‘I want to see our fences become fringes’
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‘I want to see our fences become fringes’

A secular Jew argues for inclusiveness

Does Jewish secularism have a future? Will there be American Jews half a century from now who are nonbelievers, uninterested in prayer, but nevertheless affirmatively engaged with Jewish identity through culture, language, politics, and community life?

The late, great Irving Howe was doubtful about it. As the author of “World of Our Fathers” (1976), Howe detailed the effusion of vibrant Jewish culture that resulted when Jews became secular, or “worldly,” in the 19th and 20th centuries – yet he believed that the secular movement was “reaching its end,” with its “messianic impulse” perhaps nearing “a point of exhaustion.” Therefore, he concluded, with a sage wink at the Apocrypha (and James Agee), “Now let us praise obscure men.”

I read that final line as an obscure young man myself, 30 years ago. I had just taken my first Jewish job as assistant editor of Jewish Currents magazine, and I was seeking from Howe’s best-seller a quick education. Instead, his elegiac tone about Jewish secularism – the very culture that the magazine represented – made me feel like a dinosaur at age 27.

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Today, at 57, I’m the editor of Jewish Currents, Website and all – but it would be nothing but boosterism to pretend that Irving Howe had it wrong. As recently as my own childhood, Jewish secularism was a bubbling culture, with many thousands of families sending their children to Jewish schools, summer camps, and socialist kibbutzim, reading daily Yiddish newspapers, participating in Jewish politics, theater, folk dance, choruses, and holiday celebrations, obtaining life insurance and health benefits through Jewish organizations, and imbedding themselves in communities – all without ever stepping into a synagogue or JCC. Today, there are only a few dozen shules (secular Jewish schools) left across North America, and most of the secular Jewish camps that dotted the Northeast have become spiritual retreat centers or condo developments. Of the 10,000 members of the Yiddish-oriented Workmen’s Circle, about three out of five are octogenarians. Even the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which was savvy enough to adopt a congregational model when the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine launched it in 1963, has stalled in its growth. Certainly, there are some thriving pockets of secular Jewish life and even new ventures (most notably, the growth of secular Jewish studies programs at college and universities, thanks to funding by the Posen Foundation through the Center for Cultural Judaism). Overall, however, the challenge of generational continuity has not been well met by Jewish secularists in America.

Worse, the history and legacy of these movements seem in danger of vanishing. Young Jews often have no idea that it was primarily radical secularists who launched and built the Zionist movement, founded the State of Israel, led Jewish resistance to Nazism (including the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), wrote the best-known modern Jewish literature and songs, sacrificed for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, launched the Israeli folkdance movement and the klezmer revival, and so forth and so on. When I gave a brief talk about this to a college class a few years ago, one young woman actually burst into tears. The very idea of a nonreligious Jew was alien to her, and she somehow thought I was dissing her favorite Israeli heroes and heroines.

Cluelessness aside, it is painfully easy to cite the factors that have contributed to the decline of secular Jewishness. Most obvious and devastating was the destruction of the Eastern European taproot by Nazism. Stalinism then wiped out dozens more secular Jewish cultural figures and institutions while making Jewish identity of any kind seem almost politically suspect. Here in America, meanwhile, Jews got a clear message, especially during the McCarthy period, to keep a low profile, ethnically and politically, and express their Jewish identities chiefly through religious channels. Religion, as April Rosenblum recently wrote in Jewish Currents, was “the one difference that was tolerated” in that intolerant era, and Jews learned to be “simply the white people who ‘went to church on Saturday.'”

Secular Jewish groups also contributed to their own decline with fratricidal passion. When I attended Camp Kinderland, founded in 1923 by secular Jewish communists, the Workmen’s Circle also had a camp, Kinder Ring, directly across the lake from us. Though we were all Jewish socialists, living in the 1960s, no one on either shore would so much as row a boat across. Three decades later, when my communist grandmother outlived her Yiddish newspaper (the Morgn Frayhayt) and I offered her a subscription to the Forverts as a substitute, she shot daggers at me with her eyes. “Never! They’re social fascists,” she said, digging up an epithet that the communists had used against the social democrats more than half a century earlier. My bubbe couldn’t remember the names of her own great-grandchildren, but this she could remember.

