Dual Identity, Double the Questions
Chinese villagers found the baby, abandoned by her birth parents, in a basket on a riverbank.
“Just like Moses,” the child’s adoptive mother, Terri Pollock, says.
Today, Leah Hua Xia Pollock, 14, lives in Seattle and plays the flute in her temple’s klezmer band.
Last year, Leah became a bat mitzvah. As she stood on the bimah, looking out at the crowd of white faces before her, “it just dawned on me,” she said, “that even if I do look in the mirror and see someone different from the people around me, it doesn’t matter, because I’m accepted.”
Leah is among the first in a tidal wave of Chinese-born girls who are growing up in Jewish families in the United States. When she was adopted in 1992, she was one of only 206 Chinese children brought to the United States that year. Last year, Americans adopted slightly more than 7,900 children from China, nearly all of them girls.
China only opened its doors in a big way to international adoption in 1991 to help mitigate its problem of abandoned children, brought on by China’s one-child policy. That policy, which the government enforces by imposing economic penalties for noncompliance, combined with the traditional culture that sons care for their parents in old age, had resulted in a sea of neglected children, particularly girls.
These days, more American families are adopting from China than any other foreign country, and a large number of those families are Jewish. A wave of girls is now coming of age, starting to face challenging issues of identity.
There is the question of what it means to — look Jewish — for one — and the matter of who is a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish
Orthodoxy Has Chance to Reshape Role
A window has opened to the Orthodox community. We are being invited to help reshape the social dynamics of the American
Jewish community. With courage and vision, we need to act on this opportunity by understanding the important changes that have occurred over the last decades and rethinking the way we engage the broader Jewish community.
Never before in the history of U.S. Judaism has there been openness to Orthodoxy as sincere and real as that which we see today. I am not referring to openness in terms of individual Jews embracing Orthodoxy. For many practical and philosophical reasons, such individuals will always be relatively few. Rather, I am referring to the openness of non-Orthodox and interdenominational institutions to learning from the experiences and insights of their Orthodox brethren.
To wit, numerous hallmarks of Orthodox life have been adopted by other movements. Conservative and Reform day schools are growing in number and size. We are seeing broad adoption of the more participatory and Chasidic worship style. Non-Orthodox women’s groups have discovered the mikvah’a (ritual bath) use as a form of spirituality, and the new hip name for adult education institutes outside of Orthodoxy is kollel.
This phenomenon presents the Orthodox community with an unprecedented chance to engage with and contribute to the wider community in far-reaching and significant ways. But it is one that we can seize only by moving beyond our traditional parameters regulating interdenominational contacts, which have long since outlived their purpose and usefulness.
Today, Orthodox rabbis have practically disappeared from interdenominational boards of rabbis. In some communities, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council actually forbids its members from joining interdenominational boards.
Interdenominational study groups or even social action groups are practically unheard of. The vast majority of Orthodox synagogues would never consider having a joint Simchat Torah celebration, Shavuot night learning program or a Tisha b’Av ceremony with a non-Orthodox congregation.
Historically, there is strong precedence for such reticence about interdenominational involvements. In 1954, even Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik strongly discouraged Orthodox rabbis from pursuing matters of “spiritual religious interest” with non-Orthodox rabbis, while in 1956, an influential declaration signed by a dozen outstanding Orthodox luminaries, including Rabbi Moses Feinstein, prohibited membership in interdenominational groups.
But it is at the peril of American Judaism that we ignore the vital and fundamental differences between the 1950s and today. The concern that drove the rulings of 50 years ago is no longer relevant. The 1950s and ’60s were years of enormous struggle for American Orthodoxy, as children of Orthodox parents continued to leave Orthodox life in great numbers, and the culture militated hard against Orthodox Jews retaining their traditional observance.
The attraction of Conservative and Reform Judaism was very great in these circumstances. What Soloveitchik called an ideological battle, with the future of Orthodoxy at stake, was being waged against non-Orthodox movements. In this context, we can readily understand how any activity or association that implied Orthodoxy’s recognition of Conservative or Reform rabbis as peers would have signaled to the Orthodox community that all denominational options were equally acceptable.
In Soloveitchik’s words, “Too much harmony and peace can cause confusion of the minds and will erase outwardly the boundaries between Orthodoxy and other movements.”
Today, however, the Orthodox community has become a stable — indeed growing — presence successfully retaining its youth. The ideological battle is, for all intents and purposes, over.
