Where Haredim and Hellenists Can Coexist

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published July 24, 2007, issue of July 27, 2007.
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A couple of weeks back, both this newspaper and The New York Times reported somewhat breathlessly on the emergence in Poland of a thriving Jew-less Jewish revival. This year, for example, Krakow — a city with 300 Jews — held its 14th annual “Festival of Jewish Culture,” with 20,000 (if you believe the Times) or 13,000 (if you believe the Forward) people attending some of its 200 events.

This phenomenon gives natural rise to a nettlesome question: Here in the United States we often hear complaints about the large number of Jews who have little or nothing to do with Judaism — Jews without Judaism, if you will. Over there, in Poland, we apparently have the opposite: Judaism without Jews.

One might imagine that it is in Israel that the “problem” is solved and Jews and Judaism are appropriately aligned. But while some Israelis do indeed reflect the possibility of melding person and predilection, most of Israel seems caught in a kind of bipolar disorder: on the one side, over-the-top Jews who responded to a casting call in Hungary in the mid-19th century and somehow are still here so many decades later, agitating to the beat of their own drummers.

On the other side the Jews, so to speak, of La Dolce Vita, Hellenism’s triumph. (I was never very good at geography.) We may vow to defend Israel’s right to be a Jewish state, no questions asked, but it would be nice if someone could tell us just what being a Jewish state means.

Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be nice. We might find it’s not exactly what we imagined. An Israeli firm called “Hollandia” is now exporting a mattress that sells for, gulp, $50,000, which doesn’t sound at all Jewish to me, plus I am fearful that it may be manufactured on a kibbutz. Think of the ad: “Tested by kibbutz sheep!”

Maybe, though, a Jewish state means simply a place where Haredim and Hellenists can coexist, even if abrasively, itself no mean achievement.

In brief, Israel doesn’t present an adequate solution to our issue. We’re already familiar — indeed, Poland 25 years ago was a leading example — with antisemitism without Jews. Were it not for that, I might suggest that it is in fact easier to love Jews if they are very far away. But it cannot be — or can it? — that Jews work best as mythic creatures, whether for purposes of affection or antipathy.

In any case, we here in America are hardly mythic, except to some Evangelical Christians, who love us more than is seemly. Indeed, they love us at our worst — as when we behave in their self-interest rather than our own.

But the issue here is not how others view us. The issue here is whether the enduringly actual Jews of America are as Jewish as the temporarily virtual Jews of Krakow. (One needn’t go so far as Krakow to learn that you don’t have to be Jewish to be Jewish, as both Abraham Lincoln and Mario Cuomo, among others, proved.)

Remember “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real rye bread?” True enough, but long since surpassed: Contrary to popular impression, you don’t have to be a Jew to own a professional sports team or to prefer kosher products — which, as we know, answer to a higher authority.

As early as 1964, Dan Greenburg wrote a book called “How To Be A Jewish Mother”; Winnie the Pooh is available in Yiddish transliteration, and there’s also “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Talmud,” plainly intended for non-Jews — a term, let us not forget, that refers to some 99.99% of the world’s population — since there are very, very few Jews who are “complete” idiots. You don’t even have to be Jewish to come to Israel under its Law of Return, as a majority of recent Russian immigrants to Israel prove (a fact confirmed just the other week by Israel’s Minister of the Interior).

All of which gives rise to the question: What does being Jewish enable you to do (or think or feel) that others cannot do (or think or feel)? I’d bet there aren’t a dozen non-Jewish people worldwide who refrain from food and drink on the Fast of Gedalia — but there aren’t all that many Jews who mark that day either. Breaking a glass at your wedding? That’s a practice that’s catching on among others. Being a Buddhist? There are actually people who are born into Buddhism.

It’s a puzzle. And maybe therein lies the clue: The Krakow celebrants were not, so far as we know, privy to the puzzle, much less seized of it. No one told them they weren’t being Jewish enough, or the right way; no one laid Jewish guilt on them or pressed Jewish pride on them. They weren’t asked to figure out the difference between commandments and suggestions or why “Jewish atheist” is not an oxymoron.

Or maybe it’s not a puzzle. I was last (and first) in Krakow in 1973, years before Judaism became fashionable there. I was traveling with the first UJA Young Leadership mission to Poland, and Krakow was where we spent the night before our grim visit to Auschwitz.

Early on the morning of that visit, we went to Krakow’s Ramo shul to daven. The 35 or so of us, though all Jewishly involved, were of very mixed Jewish backgrounds. Yet the angel of prayer hovered over us: A tiny tape cassette I still have records our morning prayers from that place on that day, and you can hear us singing fortissimo and holding the notes extra long, as if wanting the folks outside to hear.

As, just maybe, they did. Mir zenen do; we are (still) here.


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