Monday, January 17, 2011

Jewish Identity and Reboot


One of "Bieganski's" contentions is that many contemporary American Jews feel uncertain about their Jewish identity. For some, use of the Bieganski stereotype serves to reinforce a sense of Jewish identity.

The New York Times publishes many articles on contemporary American Jews' struggles with identity. "You're Young and Jewish. Discuss" by Laura M. Holson appeared in the Times on January 14, 2011.

An organization called Reboot, the Times reports, has been working to establish a sense of Jewish identity among young, wealthy, and successful American Jews "disconnected from their heritage." "They want to make it hip and cool to be identified as a Jew." Reboot "since 2002 has conducted an annual conference for young, affluent Jews to discuss their ethnic and religious identity, in between spa treatments and walks among the ponderosa pines of the Wasatch Mountains."

Nicola Behrman, a playwright, said, "I do not think I regretted my Jewishness. But when I look at my life, I hadn't expressed my Judaism in any way."

Christians and Christianity help Rebooters to define themselves as Jews: "Guests explore topics of their choosing, like what Mel Gibson was thinking when he made Passion of the Christ."

The Holocaust also helps to define Jewish identity. "For so many years being a Jew was defined by the Holocaust on one side and Israel on the other."

Roger Bennett is a Reboot "founder who lives in New York and is senior vice president at the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, an initial contributor to Reboot that now has 18 donors and a yearly $1.8 million budget." Rebooters voiced the loss of tradition. "Mr. Bennett … talked of his great-grandfather, a Polish butcher who built one of the largest synagogues in Liverpool but whose present-day heirs inherited none of his devotion to prayer and ritual."

One hears something similar again and again from American Jews. One of "Bieganski's" informants said to me, "When my grandmother got on the boat in Germany, she was a Jew. When she got off the boat in Ellis Island, she was an Episcopalian." This informant is an atheist and has no connection to his own Jewish ancestry. I'd known him for years before I began working on the book and had no idea he had Jewish ancestry, till he volunteered to be interviewed.

Recently, my friend Mark mentioned to me that he regrets that his daughter has not inherited his Jewishness. For example, Mark expressed appreciation for the Sabbath, which provides an opportunity for reflection. But Mark is an atheist and does not observe Sabbath.

I shared with Mark this quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

"To the uninspired, the Shulhan Arukh is like the score of an oratorio to those who cannot read musical notations; to the pious Jew, it is full of choruses and arias. Jewish law to him is sacred music. The divine sings in noble deeds. Man's effort is but the counterpoint to the music of his will. There is a price to be paid by the Jew. He has to be exalted in order to be normal. In order to be a man, he has to be more than a man. To be a people, the Jews have to be more than a people."

I think that Heschel would tell Mark that you can't have the "secular" benefits of Sabbath that atheist Mark can appreciate without having God. I could be wrong. There may be atheists who fully appreciate and live the values of Jewish tradition without any attendant faith in God. If so, I'd love to hear about them.

Rebooters seemed to be having the same conversation. They discussed whether or not they could have Christmas trees, or Sabbath rest in a wired and hyperactive world. One man dressed in drag, and "said something about God being a black woman," and others operated a "pretend" mikvah. Yoga and snowshoeing provided breaks.

In the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the Council of Four Lands enjoyed exceptional autonomy. Jews organized and held power over other Jews. There was pressure to be traditionally, religiously, Jewish. Abraham Joshua Heschel described Jewish life in Poland as a spiritual paradise; Israel Shahak and Anzia Yezierska describes this same community and its traditions as an oppressive theocracy. However one assesses it, as positive, negative, or neutral, in the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, there were pressures and rewards for being traditionally, religiously, Jewish.

Once those Jews immigrated to the US, many dropped the outward signs of religiosity, and assimilated. The challenges of assimilation remain; one answer is Bieganski – using stereotyped images of Eastern European Christians to reinforce Jewish identity. Another answer is Reboot. It will be interesting to see what develops from Reboot.

You're Young and Jewish. Discuss.

Readers' comments about the Reboot article.

1 comment:

  1. You may be curious about my blog some. If you'll scroll through the August and September 2009 entries, you'll read of my return to my ancestral Jewish roots back in Khotin, Ukraine. My blog can be found at www.explorationsoftruth.com.

    thanks. ted

    ReplyDelete

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