The Nu? Jew and Yom Kippur: Part One of Three

This blog is entitled “For the Nu? Jew.” Nu? as in, what next?” What next for the Jewish people. What next for Judaism. What next for Israel.

But a Nu? Jew doesn’t just ask the questions. A Nu? Jew gropes for the answers. And a good Nu? Jew realizes that the truth is not always in the middle. Sometimes it’s somewhere else entirely.

As in, far away from the lies and half-truths and self-serving, pre-scripted tales we tell ourselves, about ourselves, each other and the world.

I’m sixty-six, coming up on five years since diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia and a couple other items I’ve never investigated too thoroughly. Oddly, as this Yom Kippur approaches, I find myself profoundly uninterested in myself. Or maybe not so oddly. Perhaps one of the prerequisites for being a good Nu? Jew is an aversion to being told what to think and feel, and when to think it and feel it . . . and an aversion, also, to those who presume to tell you.

Contrarian? Once, perhaps. But this season of repentance I find other questions more compelling. Questions about a future I’ll not be around to see.

Three questions in particular.

Why do so many Jews, whenever they get a chance, punch out?

What is the aspect of this faith that has proven so deadening and deadly in the world?

And what of Israel in the world, as once again the world closes in.

The first item. Jews leave.

We need not here rehearse all the standard accusations and calumnies about cowardice, apostasy, social climbing, convenience, marrying-out, insanity, inevitably counterpointed by invocations of our own self-evident righteousness: all the ways in which we habitually blame the customer.

Perhaps this Yom Kippur would be a good time to ask, might there be something wrong with the product?

As Jew hatred surges around the world once again, and as Israel grows more isolated and despised, and as American Jews by the tens of thousands shrug off their ascribed identity . . . look, the middle of a battle’s a bad time to discover that you’ve made a lot of enemies you didn’t need to make, and that your reserve forces have gone elsewhere.

Let’s run some numbers. Numbers that haunt me, as they should every Jew, Nu? or not.

Historical demographers estimate, roughly, that around the year 33 CE, a date often associated with the crucifixion of Jesus, seven million Jews lived within the Roman Empire. Most resided outside Palestine: in Alexandria and Antioch, on Cyprus, in Greece and Rome and as far away as Gaul. Perhaps another two million lived outside the Empire, in Babylon and Persia and Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. All, in all, say, nine million Jews.

Nineteen centuries later, in CE 1933, the year of Hitler’s ascension to power – eighteen million Jews.

Not much to show for nineteen centuries. Oppression and massacre took their share, as did poverty, war, disease, forced conversion and apostasies of conviction and convenience. But how many among those missing Jews, whatever their manner of exit, left because:

“I don’t want to spend my life doing this with these people.”

The rejection of faith is one thing. The rejection of people is another. It is, in the end, the rejection of real people. Jewish self-hatred, properly defined, is a pathological condition and rare. The Jew who chooses to leave for reasons of his or her own, including deep distaste and a profound sense of not for me – that’s something else.

So how many Jews in the world today? Depends on the Halakhic severity of the count. For the sake of historical symmetry, let’s say, eighteen million. As always, most choose to live outside of the Promised Land. Indeed, world Jewry has long been visualized as a kind of bar bell with two big weights, Israel and America, at the ends. If so, then the bar bell is becoming dangerously unbalanced.

The American situation requires but brief narrative here. The Ostjude of the great immigrations of the 1880s-1914 may have found themselves once again in shtetls, this time of their own making. But their kids wanted out. Previous waves of immigrants, the Irish and Italians especially, took two or three generations to become “real Americans.” The Jews did it in one, and the literature and legends of that inter-generational civil war, and the price paid by the children to free themselves from the tyrannies of parents themselves fleeing tyranny, constitute one of the major genres of American literary and pop culture in the fifties and sixties.

Then the inevitable happened. Late in life, (some) members of that first American generation came back, part-way. Their bequests were certainly generous. Then, amongst their children, more rejection, more indifference, and among the next two-three generations, more, more, more of the same. Students of the dilemma, especially those who find it horrific, usually attribute this drift to lack of knowledge and experience of things Jewish. No doubt, in part. But that presumes that knowledge and experience would prove attractive, even compelling. More likely responses might involve a combination of bewilderment and contempt.

This is not deliberate rejection and assimilation. This is “Why tell it to me?”

This tale I will tell you.

My son, now nearly thirty and a New York lawyer, no less, is Halakhically Jewish. His mother (we divorced early) never cared to provide him with any grounding. This didn’t bother me excessively. Forcing a child into a Jewish “experience” when the family’s not involved, usually generates little save confusion and resentment. Still, I figgered, a little familiarity might not hurt. So one summer, the lad was seven or so, we were out riding the rails, commuting between cities on an Amtrak zone pass and going to baseball games.

We got to Pittsburgh. I decided to show him something he’d never seen before: an old-fashioned Orthodox synagogue. I chose one where I’d spent a few High Holidays.

Time changes things. In the thirty years I’d been away, the place had gone from Hungarian/Litvak with a magnificent English rabbi, to Ultra-Orthodox.

I knocked on the office door. A young man in black-and-white answered. I explained what I wanted. The young man said nothing, closed the door in our faces, then reappeared at another door. He did not beckon and went back in. We followed into some sort of utility room. The young man, still ignoring us, donned tefillin and commenced to davening. We stared for a minute or two, then left.

“What was that about?” my son asked.

“He thinks he’s better than we are.”

My son exploded in anger and disgust, and has never, to this day, expressed any interest in Judaism.

Someone later explained to me what that young man was doing. He has, I’m certain, no idea what he did.

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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