The high holidays this year have been the most relaxed of my lifetime. It used to be that I was quite caught up in the new year and the ten days of awe leading up to Yom Kippur. I made it a point to get to synagogue a time or two, I always fasted. I anticipated the question from my tribal minders, “What did you do this year, Phil?” and aimed to pass the test. Especially after I got married to a non-Jew. I felt guilty about my lack of adherence to traditional Jewish ways, and tried to make up for my violations in spasmodic ritual.
This year, not so much. And I notice that few of my Jewish friends are being observant. One went camping. Another made a comment to me about their Buddhist spouse. A third made a blasphemous joke with pleasure: It took 2000 years for the Jews to get Chinese food.
Yet another has refused to go to synagogue since the rabbi used the pulpit on the high holidays to express compassion for the Israeli Defense Forces. Anti-Zionism is obviously a factor here. It’s hard to get pumped for a religion so many of whose institutions align themselves with a militant apartheid state. All the polling shows that the more religious Jews are, the more supportive they tend to be of Israel.
But I’m speaking more generally about assimilationist tendencies in the United States. I have more Jewish friends than ever but a lot of them are intermarried, and the High Holidays feel more and more like something traditional people do. It used to be that Sabbath services were that way; Jews only showed up in shul for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now even that observance seems to me to be slipping slowly away.
The other night a Jewish friend had us over for a Rosh Hashanah dinner, and said the prayers, under her breath. My wife later asked why she didn’t sing em out. All three Jews there were intermarried; and when I talked with the other Jewish guest about these trends, she was more comfortably lapsed than me. She’s looking forward to Christmas with non-Jewish grandchildren in another country; she’s moved for jobs too many times to have kept Jewish friends, but isn’t sure what to do about it.
So everything that Alan Dershowitz (The Vanishing American Jew) and other tractarians warned us about is happening, and still I shrug.
Other moderns are going through the same process. My close non-Jewish friends stopped going to church a long time ago, my wife and all her sisters and cousins, too. I think of Kafka’s objection to the synagogue in Prague– his father stretching out his hand to show his weirdo son the “sons of the millionaire Fuchs.” Chosenness and prestige culture are problematic, no matter who’s expressing it. If I hated one thing about Antonin Scalia, it was his refusal to consider other legal norms than American ones.
I need religion; and in crises, I have found myself turning to a few intimates, several from my wife’s family, and reaching for lines from Dickinson, Kafka, Tolstoy, Melville, Shakespeare, Doris Lessing. My wife is a full-on seeker, and I piggyback on her discoveries. The ayurvedic temperaments are a very useful typology, right up there with Myers Briggs. “You’re either a nature or a culture person,” my wife said recently, and I’m with nature.
Am I assimilating? I don’t know. My closest friends are more unconventional than ever, I’m going to fast on Yom Kippur, and the community of anti-Zionist Jews is important to me. They’re going to spread me in the woods anyway.
These are all observations, not moral commandments. Though I find that the guilt is ebbing; I’ve made my choices, and loss of tradition is one of the consequences. Cultures change and develop; in New Guinea they are losing languages by the day. We should pray that what we replace our old ways with is an improvement.