It looks like our second-generation cast of characters have failed to reproduce the balance that characterizes Shimen’s way of life. Certainly, it isn’t easy to identify in their respective versions of Judaism anything you’d think of as a project connecting a richly-recalled past with an intensely-conceived future, giving life direction and meaning. Adi and Heidi attach little value to the continuity of Jewish tradition, while Yitzy and Itcha Meir regard it as stagnant. Bentzi unwittingly guts Jewish communities by advocating for the Jewish State to usurp their roles, while Itcha Meir fails to acknowledge how the existence of such a state fundamentally changes the nature of the challenges faced by Jewish tradition. Ben is acculturating faster than he realizes, while Yitzy’s halacha is formalistic and impervious to moral intuition.
The key to the problem might be that all these characters live in boxes. The circumstances of their lives are such that the range of realizable positions along the continuum of Jewish identity and practice is limited to a small set of available boxes. These boxes – secular-liberal, modern-religious, haredi or whatever – are defined by ideological least common denominators and tedious institutional interests and they lead to intellectual conformity.
American and Israeli Jews are not equally encumbered by the extent to which Jewishness is boxed. A generation ago, in the days when I was being lectured on Jewish duties by Heidi in Princeton, it would have been clear that Israel was much boxier than the United States. Shimen and the parents of Yitzy and Ben sat so comfortably between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox worlds that they were completely unaware that the distinction even mattered. Similarly, the Conservative community in which Heidi grew up filled the gap between Modern Orthodoxy and secular liberalism.
In Israel, on the other hand, the gap between anti-religious secularists like Adi and religious Zionists like Bentzi was occupied solely by marginalized traditional Sefardim, who had yet to find a strong and distinctive voice. The split between Bentzi and Haredim like Itcha Meir was dichotomous by definition: Bentzi and friends went to the army and Itcha Meir and friends did not. This led to other dichotomies: religious Zionists learned professions and got jobs, while Itcha Meir and friends did not. American Jews who moved to Israel were often frustrated by the unavailability of the kinds of intermediate versions of Jewishness to which they were accustomed.
Some of this still holds to a lesser degree, but if instead of looking at snapshots of Judaism in the States and in Israel, we consider the respective trajectories of developments in each country since those days, a different picture emerges.
Judaism in the United States has become much boxier. The center is not holding. Just as Israeli young men have to choose between serving in the army or avoiding the draft, young American Jews need to decide between remaining in the ghetto or buying into the dominant campus culture — Heidi’s cosmopolitanism, if they’re lucky, or Amber’s radicalism, in the likelier case. The social and professional cost of bucking that trend is quite high and is only worthwhile in exchange for the social capital available exclusively in very tight-knit and isolated Jewish communities.
The fate of the Conservative congregation that Heidi grew up in is instructive in this regard. In trying to cater to Heidi’s cohort, the congregation briefly resisted but then enthusiastically adopted every fashionable progressive trend until it was left with no distinctive message to offer. Broadly speaking, the offspring of Heidi’s friends – to the extent that they have any – are, like Amber, less Jewish and more radical than their parents. The congregation’s building was recently sold to a Korean church.
As it happens, Ben’s kids and Yitzy’s kids are also drifting further from their grandparents’ delicate balance. Of Ben’s three kids, one son is no longer affiliated with a Jewish community and another is a member of a Reconstructionist LGBT community; Ben’s daughter has gone yeshivish and lives in Ramat Eshkol with her husband, who shares her background and is now “learning by Reb Avrohom Yehoshua”, hoping (vainly) that the Rosh Yeshiva will one day nod in his general direction.
Yitzy has three daughters and three sons, in that order. He hit what he believes to be the jackpot with his eldest daughter’s husband, said to be “a blitz, one of the best guys in Lakewood”, by promising to forego retirement to support his son-in-law while he sits in kollel for the rest of his life. He could not afford a similar arrangement for his second daughter and had to settle for a lesser scholar; his third daughter is having trouble finding a shidduch altogether. As for his sons, the second one is now “in shidduchim” and learning in Lakewood. The third son is learning in Waterbury, while secretly planning to one day make a killing in shady real estate deals. Yitzy’s eldest son, once the apple of his eye, is now never spoken of, so as not to harm the others’ chances of getting good shidduchim; he had been serially molested by his fourth-grade rebbe and is now “off the derech” and addicted to opiates. Yitzy’s daughters are decently educated and hard-working; his sons and sons-in-law sort of speak English, Yiddish and Hebrew, but are incapable of completing a sentence in any of the three.
Except for Ben’s yeshivish daughter who seeks out the company of her second-cousins, Ben’s kids and Yitzy’s kids each regard the other as object lessons in the dangers of the wrong kind of Jewish education and want nothing to do with each other. Their estrangement is representative of the broader bad relationship into which their respective cohorts have been sucked, an equilibrium characterized by mistrust, spite and alienation.
Many of you will be surprised to hear that the current situation in Israel is quite different. Israel has become much less “boxy”. The default culture is no longer that of secular progressives like Adi and there is now little pressure to conform to it. Unlike in the United States, the threat of assimilation is limited, so the degree of fear across groups is diminishing. Moreover, the rigid ideologies that separate Israeli haredim, religious Zionist and secular progressives are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Itcha Meir’s kids speak standard Hebrew, their political views are Zionist in substance even if not in name and they would love to find a way to learn a trade and make an honest living. Bentzi’s kids have lived through the Oslo agreements, the Disengagement and other follies of Israeli governments and openly mock their father’s mamlachti Kookian ideology. Adi’s kids – even the secular Adi has a Jewish husband and three kids – are embarrassed at their parents’ firm, if unspoken, conviction that the state is rightly owned by the descendants of Labor Zionists and that others live here at their sufferance.
Adi’s kids and Bentzi’s kids meet in the army and at work and they speak to each other with typical Israeli candidness, free of both rancor and the kind of correctness that typically stems from distance or mistrust. Increasingly, Itcha Meir’s kids are participating in these conversations as well; as soon as a technical solution is found to the problem of haredi enlistment, the gap between them and the others will close very quickly.
In short, the boxes are breaking down in Israel. This has two salient consequences, each of which is only now beginning to become apparent. The first is that the question “are you hiloni or dati or haredi?” is, for many people, becoming hard to answer. Increasingly, degrees of Jewish observance in Israel lie on a spectrum, not in the familiar boxes, slowly converging to a normal distribution over the range, with a peak somewhere in the center that drops off slowly and symmetrically. (One consequence of this is long tails on each end populated by loud and strident outliers, giving the false impression that extremists are getting stronger.)
The second consequence is that the usual bundlings of ideologies, religious practices and outward signals are unraveling. We have become accustomed to the idea that if we know how someone dresses or how they act in a given situation or where they went to yeshiva, we can pretty much guess all the rest. Forget that. The flourishing of a Jewish state and the confidence it has brought are leading to a new and surprising re-alignment.
In the next post, I’ll discuss the nature of this realignment, what it tells us about the actual – and much misunderstood – value of a Jewish state, and how all this heralds the return of an organic Judaism last seen in the days of Shimen.