Additionally, even as denominational lines continue to exist within the Jewish community, the only line that is thick and red divides those who ignore rising Jewish apathy and those ready to combat it. In the 1950s and indeed into the 1970s, intermarriage was statistically negligible. Today, standing as it does at nearly 50 percent, intermarriage is the greatest threat to the entire Jewish community.
Indifference toward one’s Jewish identity, the frequent precursor of intermarriage, is widespread among America’s Jews, as is evidenced by the paltry rates of synagogue affiliation that turn up in study after study. Anyone willing to fight for Jewish survival is a de facto ally.
Several years ago, I joined with non-Orthodox colleagues in creating a retreat program for our synagogue’s teenagers. One retreat was dedicated to the theme of interdating and intermarriage. The discussions were passionate and serious, and the openness to sharing and listening was breathtaking. The Orthodox teens made a palpable impact on their peers, and all it took was the courage to engage.
The window is open, and it may represent our last, best chance to effectively counter the trends that have been eroding both the quality and quantity of Jewish religious life in the United States.
The only question facing us is whether we help each other through by sharing resources, ideas and comradeship or hobble through by withholding spiritual capital in the name of an ideological battle that effectively ended a generation ago.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation and the president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. This column appears courtesy of www.edah.org.
Do We Have Anything Left to Give?
Do the Jews have anything left to give to America?
This question was on my mind recently, after I was on a panel at Brandeis-Bardin Institute to discuss the Jewish influence on American culture. The popular view on this subject is invariably, "Just look at all the Jews who run Hollywood and the media; look at the humor, the attitude, the Yiddish terms, etc. Jews are everywhere."
This is true, but when you start to look beneath the surface, you see a more complicated picture, one that suggests the waning influence of Judaism and the need to re-examine the Jews’ role in America as we begin the 21st century.
Culture is easy to steal. What was clearly "Jewish" at the turn of the century is now just as likely to be called American. Of course, America didn’t just steal it, we gave it away, with the gusto of a grateful people desperate to fit in.
And who can blame us? After 2,000 years of getting beat up everywhere we went, we discover this all-you-can-eat freedom buffet called America, and what do we do? We eat, and we cook and we have lots of people over.
Culture was the perfect Jewish thank-you gift to America. Movies, music, humor and literature are entertaining, relatively harmless and easily appreciated. They’re also easy to co-opt. That’s why the Gershwins, Bellows, Berles, Spielbergs and Streisands are at least as American as they are Jewish.
That’s not to say culture was all we gave; we’re not that homogeneous or disciplined. For every Woody Allen directing a film, there was an Abbie Hoffman directing a civil rights march.
But in the explosive areas of morality and politics, there was always a collective care in the Jewish community not to offend our gracious hosts. We may have planted the seeds of Jewish morality, but in the field of culture, we grew a forest.
This 100-year cultural love fest between the Jews and America has been a source of rightful pride, but it has left us with a nagging question that many Jews have difficulty answering: Do we have anything "Jewish" left to give?
We have trouble answering this question, because we’ve developed an instinct to equate everything Jewish with everything American. In other words, if our cultures are now so intertwined, then everything else — including our values — must be as well.
The American values of freedom, tolerance and diversity? They’re Jewish. The Jewish values of freedom, tolerance and diversity? They’re American.
It’s a simple, convenient formula that lets us feel Jewish and American without offending either side (even in our activism to defend Israel against terrorism, we never miss the chance to equate it with America’s war).
But there is a catch. In our zeal to equate America and Judaism, we have lost sight of some important differences. If we can learn how to internalize and share these differences without feeling like disloyal or ungrateful Americans, we will deepen both our Jewish identities and our contribution to our adopted country.
There are three areas where Judaism differs with America. As the historian Stephen Whitfield explains in his book, "In Search of American Jewish Culture" (University Press, 1999), America focuses on the individual, the here and now and the pursuit of pleasure, while Judaism focuses on the community, the past and the pursuit of meaning. In a nutshell, America is about freedom, while Judaism is more about what to do with that freedom.
Judaism respects the individual, but it places a higher value on connecting the individual to the community. Judaism is active in the present, but it elevates the lessons of history, the beauty of tradition and the power of considered thought (read one paragraph of Talmud and you’ll see that Judaism does not promote a short attention span). And while Judaism certainly doesn’t shy away from pleasure, it puts a higher priority on the value of leading a meaningful life.
