The end of the Ashkenazi world

The Holocaust and accelerating pace of assimilation have transformed the Diaspora into a set of independent Jewish enclaves vibrant in spiritual life but completely lacking any national cohesion.

Great Synagogue of Rome (photo credit: REUTERS)
Great Synagogue of Rome
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If a Jew were to travel the world from Pinsk to Shanghai or from New York to Buenos Aires in the late 19th or the early 20th century, he would have no difficulty finding a community (either at the destination or at numerous locations on the way) not very different from the place he came from. Most of the fellow Jews he would meet at those distant and geographically spread out cities, towns and villages would be speaking his native or slightly varied Yiddish, would dress similarly, might be from the same region of the Russian Pale of Settlement or even have common relatives. For these people the Jewish world was the Ashkenazi world, where Yiddishkeit and Judaism were indistinguishable.
That created the feeling of nationhood unparalleled in the Jewish history of the past few millennia and provided the spiritual fuel for the political movement of its national self-determination, later called Zionism.
That world is almost completely gone and its last vestiges are dissipating in front of our eyes. The family aspect of nationhood, the personal closeness of one member of the collective to another has vanished.
The Holocaust and accelerating pace of assimilation have transformed the Diaspora into a set of independent Jewish enclaves often vibrant in terms of spiritual life but completely lacking any national cohesion or awareness outside of the host country.
This transformation is not without a precedent.
Such was the status quo of the Jewish world prior to the Emancipation (not to deny the idea of nationalism, even if not foreign to Jews, was inspired by its European counterparts). Hence, the cries of the end of the Diaspora or Jewish world in general are, to say the least, premature if not totally misplaced.
The Jewish world is changing dramatically. That is true and objective reality. What is needed now is to understand the root causes of the situation and adapt to the new reality without unnecessary panic and self-defeating fear of change.
THE FAMILY bonds provided the fuel for the feeling of the Jewish nationhood. The news of the pogroms in Tsarist Russia or Hebron made a Jew in New York, Paris or San Paulo feel personal pain. His fellow Jews were persecuted and massacred. It could well be his immediate family, close relatives or people he personally knew that were affected. The last expression of that phenomenon was the fight for the freedom of the Soviet Jewry (though definitely pursued with less vigor than the previous public campaigns as the processes weakening the bond were well in play by that time). One did not have to argue for the righteousness of the Jewish cause to fellow Jews.
One did not have to explain the political or social context of the events. As one does not have to explain a fellow family member why another one needs to be defended no matter what and under any circumstances. The Jews would rally to the cause in great numbers and contribute lavishly. The people in need of their help were concrete and identifiable.
The leaders of the community (both in the Diaspora and in Israel) would take this attitude for granted.
Alas, the world is changing and so are the Jews.
The Holocaust destroyed those personal connections.
Assimilation has completed the “disengagement.”
Yiddish is long gone as the Jewish lingua franca. Assimilation has exacerbated the situation by introducing a large number of Jews by “the choice of their spouses” (not to diminish their sincerity and the complexity of the decision). All of these factors have widened the existing gap between the Diaspora and Israel. While mainstream Israel is creating a very national secular culture deeply rooted in history, both far and near, the Diaspora is shifting away from its near national identity and rethinking Judaism in terms of universal values such as tikkun olam. That in conjunction with the Israel’s outdated assumption of the “family bond” creates a situation of cultural misunderstandings and outright hostility.
Thus a huge percentage of the Jewish Diaspora are only Jewish spiritually, but not nationally. Moreover, that identification is conditional on their marriage, residence and work schedule. It is a brand to be discarded or put aside upon a new one being introduced. That personal or emotional component required by any national identification is gone.
Curious anecdotes are being published in the Jewish press of some North American congregations intentionally eliminating Yiddish words from the communal vocabulary (such as “Good Shabbos” and “Good Yontef”) in order not to offend newcomers with cultural references foreign to them. There is no better admission by the leadership itself that the old Ashkenazi world is relegated to the history books and folktales.
Can the Ashkenazi “miracle” be recreated? Can we repair the breaking bond? Can we instill the national identity into the new generation of the Diaspora Jews? Short of a catastrophic event, the answer is a resounding “no.” It is not possible (at least not for the vast majority) as it is impossible to love strangers with the same force and passion with which one loves family. However, the spiritual connections must be strengthened. These new Jews may not completely or at all identify with the struggle of Jewish self-determination, but could be persuaded and educated to sympathize with it. Israel needs to understand this new reality and invest heavily in educational outreach to the Diaspora. The Diaspora itself should start investing in quality Jewish education if it has a desire to survive.
However, by itself these are oft-repeated empty words. The educational effort as it is practiced nowadays primarily based on Tikkun Olam and reading of Lubavitcher folk tales reminiscent of the early Soviet propaganda for village folk will bring no positive results. Only creative teaching of Jewish history and traditions, devoid of backward, Orthodox revanchist thinking can bring appreciation of the spirit that has driven the nation for centuries.
Clinging to the old outmoded approaches without admitting the reality can only fasten the disaster of total “separation.”
We should also be cognizant of the fact the center of Jewish civilization has moved from the Diaspora to the Land of Israel. In the postmodern world a nation can only preserve and develop its culture by the right of self-determination. Anyone who argues otherwise is more concerned with other (not necessary less lofty) goals than the future of Jewish people. The old Ashkenazi world is dead. It is time to embrace the reality and create the future as we have always done.
The author lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.