I was trying to think of a word to describe the phenomenon where the fundamental assumptions that propelled one generation (begin to) wane in the next. I thought initially of “inertia,” but there are too many negative connotations to that term… Some would suggest “progress” but rather than bore y’all with the continuing semantic search here, you can simply register what I am trying to describe and if you can come up with a catchy word or phrase that best encapsulates it, please feel free to leave me a comment.
So, I think the North American Jewish community is experiencing the above phenomenon in a number of profound ways. (That conclusion is, in large part, what drove me to write my book and what the book is about…)
And when it comes to peoplehood, perhaps it might behoove us to consider the People Israel as one based on consent not descent. Now this is a catchy phrase often employed to describe how Jews feel their connection to Judaism. These “consent-not-descent” folks might say: “One cannot assume that just because an individual has a Jewish parent or two, that makes them Jewish. They need to feel it too. They need to want it. They need to opt in.” Or one could say that we might want to shift to a quality-based Jewish affiliation instead of a perception of nation based on quantity. (This, I imagine, would make many a post-Shoah policymaker nervous.)
And though folks have argued in various academic publications like this one that the paradigm has long shifted, for some reason, a lot of folks in positions of authority, policy-making and fundraising and distributing do not seem to sense any shift whatsoever.
So, if I might suggest another cornerstone for Jewish peoplehood to replace / supplant / buttress the failing ones, it should be this:
Jews need to want to be Jewish. (It is not something that just happens, or at least public policy should not be made based on the assumption that it includes those folks that just happen to be Jewish.)
And that involves engagement. So when I say “consent,” I mean an affirmative step, an act, a saying yes and a doing yes. And that doing yes should be most broadly conceived and defined… So if someone opts to go to step class at the JCC instead of a local health club, that’s an affirmative choice to associate with a Jewish entity. That counts. Disagree? That’s fine. That’s why there is a comments section…
So if shvitzing to Human League counts, does writing a cheque? Hmm… that’s a good one. Folks, chime in here on the relative merits of chequebook Judaism. (As in, the only connection one has to one’s Jewishness is writing a fat cheque to the UJA… is that doing yes?)
And I am not suggesting that folks who are not that engaged should turn in their Elders of Zion membership cards. Settle down.
"To be honest, I would like to go about my life exploiting the subject of my Jewishness for comedy, and not be saddled with the responsibility to actually represent, defend, or advance the cause of the Jewish people."
But if we are going to begin funding “peoplehood projects” with the expressed goal of strengthening the Jewish people, then perhaps we might want to consider that Jewishness / Judaism / being Jewish / doing Jewish is not just something you can just exploit for humour although Sarah Silverman seems to be doing a great job of it…
Doing Jewish should be inconvenient. Yep, that’s right. It should force the individual to have to pause for a moment at some point in their day and say to herself: “Hmmm, I could flake out here and do [fill in example of ‘easy way out’ here, like not paying my workers overtime] which would be the expedient, corner-cutting, easy thing to do, but Jewish teachings / mores / practice / tradition teach me otherwise. So I choose the latter…”
In a culture where speed and expedience are king, perhaps we should strive for a Jewishness which is slow, contemplative and inexpedient and cannot be multi-levelled-marketed like Nu Skin…
Image via Wikipedia
So bear with me about this short tangent … it is relevant to the point. I promise.
In 2007, the Ben Gamla School opened in Hollywood, Florida.
It was the first Hebrew language charter school in the United States, that is, it was the first government funded school (as their website asserts) whose primary purpose was to:
deliver a first-class academic program that offers a unique bilingual, bi-literate, and bi-cultural curriculum, which prepares students to have an edge in global competition through the study of Hebrew as a second language.
Wow on two counts. First, I was going to make a joke about the long list of “bi”s in the above statement, working in a reference to Bi-Con, or perhaps Bed, Bath and Beyond but then a friend told me that B,B & B is really not a hangout for bisexuals – just people, both gay, straight and switch-hitters looking for bedding and bath tchotchkes…
So I dropped it. On to the second Wow!
I was a bit befuddled as to how the study of Hebrew will give Hebrew-speakers an “edge in global competition“… ? Yikes. This takes the whole Elders of Zion thing to a different level, doesn’t it? (And besides, I thought the Elders were Yiddish speakers…)
Nevertheless, to conceive of a school that puts Hebrew alongside English (and not as its hand-maiden, gofer or token Jew) is pretty invigorating and exciting… and considering how quickly Hebrew Charter Schools are proliferating across the USA (there are about 20 up and running), it may be one of the more salient directions in which Jewish/Hebrew education (that is, the education of the Next Jew-ish generation) is heading…
And now back to Thought 2.
So once we have a topic of conversation (i.e., the Torah, for starters…), how shall we talk about it?
In Hebrew, of course!
However, as Deborah Lipstadt, among others, have observed: “We are a people of the book who cannot read the book in its original language.” Ouch. (…Which reminds me of another joke about why God could never get tenure at the Hebrew University… (wait for it…) because He only wrote one book and He wrote it in Hebrew!)
