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Book: American Jews Are Endangered Species

August 19, 2013 10:11 am 11 comments

All illustration of Jews praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Photo: Maurycy Gottlieb.

JNS.org – Let the general reader be warned: Shaul Magid’s new book, “American Post-Judaism,” is not easy to read. The writing is dense, and the argument is complex. But the book is worth the effort, for it deals with the reality of American Jewish life with realism and with insight.

Magid begins with the proposition that we now live in a post-halachic, post-Holocaust, post-ethnic, post-Judaism, and even post-monotheistic world. He claims that the liberal movements within Judaism have had their day, that the focus on peoplehood will not endure much longer outside of Israel, and that only an uncompromising Orthodoxy and an innovative Jewish renewal movement will survive.

The book is partly sociology and history, and partly religious conviction. It studies the thought of Felix Adler, who formed the Ethical Cultural Movement, and of his contemporary Mordecai Kaplan, who founded Reconstructionist Judaism, and sets both of them within the context of the American culture of their time. It studies the ArtScroll phenomenon, in which books that had never needed to be translated before are now published in English translation for the sake of a new kind of reader—uneducated and illiterate, but hungry for some kind of piety. It studies the way that the Sephardic Jews in Israel brought with them an attachment, and even an adoration, for the saints of their community, and how this has helped them maintain their dignity and sense of self in the secular modern state of Israel.

Magid shows the roots within American culture for the panentheism (the belief that the world is part, but not all of God) that characterizes the thinking of Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shlomi and Arthur Green, and that he sees as the core of “new age” Judaism. He studies the effect of the Holocaust on American Jewry, which could not understand it within the context of the classic Jewish religious explanation for suffering, and therefore strove to instead understand it within the framework of destruction and renewal. But Magid argues that this American Jewish belief system could not ultimately survive, because when it came to both the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, American Jews could only relate to those events as vicarious observers. A community cannot exist on vicarious achievements for long, Magid believes.

The most moving chapter in the book is on the inspiring yet tragic life of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who together with his friend, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi, was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to campuses around the U.S. to reach college students. It was probably the first of the outreach programs that have made Chabad-Lubavitch the widespread movement that it is. But neither Carlebach nor Schachter-Shlomi remained within the Hassidic fold. As Schachter-Shlomi tactfully put it, “I graduated from Chabad.”

Carlebach became, and in some sense still is, one of the most influential voices in American Jewish life. He spent his life traveling from one campus to another, one synagogue to another, and one stage to another. He brought music and stories and Torah from the Hassidic rebbes to young people who  saw the worship in their parents’ synagogues to be boring and meaningless. He created a mythical, romanticized version of Eastern European Judaism that became a kind of a never-never land for this new generation of young American Jews. Eventually his music permeated the synagogues that these kids had come from and transformed them. And yet, at his innermost core, Carlebach remained terribly lonely, terribly alone. Magid tells of how he would come to sing once a year in the Boston suburb of Woburn, and of how, as he bent over to attach his tape recorder to Carlebach’s microphone, Magid overheard him saying to himself, “Okay, chevra, let’s pretend we’re happy.”

Magid is surely correct that rapid changes, monumental changes, are taking place within American Jewry. There is no way of knowing whether Magid’s portrait of what will endure will turn out to be right or not, but his claim is surely a bold one. If you can work your way through his technical terminology and his abstract language, his argument is surely worth studying.

I suggest that you put this book on your shelf for a decade or two and then reread it. Magid just may turn out to be right.

Rabbi Jack Riemer writes frequently for journals of Jewish and general thought in America and abroad.

“American Post-Judaism,” by Shaul Magid, Indiana University Press, April 2013, 388 pages.

11 Comments

  • Shalom-Hillel

    Jews have a way of surprising, despite everything. And the importance of the patron saints of the Jewish renewal movement does not go far beyond their coteries. Rabbi Carlebach did contribute some very nice nigunnim.

  • American Jewry has had an easy ride. It watched the Shoah from a distance and still managed to laugh and smile at all their various simchas while the ashes of Aushwitz rose above Poland… for them, the old country. Now it’s time to pay the piper.

  • persons born of jewish parents,who do not understand firstly the symbolism of jewish customs & holidays , secondly an awareness of jewish history & thirdly an understanding of the TORAH,will fall by the wayside.My maternal grandfather who died in 1926,many years before I was born,was a deeply religious man.His children immigrated to America,from Grodno his grand
    chidren,& his descendents today are of every other persuasion,but jewish.america is a melting pot & what comes out is dross.

    • Here in London there was a study of the family tree of the Chocham Theodore Gaster, Rov of the Sephardi Kehilloh a few generations back. He has many upstanding and good great grandchildren, but apparently none of them practises Judaism!

  • If you look at the picture closely you will see it’s a man and a women at various stages of their life.

  • I don’t need to read his book and knows he is right. I always say that only the Orthodox Jews are going to remain Jews because non committed Jews will be the first to run away. Not only in the US but in Israel too. In the US they will marry goyim and be no longer Jewish. In Israel when the going will get tough they will move to the US. the non orthodox in Israel today is not like their grandparents generation who were totally and utterly committed to Israel. the new generation doesn’t see that they are special or Israel is special. It is just another country for them. So I will spare myself the hard read. He has evidence to back him up. I have my gut feeling.

  • Yes, American Jews are endangered if you are only looking at secular, unaffiliated, assimilated Jews who have birthrate below replacement rate combined with high divorce and intermarriage rates.
    Jews that are part of Jewish Communities, involved in Torah and keep Kosher and Shabbat are growing in population as evidenced by several studies.

    • Don’t get too comfortable or smug; “Torah Jews” are equally weak. Existing on the kindness of strangers has never worked out–even in our lifetimes.

      • As a Torah observant Jew from a reform background, I realized forty years ago the only surviving Jews would be the Jews who lived the eternal. Jewish life. Unfortunately,we see those who are not Torah Jews have a difficult time passing on a meaningful reason to remain jewish in a world of abundant choices. JD remark is disrespectful and unfair. Yes Torah Jews do have our issues . We are human. But the community I live in work, pay our taxes and give 10 percent of our income to those in need. My hope is that more Jews will learn about Torah observance and strength the eternal Jewish People. I feel blessed that I chose this path.

    • I agree…Orthodox Jews will become the majority in years to come. The complexion of American Jewry may change, from the non and partially observant to the highly observant, but Jews will remain a significant ethnic group in the U.S. nonetheless.

      • I really wouldn’t waste a second of my time reading a silly book that predicts that Jews will become almost non existent in America.I’m not Jewish and I couldn’t care less if the complexion of Jewry changes.You are correct stating that Jews will remain a significant ethnic group and there will always be competent doctors,scientists etc. that we can depend on.

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