Jew or Just Jewish?

Do you consider yourself a Jew or just Jewish?

One of my few early Israel culture shocks was to hear myself being called a Jew. One of my best friends — an Israeli — was speaking up for me and said, “Hayehudi hazei rotsei…” Back in the Catholic/WASP, Midwest town where I came of age in the ’60-’70s, them was fighting words. If anyone started calling you a Jew, it was time to get your fists up or duck.

Later when I had become a Haredi insider, I also was allowed to overhear my friend and rebbi, R. Moshe Halbershtaam zt”l of the Eida Haredis, leave a telephone message by saying “Medaber kan yehudi beshem Moshe Halbershtaam.”

But the question is what do the words Jew and Jewish entail? By declaring “Ich min a Yid,” do I categorically accept all 613 behavioral requirements incumbent since Har Sinai? Am I duty bound because fate, destiny biology or accident of birth would have me a Jew?

Or do I really have the open-ended option of sliding out of “Jew” by just saying, “I’m Jewish.” Not really a Jew, you understand, just Jew-ish — as a young Barbara Streisand sang, “I carry the flag red, white and bluish, I talk this way because I’m Jewish.”

Quite a difference there. Being “Jew-ish” means that you can crow (or kvell) about not having fasted in the 17th of Tammuz since you’ve  evolved to the point where you have an eating obsession or declare your intention to dine on the 9th of Av.

And seems that if you’re only “Jew-ish” you can snuff out a life when you’re just 19 years-old, finishing your freshman year at UC Berkeley and not even sure who the father was.

You’ll still be a “nice Jewish girl.” A “philanthropic Jewish women’s group” will even foot your part of the abortion if you’re seen wearing a Jewish silver star when you appeared at the campus social workers’ office.

Question: in the string <<nice Jewish girl>>, are <<nice>> and <<Jewish>> mutually independent even though they both qualify <<girl>>?

But to get to brass tacks, what bee has Yitzchak Baruch Fishel got in his bonnet this time?

Bad Religion

It was Shaul Magid who first put me on to an article on Religion Dispatches Magazine that critiqued a book by Ross Douthot who writes for The New York Times.

The book is entitled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, but for our purposes that’s neither here nor there. The link quickly disappeared from Shaul’s FB newsfeed and from the RDM Web site as well. And I’ll tell you why:

Of course, I haven’t read the book nor did I read the whole RDM article but, according to the reviewer, the basic premise seems to come from a series of three lectures delivered by invitation at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (1939). The title was The Idea of a Christian Society, and they were given by T.S. Eliot.

Now you must know that T.S. Eliot holds a special place in my heart. Not because he wrote Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, heaven forfend, but because he hails from STL and his grandmother, who must have been “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” founded the all-girls school just across the hockey fields from the gender-separated Country Day where I received my 5th-12th grade education.

So it was that throughout my devoutly, though inadvertently assimilationist youth I could hear “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table” and “‘That is not what I meant at all;/ That is not it, at all’ (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)” resounding in my pubescent head without really knowing what it was all about.

But what Eliot served up at Cambridge was another matter entirely. His thesis was that there are three kinds of religion: Orthodox, Liberal and Pagan.

Being as he was speaking in 1939, Eliot identified pagan as Communism and Nazi/socialism. But more important, he dogeared Liberal religion as the slippery slide to those twin abysses.

That means that once you’ve ever so gently and with the best of kind intentions loosened the bonds of Orthodoxy, you’re on your way to the tubes.

Thus, since friend Magid and the RDM seem to be heavily into that kind of thing, they let the whole matter drop.

An American Form of Judaism

Though I am perfectly aware that both the Reform and Conservative movements had either their nascence in Europe or were formulated by world-class theologians who were born and bred there, these essentially Protestant forms of Judaism really took root in the fertile soil of the New World.

That is because America presented Jews with a special need to be Jewish that can tagged as something as primitive as survival.

Until the advent of lay luminaries like Yaakov Yosef Herman and Harry Fischel (no relation), followed by an influx of Holocaust survivors and the like who were intent on replanting and recreating their European ambiance on new soil, America was a barren wasteland for the Jew.

Liberal Protestant forms of Christianity — freed of the restraints laid upon them in the Old Country — flourished in the United States and Jewish virtues seemed  so part of the American ethos that Issaac Mayer Wise was ready to declare even Cincinnati the New Jerusalem.

Because blending in with their non-Jewish surroundings seemed the gateway to all kinds of success, Jews became Jewish. In the beginning, they were socially acceptable only to other Americanism  converts like themselves, but that didn’t really matter.

One could now be “Jewish” yet enjoy all the better things of life. That meant somehow managing internally but non-specifically to identify with other former Jews while externally being, to all intents and purposes, just like a goy.

Jew or Israeli?

Dear reader, I realize that I have glossed over a slew of pertinent points such as Louis Jacobs and the New London Synagogue, even though I very nearly married his rebbi‘s daughter. You must forgive me, as this blog/article is getting to be too long even for the writer, and I still have one more point to get across.

Until now, there has been no real need (as described immediately above) for the Masorti or Progressive movements in Israel. Just living in Israel was enough of a statement of Jew-ishness, as the input of Arab hate created much the same effect as having immigrated to
post -WWII America.

That means that throughout the early years of the Jewish State, these two essentially heretical movements — though the sought ties with the government — were much ignored by the general populace. It was olim and visitors who attended the equivalents of their US synagogues and temples.

The ordinary Israeli had no real problem with religion. Unless you were  going to bury or marry — “maximum” circumcise — you could forget about it.

But now something else is afoot — there is a government push to replace orthodoxy, which has somehow become politically intractable.

So, just be aware of bad religion. That’s all.


About the Author
Y.B. Fishel holds cum laude degrees from Princeton and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as written ordinations from members of Israel's highest, ultra-Orthodox authorities. His reason for being around ToI is to provide a chareidi insider's view of what's happening in Israel.