do so now than who so reported in 2002).” Can the great historical passion of Jewish unity, along with fundraising in one extreme of the community for the benefit of another, survive based on — well, based on what, exactly?

There are 208,000 Orthodox children (127,000 chasidic), and 131,000 non-Orthodox children. How much interaction, let alone unity, can we expect them to have? Many chasidim are insular, but how many non-Orthodox Jews have brought their children to Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg but never to chasidic Williamsburg in Brooklyn? Are those non-Orthodox Jews insular, too, in their way?

If contributing to UJA-Federation, a charity for the entire community, is a measure of one’s lack of insularity, what are we to make of the fact that 11 percent of the “insular” chasidic and yeshivish Jews contribute to UJA-Federation, compared to 9 percent of secular Jews and 12 percent of the intermarried. Insularity is increasingly the norm.

Among Orthodox children, 93 percent are getting a day school education. Among the Jewish children of the intermarried, says the study, “most receive no Jewish schooling” at all. How will a common Jewish conversation grow out of that disparity?

Among young intermarried couples (ages 18-34) who are not Orthodox, only 7 percent feel “very attached to Israel.” With 50 percent of non-Orthodox couples intermarrying, and to the extent that Jewish unity, for so many in all denominations, is entwined with feeling “very attached to Israel,” that number is foreboding.

Our subgroups are not only insular but we insulate individually. Many who are engaged in Jewish life are increasingly engaged alone, their Judaism is self-defined, their activities (such as going to a JCC or a Jewish cultural event), says the study, are activities that can be “undertaken individually or with friends and family; they do not demand formal affiliation or collective action.” Other than the shul affiliated (in all the denominations), we are entering an era of “bowling alone,” as sociologist Robert Putnam once described it, in which, he discovered that more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but numbers bowling in organized leagues have plummeted. This has led to the loss of “social interaction and even occasionally [the] civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo.”

A society is malnourished when we’re more solitary than social. What we’re increasingly seeing among isolated but identifying Jews, is similar to Putnam’s analysis of people who may be fans of the same sports team. Too often they may “root for the same team, and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other’s existence.”

According to Putnam, “dense networks of interaction,” such as in synagogues and voluntary Jewish activism, broaden the participants’ sense of self, developing the ‘I’ into ‘we,’” or the Jewish I-Thou, the essence of a unity that is not only circumstantial but of the soul.