Will America’s Loving Embrace Lead to the End of Judaism?

By Jonathan Groner


Review of Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry by Samuel G. Freedman. Simon & Schuster. 397 pp. $26.00. For more thoughtful reviews of books, please visit our sister webzine, www.JBooks.com, where this review originally appeared.

Simultaneously both an insider and an outsider, author and journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman was the ideal person to write this book about American Jewry’s religious wars. The child of militantly secular yet strongly identified Jews, a cultural combination that Freedman notes is rapidly disappearing, Freedman unilaterally claims journalistic objectivity. He holds no birthright allegiance to Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, or any other movement. At the same time, Freedman is unmistakably part of the Jewish community, and his ahavat yisrael–love for the Jewish people–shines on nearly every page. As infuriating, perplexing, and saddening as the Jews can be, Freedman recognizes that they are history’s ultimate survivors and he desperately hopes that they don’t end up getting lost in America’s loving embrace.

Freedman’s basic thesis is that yiddishkeit, the intensely Jewish but largely irreligious civilization so lovingly and accurately depicted in Irving Howe’s masterpiece, World of Our Fathers, is dead. The Lower East Side and its analogues in other American cities have long since passed from the scene, and the suburbs and city neighborhoods that replaced them have brought Jews material success but cultural cataclysm. The Yiddish language could not last in America; anti-Semitism, a force that once kept the Jews together, has nearly vanished; and the State of Israel has taken up most of our national pride, much of our charitable resources, and some of our most energetic people. What is left? Broad acceptance by non-Jewish America, an intermarriage rate that approaches 50 percent, and a dying culture. Except for the Orthodox.

“In the struggle for the soul of American Jewry,” Freedman writes, “the Orthodox model has triumphed.” He cautions, of course, that he does not mean that only Orthodox Jews will survive. His point is, rather, that the only portion of American Jewry that will flourish “is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion defines Jewish identity.” With bagels now a staple at McDonald’s, Jewish cooking is not going to save American Jewry, and neither will Jewish labor unions, Yiddish theater, or borscht-belt comedians. The Jews were first defined in the Bible by the way in which they thought about and worshiped God, and for better or worse, that is what will continue to sustain them.

Freedman’s most poignant chapter is his first. It is 1963, and Camp Kinderwelt, a Yiddish Labor Zionist summer camp in upstate New York, has already seen better days. The rest of the sixties will bring assassinations, war, drugs, and cultural upheaval, and they will also mean the end of that brief cultural moment in which places like Kinderwelt flourished. The camp will close for good in 1971. Meanwhile, camper Sharon Levine, a teenage girl from Newark (another place whose Jewish history is about to end) is saying farewell to her friends in the “autumnal chill” of August 24, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald will shock the world in three months; Sharon will go to college, and her world will never be the same. Her careful balancing of “Jewish identity and American birthright,” of “Mayim, Mayim”–(a then-popular Israeli circle dance) and “Runaround Sue” (a hit song in the early sixties for Dion and the Belmonts) will no longer constitute a viable cultural response.

Thirty-five years later, Sharon and her friends reconnect in a Manhattan apartment. Not all have married Jews, and the only one of the group who can be confident of her children’s Jewish identity is the one whose son, raised in the Reform movement, became Orthodox and moved to the West Bank. Sharon herself struggles with her feelings about her past, whose cultural richness has dissipated:

She thought of the whole world of Yiddishkeit [her father] had tried to give her, through Bet Yeled and Kinderwelt and the Farband and the Jewish National Fund collection box on the kitchen table, and she excoriated herself for not having devoured every bit of it. Why had she been so damned embarrassed about a father who spoke Yiddish, a father who had an accent?

This chapter is particularly moving because it is also Freedman’s own story–or it could have been, had the author not moved toward greater religious observance. Freedman himself grew up in Highland Park, New Jersey, in a family that was, in his words, “totally secular.” Since 1992, however, he and his wife have identified strongly with the Conservative movement, first in a congregation in Metuchen, New Jersey, and now as part of the very successful B’nai Jeshurun synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they are raising their three children.

“Both my parents were fluent in Yiddish and were active in labor unions that were totally Yiddish speaking,” Freedman said during an interview with Jewish Family & Life!. “My father grew up in an anarchist colony that was 99 percent Jewish. These were Jews who would have celebrated a Yom Kippur ball. My mother was the daughter of a rabbi who broke with her family over religious issues.”

“I find it impossible to believe that secular Judaism is making a comeback, no matter how much it is trumpeted,” Freedman continues. “That culture had a language, a theater, its own schools. Very few of these now exist. They needed the ghetto as much as the religious people needed the ghetto. Once they left the homogeneous neighborhood, they didn’t have anything as durable as the religious practices to sustain them.” Freedman notes that in his wife’s immediate family and his, the only marriage (out of four) involving two born Jews is his own.

The Kinderwelt story may have ended in 1971, but Jewish life in that area of New York State continued. In a fascinating touch that is typical of this well-reported and well-organized book, Freedman points out that just a year later, the first Hasidic Jew started to buy land in Monroe, N.Y., just two miles away from the defunct camp. By 1998, with families averaging seven children, the population of the Hasidic Satmar community of Kiryas Joel was 12,000. Judaism had taken root, but in a completely different form. For years, the local nonobservant Jews had tried to stave off the onslaught of the Hasidim, but by sheer force of numbers and by wielding political power, they were able to form their enclave.

Freedman does not despair for the centrist Orthodox movement (or for the Conservative or Reform, for that matter). But this modern journalist, a University of Wisconsin graduate, former New York Times reporter, and author of three previous books, clearly maintains a level of admiration for the ultra-Orthodox Jews. His account in Jew vs. Jew of the spiritual odyssey of Daniel Greer from religiously observant lawyer and mayoral aide to black-hatted New Haven yeshiva (Jewish school) dean is not without sympathy.

Freedman holds out hope for the continued survival of Reform Judaism–mostly because Orthodoxy has allotted such a limited role to women. “Something that has kept Reform viable is the fact that the Orthodox don’t ordain women. A good many of their female theologians and clergy, had the Orthodox permitted it, would have become Orthodox.”


About Jonathan Groner

Jonathan Groner, a Washington, DC-based free-lance writer, is a contributing editor to JBooks.com, a publication of Jewish Family & Life!, for which he interviewed Samuel Freedman.