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Making Our Hearts Stop Sinking This Rosh Hashanah

These High Holy Days should remind us how lucky we are as Jews to have our reassuring rituals, our anchoring tradition, our soul-stretching values, and one another.
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September 13, 2023
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The sweetness of apples, let alone honey, and our annual Rosh Hashanah reset, invite us to be countercultural – and unfashionably upbeat. Let’s stop the dooming and glooming. These High Holy Days should remind us how lucky we are as Jews to have our reassuring rituals, our anchoring tradition, our soul-stretching values, and one another. And let’s not forget how central Israel and Zionism are to the whole Jewish package — which offers an effective, time-tested, 3,500-year-old antidote to the malaise of modernity haunting so many of us today, young and old alike.

True, many people, left and right, have declared Israel “over” this year. But this Rosh Hashanah is a perfect opportunity to view Israel and Zionism more culturally than politically — and thus more positively than negatively. Transcending partisanship, thinking historically, ideologically, spiritually, it becomes quite easy to celebrate Israel and Zionism as important parts of the broader Jewish rejection of the aimlessness, loneliness, and hopelessness afflicting our society.

Modernity’s mounting maladies are infecting more and more Jews. Too many of us are overdosing on social media, anxiety, alienation, and loneliness. Too many of us are jonesing for roots, connection, a sense of purpose. It’s tragic — and ultimately self-defeating — that fewer and fewer Jews today see Judaism and Zionism as both vaccinations and cures to these diseases of despair, to this New Nihilism. It’s downright scandalous – and professionally self-defeating too – that too many rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, left and right, are so busy politicking and preening, that they keep failing to make that case – especially as the New Year begins.

America’s insightful Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, keeps urging Americans to face the mental health challenges that keep spreading and intensifying. He has boldly issued advisories about general mental health and teen mental health, about the “decrease in life satisfaction” for many youngsters overusing social media, and about the surge in loneliness. “In recent years,” he reported this year, “one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness.”

The discussion about mental health and diseases of despair such as drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide often conflate two overlapping phenomena. Some mental health crises are deeply personal, caused by particular genes or individual traumas. Others, while manifested personally, are more cultural, triggered or exacerbated by some malaise of modernity or the other.  

The modern world has unleashed many centrifugal forces, spinning each of us into our own narrative, our own particular slice of the population pie, our own emotional whirl. Admittedly, growing up in a centripetal society could suffocate, crushing some with community and conformity. But growing up in a centrifugal society can be soul-stripping. We’re starved of community and commitment. We’ve created the United States of popular culture – which bewitches Blue and Red America equally with its me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, now-now-now ethos. It’s an America of instant gratification, of history being last week’s most popular YouTube videos of cats rolling around or babies drooling. It’s an America filled with people violating Momma Troy’s warning – “if you’re too open-minded, your brains fall out.”

I grew up in a world in which most American Jews were more insulated from the social dysfunction of “the goyim” around us, because we were that much less assimilated. Today, anyone who thinks that Jews — anywhere in the modern world — are immune to these cultural-caused afflictions is delusional. And, of course, no forms of religion or nationalism are cure-alls or get-out-of-stress-free cards.

Nevertheless, I do believe that a robust Judaism, reinforced by Zionism, can help build up the kind of individual and collective resistance we all need to fight some of these isolating, depressing, demoralizing, forces.

Last month, The Free Press, that consistently thought-provoking and iconoclastic new media company founded by Bari Weiss, published the winning essays from its marvelous high school contest seeking articles about “problems facing young Americans.” The winner, 17-year-old Ruby LaRocca, offered a fabulous five-point “counterintuitive guide for teenage happiness,” urging:

“#1. Read old books….
“#2. Memorize poetry. Learn ancient languages…
“#3. Learn from the monks, and slow your pace — of reading, of writing, of thinking…
“#4. Learn how to conduct yourself in public….
“#5. Dramatically reduce use of your phone.”

As charmed as I was by her list, I felt that — as a wonderful Hebrew phrase puts it — “she discovered America,” long after Columbus. Whether as serious Jews via God and tradition, or passionate Zionists via peoplehood and statehood, we get it. We understand the anchoring and enlightening power of old books offering eternal wisdom not fleeting clickbait. We are liberated by reciting religious prayers, our national anthem, Bialik’s and Amichai’s poems — in Hebrew. Our ancient language, now restored, resonates with Biblical, Talmudic, Medieval, and modern echoes, weaving a wonderful, deepening subtext to all intellectual and spiritual journeys. All of our lovely, time-consuming, life-enriching holidays and rituals and obligations slow us down too — in the best kind of way. The whole Jewish package invites us to put the rush-rush on hold, think big thoughts, and connect to our families, our faith, our friends, and our common destiny. And when — a point I would have proposed — you “join a community of shared values, of higher purpose, and of fellow-seekers,” you instinctively “learn how to conduct yourself in public” because you’re no longer alone. Your phone time drops because you are now blessedly busy talking directly to real people in real time, even if you don’t take on all the “thou shalt nots” of Shabbat — which actually lead us to the holiest of “thou shalts” … choose life!

These last few painful polarized months, we’ve emphasized the divisions ripping Israeli society apart. But what about the underlying religious, cultural, and national bonds being demonstrated that actually have vindicated Zionism since January? In April, Israel’s flag-waving protesters and traditional-minded coalition boosters all stood at attention for national sirens of mourning and celebration together. Such behavior showed how most Israelis, left and right, are strong, proud, assertive, democratic, tradition-positive, nationalistic, patriotic, family-oriented, holiday-observing, “New Jews.” If you doubt me, wander around Israel on Rosh Hashanah to see Israel’s true face. Whether they are shouting on the streets for change or defending Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, most Israelis have been freed by the Zionist revolution from the weakness of the past, oppressed Jew, while also being deepened internally by the Israel experience in ways many other moderns resist.

Israelis are much more about the “us” not the “I,” and are happily balancing the old and the new, albeit in different ways of course. The result is one of the happiest countries on earth — even during this unhappy political moment. 

In short, Judaism and Zionism are centripetal not centrifugal forces, soul-strengthening influences not soul-strippers — and Israeli society, left and right, is a centripetal society. Israelis are much more about the “us” not the “I,” and are happily balancing the old and the new, albeit in different ways of course. The result — it’s now almost cliched to say — is one of the happiest countries on earth — even during this unhappy political moment. 

So rather than confusing sermonizing with politicking, rather than predictably endorsing one political leader or another, in Israel or America, let’s shout this good but challenging news from the rooftops – and the bimahs. Let’s celebrate Zionism’s cultural and existential achievements. Let’s toast Israel’s ongoing political protection for world Jewry.  And let’s appreciate Judaism’s surprising and wise relevance, even in this ever-changing disposable age. But let’s do it modestly, organically, faithfully, in the spirit of The Free Press’s wise teenager, Ruby LaRocca. She tells her peers, diplomatically, thoughtfully, modestly: “If you choose to take on three out of five of these precepts, I guarantee your heart will stop sinking.” 

And let us say “Amen.”


Professor Gil Troy is an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.

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