In a litigious society that reveres the legal loophole, Judaism goes beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. It’s not enough to be right, we must also be good. Our Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) picks up where the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights leave off. Judaism is not obsessed with rights; it’s obsessed with obligations.
All this to say that yes, Judaism still has plenty to share with America. The good news is that America is ready to hear the Jewish message — we live in an open, multicultural, emotional country that doesn’t mind being moved and challenged. And after being such wonderful guests for so long, we’ve certainly earned the right to make a bolder contribution.
The not-so-good news is that Jews have become so American that all we’re giving back to America, it seems, is more of itself. This is a shame.
If more Jews had the chutzpah to assert and live up to our differences, we might add an exciting new dynamic to our relationship with America (and isn’t asserting one’s difference part of the American way?). Ironically, the Jews and America are now in the same boat: We both could use a little more Judaism.
For our Jewish leaders worried about "Jewish continuity" and "Jewish pride," they ought to educate and encourage Jews to become the unapologetic messengers of Judaism and its distinctive values. Instead of spending $6 million to count the Jews, they could spend that money to make Jews count.
And they ought to realize that a Jewish identity shaped by a negative, crisis mindset — against assimilation, against intermarriage, against anti-Semitism — is not as nourishing and lasting as one driven by the empowering questions: What values am I for and what values can I share?
In the 20th century, we were geniuses at sharing the value of our culture. In the 21st century, we can be geniuses at sharing the culture of our values. That would be good for America, and it certainly would be good for the Jews.
David Suissa is founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising and founder/editor of OLAM magazine. He can be reached at editor@OLAM.org.
Read Your Way to Cultural Literacy
Julie Sandorf recalls her immigrant grandparents telling her that they learned to be Americans at the public library, where they improved their English and learned more about American culture.
Now Sandorf wants this generation of Americans to use the public library to learn to be Jews.
Sandorf is the director of a new organization called Nextbook, a nationwide campaign dedicated to promoting Jewish cultural literacy through gateways such as the Internet and public libraries.
Replete with extensive reading lists, a daily cultural news digest and information regarding local library activities, Nextbook’s Web site — www.nextbook.org — has been up since early June.
“There’s an interest here in this being a gateway for disengaged Jews to learn about their culture, history and tradition,” Sandorf said.
Part of the program’s appeal is that it is not rooted in any particular denomination or synagogue, she said.
Reading lists have been a huge project for Nextbook. Books are listed in four separate categories: Discovering Myself, Portraits of the Artist, Sense of Place and Struggle & Justice.
Authors range from Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok to Grace Paley and Amos Oz.
Books include “Open Closed Open: Poems” by Yehuda Amichai, “Ideas and Opinions” by Albert Einstein, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” by Jacobo Timerman, and “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews” by Edda Servi Machlin.
“By nature, the book lists are very eclectic,” Sandorf said. “They offer a broad, eclectic view of Jewish life that is consistently high quality.”
Nextbook is a project of Keren Keshet-The Rainbow Foundation, a philanthropic organization formed by the Zalman Bernstein estate to enhance the religious background of Jews in the United States, Europe and Israel.
Nextbook currently has a “multimillion-dollar budget,” with no set end date, Sandorf said.
As a result, “there are no dues, no membership, no test; you can just go in and learn,” she said.
Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTNews Magazine, said she uses Nextbook’s Web site to stay abreast of the latest Jewish cultural news.
“I often end up sending articles to friends and family,” said Cembalest, who has been checking the Web site virtually every day since its creation.
Library sections devoted to books donated by Nextbook, and including information on upcoming events, have been installed in three libraries in Chicago and seven in the city’s suburbs.
Pilot library programs also should begin soon in the greater Seattle area and the Washington metropolitan area, Sandorf said.
Amy Eschelman, director of development and outreach at the Chicago Public Libraries, said it’s a “terrific idea to use libraries as an access point” because they’re free and open to everyone.
Eschelman said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the swift success of Nextbook’s implementation in the libraries.
“The only difficult thing is that we have too many ideas,” she said.
Sandorf intends to employ a “library fellow” in each of the locales where Nextbook programs can be found.
Abigail Pickus, one of two Nextbook library fellows based in the Chicago area, said part of her job is “to work as a liaison between the New York Nextbook headquarters and participating libraries.”
