On Christmas Eve I went with my sister-in-law and her two children to midnight mass at a church in Richmond. The processional and singing of “O Come All Ye Faithful” is one of the most stirring performances I could ever hope to see. The choir, the candlelight, the swelling voices in the gothic church bring tears to my eyes.
Tramping to my in-laws across the golf course of the Country Club of Virginia the next morning, I reflected, What a WASPy Jew I’ve become– to use the term of abuse of my childhood. So: How assimilationist am I? Have I left the Jewish community entirely? I’ve come to admit lately that it angered me deeply that my original community so condemned the best thing I did in life, meeting my wife many years ago. And on that basis—clannish attitudes—the late Joel Kovel left Judaism and became a Christian.
I would never do that. “Don’t switch sides!” my wife said when we dropped her off at the Airbnb before midnight mass. You’re so Jewish, she always says. She means that’s the tribe that stamped me, forever. Early on when I told her I didn’t go in for therapy, she said, But your DNA is Freudian. A few months back I did the spit-test in order to find out if I have unknown step-siblings; and learned that I am 99.7 percent Ashkenazi Jew, by their lights. Which is to say, my ancestors took precautions that I have not.
No one seems to care anymore. I’m not the only Jew who has landed in my wife’s family, and Christians welcome Jews. I am eccentric in a lot of ways, but in this one I am highly conventional: 70 percent of American Jews are marrying outside the tribe. So I am more characteristic of my group than all those articles about Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas, or about, do you have a Christmas tree, or when are we going to get secular prayer at the western wall? Yossi Gurvitz says Jews will marry out in droves if there are not prohibitions– the “pursuit of happiness is a goyish concept.”
Back when my community rejected my wife, in 1991, out-marriage had reached 50 percent, and the Jewish community was in crisis about “continuity” and decided to build the walls up to keep the young Jews in. The Jewish day school movement was part of the strategy. So was Birthright, the program to bring young Jews to Israel for free so they will marry other Jews and support Israel.
That was perfectly consistent with the definition of Judaism in the 1990s: Israelism was Judaism, as Michelle Goldberg lately explained to readers of the New York Times. That conversion had taken place in the 1970s. My brother and I both got Zionist propaganda at our bar mitzvahs.
Now all that is under siege. The morning I left for Virginia, I put up a post about another revolutionary event, the three young Jews who were thrown off their Birthright trip for questioning the separation wall. Birthright must have wanted to throw them off before they walked off, as many other Jews have done.
If you watch the video that the Birthright rejects posted, you see why Ben Doernberg said he was traumatized. The Birthright official who tells them they are going home is a stupid thug who insists that Birthright is all about diverse viewpoints and intellectual challenge. The young people refuse to buy her line and demand to know why they are being tossed, refuse to take the free plane trip home if they can’t be informed of the reason. Then the three promptly went to Palestine, to observe the hateful conditions there.
Watching the young Jews experience the rejection and trauma and handle themselves resourcefully and calmly—they are the Jews I love, to whom I feel kindred.
When I was younger, I would say they are doing what Jews do, questioning authority. Now I say, They are doing what smart young people do. It’s not their “Jewish values” that are impelling their choices. You could just as well say it’s AIPAC and Israel’s “Jewish values” that impel them to build a wall so as to have a Jewish majority state, and to characterize the other race with whom they are living in the country as terrorists and enemies, and to punish American politicians who dissent.
Over the years, some Christians have said to me, Stop thinking that you’re Jewish, it’s neurotic. But I’ve not been able to do that, or anyway I never tried. I don’t like the entitlement and the Israel lobby, but I believe in tribe, and at some level I clearly love my group and thank it for cultivating traits I cherish, reading and intellectual detachment. A good number of my closest friends are Jewish, and I am taking Hebrew for the first time in 50 years, so as to study what the supremacists say in Israel.
My Judaism is anti-Zionism. That’s the spiritual challenge that has propelled me and this site. My social/political identity is Jewish; and my Jewish chore is clear. Being Jewish means helping to free my group and the world of the historic trauma that generated religious nationalism and all its evils. This seems to me the famous definition of Torah that Rabbi Hillel gave to us. What is hateful to you, don’t do to another. That directs Jewish faces to Palestine. All the rest is commentary.