By 2020, the majority of Jews in the world will be Hebrew speakers. If we take this notion of peoplehood seriously, can we (that is, US, that is North American Jews) afford to be part of the substantial minority that cannot function in Hebrew? (And I am not talking about having a passable facility in siddur Hebrew or a mastery of twee dialogues between Israeli convenience-store-owners/bus-drivers/baristas and various North American consumers… I am talking about bi-fluency. And no, that does not sound dirty. [See above failed joke.])
So what is to be done? Are government funded (or yes, privately paid-for) Hebrew language schools the answer? (Are you listening, John Tory?)
In my free moments, I sit with a cup of coffee and imagine what a full Hebrew immersion school would be like… modeled on existing French immersion programs across Canada, a school where every subject is taught in Hebrew… and then, when someone walks by and notes the vaguely ethereal smile on my face and asks me: “What were you thinking about?” and then I tell them, the look they shoot back… well, it’s just precious!
Another piece from eJewishphilantrophy continuing the discussion about “peoplehood”… except, this time, the piece read a little bit like a plug or a not-so-cleverly-placed product for the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.
That aside, Kopelowitz made an interesting distinction between “peoplehood” and “identity,” but, again, we quibble…
To succeed in the Peoplehood project, we need to distinguish between the form and content of of collective Jewish life. When it comes to content, I find that the discussion normally gets lost – that is searching for “core values” or “practices” that all agree on. We can certainly point to some central beliefs and practices, but there will always be some group who will disagree.
So…? Isn’t that the point of being Jewish, the core of our 5,000 year tradition… to argue?
At least if we consider “core values” and “practices,” we will have something to argue about… otherwise, all we are left with is cocktail mixers. Continue reading below…
However, when it comes to the form of Peoplehood, that is the manner in which Jews who do not know one another personally, are able to come into interaction with one another and/or develop feelings of commitment and belonging to the larger collective; we know that there are organizations and communities that do this well and those who don’t. Peoplehood discourse at its finest focuses on the dimension of best practice for building collective Jewish belonging and has a healthy sense of what such discourse addresses and what it does not.
That’s right. Cocktail mixers.
For Kopelowitz’s full piece, click here.
Image by Center for Jewish History, NYC via Flickr
So has “peoplehood” replaced “continuity” as the buzzword of the decade?
Problem is, as with “innovation” (which is also a buzzword of the current decade), I really have no idea what “peoplehood” means…
Well, that’s not exactly true. I have some idea.
…As does Misha Galperin who claims that:
Abundant research has let us know that the way to most significantly impact Jewish identity and the bonds of peoplehood is by providing people with immersive, meaningful experiences. For the past few years, the organized Jewish community worldwide has recognized that the next major task facing us is strengthening Jewish identity, which we’ve come to call “the price of peoplehood.”
He goes on to say that:
Jews younger than 45 do not necessarily privilege their Jewish brothers and sisters above others when it comes to friendship, marriage, volunteerism and charitable giving.
You can read the rest of his piece here.
Perhaps Jews should privilege Jew-on-Jew marriage, volunteerism and giving… but Jew-on-Jew friendships? (Cue: sound of head scratching.)
So, “peoplehood” happens when Jews have “immersive, meaningful experiences”… got it. (Or did I mis-represent? Feel free to correct in the comment section.) But what does that mean? Does a Matisyahu Hannukah concert count? How about collecting trash with other Jewish singles on an expressway median strip?
Daniel Septimus says NO:
Peoplehood should not be an end in itself, and if it is, its decline is not worth crying about.
If you must cry, cry about the fact that most American Jews have never experienced the intellectual rush of deep Torah study. Cry about the fact that they don’t regularly receive the physical, spiritual and social sustenance of a Shabbat meal with friends. Cry about the fact that they have never sung a great niggun or danced a spontaneous hora at a klezmer concert. Cry about the fact that they haven’t experienced the mystique of Jerusalem, that they haven’t felt the support of a community committed to hesed, that they haven’t read our writers’ magisterial works of literature.
You can read the rest of his piece here.
And then Misha Galperin replied here, adding that:
Jewish peoplehood is the bond that exists among Jews that transcends time and geography and involves mutual care and responsibility; it’s about meaningful belonging. It is not enough to be part of an extended family. We need to be part of an extended family with a vision, a unique mission in the world. Part of that mission involves seeking social justice for all people. More of that mission involves nurturing Jewish literacy, Jewish values and Jewish solidarity with Israel and Jews the world over. It includes mobilizing Israelis and young Jews elsewhere to take a greater role in nurturing the less fortunate. It is about focusing on what should bring us together as opposed to what pulls us apart.
I can get with that too… but I wonder: How? How does our Jewish community pursue tzedek (as in, to whom do we extend our help? everyone in need or just Jews?), advance Jewish literacy (then what’s the syllabus?), embrace values (which other values besides tikkun olam?), stand with Israel (when more younger Jews are growing increasingly indifferent?) and united with other Jews (when the perception is, as Sarah Silverman said in the AJWS promo clip, “I mean like Jews are fine, you know?”)?
Any thoughts on this? David Suissa weighs in at HuffPo too… although I only skimmed the piece with one eye and will not link to it because of the strike called for by unpaid Huffbo bloggers…
I have a few, say SIX thoughts… but I will save them for the next six posts… feel free to chime in in the meantime.