Beyond installing an extensive Nextbook literary section in the libraries, there are plans to “engage the public at large in Jewish literature and culture,” Pickus said.
Events are in the works at venues ranging from libraries and other cultural institutions to coffee shops and book stores, Eschelman said.
Eschelman and Pickus are working to integrate literature with culture, music, art and dance, aiming to attract the 20-40 age group.
“We’re just hoping that Nextbook will have a universal appeal,” Sandorf said.
Nextbook advisory committees have been set up in the Chicago and Seattle areas.
“It’s so important for unaffiliated Jews like me,” said Glazer, who “got hooked on the Web site” and now checks it “on a pretty regular basis.”
Glazer was raised in the 1950s in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, where “family was really important growing up, but religion wasn’t.”
“As I approached 50, I found myself wanting to reconnect to parts of my heritage and the culture that I had never learned about,” Glazer said.
A single mother of two who works full time, “my ability to read novels, biographies or historical accounts of my heritage is nonexistent — my time is very limited,” Glazer said.
As a result, it’s critical for her “to have quick reading materials, whether it’s for pleasure, work or current events,” she said.
“This is the perfect media for me,” she said. “I think it’s a fabulous venture.”
A New Model for Jewish Identity
For countless American Jews, Jewish identity is shaped by the model of living as a minority immigrant group struggling to protect its heritage against assimilation. Contemporary research affirms this, tending to frame questions in terms of traditional Jewish behavior — lighting Shabbat candles, attending synagogue, fasting on Yom Kippur, affiliating institutionally and supporting Israel.
Yet the reality for many today is that they do not relate to this inherited model. Economically and socially successful insiders, Jews are part of a pluralist society in which the primary factor determining ethnic and religious identity is individual choice. We need a new, more helpful descriptive model that recognizes the vital role that personal decisions play in Jewish American identity construction. I suggest a model based on the following four claims about contemporary Jewish identity:
First, Jewish identity is made up of choices. We pick, consciously or otherwise, from a sort of identity menu that offers us options for behaviors that we understand as “Jewish” because we see them as “Jewish things to do” or as “done in a Jewish way.” At the cutting edge of cultural change, the menu expands, increasingly listing behaviors that once were seen as belonging to other, non-Jewish menus, such as donating to universities, museums and symphonies.
Second, identifying ourselves as Jewish does not necessarily say anything about how we express that identity. From a purely descriptive standpoint, it is essentially the choice of self-identifying that makes us Jewish, even when it isn’t exactly clear how that identity is experienced or conveyed.
Third, Jewish identity has become increasingly fluid and linked to personally important life contexts. For example, many Jewish parents find that their interest in Jewish life increases when their children reach school age. Or some, in late middle age, find that Jewish spirituality animates them. For those who have chosen more traditional Jewish identity behaviors — keeping kosher, going to synagogue, donating funds — this “shape shifting” may seem inauthentic, but for the vast majority of American Jews, being open to important lifecycle changes is more highly valued than faithfulness to traditional practice.
Fourth, most contemporary American Jews are suspicious of “experts” and rarely consult institutional authorities in choosing how to be Jewish. We resist any “pressure” to affiliate with Jewish institutions. If and when we choose to affiliate, it generally is not because we feel duty bound but because doing so meets our needs.
The model that I propose offers new approaches for supporting and enhancing American Jewish identity, given the realities of today. Whatever our particular ideas about how we would like to see Jewish identity develop, we will be better off if we accept the social and cultural realities of Jewish American identity formation.
Spend less time creating standards for the options we offer and more time broadening the number of communally acceptable choices. However unusual new views or practices may seem, we should expand the range of communally acceptable options in Jewish politics, religion, music, etc. We have to stop devaluing others for making identity choices that differ from our own.
Add new menu options for what counts as Jewish. For example, can we imagine creating communal institutions that treat general philanthropy as a Jewish activity? We need to remember that in a culture of choice, people will remain committed to the Jewish world only if it is big enough to embrace their most important values.
Proactively connect Jewish identity construction with other significant life events. For example, getting a driver’s license, taking a first legal drink and other turning points in life could be transformed into Jewish activities. Or why not move beyond the more conventional sense of “Jewish activities” and look at what it might mean in the most profound sense to work — invest, practice law or medicine — Jewishly?
