All through Christmas I thought a lot about Ari Shavit’s declaration to progressive American secular Jews that we need Israel “like oxygen” in order to stay Jewish– and therefore we must support the Zionist project. Shavit is warning that without a strong pole for Jewish identity, we will assimilate, vanish into the American bread pudding.
The first and obvious answer to Shavit is that any religious identity based on supporting apartheid is not oxygen, it’s carbon monoxide. I would sooner be a 7th Day Adventist or a follower of the Assembly of God than Jewish if Jewishness were dependent upon being a member in good standing of the Israel lobby. Thankfully, it is not.
But I take Shavit’s point too. I’m proudly Jewish, formed by Jewish tradition, yet I can’t say that I am doing much to maintain the tribe in modern America. When I look at my choices lately, from buying a Christmas tree and gifts to singing “Silent Night” at a Christmas dinner to chatting with my in-laws about when they started identifying as “WASPs”, I see the reason that the enlightenment Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s grandson was the Christian composer Felix Mendelssohn; mine are assimilationist choices. Adopted by millions of other intermarrying Jews, and you bet there will be no secular Jews left in a few generations, and the Orthodox will be the only reservoir of Jewishness in America, just as Shavit says.
Yet I feel little regret about my choices, and can’t imagine that the Jews making similar choices regret theirs. I like a wide American company; I spent the holiday with two other half-and-half couples and had drinks in the city with a Jewish friend who bragged on his “shiksa” wife. These are highly-personal questions, and I would no sooner proselytize assimilation to another individual than I accepted proselytizing on intermarriage by my original community.
A few other points in my defense:
–It’s not like my wife or my friends are very Christian. If they were, we wouldn’t be friends. They respect Christ as a teacher, but mock Christian religious claims and stay away from church. My spiritually-polyglot wife loves Christmas and calls it the Saturnalia, a pagan solstice feast, and last night was explaining ayurvedhic typologies to a formerly-Catholic friend who hates his church. If I were “staying Jewish” in this context, I would be very conservative indeed.
–A religion reflects the community it serves; and my community is simply too diverse for Judaism to suffice as the leading spiritual guide for my life. In fact, I see a miscibility of faith at every hand; and I am someone who needs spiritual guidance. For instance, in the last year I have lost two good friends, one Jewish, one lapsed Catholic, and both times I really needed to grieve in my friend’s community, and those communities were diverse: the Catholic community included interracial children, the Jewish shivas were led by a non-Jewish widow. The literary guides I seek out are also diverse, from Emily Dickinson to Kafka.
–Are you a cultural conservative? I’m not. When Shavit says that progressive secular Jewishness is threatened with extinction or when Bernard Avishai says that a one-state outcome is threatening the eastern European Jewish culture of Bialik and Agnon that exists nowhere else in the world, I’m respectful but not reverent; if they are right, in the end I have to shrug. Cultures come and go. There are great losses but presumably they are replaced by better things. It is the nature of traditions to be replaced; the people of New Guinea have lost scores of languages. Those thousands of secular American Jews who are making choices similar to mine do so not because they are stupid sheep but because they want to explore the world more fully (including seeking a wider pool for that most perplexing of choices, mate selection).
–If the price of maintaining Jewish traditions is support for religious nationalism, what is it worth? If the price of maintaining American Jewish progressive secular culture is high walls to prevent children mingling with non-Jews, where is the confidence or progressivism or democracy in that culture?
Getting off my back foot, I’d say that it is arrogant to assert that Jewishness will collapse if American Jews don’t support Israel. If we can say one thing about Jewish history it’s that its movements are hardly predictable. I could just as easily assert as a proud Jew that what’s killing Jewishness is tribalism, the requirement that young Jews support a nationalist militarist project that feels about as cool as the KKK. If that requirement were ended, who knows how Jewishness would reinvent itself. Sky’s the limit.