Some 79 percent of American Jews are said to take part in a seder come Passover, which strikes the pessimist in me as a pretty remarkable statistic. More than Hanukka or even the High Holy Days, Passover is the Jewish religious event that exerts the greatest hold on American Jews.
The next time pollsters ask this question, I’d like to add one more: How many American Jews know that the last two days of the eight-day festival are also holy days, marked by the observant with the same sorts of restrictions and synagogue services of a typical Shabbat?
There’s a great moment in Joseph Heller’s novel Good as Gold, when the grandfather character, staying at his adult son’s house, promises to return to his Florida condominium “after the holidays.”
The son is incredulous. “Each year he comes up earlier and each year he stays up later. This year for the Jewish holidays. Shmini Atzereth. Have you ever heard of it? Neither have I. I swear he’s making his goddamned Jewish holidays up.”
The gap between the engaged and the secular isn’t new in the Jewish community. Just go back to the Haggada, with its allegory of the Four Children: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. The text appears in the midrashic collection known as the Mekhilta, meaning parents have been dealing with rebellious and apathetic sons since at least the third century CE.
What feels new is the intensity with which the engaged and not-so-very play their respective roles. Studies suggest that while engaged Jews are making more “Jewish” choices than ever — sending their kids to day school, moving to the right along the religious spectrum, picking a “Jewish” college — the assimilated are doing less and less.
The “doing” in this case is the key distinction. Surveys also show assimilated Jews take pride in their Jewish identity. They feel it, they internalize it, they cherish it. They just don’t act on it.
Or know much about it. The old man in Heller’s novel is hardly a hasid, but members of his generation were at least aware of the traditions they were flouting.
Earlier this month, the on-line magazine Jewcy ran an essay by a self-described “lapsed Jew” named Tara Dublin. “We’re the ones who eat bacon and shrimp with happy abandon,” writes Dublin. “We don’t keep kosher (although we love us a kosher hot dog), we only set foot inside of a temple when someone dies, we never fast, and we refuse to live without unleavened carbs. Ever.”
And so on. Dublin blames a typical list of late-20th-century influences: “years of interminable Hebrew lessons, boring services, preachy rabbis, obnoxious aunts pinching our cheeks.”
Nevertheless, Dublin writes, she is “proud of my heritage and would never deny it.”
“[I]t’s also a huge part of my self-identity,” she adds. “I wouldn’t be who I am without my Jewish background, and it’s informed my humor and many other traits over the course of my life.”
Nevertheless, she doesn’t suggest even a whiff of curiosity about that heritage or demonstrate any interest in developing her superficial understanding of it.
I sound grumpy. But when it comes to these confessions (celebrations?) of anemic Jewish engagement, I don’t see rebelliousness so much as a lack of intellectual curiosity. I’m with Leon Wieseltier, who represented the voice of engagement in Stars of David, Abigail Pogrebin’s book of profiles of celebrity Jews. “I can respect heresy, I can respect alienation…. I don’t mind renegades or apostates,” said Wieseltier.
What troubled him, however, were rebels without a cause. “[T]he scandal is, they often don’t have reasons” for their lack of interest or knowledge, he explains. “It’s very lazy. They just don’t care. And this is not worthy of respect.”
Wieseltier, like Dublin, acknowledges that a lot of Jews have been failed by their synagogues and Hebrew schools. Our institutions have a responsibility to make Judaism more engaging, and you can point to a host of organizations that are doing just that — including Jewcy, which creates compelling Jewish conversations around essays like Dublin’s.
But “lapsed Jews” too ought to take responsibility for their Jewishness — as I hope anybody would for something they consider a “huge part” of their identity. That doesn’t mean joining a synagogue or enrolling in a yeshiva. But it might mean reading a book, taking an adult ed class, or visiting a museum with an open mind and perhaps a notebook to write a few things down.
A few years back I was in a class with Jewish educators who ran the gamut from Orthodox rabbis to fiercely secular Israelis. The instructor, who enjoyed baiting the latter, suggested that we needed to know the day’s lesson “like Ashrei” — a prayer said three times a day by observant Jews.
“Haim,” he challenged one of the Israelis, “do you know Ashrei?”
“No,” said Haim. “But I know what ‘like Ashrei’ means.”
Haim is one of my heroes. At that point, he wasn’t interested in living a religious life, but he cared enough to understand just what he was rejecting.