American Jewry: Between Babylonia and Birobidzhan

We must now look to Israel for our leadership; Once Israel’s senior partner, American Jews have become the junior partner.

July 7, 2013 22:48
4 minute read.
US, Israel flags.

US and Israel flags 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, a great Hassidic master, believed that the worst human trait was that of self-deception.

When asked by his disciples to reflect on the state of the Jewish people, the rebbe told his students that it was bad for his flock to be in exile.

But worse, said Menahem Mendel, was for Jews to be in exile and not to know that they were in exile.

For the Rebbe of Kotzk, exile was a spiritual state of alienation from God.

But exile is primarily a phenomenon of geography, politics and history. For the first time in 2,000 years, Jews have returned to their home in the Land of Israel and are sovereign in a Jewish state. We have realized the dream of living in the Jerusalem of our ancestors. The Zionist movement revived Hebrew as a living tongue and has presented to the world a Jew who fights the enemies of the Jewish people. If I were to deny these truths, I would be violating the mandate of the Rebbe of Kotzk.

Is America simply another stop on the Jewish journey through the Diaspora? No. America offered opportunity, freedom and a dream to my ancestors who came to this country from the pogroms and poverty of the Czarist Russian Pale of Settlement. I am the grandson of a Yiddish-speaking house painter barely making a living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

How is it that only two generations later I would be the Phi Beta Kappa graduate of an Ivy League school that only a generation earlier would have not accepted me as a student because I am a Jew? America is unique and wonderful.

But as I celebrate my nation’s independence, the voice of the Kotzker Rebbe is warning me not to be intoxicated by the story of American Jewry’s success. Is America a second “Promised Land” or is it just a glorified “nachtasyl” – an asylum for the night and a temporary but important stop on my people’s wanderings? We are not the Uganda of Theodor Herzl’s scheme of 1903. But let us be honest – all the organizations, publications and kosher sushi restaurants cannot make us forget that Jews in America are leaving Judaism at an alarming rate. The Birthright program does not send young Jews to the Upper West Side of Manhattan or Crown Heights to inspire them to remain Jewish. While the 20th century was the “American Century” – and the “American-Jewish Century” – the 21st century will be the “Israeli Century.”

We all know that the Jewish future depends on the State of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel.

American Jewry rivals the ancient Jewish community of Babylonia. In all areas of endeavor – from science to sports – American Jews have made their mark. Our literary and intellectual creativity is a marvel. The figures of 20th century Judaism in America were formidable—such rabbis as Schechter, Kaplan, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Soloveitchik, Heshchel, Finkelstein, Wise and Silver. But those days are over.

American Judaism is still a vital force in the Jewish world. But we have no one to replace the titans of the past century. We must now look to Israel for our leadership. Once Israel’s senior partner, we have become the junior partner.

This is exile – a comfortable and unique exile – that is unprecedented in our history.

Yet, let us not fool ourselves. By the end of this century, our Diaspora will not be “Babylonia West” – it will be Birobidzhan.

Stalin offered this territory in Eurasia as an autonomous Jewish republic 75 years ago. In Birobidzhan, there were Yiddish-language schools, streets named after Sholem Aleichem and Peretz Smolenskin, and Jewish newspapers.

But the territory was a failure.

Jews never made up the majority in Birobidzhan. It was a “poignant footnote” in Jewish history.

American Jewry has transcended footnote status and will be remembered for many great achievements.

But those who believe that the growth of Orthodox Judaism alone will save American Jewry are making a terrible mistake. American Jewry’s survival will depend on Jews creating self-imposed ghettos to survive. This is a Judaism besieged – not the Judaism of Philo, Sadya, Maimonides or Judah Halevi.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought 150 years ago. Jews fought in both the Union and Confederate armies. But not my ancestors – studying Talmud in the shtetl, they probably did not even know who Abraham Lincoln was. I am an American, proud of Lincoln, Jefferson and Emerson – I am thoroughly acculturated and do not regret it. Yet, my Jewish identity is 4,000 years old. My link to America is one century old. At the end of my Passover seder, I will not shout out, “Next Year in Des Moines!”

The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.

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