In Plain Language: The Jewish fantasy league

American Jewry is paying the price one of its fantasies: The belief that Americanization was the key to successfully graduating from Old Country to New World.

Team USA at the Maccabia 2013 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Team USA at the Maccabia 2013 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
I have a confession to make: I am addicted. Not to drink or drugs, thank God, but to sports. As an American-Israeli, I was raised on sports, of every kind. If it had a “ball” at the end of its name, we played it. Even at Yeshiva, we had a basketball team that competed with other area schools – we discovered, alas, that Talmudic knowledge could make us smarter, but not taller – and we had a school-wide, after-lessons intramural baseball team that helped to quench our desire for the national pastime.
But now, as the legs have gotten older and the eyesight somewhat dimmer, I have moved more into the realm of a spectator than an active participant. And so every week, along with millions of other sports enthusiasts, I play Fantasy Football. For the uninitiated, this means that I “own” an American football team of my choosing and I compete against 10 other virtual owners to see who can amass the most points. We don’t throw, catch or kick the ball, we don’t own a helmet or a pair of cleats, but we struggle mightily, with great effort and excitement, to win.
This is all in the name of fun, of course. But I have discovered that there is another league out there, one that may be less wistful than my gridiron pursuit, but equally fanciful: The Jewish Fantasy League.
In this league, we take facts and figures, symbols and slogans and construct elaborate worlds of our own. These worlds are short on historical veracity, but long on wishful thinking. They make us feel good and perhaps validate our preconceived notions, but they are far from the truth. Ultimately, they serve to cloud our eyes and confuse our minds.
Take the recent Pew Research Center report on Jewish America. It is an overwhelmingly depressing and damning document, cataloging, by the numbers, the precipitous decline of US Jewry. Intermarriage is up – 60 percent and rising – while Jewish identification is down; only 26% of American Jews say religion is important, a figure less than half that of their non-Jewish fellow citizens. Shockingly, 31% of Jews born after 1981 say they have no religion at all, and 34% maintain that one can be Jewish while believing in Jesus. Only one out of three Jews belongs to a synagogue, and fewer and fewer consider Israel of vital importance, maintaining that the Holocaust is the leading aspect of Jewish identity.
Moreover, when Orthodox Jews are taken out of the mix, the survey paints an even more dismal picture of a community in decline. It is one that is materially sound – 25% earn $150,000 or more annually, three times the percentage in the public at large – yet woefully deficient in spiritual currency. Comfort is on the rise, but commitment is plummeting.
Yet into this storm of bad news step the “serenity spinners” who declare: “Wait! There is good news yet to be found here!” And they boast that, lo and behold, the number of Jews living in America has actually gone up, not down! They maintain that the Jewish population is now 6.1 million, a significant rise from the previous estimate.
It’s a funny thing. When I was growing up, the Jewish population in the US was said to be “about 5 million.” Twenty years later, when I was serving as a rabbi in the States, Jews numbered “about 5 million.” Twenty years after that, when I made aliya, it was the same mantra, “about 5 million.”
How did the number suddenly rocket to more than 6 million? The answer is simple. This fantasy is achieved by simply, unilaterally, “doctoring in” large numbers of people who yesterday were not Jewish at all and today, suddenly find themselves members of the Mosaic faith. Children of Christian mothers and Jewish fathers – who for millennia were considered Gentiles – are now Jewish by virtue of “patrilineal descent,” a Reform innovation rejected by Orthodox and Conservative alike. Couple this with quick and easy conversions – conversion by correspondence being just one no-muss, no-fuss technique – and voila!, you have added lots of new Jews to the fold.
American Jewry is paying the price for another of its fantasies: The belief that Americanization, the conscious shedding of that which singled one out as clearly being Jewish, was the key to successfully graduating from the Old Country to the New World. Instead, it precipitated the phenomenon known as the Great Vanishing Jew.
There is another fantasy we hear from time to time, the one known as “the Golden Age of Judaism.” Sometimes it is used to refer to Jewish life in the Middle Ages, from the 8th to the 12th centuries, under the Islamic caliphates. Here, we are told, Jews flourished, their scholarship and financial success proliferating in a benevolent, tolerant environment.
“Nonsense,” says historian Bernard Lewis. “That is a theological and historical absurdity.”
Professor Mark Cohen of Princeton University agrees, calling it “nothing more than a myth.”
Jews were second-class citizens, at best, forbidden from owning land or serving in positions of leadership. They were forced to walk in the street, rather than on the sidewalk, lest they reach the same height as a Moslem.
Then there is the fantasy about the Golden Age in Poland. The one that recalls sentimentally how quaint life was in the shtetl (small village). There, the legend goes, we sipped tea through sugar cubes while learning Torah and Talmud, conversing in Yiddish and enjoying our simple pleasures.
Would that it were so! Instead, life in Poland, for the vast majority of Jews throughout their 700-year sojourn there, was a constant struggle to survive amidst abject poverty, hostile neighbors and the ever-present threat of pogroms or forced conversions. Even after the Nazi terror in Poland finally ended, Jews continued to be murdered in Kielce, Lodz and other places.
If you are truly looking for a Golden Age somewhere and sometime, you will find it right now and right here in the State of Israel. Materially, we have built a beautiful, bountiful country with a world-class economy and state-of-the-art conveniences within the reach of most every family. Unemployment rates are low; birth rates are high. Our satisfaction index is among the highest in the world. Militarily, our army is second to none. Spiritually, more Jews study Torah now than at any time in the last 2,000 years. Intermarriage is virtually non-existent, and we walk the streets as proud Jews, confident and without fear. We have our crises and our challenges, to be sure, and we are not perfect, but – at least until Moshiach comes – it doesn’t get much better than this.
And that, my friends, is fact, not fantasy.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; He can be reached by email: [email protected]