By Samuel Freedman
Simon & Schuster, 384 pp.
Jews in America have met the enemy, Samuel Freedman reports in his new book, and they are us. Freedman's compelling "Jew vs. Jew" argues that America's 6 million Jews have splintered into factions that have little use for one another except as sparring partners. Secular Jews square off against the religious; the Orthodox battle the Reform and Conservative; the worldly struggle against the clannish. Once united against anti-Semitism, Freedman writes, Jews now fight over how to exist in a country that has accepted them more readily than their grandparents ever imagined.
A Columbia Journalism School professor, Freedman brings to his latest inquiry the same reporting and storytelling abilities that won acclaim for his last three books, most notably "The Inheritance" (1996), a study of how American Catholics evolved from New Deal Democrats to Reagan Republicans. "The Inheritance" wove together three families' stories into an epic tapestry. "Jew vs. Jew" less ambitiously presents six vignettes from around the nation--from the Catskills to California, Colorado to Jacksonville, Connecticut to Cleveland, each limning the complexities of a dilemma facing American Jews.He travels to Denver to explore intermarriage through the story of Bill Pluss, a Jewish doctor, and Anne Davis, a Methodist pharmacologist. In Los Angeles, he tells how a feminist congregant's efforts to reform Judaism's patriarchal liturgy divided her synagogue. Similar stories--engrossing and subtly rendered--illuminate such questions as Americans' feelings about Israel and whether Judaism can afford to be pluralistic. While it's clear that Freedman is himself a worldly, if observant, Jew, he remains unfailingly evenhanded in chronicling these disputes. Whether it's the Orthodox Yale students who provocatively refused to live in the dorms , against Yale rules, or the deranged Meir Kahane acolyte who planted a bomb at a Florida temple where Shimon Peres was to speak, Freedman's most unappealing characters get their tales told not just fairly but sympathetically (sometimes, perhaps, too much so). If a single conflict unites these sundry skirmishes, it's the clash between what sociologist Steven Cohen calls the "transformationalists" and "survivalists." Transformationalists welcome the alchemy between their Jewishness and their Americanness; for them religion needn't be the only thing that determines their identity. Survivalists see America--or any culture but their ancestors' Judaism--as a danger; for them, religion must be central to not just their own Jewish identity, but everyone's. You'd think survivalists would be a waning minority in this age of diversity. But Freedman concludes otherwise. "In the struggle for the soul of American Jewry," he writes, "the Orthodox [survivalist] model has triumphed.... [T]he portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future...is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion defines Jewish identity."
To back this claim, Friedman does not come up with much data. He does note, rightly, that the Conservative and Reform rabbinates have recently grown more traditional, and that religious day schools are "booming." But mostly he goes by impressions gleaned on his travels: in L.A., the feminist's failure to win acceptance of her feminist liturgy, or the swiftness with which Ohio Orthodox Jews colonized an assimilated Jewish neighborhood (and harassed the non-Orthodox). Time and again in Freedman's stories, the transformationalist Jews come out the losers, or at best pyrrhic victors.
Nonetheless, Freedman's conclusion of an Orthodox victory seems unwarranted. "Jew vs. Jew" is not sociology, despite the occasional appearance of a sociologist. "I make no claims for this book to be encyclopedic, all-encompassing," he writes. But this candor, while commendable, doesn't free him of the burden of proof for his dire forecast. Indeed, I suspect his prediction is wrong.For all his peregrinations, Freedman seems to be viewing American Judaism through the lens of New York City, where the Orthodox community is disproportionately large. It's my impression (admittedly, I don't have sociological data either) that most American Jews are secure in their secular, or Reform, or Conservative lives. They may feel some wistfulness about abandoning certain of their parents' or grandparents' observances as they have become more Americanized, but they are generally happy with the trade-off. Indeed, most American Jews look upon those who wear black hats, or even yarmulkes outside of temple, as very distant kinsmen. Freedman's judgment also seems affected by his own apparent discomfort in being a transformationalist Jew. "Progressive Jews suffer from a self-fulfilling inferiority complex," says a rabbi from Freedman's Cleveland vignette--a statement the author himself endorses. Elsewhere Freedman, with uncharacteristic glibness, derides secular Judaism as little more than "Seinfeld and a schmear," and says non-believing or non-practicing Jews possess merely a "husk of identity." Certainly many American Jews think that because they're less observant than the Orthodox, or less knowledgeable about Jewish theology and religious practice, they're "less Jewish." Yet as Freedman well knows, there's a long, robust and still-thriving tradition, dating at least to the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, of Judaism that's not centered on religious belief. This tradition, I'd argue, has been one of the proudest in human history. In ways too numerous to detail here, it has shaped the culture, politics, and intellectual life of Europe, the United States, and the world. If American Jews feel besieged by the aggressive anti-modernism of the Orthodox, they should not, as the Cleveland rabbi prescribes, bone up on Torah. That's a battle they'll never win. Rather, they should open their eyes to the virtues--the Jewish virtues--of reason, modernity, and intellection.
Freedman is right in saying that the main threat American Jews face today isn't from anti-Semitism. But the danger isn't from the rising power of the Orthodox either. Rather, the main threat to American Judaism as we know it springs from the weakening confidence among secular, Reform, and Conservative Jews in the validity of their ways of being Jewish. They are too easily guilted into believing, erroneously, that they must attend synagogue more, or observe more holidays, or don kippot, in order to be "more Jewish." That's a mistake. For Judaism to keep progressing, transformationalists need to stop being shy about asserting the fact that their breeds of Judaism are just as valid as--and perhaps better suited to life in 21st century America than--that of the men in the black hats.