A ‘Nu? Jew’?

Long ago, back in the Old Country, I gave up on the High Holy Days.

A man wearing a kippa (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wearing a kippa
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Long ago, back in the Old Country, I gave up on the High Holy Days.
They were part of the shtetl Orthodoxy that was being rammed down my throat. They put a lot of neighborhood ugliness on display.
And they cost me Sneezing Days.
I grew up in the knuckles-and-guts Pittsburgh of the 1950s/early 1960s, in Squirrel Hill, the more-or-less affluent Jewish district. I was severely on the “less” side of that one, and as a consequence almost totally isolated. Not surprisingly, I cultivated a supercilious cluelessness about the human race and its beliefs and activities.
I had, however, figured out one thing. Going to the synagogue was only for those who could afford it, with year-round dues and (expensive) reserved seats for the High Holy Days.
Now to the sneezing.
Back then Pittsburghian air was none too pristine, with the steel mills still belching. I was outta there six months before I realized that hydrogen sulfide isn’t naturally part of the atmosphere. All this airborne dreck, plus personal issues stacked on personal issues, gave me severe asthma, hay fever and myriad other allergies. Weekly allergy shots were augmented by heavy seasonal doses of the only medication that could stop my sneezing fits, and it was guaranteed to knock you out. Fine by me. Too groggy to go to school today? Yup. Tomorrow also, no doubt.
And therein lay my discontent: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur always came right in the middle of Sneezing Season. No school for religious reasons. But if the holidays had come, say, in late October, I would have gotten them off in any event. All that misery – wasted.
The hagim arrived. I was commanded to don whatever jacket and pants I possessed that year, plus my best clip-on necktie, and get out of the house. Go somewhere. Pray.
And so, drugged to stupefaction and not very happy about anything, I’d pick a synagogue, schlumpf around until the guy who’d paid for the seat showed up, then try another. Hideous. Still, it proved a great way to people- watch and augment my treasury of misconceptions thereby.
Two things in particular struck me.
The old folks, mostly immigrants from the early part of the century, and their native-born progeny attended different synagogues. Perhaps it was because of all the family quarrels that had been reserved for home, and they had to pray themselves into the right fighting mood. You could hear the ranting in the houses as you walked by: the louder and more petulant in Yiddish, the English often rigidly and painfully restrained.
I also learned the truth of the old proverb: What do you have when you have a ganef (thief) in a tallit? You have a ganef in a tallit.
After several years of this nonsense, I stopped making the circuit and took a look at how alien the world could become on those days.
Public schools were open, but what might be going on inside them? A few gentile kids wandering the halls or smoking in the lavatories? Teachers pursuing their own extracurricular activities in the faculty lounge? I dared not enter, for fear of questions, looks and sneers.
Everything else was closed, except for one place on the second floor of a restaurant where the goons and gophers of the local underworld hung out. No shul for those guys. Or was the repentance in that dive, if any, more genuine than, let us say, elsewhere? BUT THAT was then and there. This is Israel and now.
Odd. Zionism was the only thing they ever taught me in Hebrew school that made any sense.
It still does, although no longer in the sense that they taught me. And that’s been much on my mind as the holidays approach. Judaism and Jewishness, also.
It’s often said that the only place you can really be Jewish is Israel. I’m not entirely sure what’s meant by that; Jewishness can be defined in many ways. Still, I suppose that its true enough for me in my present persuasion: I’m a “Nu? Jew.”
Nu? as in, “What next?” More precisely: What will Judaism, Jewishness and Israel mean a few decades from now? Judaism and Jewry these last few decades have been moving in three ways. I think of them as roll, pitch and yawn.
The haredim are on a roll. Fastest-growing, etc. etc. A couple of long-ago summers in a local yeshiva left me with a profound aversion to ultra-Orthodoxy, less for religious than for secular/political reasons. Living in Israel makes you keenly aware that the haredi impetus to ever-greater stricture is thriving, as is their desire to enforce whatever they can upon Israel as a whole.
So, regarding the future of ultra-Orthodoxy: Nu? Meanwhile, I suspect that most Israelis outside the haredi and religious-Zionist worlds, those who still identify as religiously Jewish, pitch for the Israeli version of what America’s founders called “civil religion.”
You pray, or at least attend the synagogue, according to the calendar. Maybe a little bit more. You rely on the institutional faith to structure important life events. Perhaps you seek occasional solace or guidance, according to the traditional modes. You live whatever you accept as part of your culture, but not too large a part. And you don’t think too much about it, or fret about those who see things differently.
So, regarding the future of Israeli civil religion: Nu? Meanwhile, back in America, it’s yawn.
Jews are drifting away, as they have for generations, mostly via a yawning indifference to or contempt for Judaism in all its permutations.
So, regarding the future of the imploding American Diaspora: Nu? Of course, the answers are obvious: more of the same, unless it changes. But history is very much the story of things that weren’t supposed to happen. And perhaps therein lies the fascinating aspect of being a “Nu? Jew”: To wonder, in this ancient land and amid this inexhaustibly self-obsessed people, what next? For more than 20 centuries, the Jewish people have had only themselves, ourselves, to think about. Judaism has developed accordingly.
So has Israel. Individual Jews in great numbers have made magnificent contributions to the world. But only with the advent of Herzl’s Zionism did the desire to “rejoin the family of nations” and contribute as a sovereign people revive.
Today, two great challenges confront humanity. Climate change and the global metastasis of a violent Islamism that cannot be contained, only defeated or permitted to rule. Israel, Judaism and Jewry have a choice to make. Do we take our place in the world, as that world is today, by demanding and accepting our role as one of the world’s guardians? Or do we revert to the “people that dwells apart” motif? Or do we perhaps content ourselves with serving as the “app unto the nations” – hi-tech goodies and technologies shipped to a world that uses us when convenient, isolates us when expedient, despises us nonstop, and occasionally does its best to annihilate us? And what of Judaism as the challenges to civilization and species grow ever more severe? Does it remain a static, self-referential religion, or else pathetically trendy? Can Judaism and Jewishness have any value for a planet moving steadily toward global catastrophe? Can they break free of both ancient motifs and postmodern gibberish and find their way, our way, to something that the world might need and recognize as such? We know all about the personal aspects of Elul and the Days of Awe. Frankly, as I approach threescore years and 10, the personal no longer interests me that much.
This year, I’ll be wondering what choices Israel, Judaism and Jewry will make, or not make – as, for the first time in over two millennia, we have the chance and the duty and the right to think about something more than ourselves.
Shana tova to all. • The writer is an American oleh and The Jerusalem Post’s Metro supplement’s “Life Lessons’”columnist.