Begin teaching Jews how to be skillful at consciously constructing and maintaining their own Jewish identity across the life cycle. This might mean that on occasion we put less emphasis on motivating young people to adopt the particular ways of being Jewish that earlier generations practiced. In a culture of choice, young people create their own Jewish identities and, whatever our own proclivities, it is important that they do so thoughtfully.
These guidelines already are employed in many parts of the country. This suggests that this model is only making explicit what Jewish professionals and lay leaders intuitively know — we need a paradigm change in the area of Jewish identity formation. As Jews try to create new Jewish identities that are exciting and interesting enough to invite their allegiance, we now need to create a model that expands our sense of what being Jewish can mean. We must construct a model that understands and encourages the many ways that today’s Jews form their unique Jewish identities. This will not only help revitalize Jewish life but will help reinvigorate Jewish communities for the decades ahead.
This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.
Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is the director of organizational development at CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is the 2003 recipient of the Bernard Reisman Journal of Jewish Communal Service Article of the Year Award for “How to Think About Being Jewish in the 21st Century: A New Model of Jewish Identity Construction” (fall 2002), on which this piece is based.
Japane wish American Reflections
If there is such a thing, I am your typical Japanewish
My Mom is Japanese American, my Dad is ethnically Jewish
and, in a wonderful embrace, I came to be. Growing up in a town in which racial
and religious combinations were not the norm, my two heritages naturally
blended into one. Kamaboko (fish cake) and matzah ball soup were just as normal
to me as they were odd to everyone else. On several occasions, my brother and I
would joke about being double-teamed by our parents, whose academic standards
were sky-high. Mom and Dad seemed to be the only ones on the block who
strategically transformed games of report cards and SAT scores into two-on-one
situations. But no matter how much I still accuse them of being ruthless, they
didn’t team up to be mean — they just wanted us to be the best we could be.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Mom and Dad when they
decided to marry — particularly Dad. Sure, he was committing himself to Mom.
But what he was really committing himself to was a lifetime of fish heads and
pickled weeds (as he calls Japanese food), chopsticks and a New Year’s
superstition — if you don’t arrive for breakfast by 8 a.m. sharp, you’ll have
an unlucky year. He was entering a world in which strong opinions weren’t
always vocally expressed, and oishikunai (unappetizing) dinners ruined entire
evenings. Life was all about the family — and all about the family meal.
Dad likes to tell me that he and Mom were like night and
day, that their looks, foods and personalities didn’t match up. But what
mattered most did match. Beneath the superficialities, they discovered
deep-rooted similarities like the centrality of family, the value of education,
a curiosity about the world around them and a strong belief in doing the right
thing. No matter how odd a couple they might have seemed to others during their
high school and college days, they in fact belonged together.
Like Dad, Mom also encountered another culture. Visiting
Dad’s family meant stepping out of her house, into his, where food was half as
important and conversation was twice as loud. Mom tiptoed between bursts of
song and unrestrained vocalized opinions at the dinner table. But no matter how
much her culture initially clashed with Dad’s, it was nothing that time
In fact, in time, the two cultures cross-sectioned so much
that they eventually flipped sides. In a cabinet beside my parents’ bedroom, an
otafuku (a charm symbolizing motherhood) sits next to a Sandy Koufax mug. The
great marriage of Japanese woman to Jewish man displayed in our own bookcase!
And yet the irony of this odd juxtaposition is that Sandy Koufax was Mom’s
childhood idol and otafuku was omiyage (a souvenir) Dad brought back from a
trip to Japan. If cultural harmony can exist inside a cabinet, it sure as heck
can exist in the world — can’t it?
Mom and Dad didn’t raise my brother and me in the Jewish
religious tradition. To make up for it, Dad likes to remind us that we are in
fact Jewish — even if just by culture. He loves to point out Jewish-sounding
names like “Schulman” and “Leibowitz,” tell me I get my “good looks and poysonality”
from hi, and comments after whistling “Nice Work If You Can Get It” that the
Gershwins — two Jewish guys from New York — “could sure write ’em!” He also
never misses the opportunity to nudge me and say, “How about finding a nice
Jewish boy?” I think most of the time he’s just kidding — but I’m not always
Since there aren’t very many Asian Jews, I often wonder if
my unusual ethnic combination is simply weird. After all, it’s not every day
that I run into an edamame-eating Woody Allen movie-lover like myself.
