Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Being Jew-ishy

Dr. Devorah Baum of Southampton University may be more connected to some form of traditional Judaism than she lets on in her New York Times op-ed published on the evening of Yom Kippur. So perhaps she herself isn't the problem in her piece at all, but rather the Times editors who welcomed her article and its timing, and the many readers who heartily agree with her theses. The thesis, in a nutshell: Jews are the uprooted, the outsiders, a minority whose identity is unclear but it's not that of the majority. Above all, they're a sensibility (her word).

Well, no. Baum's prime examples are Franz Kafka (died 1924), and Lenny Bruce (died 1966). In the meantime it's 2017, and the State of Israel is gearing up to celebrate it's 70th anniversary. A country invented to end Jews' condition of minorities looking in, is now home to half the world's Jews, and the younger and growing half. So there's that.

I read Baum's op-ed yesterday, then went to shul for Yom Kippur. I love Yom Kippur, but this time I read the machzor with her strange words in the background. I inherited the book itself from my father, but the words themselves we both inherited from centuries of our forefathers. In it are sections of the Pentateuch, which even skeptical modern academia admits has been with us for 2,500 years (the text itself claims it's almost a thousand years older). The commandments founding Yom Kippur come with the whiff of the desert. Isaiah makes an important appearance. He lived in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, so there's an echo of the original city on the hill. There are long and detailed Talmudic descriptions of the Temple, harking back from the late Second Temple era, when Jerusalem was larger than it ever was again until the 19th century.

There are blood-curdling descriptions of the Roman persecution in the 2nd century CE, calling to mind the Mishnaic Galilee. There are medieval supplications for mercy, calling to mind the great rabbis of Spain and France and their end; then of course there's Amnon of Magenza, though no more than one German in 10,000 knows that Magenza is Mainz, refusing to budge from his religion even while his limbs are being chopped off. (The poem may actually have been written many centuries earlier, in Israel, but a popular belief of 800 years has power of its own).

Recent centuries - prior to the 20th - didn't add much to the texts, except to parts of the Yizkor, but they added melodies, so that the Ashkenazi ones and the Sphardi ones are quite distinct. Then, once Israel was created it added new layers, and 30 years later, after the Yom Kippur War, yet additional ones. In recent years some Israeli rabbis are trying their hand at creating a combined Ashkenazi-Sphardi version, on the one hand, and secular teachers and thinkers are trying their own versions to fuze the ancient and priceless with the modern.

One can brush all this aside and insist that Judaism is feeling good about welcoming refugees into our midst, or fixing the world to fit a Progressive agenda. By the end of the 21 century, or perhaps long before, there won't be many Jews of that sort left as Jews. Or one can return to what was obvious and banal for a few thousand years: the recognition that Jews have been creating their culture all along, layer on layer, ever richer and deeper.

Jews aren't a sentiment. Jews are the ones who participate in the vibrant ongoing ancient Jewish conversation.

6 comments:

Barbara Mazor said...

What an idiotic essay! (hers, not yours.)

Anonymous said...


Judaism is people-hood which defined and defended by it religion. You may be 100% religious in mind and 0% of nationality spirit, as part of Neturei Karta are, or 100% Jewish by social-political mind and 0% tolerance to religious customs, Hilonim (not religious) and atheists, yet you're a Jew, In the yourself consciousness or of the other (friend of foe) . Most of the Jews statistically spread in between both extreme ends and share, in proportional forms, these complementary ideals of nationality defined by faith, and faith protecting the border and livelihood of the nationality.

Uncertainty IS frightening in the US because religious and nationality symbols and identify among Jews had been loosed and lost in the daily pressure of modern life. Jews are assimilating in high numbers among the locals.


Devorah Baum is confused. The phenomenon of "becoming Jew-ish" has always been existing throughout history. Christianity itself developed as a religious stream in Judaism and then broke out into the Gentiles and "became Jew-ish-like" and turned to be its greatest enemy in the name of claiming to be the "true Judaism", "Jews betrayed Jesus". Jews in every generation in last 2 millennials assimilated into the gentiles, whether willing or forced, and turned the local culture into more Jew-ish and thus also more worthy in itself to intervene in the affairs of the Jews and even to persecute them when it was rewarding. Even today in the US, more and more Jews are abandoning Judaism, criticizing, attacking and slandering Jews in the name of the principles of Judaism, which they despise. In other words, they also reject those principles, yet they use them to attack the Jews and Israel by their partial and distorted quotes and foolish interpretation. The 'imaginary Jew-ish' of those excesses of Jews and Gentiles that attacking Jews and Israel in the name of Jewish values is the ill-fated evil of modern society. They are the ones who can't contain lofty values, but yet decorating themselves with, covering their cultural abyss and intellectual wilderness where their minds are boiled, burned and rotten.
For Jews it's being Jewish or being Jew-ish.

Avi Offer

Gerard O'Neill said...

Jewish ideology is at the core of many of the world's problems. The Jews should hang their heads in shame.

Anonymous said...

OK Gerard, care to expand on your thesis? Or is it just hatred without cause. Exactly which "ideology"?

eliane said...

I totally agree with Anonymous without being one : gerard, you just showed your true colors : black for neo-Nazis and red for misplaced leftist sentimentalism..

Nicholas said...

As an American-born Jew, what passes for being Jewish among the liberal upper-middle class here is disheartening. One reason among many for making aliyah, I suppose.