Yitzy and his first cousin, Ben, grew up in Brooklyn in the 60s and 70s, not far from each other – geographically or ideologically. Their parents, all Polish survivors, shared sensibilities not unlike those of Shimen. Yitzy and Ben sometimes learned gemara together, talked baseball ad nauseam (“Stottlemeyer is not in Seaver’s league, what’s the hava amina!?”) and shared Hardy Boys books. Both attended boys-only yeshiva elementary schools and high schools that taught secular studies in the afternoon.
But, like two raindrops falling on a mountain ridge that randomly run down opposite sides of the mountain, Ben and Yitzy drifted apart. For reasons of mere convenience, Ben attended schools that defined themselves as Zionist and invested time and effort in general education, while Yitzy attended schools that rarely mentioned Israel and complied in a somewhat resigned manner with state requirements to provide a general education. After their bar-mitzvahs, Yitzy began to dress yeshivish and Ben didn’t. After high school, Yitzy continued in beis midrash and Ben went to Columbia University. These days they have little in common beyond baseball.
What is it about life in Orthodox enclaves in America that makes this bifurcation almost inevitable? Why is Shimen’s rooted and balanced fidelity to tradition not a stable state in an environment dominated by Heidis? Let’s outline the process.
Unlike Shimen, who didn’t feel a need to impress his friends and had only limited interaction with larger American society, both Yitzy and Ben are always aware of and playing to two audiences: the observant Jewish world inside the ghetto and Heidi’s world outside the ghetto. To the inside audience, they focus on what distinguishes them from the outside world; to the outside audience, they focus on what they have in common with the outside world.
But the extent to which Ben plays to the outside audience is much greater than that of Yitzy. Ben remains an observant Jew, but interacts with Heidi’s world as a matter of course on a daily basis. He has internalized Heidi’s cosmopolitan assumptions about the world far more than he realizes. He is just a bit uncomfortable with his community’s provincial-seeming loyalties; he values tradition up to the point where it seriously impedes self-fulfillment; he privately regards observant Jews as holding immature and foolish beliefs about the world. He is culturally and politically a blue-state American, even if committed to the set of lifestyle constraints characteristic of his community.
Under these circumstances, Yitzy and Ben drive each other further and further apart. Ben’s slouching towards Heidi’s world alerts Yitzy to the dangers of lowering the fences. As Yitzy raises the fences through conspicuous bridge-burning signals, Ben is both offended by what he regards as a debasement of Judaism and embarrassed, fearful that Yitzy’s behavior will lower his status in the eyes of outsiders. Furthermore, as Yitzy’s community progressively devalues what Ben believes is his competitive advantage – the ability to bridge between worlds – Ben seeks less affirmation from Yitzy’s world. Increasingly, his primary audience is Heidi.
Ben is a principled fellow. As he internalizes more of Heidi’s values but remains committed to halacha, he feels like a hypocrite – a state of affairs for which he has an exaggerated distaste. His solution is to tweak halacha a bit, round a few edges, de-emphasize a few things and re-emphasize a few others. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’ve got nothing against tweaks. If you recall, Shimen took some liberties too and I regard that as a feature not a bug. But Ben isn’t Shimen.
When Shimen’s instincts ran up against the letter of the law, he knew just how far he could push and he felt completely comfortable doing so. Shimen was sufficiently at home in halacha that such conflicts caused him no anxiety and he was sufficiently respectful of halacha that he wouldn’t think of tampering with it to reconcile it with what he chose to do. If that’s hypocrisy, he was in favor of it.
Ben, however, is reconciling halacha with values that he has imbibed from outside of it and he knows it. He’s not confident enough to just push at the edges in his own practice while leaving halacha alone. He’s exactly knowledgeable enough to dredge up and tendentiously interpret Jewish texts in a rather unpersuasive attempt to drag halacha in his preferred direction. The exercise is doomed to failure because it is chasing a moving target. So long as Heidi sits prominently in Ben’s mental audience, his halachic red lines will never lag more than a decade or so behind her progressive red lines. Ben’s children will be Heidi.
This, then, is how Yitzy and Ben grew apart. It could not be otherwise. A free and open society like the United States tempts members of distinct sub-cultures to choose a primary audience. This question is the mountain ridge; once it is decided, all else flows in a determined direction.
I don’t want to overstate my case. Certainly, many American Jews – of various institutional affiliations – manage to perch themselves at the small plateau at the top of the ridge, skillfully balancing their commitments. The very best people who daven with Yitzy and the very best people who daven with Ben all carry on Shimen’s legacy in an honorable way and remain as connected to each other as Yitzy and Ben were in their youth. But, the ridge is narrow and unstable.
Even the most well-integrated committed Jews in America live compartmentalized lives. They play successfully to two audiences, but never quite at the same time. Some of their kids remain on the ridge, but many become either Yitzies or Bens. The Yitzies will beget more Yitzies behind ever higher walls and the Bens will beget Heidis who beget Ambers. None will beget Shimens.
I would like to believe that, with time, the Yitzies will become less cynical and formalistic and the Bens will become less acculturated and self-conscious. But I fear that nothing approximating Shimen’s Yiddishkeit is likely to survive for long in America or anywhere else outside of – here it is at long last… Israel.
The rest of this series will be devoted to the potential for the development of organic Judaism in Israel, why it has been so delayed and why it is inevitable.