Â In the hope to discover I’m not alone, I’ve recently
scrounged for Asian/Jewish history. I discovered that three groups of Jews from
Spain, Portugal, Iraq and India lived in the Indian cities of Kerala and Bombay
during the 19th century, and Persian Jews lived in Kaifeng, China, as far back
as the 15th century.Â
In both India and China, cultural mixing took place — the
Jews of Cochin developed a version of the Indian caste system, and the Persian
Jews intermarried so much that they became physically indistinguishable from
the Chinese. Not to mention the Jews who fled from concentration camps to China
during World War II. These Asian Jews, and particularly the offspring of
intercultural marriage, must have felt what I feel now — both joy and distress
for being different.
My problem lies therein. I hate standing out in a crowd,
proving my American nationality, and justifying my nonreligious Jewishness. I
hate the discrimination, the classification, the ambiguity. But I love being
different. I love telling folks I am both Japanese and Jewish, that my nose may
be small and cute, but my hair is wild and frizzy.
After ranting to a friend about the absence of Japanewish
history, he in turn replied, “But that’s what makes you so interesting.”
I’m almost convinced I don’t really need a history, that I’m
strong enough without one. Put it that way, and I realize I’ve been running in
circles for the missing puzzle piece, not realizing that the puzzle was already
complete. But maybe the exercise has been good. Maybe I’ve just been running
through the cycle of self-discovery like everybody else.
Sure, I hope to find my place somehow, sometime. And if it’s
in a Japanewish American homeland, even better. But, until I find it, I’ll just
keep wandering. It’s too hard to know everything. And anyway, isn’t life more
exciting when you don’t? Â
Ellen Fuji is an L.A. native, a freelance writer and an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.
Anxiety about Jewish Literature
As long as the Jewish people lives, it will generate a living culture, and as long as that culture values the written word, Jews will write books.
Individual genius notwithstanding, these books will reflect the Jewish culture of their time. The Talmud was argued and codified when the Jewish elites concentrated on interpreting Jewish law, and the New York intellectuals generated Commentary and Partisan Review when American Jewish elites began "arguing the world." In between, Jews of Spain took up poetry, and Jews of Poland created hagiography about their rebbes, each in creative response to their religious communities. The diarists of the ghettos during World War II raised the pen against the swastika in an appeal to history that was as absolute and passionate as their forefathers’ appeals to God.
Our present anxiety about Jewish literature derives not from a slump in contemporary Jewish writing, but from the insufficiencies of American Jewish life. An ignorant Jewry inhibits even the knowledgeable Jewish writer.
Sholom Aleichem, at the turn of the 20th century, assumed that his main readers would be familiar with the Jewish prayers, though they might no longer be observing the commandments. Thus, when he wanted to create an "ordinary Jew," he imagined a dairyman so saturated with liturgy and Bible that he could improvise riffs on the psalms as he guided his horse over a country road.
But when Tova Mirvis writes in the first-person plural about "the ladies auxiliary" of an Orthodox synagogue, she feels obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness about what earlier writers could take for granted — intimacy with Jewish languages, texts and way of life — saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block. Some Yiddish words used to draw a laugh in the general culture as reminders of the immigrant condition that American Jews had outgrown. Nowadays, every manifestation of Jewish observance is played for comedy.
Add indifference to the ignorance, and Jewishness becomes silly putty. Say what you will about the Jews who wrote in German, even Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus — who accepted baptism as their passport to European civilization — but they never lost their awe or dread of the religion they no longer practiced.
Judaism throbs in their works as pulsating conscience and threat. They registered the high cost of being a Jew. There is no such tension in authors such as E.L. Doctorow or Grace Paley, who treat Jewishness as whatever they wish it to be. Because of the benignity of American democracy, conversion to American liberalism requires no ceremony. Modern Jews don’t have to acknowledge that they are switching allegiances as they substitute leftist pieties for the tough Jewish discipline: They can pretend that they have never defected at all. If American Jews judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times rather than judging The Times by the standards of Judaism, those writers who dream of being reviewed by The Times will reflect its values instead of God’s.