Jewish secularists’ lack of excitement about Zionism has been another confining fence for them. True, even among religious Jews, Zionism had a rocky going before the Holocaust: The Reform synagogue movement, for example, did not embrace Jewish nation-building until 1937, by which time Nazism had disabused the Reformers of their faith that people of the “Mosaic persuasion” could live safely among non-Jewish majorities.

Secularists, however, had deep roots in Jewish radical movements of Europe, notably the Jewish Bund, which strongly believed in the value of doikayt (“hereness”) and considered Zionism to be a distraction from the building of revolutionary movements. Secular Yiddishists also bore a righteous grudge against Zionism for suppressing Yiddish and downplaying the positive achievements of the Jewish diaspora. The eventual alignment of Israel with the U.S. military-industrial complex, and the rightward-pulling influence of Israel upon the left-leaning Jewish community, didn’t do much, either, to endear Zionism to progressive, secular American Jews.

Finally, the decline of the Jewish secular movements has been speeded by their passionate indifference to Judaism, which has fetched scorn and censure from many rabbis, scholars, funders, and denominational leaders for decades. Notwithstanding various ringing endorsements of “klal Yisrael” (Jewish unity), a whole lot of observant Jews seem eager to ban secularism from the marketplace of Jewish ideas.

Last autumn, for example, I heard historian Jonathan Sarna gratuitously attack secularists as “false messiahs” during a keynote address at the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation convention – this in front of a movement that disavows the existence of a “personal” God! (Surely Mordecai Kaplan was spinning in his grave.)

For their part, secular Jews have foolishly left the hall, expressing their distaste for God-worship, Torah-worship, rabbinical authority, and halachic strictures by depriving themselves and their children of fundamental Jewish knowledge and leaving themselves out of the loop of interpretation, renewal, and ritual creativity that has so redeemed Judaism as a spiritual path during the last three decades. The line that separates a secular Jew from an amhorets (ignoramus) or assimilationist thus gets thinner each decade . . ..

Who cares about any of this? What does the crisis of Jewish secularism mean for the rest of the Jewish community? In my judgment, the secular Jewish movements have represented the most committed embodiment of the countercultural, “let’s-change-the-world” aspects of Jewish identity. Even their discomfort with the Zionist project of “normalization” was rooted in a deeply Jewish (if historically naïve) belief that our people should serve as a “light unto the nations”: peaceable in a warlike world, merciful in a vengeful world, skeptical in an idolatrous world, communal and generous in a dog-eat-dog world, and fiercely devoted to the overturning of “slavery in Egypt.” Y.L. Peretz, the classic Yiddish writer whose literature has Torah-like stature for some secularists, put it this way: Jews who “wish to be true to ourselves” should be asking “vital questions” about “conscience, freedom, culture, ethics.” Isaac Bashevis Singer brought the sentiment more down to earth: Jews, he wrote, are “a people who can’t sleep themselves and let nobody else sleep.”

I know that these values have deep expression in the Jewish religious world and that Jewish social action will not fade away with the Jewish secular movements. But I also know that there are tens of thousands of “nonbelievers” (or “semi-believers”) in the American Jewish community who desire a means of expressing their Jewishness without enduring hours of worship – or immigrating to Israel. They don’t believe in God, even with His beard shaved off, and they’re less interested in understanding the distinctions between Torah and Talmud, Mishnah and Midrash, or Aggadah and Akedah, than in understanding their social responsibilities and ethical heritage.

As a secularist who has served several Jewish agencies as well as the Reform and Reconstructionist synagogue communities, I have been waiting more than 30 years for synagogues, religious organizations, and philanthropists to awaken to the opportunities and needs created by the stasis of the secular Jewish movement. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear of a rabbi reading Peretz’s “Bontshe the Silent” or “If Not Higher” instead of a Torah portion on a Saturday morning. Among secular Jews, therefore, I agitate for fundamental literacy about Jewish religious philosophy; among observant Jews, for fundamental literacy about the legacy of secular Jewish culture. I want to see our fences become fringes, our ideologies give way. I want to see an armada of rowboats crossing the lake.

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