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What would make someone like Allan Leicht - a successful, Emmy-award winning television producer of the sitcom Kate and Allie and a typically non-religious American Jew - suddenly decide in the middle of his life to start keeping kosher, praying three times a day, studying Torah and resting on Shabbat?
Was it disillusionment with secular America, his way of running away from the emptiness of life without tradition, an attempt to preserve something pure? Or was it rather the pluralism of American society, which by never forcing him to choose between his religion and his career, provided the space for him to fully experience the rituals of Judaism?
As it turns out, it was none of the above. His reasons were much more classic, and had nothing to do with the America around him. Twenty-five years ago, when Leicht first became Orthodox, he did so out of fear. "I think people that embrace Orthodoxy, at least from my experience, do so out of fear of God. They are terribly afraid of God. Haredim are those who tremble," Leicht said.
The question of Orthodoxy's magnetism, its allure, was taken up this week at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and right across Central Park from the neighborhood that many consider the bastion of modern Orthodoxy, the Upper West Side.
The panel was moderated by Thane Rosenbaum, an author most recently of The Golems of Gotham, and included, besides Leicht, the much acclaimed novelist Pearl Abraham, who wrote The Seventh Beggar and Alana Newhouse, Arts and Culture editor for the Forward newspaper.
Both Abraham and Newhouse grew up in Orthodox environments and made the choice to abandon a strict adherence to Jewish law. Their perspective was what most strongly colored the evening's discussion, which, though billed as an exploration of the attraction to Orthodoxy, became more a conversation about why its most accessible form, modern Orthodoxy, has stopped being attractive.
"There has been a falling out or dissipation of modern Orthodoxy," said Newhouse. "It was supposed to bridge two concepts - individualism and engagement with outside world with a life of ritual," Newhouse said. "And somewhere along the way it seems to have fallen away, or it stopped growing in the way it was growing. And I find that to be very sad. It's sad because there isn't a place for people who want both anymore. What happened to it?"
Leicht's answer was that many of those who came to modern Orthodoxy ended up moving rightward in the last decade. But not because there was something inherently irreconcilable with a practice that made it okay, as Newhouse put it, "to keep yourself a frum Jew with yiddishkeit and Torah in your life but also reading philosophy or listening to Matisyahu the reggae rapper."
Rather, Leicht said, the move rightward "was less an action than a reaction. As society moved leftward, modern Orthodoxy moved rightward. That's where the tension lay."
If the spirit of modern Orthodoxy is thinning out, its numbers certainly are not. As many angry audience members pointed out in reaction to Newhouse's assessment, there are synagogues on the Upper West Side with booming numbers of congregants; the real estate values of houses close to synagogues in Riverdale, another modern Orthodox epicenter just north of Manhattan, have been exploding; and there are still charismatic modern Orthodox leaders with large followings, like Riskin, Irving Greenberg, and Avi Weiss.
Maybe the biggest sign, though, that Newhouse might be correct about a certain erosion at the center of Jewish practice in America was that a panel discussion meant to examine the draw of Orthodoxy consisted, with the exception of Leicht who has a gray beard and wore a kippa, of people who are not in fact religious.
When audience members pointed out that Orthodox people should be allowed to offer their own best case, Rosenbaum and officials from the 92nd Street Y admitted that they had tried to find observant Jews to speak on the panel, but were turned down. The organizers couldn't even find more than one prominent Orthodox Jew willing to speak to an Upper East Side audience.
In the end, Rosenbaum was left to salvage what he could from the conversation and try to answer the question anyway: "The allure, it seems, is not political, it's not even necessarily about the covenant, the allure is personal."