A World of Difference


By Leonard Fein

Published April 08, 2005, issue of April 08, 2005.
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Israel’s prime minister is not a pope, nor are any of Israel’s chief rabbis. The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is not a pope, nor is the president of the World Jewish Congress, even though his title seem close to papal in its resonance. Even the rebbe was not a pope, the claims of some of his disciples notwithstanding. No, we have no pope. And that, as they say, is a blessing.

It is first and foremost a blessing to whoever might be elected if we did have one. Can you imagine what it would be like to try to be pope of the Jews?

And after that it is a blessing to the rest of us, who can be Jewish as we choose to be without feeling ourselves at odds with our leader. (No, we are at odds with a Higher Authority, as also, very often, with ourselves.) We have no hierarchical structure that can decide for us, ex cathedra, what we are supposed to believe. No Jew, neither the most exalted nor the most powerful, neither the loudest nor the wealthiest, can claim the infallibility that inheres to the Roman pontiff on issues of faith and morals.

Like most blessings, this one is mixed. There are times when one wishes our people could speak in an authoritative voice: When the American bishops now and then issue “pastoral letters” on subjects such as “just war,” equality or racism, the result (hypothetically) is an enviable and serious process of learning, or at least of thoughtful debate, throughout the precincts of the church. There is nothing at all in contemporary Judaism that can compare to that.

And so we amble on, east and west, north and south. Recent data reflect some of the differences between us and others, and among ourselves. A few months back, The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion published an article by Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University, analyzing a mountain of data from the National Opinion Research Center.

We learned there that 68% of American adults have “an untroubled faith in a personal God,” compared to 27% of the Jews; 4% of the general population is agnostic, compared to 22% of the Jews. (The balance in both groups believe “in a higher power of some kind” or harbor some doubts regarding the existence of God. The yawning difference between Jews and the general population may owe to the yawning difference in educational attainment; Sherkat finds that “each year of increase in education reduces the odds of being in a more ‘certain’ belief category by 7%.”)

My awareness of both our difference from others and our internal differences was engaged last week. Here in Boston, there was a concert at the Jewish Community Center. A production of Boston’s Workman’s Circle, the concert brought together two musical ensembles: A Besere Velt (A Better World), an 80 person-strong Yiddish community chorus sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle, and The National Spiritual Ensemble, seven extraordinarily gifted black singers. As Hankus Netsky, who accompanied the Yiddish chorus and who is one of the fathers of the worldwide revival of klezmer music, put it: “The Yiddish music is mostly secular, about making this a better world, and the spirituals are overtly religious, expressing belief in a better world to come. But what this concert brings together are two different ways of singing about liberation.”

Actually, yes and no. The two “very different ways” are so different, and the differences in the musical presentations so blatant, that “liberation” hardly unites the two. The black songs are almost entirely of the world that is to come — the other world, that is, the world after this world, heaven itself — while the Yiddish music, also of the world to come, is of the world of justice that is to come here, to us. Redemption vs. revolution; prayer vs. protest. We have our eyes on very different prizes.

Be that difference as it may, I couldn’t help thinking, as the Yiddish chorus sang ably, even compellingly, away, what a tiny corner of the contemporary Jewish firmament it inhabits. It is a corner I cherish, and these days even some people who don’t know Yiddish might also applaud approvingly, unaware of the wake-up call the words are meant to convey. And if they were to understand, so what? Now, they would likely think, history has rendered the words and the sentiments toothless, harmless; surely there’s no danger in a smidgen of nostalgia.

Or so it might seem, save that here and there across the country and in growing numbers young people are re-learning those songs and taking them on as their own, not only singing them but also actually meaning them, singing “We Shall Overcome” not as a song of fuzzy good feeling but as an anthem. Or writing and singing new songs of a better world.

Or perhaps it’s just that it is the Workmen’s Circle chorus that’s singing, and the secular sensibility of the circle is about as far from the current “official” posture of American Jewry as can be — the data on the state of belief among the Jews notwithstanding. Even their lullabies and their love songs take on a mildly subversive cast, evoking a whole culture of poverty, oppression, idealism, undaunted hope and determination.

In truth, many Catholics blithely ignore the pope’s directives. We, happily, have no directives to ignore; we have “only” a book. And chaos, and a hundred blooming flowers. And we still sing, some of us, of “a velt a bafreiteh a nayeh,” a world liberated and made new.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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