Oy, the shame, the guilt, now not the poor starving children in Europe but the poor starving grandchildren in Phoenix or Cincinnati or Philadelphia. You know, those little ones raised on Frozen or Star Wars, the ones who don’t know a latke from a Tater Tot, who don’t know a knaidel from a wonton. The ones who can sing along with Alexa to Let It Snow and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but can only belt out the refrain from I Have a Little Dreidel much less a few words from Ma’oz Tzur
You know, the Boomer grandkids, the generation we have wrought.
Liel Leibovitz, writing in Tablet, cleverly skewers the loving modern day bubbes and zaides in yet another lament on whence go the Jews. He hangs it on the most recent Pew study that shows a whopping 32 percent of younger Jews identifying as the dreaded NONES, as those identifying with no religion. And he lays the blame directly on those who are worrying, their grandparents.
Leibovitz describes us, those Jews raised in the 50s and 60s, toggling between the old country yiddishkeit of our grandparents and the goldene medina striving of our parents, giving our kids a Judaism that paid homage to the past in synagogue dues and Hebrew school tuition but offered little more than the requisite bar mitzvah and three day a year Judaism at home. Shamed into “repaying” an obligation to generations past we shirked our responsibility to fully invest in the future.
And he may be right. Guilty as charged, if we raised our kids to be fully American, to partake of the country’s vast freedoms and opportunities. To celebrate its heritage as a refuge for all and immerse themselves in its rich diversity. To mix and mingle – and marry – and raise kids who are open and fully engaged in the wider world.
And yet, the very premise of American exceptionalism – and individualism – is that it is not an either or proposition. To be fully American does not mean relegating our Jewishness to the sidelines of our lives. And to be proudly Jewish does not mean that there is any one way to identify as Jews or animate our Judaism. What the statistics show across the American religious spectrum is the trending of new, innovative ways of doing and being Jewish that reimagine the age old markers even as there is a concomitant surge towards more traditional practice among another segment of the population. It is a heartening phenomenon, though it surely does not absolve us from responsibility, nor our kids, the parents of that next generation.
It’s up to them, and their kids, as to how they identify Jewishly.
And for us, Leibovitz’s distinction between being and doing Jewish is right on. What we need to do, for ourselves and for those who come after, is to take responsibility for our own Jewishness, to connect in a meaningful way to Jewish life, to create our own ways of manifesting that in our lives, not just lighting candles or eating latkes, though that is a good start, but taking a class, reading a book, attending a program, traveling to Israel. Finding ways to learn, to do, that fill some innate need, that inspire joy and pride, that enhance our lives even as we age or, well, because we are aging and looking back to our past while anticipating the future.
And Hanukkah is a good time to start, with its light-filled message of rededication. And while we place our menorahs in the window so the light will shine out to the world, so, too, do we need to bask in the dancing flames of the candles and rekindle that Jewish spark within us and let it shine forth to all those we hold close, especially our kids and grands.
Come light the menorah.