Rokhl Kafrissen recently published an awesome statement on contemporary Jewish American identity (via Mark Rubin). This is the sort of thing that I wish I'd written, because it comes so close to my own views. Here's points 3 and 4, out of 6, central to the manifesto:
3. Jewish religion cannot be divorced from Jewish culture.
To do so yields the current demographic and spiritual crisis now facing the American Jewish community.
Jewish philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt want to revive the non-Orthodox Jewish community by replacing “victimhood” with “joy.” (See his Jerusalem Post opinion piece in February of this year.) I think we all know that you can read “Europe” for victimhood and “Israel” for joy. Didn’t that attitude get us in this mess? Turn a shul into a temple, a khazn into a cantor and Jewish music into Debbie Friedman — well, you better lock the doors cuz the inmates will be breaking out. Witness our so-called youth crisis. American Jewish culture has turned Camembert into CheezWhiz: It is boring and every young Jew knows it.
Real Jewish Culture is the product of hundreds, thousands of years of joy and pain; it’s the expression of the realities of halokhe [Jewish law] lived in a hostile world. It’s the result of every Jew’s struggle between tradition and modernity. Most importantly, Real Jewish Culture is our connection to those who came before us, and without access to it, well, that bagel in your hand is not a symbol of anything, just a bunch of empty calories masquerading as breakfast.
4. I am not an Israeli.
About two thousand American Jews make aliyah [emmigrate to Israel] every year. Out of a total Jewish population of 5,200,000, this comes out to about .04% of American Jews each year who will choose to live in Israel. I am an American and, like 99.96 percent of my fellow American Jews, I will never become an Israeli. I care deeply about the State of Israel, most of all because my fate is linked to that of every other Jew. But where does the spirit of klal yisroel end and the unquestioning acceptance of Zionism begin?
Open a magazine like Moment and you’d think every Jew in America had already put down a security deposit on an apartment in Jerusalem. Moment bills itself as “Jewish culture, politics, and religion.” Three of four cover stories in a recent issue were Israel-related, with more inside — and this was the music issue! Now, I would understand if this were a newspaper for a small Jewish community somewhere in the world. I doubt that the Jewish community of Honduras has enough news to fill twelve issues of a monthly magazine. But we don’t live in Honduras. We live in the other Jewish state, a country with a Jewish population roughly equal to that of the Jewish state. And let me tell you, we’ve got enough news here to fill up every single Jewish newspaper, magazine, newsletter, leaflet and ’zine.
Mark Rubin, who alerted me to Rokhl's manifesto, doesn't think non-Jews need read it, that it's more for us Jews to talk about amongst ourselves. While the subject matter is an internal conversation, I encourage everyone to read the whole thing. My own experience is that most non-Jews don't know much about American Jewish cultural issues and experiences, beyond the stereotypes and the canned, Jewish institutional PR.
I would just add to Rokhl's assertions about secular and religious Jewish culture(s), that a secular Jewish world-view can also include not just knowledge but practice of Judaism. While Jewish law excludes those who profess belief in Christian or polytheistic religions from Jewish religious participation, there is no requirement that one demonstrate a positive belief in God. It's been my experience that many practicing Jews have changeable ideas and beliefs about theology while remaining consistent participants in the religious community. I don't know how many would go as far as I do to say their world view is closest to secular and agnostic while maintaining a somewhat traditional Jewish religious practice—though I know my mother would as would my great-uncle, my maternal grandfather's brother, who, at age 95, is the minyan facilitator for the daily services at his synagogue in Florida. You have not heard leyning (chanting) from the Torah until you've heard him.
The summer of 2002, my first cousin, who is an Orthodox Jew, invited me to lead the davenning (praying) for his auf ruf, an east European Jewish celebration at morning prayer services in the week before one's wedding. This was a particularly special occasion because my cousin decided to have the auf ruf in my maternal grandfather's synagogue, Young Israel on East Broadway, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.* The Young Israel on East Broadway is a very traditional, Orthodox synagogue, which my grandparents were members of from around time it was founded, until they died six weeks apart, in November and December 2002, respectively, both at age ninety-nine.
I was a little nervous to accept the honor, since I don't regularly attend services in such Orthodox congregations, where the ritual life is very tightly choreographed and fast paced, without a lot of time spent explaining and instructing. Still, there was no way to say no, especially knowing my grandfather would be there (my grandmother was not well enough to attend).
At one point, during the breakfast that followed services (bagels, lox, herring, fruit, etc.), my uncle, whose son was getting married, pulled me aside to report that during services my grandfather turned to him and said, "who would have thought that Paul Greenberg's son could daven like this."
My father, a founder of New Jewish Agenda, who identified not as a Zionist but as a Jewish nationalist supporter of Jewish and Palestinian self-determination in the middle east, was a secular radical in the Jewish socialist tradition, for the first half of his life. As he reached his 40s, he started to become increasingly religious in his outlook, though he never learned to read Hebrew or the ritual skills he and my mother decided I should learn in my eight years of Jewish parochial school.
*If you click on the Young Israel link, above, you can also see an arial shot of the apartment buildings where my grandparents lived through all the years that I was alive to know them. They lived at 383 Grand Street, in what are known as the Seward Park Cooperatives. In the area marked "Seward Park," between Essex and Clinton, there are two buildings. 383 Grand Street is the one closer to Essex and to Grand.