People of the bagel versus people of the book

People of the bagel versus people of the book

A new Pew Research poll suggests that American Jewry is on its way to sleeping with da fishes.

The surprising part was not the nearly 60 percent intermarriage rate, or the two-thirds of Jews who prefer the dentist’s chair to attending synagogue. No, it was Christmas that got me.

Really? One third out of all American Jews are lighting a tree? Even the most secular Jews used to define themselves as not being Christian. Now, according to the study more than a third say that belief in Jesus is not incompatible with being Jewish.

Basically, we’re screwed.

So where do we go from here? Some would say it’s time to book those El Al tickets, because American Jewry has no future. But this is a self-defeating argument. Israel needs a strong American Jewish community for its basic survival. All you have to do is look at tiny diaspora communities that were once robust, like the UK, where a tsunami of anti-Israel sentiment has exploded, to know the price paid for overseas communities that begin to disappear.

Others miss anti-Semitism. America is simply too open a society for Jews not to blend in to the point of oblivion. Both Spinoza and Sartre argued that without people to hate us we Jews will be no more. What we need is some good old fashion pogroms to keep us committed.

I find this the most offensive argument of all, not only because it argues that Nazis can be credited with Jewish identity but rather because it’s simply not worth paying the price. If only dead Jews get to remain affiliated, what’s the point?

Others find in this catastrophic study the ultimate vindication of Orthodoxy, the only part of the community that is growing rather than vanishing. But as an Orthodox Jew who has always lived among the non-Orthodox, I take scant comfort in the argument that only insularity and self-ghettoization can perpetuate our tradition.

Rather, what’s needed, both for Orthodox and secular Jews, is an immediate program to make all Jewish day schools free, just as Birthright is. Jewish education is the only guarantor of Jewish identity. We are not the people of the bagel. We are the people of the book. An extreme, draconian interpretation of separation of church and state in the United States makes it impossible for a dollar of our tax money to go to parochial schools, even for their secular departments. America is alone among developed counties of the world in penalizing parents who want to give their children a values-based religious education. We have to fight this politically tooth and nail. If AIPAC can get 12,000 Jews together to support Israel, then a similarly well-run political lobby can bring even greater numbers to pressure the government to pass legislation to fund the secular curriculum of parochial schools.

The rest of the money should be provided by creating a giant superfund that makes grants of approximately $10,000 per student per annum toward the cost of Jewish day schools, whatever the economic status of the parents. The money can and must be raised.

Endorsing the centrality of Jewish education, Torah study, and mitzvah observance also means putting an end to an emphasis on Jewish culture as a means of instilling identity.

For a generation American Jewry has promoted Jewish food, music, and art as focal points of identity. In place of kosher we have kosher style. Portnoy’s Complaint can serve as a text to replace Genesis.

Let’s now admit that Jewish culture has been an abysmal failure.

Why? First there is no unifying Jewish culture. For my father, a Sephardic Jew born in Iran, gefilte fish and klezmer are about as Jewish as sashimi and the Beatles.

But even if this were not the case, Jews have voted overwhelmingly with their feet and have decided that Jewish culture is inferior to its non-Jewish alternative. The best kosher restaurants today serve sushi over borscht, garlic chicken over boiled flanken. In Israel itself Arab foods like falafel have killed farfel, shwarma has finished off corned beef. The same is true of Jewish music. Jews flock to Beethoven and Beyoncé.

Does Jewish culture objectively match that of the Gentile west? No. And who cares? The Jews were never meant to be famous for their cuisine or sculpture. Rather, it is our incomparable religion and timeless values that make us the chosen people and the envy of the earth. No nation has so contributed to the goodness of the world than the Jews. We have gifted the world a personal God attentive to human suffering. The equality of humankind and the creation of life in God’s image. Directional history and thus the concept of progress. The Sabbath and thus the superiority of relationships over productivity. A belief in moral choice that transcends modern ideas of genetic predetermination. An emphasis on communal obligation before personal salvation. And a fixation not with entering heaven but with fixing the earth – with tikkun olam.

The novels of Isaac Bashevis Singer are an attractive read. But they cannot compare with the haunting reunion of Joseph and his brothers, or the bravery of David before Goliath. Jewish film festivals are entertaining but pale before dancing on Simchat Torah or lighting the Chanukah menorah.

Greek and Roman culture may have sculpted our world- but Jewish values continue to electrify the earth.