Judaism's crisis: 'Assimilation and its discontents' THE ARGUMENT

March 05, 1995|By Lisa Schiffren | Lisa Schiffren,Special to The Sun

A few weeks ago a politically conservative, Jewish friend of mine was quoted in the New York Times magazine saying, "A little anti-Semitism is a good thing for the Jews. It reminds us who we are."

Knowing the speaker, I heard, in my inner ear, the flip tone in which the line would have been delivered. Still, I wondered, how could a politically savvy Washington lawyer say something so inflamatory to a reporter? Sure enough, the minute the article was in print, august personages who head the major Jewish organizations began writing the predictably anguished, "how could anyone be so insensitive?" letters.

My friend, Jay Lefkowitz, was responding to the liberal, de-racinated Jewish reporter's needling questions about what a problem members of the (in the reporter's view inherently anti-Semitic) Christian Right are likely to be for Jews and other minorities if they gain power and assert themselves in the mainstream culture. This is a premise the liberal, secular Jewish elite bought wholesale and can't get enough of. As Barry Rubin argues in his new "Assimilation and its Discontents" (Times Books. 310 pages. $25), eagerly assimilated American Jews have long conflated political conservatism of any sort with anti-Semitism, just as they willfully confuse the millennia-old law of the Talmud with the current platform of the Democratic Party.

I'm sure there was a better, more nuanced response to the reporter, but the fact is I have thought and, in more sympathetic company, said the same thing myself - a view I'm ready to, as they say in Congress, revise and extend.

The other fact is that, unlike the men who head organizations that rant about perceived anti-Semitism in a nation where the great peril Jews face is obliteration by intermarriage and assimilation,and who have been known to denigrate Orthodox Jews for their less than fully assimilated cultural habits, Mr. Lefkowitz is an observant Jew. Indeed, I first met him at Washington's modern Orthodox synagogue, which we both attended. I mention this because it seems to me that the authentic practice of Judaism ought to create more standing for comment on such matters than the vague cultural affiliation of many prominent Jews, or even holding an important position in community political institutions.

But still, you may wonder, to what ill is a little anti-Semitism any kind of answer?

Never, in the 2,000-year history of exile, have Jews found a home more comfortable, where they were so thoroughly tolerated - and highly regarded - as America, especially in the past half-century.

Why is this a problem? In a secular age, parents, themselves often largely ignorant, haven't passed on the substance of Judaism, leaving many Jews with little content to their affiliation.

Christian acceptance has fueled rampant assimilation. Intermarriage has reached astonishing rates - just over 50 percent in the most recent study - and only a minuscule proportion of the intermarrieds raise Jewish children.

Furthermore, support for Israel, which has served as a substitute for actual religion among secular American Jews since its founding, is no longer so necessary as the state matures, and its most urgent threats recede.

So, not to be melodramatic, but the prospect of the eventual disappearance of the world's most privileged Jewish community looms large. Unfortunately, the same Jewish institutions which "lost" the allegiance of the last few generations of Jews are in charge of regaining them.

Jews with more than fashionable tribal allegiance were not entirely surprised by the new statistics. Anyone who lives outside of still-insular Hasidic and extremely Orthodox communities on the East Coast has only to look around to see classmates, collegues and children of friends and relatives intermarrying at a dizzying rate. The cultural affiliation of my parent's generation - where people who were not themselves interested in more than holiday practice still joined synagogues and sent their children to Hebrew school because everyone else did - has ended. Indeed, in recent decades all manner of Eastern religions, liberal politics, careerism, exercise and weird cultural fads have increasingly substituted for the substance of Judaism among non-practicing Jews.

Naturally enough, Jews whose only spiritual possessions are the sentimental, non-binding acquisitions of childhood, have little to fall back on at those inevitable moments in adulthood when an adult needs spiritual succor. How do you get to God, if all you know is a fragment of half-memorized prayer in a foreign language? If bagels are your only ritual?

You convert, even if the new religion sets standards, and makes you study as an adult what you did not learn about your own religion.

So, not to be melodramatic, but the prospect of the eventual disappearance of the world's most privileged Jewish community looms large. Unfortunately, the same Jewish institutions which "lost" the allegiance of the last few generations of Jews are in charge of regaining them.

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