Cowardice is the third and most serious hindrance to the quality of the Jewish book in America. I wonder whether there has ever been in the history of the Jewish people a generation as craven as the one in whose midst we live. The single Columbia University professor Edward Said — who falsified his biography so that he could blame the Jews for losses inflicted on him by the Egyptians — managed to cow thousands of his Jewish fellow academics into apologizing for the existence of the Jewish State. In the 53 years since the Arab countries launched against Israel the longest and most protean war in modern history, the Jews of America have been beating a steady retreat from defense of the Jewish homeland. Most American Jews don’t even have the grit to speak out for what other Jews daily defend with their lives. No wonder Mark Helprin looks for heroes in World War I, and Michael Chabon in the comic book supermen of World War II. They would be hard put to find models of heroism among the Jewish elites of Los Angeles or New York.
The Jewish book reflects this moral collapse, and our best books are those that tell of it most honestly. Saul Bellow’s "Bellarosa Connection" registers the consequence of forgetting and neglecting what is sacred and significant. Midge Decter wrote "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," and Philip Roth adapted it as the superb novel "American Pastoral." Cynthia Ozick is our toughest naysayer, refusing the placebos of a homogenized culture. Those books are the truest that expose the ignorance, the indifference and the cowardice, reminding us through negative, if not yet positive, representation of what the Jewish people could yet become.
The trouble with reading Judith Viorst’s delightful new book of verse, “Suddenly Sixty, And Other Shocks of Later Life,” is that you recognize another decade has gone by in her life and so, presumably, in yours as well. “Suddenly Sixty “follows on the high heels of those earlier guideposts – “It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty,” “How Did I Get to Be Forty,” and “Forever Fifty” – and like them charts the changes and new quirks in her life as another 10 years flit by.
Her books of light verse have always seemed to me a form of social commentary, ongoing sketches of the American cultural scene that put her in the company of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Jules Feiffer and Nora Ephron: On stage, in cartoons, on film and in light verse we are treated to snapshots, often with an edge, of the author (and by extension, of ourselves) responding to the latest manners and mores of our time. We witness the social exchanges with lovers and spouses and parents and children and friends. The subtext could just as easily read, “The Psychoneurosis of Everyday Life.”
Is it a surprise that Nichols and May, Feiffer, Ephron and Viorst are all Jewish?
Reading “Suddenly Sixty,” I have to admit life kept intruding, kept elbowing aside Viorst’s wry lines. The fact is I know the author and her husband, Milton Viorst. When I read one of her poems about marriage, “In the Beginning,” I can’t resist comparing verse with the real thing.
What I remember, though, is a description of their early courtship. Judy and Milton had dated briefly in college in New Jersey and then gone their separate ways. (He is a little caustic about her preference for fraternity types during those years.) About 10 years later, one Sunday evening, Milton, on his way home to Washington, D.C., from Martha’s Vineyard, called his old girlfriend from college days.
It was about 1 a.m. Judy, of course, lived in Greenwich Village. She was still under 30.
The preliminaries on the telephone did not take very long, though I believe she said something like, “Do you know what time it is?” They met a half hour later at a Village coffee bar. It took about 10 minutes of how are you, what have you been doing with yourself these 10 years, do you remember what’s her name, before Milton somewhat delicately said something like, “Let’s cut all this. Do you want to have kids, and if so, how many?” Three months later they were married.
Another poem, “So My Husband and I Decided to Take a Car Trip Through New England,” also makes me smile (actually there are many).
I feel sure this poem is from experience and from the heart. It was the summer of 1976 and we all were in Boulder, Colo., determined to find a wonderful Italian restaurant for lunch that Milton knew, about an hour or two away, somewhere west of the city. And so we all embarked – husbands, wives and six children, three of theirs, three of ours.
We eventually, after some difficulty, found the restaurant – and without asking directions. The food was a tad less than wonderful, as I remember it, and afterwards, as a treat for the children and a way of walking off the lunch, we went climbing and hiking in the nearby woods and rocky hills.
Judy had designer boots, as I recall. There was much falling and sliding on one’s rump, and occasional tears from one or another child, and finally a sit-down strike with a declaration by one of the adults that holidays should be spent in Paris, not sliding on your ass in some godforsaken Colorado wilderness. I leave that for another book.
The point is that the verse is witty and speaks to our vulnerable side precisely because we recognize the truth of the writer’s feelings. Viorst is a keen observer of the social details that make up our fragile and different identities. That’s what the poems are about. And their stamp of authenticity is a reflection of a life that has been well and humanely lived, not just observed.
Gene Lichtenstein is founding editor of The Jewish Journal.