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Philadelphia Inquirer Review of JEW VS. JEW by Samuel G. Freedman

The Long Tradition of Jew against Jew
By Carlin Romano, Sept. 3, 2000

When in Rome - or the Roman Empire - Jews did as they've always done: They fought one another.

Even as Titus and his troops advanced through first-century Judea to counterattack Jewish revolutionaries, reports Samuel Freedman, the "Jewish resistance fragmented between upper and lower classes, the priestly caste and the masses, fundamentalists and progressives. . . . Thus divided, the rebels could not even agree on how to defend Jerusalem."

Flash forward to Cleveland, 1895, and listen to a German Jewish teacher mock newly arrived Eastern European Jews as "bigoted followers of the orthodox rabbinical law," little more than "uneducated paupers" with "stunted" minds and "warped" characters.

Then come nearly to the present, March 1997, as the Agudath Harabonim, an association of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, declares that Reform and Conservative Jews - roughly two-thirds of all American Jews - practice a creed that is "not Judaism at all."

Freedman, a former New York Times reporter, award-winning Columbia Journalism School professor, and author of three previous gems of socially astute literary journalism (Small Victories, Upon This Rock, and The Inheritance), does not lack for examples to undergird his title: Moses and Aaron, 18th-century rabbis banning Maimonides, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Here, however, in this shrewdly researched, elegantly written study, his focus is the intensified post-World War II animosity between American Jews, not just among the three traditional divisions of Judaism - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox - but within those branches, and between all Jews and the ideal of "oneness" many still hold dear.

"From the suburban streets of Great Neck to the foot of the Western Wall," Freedman writes, "I have witnessed the struggle for the soul of American Jewry. It is a struggle that pits secularist against believer, denomination against denomination, gender against gender, liberal against conservative, traditionalist against modernist. . . . It is a struggle being waged on issues ranging from conversion standards to the peace process, from land use to the role of women in worship. It is a struggle that has torn asunder families, communities, and congregations. And beneath each specific confrontation lie the same fundamental questions.

"What is the definition of Jewish identity? Who decides what is authentic and legitimate Judaism? And what is the Jewish compact with America?"

Freedman can't provide authoritative answers any better than the many "authorities" he cites or quotes - "authority," after all, is just what's in play in each dispute. Freedman quickly alerts the reader, in any case, that he's less interested in declarations than in telling his larger story "by the traditional Jewish means of the parable." Then he further retreats from wise-man duty by announcing that he doesn't wish "to add to the decibel level" of his subject - his "goal is to fulfill a peculiarly Jewish mission, the mission of bearing witness."

So while Freedman shakes off some of his neutral-observer status in an epilogue, the argument Jew vs. Jew ultimately makes is a reporter's argument, the "Journalist's Syllogism": These are the facts that matter, these are the stories that matter. If I've chosen wisely, you'll agree with me.

It's on that plane, if any, that one might argue with Freedman's nervy conclusion that in "the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the Orthodox model has triumphed."

Freedman's broad finding is that America's six million Jews "are pulling toward the extremes," with assimilation, segregation, secularism and fundamentalism all simultaneously rising: "On one flank, rampant interfaith marriage and declining religious observance leave a plurality of American Jews with that husk of identity that sociologist Herbert Gans has called 'symbolic ethnicity' - Seinfeld and a schmear. . . . On the other side, an assertive, charismatic, and increasingly purist Orthodoxy boasts the highest birth rate within Judaism. . . . So while fewer than half of American Jews belong to a synagogue or temple in any branch, and only one in six even lights Sabbath candles . . . the number of religious day schools operated or inspired by the Orthodox simultaneously booms."

It's a clash, likely to "deepen and worsen," between Orthodoxy's desire for "unity" - by which the Orthodox mean that every Jew should share their adherence to 613 commandments - and the desire of the non-Orthodox for a "pluralism" in which variations of Jewish observance are permitted and respected. Contributing to the ideological divide, in Freedman's view, are three causes: (1) A schism on similar issues in Israel that creates parallel turmoil on the American scene; (2) the absence for American Jews of "a single foe against whom to coalesce," given the ongoing peace process and the decline of anti-Semitism; and (3) the remarkable tolerance and acceptance the United States has offered American Jews, resulting in an intermarriage rate one study now puts at 52 percent.

True to his aim of truth-telling by parable, Freedman follows his headlining of these themes with highly effective narrative architecture: Six beautifully reported and synthesized case studies of specific people in complicated communities alternate with five sections on overarching issues such as "Who is a Jew?", "Judaism and Gender," and "Who Owns Orthodoxy?".

"Camp Kinderwelt, New York, 1963" portrays the decline of the world of Labor Zionist and mainly secular "Yiddishkeit," as Orthodoxy prospers around it. "Denver, Colorado, 1977-1983" recounts the rise and collapse of an attempt at inter-branch rabbinical cooperation in conversions to Judaism. "Los Angeles, California, 1987-1989" zeroes in on the challenge to a wealthy congregation posed by a Jewish feminist's determination to alter a traditional prayer, the "Amidah."

"Jacksonville, Florida, 1993-97" crisply tells the story of a ne'er-do-well butcher who drifts toward the radical Jewish right and winds up in federal prison for planting a bomb at a Shimon Peres speech. "New Haven, Connecticut, 1995-1999" examines the suit of the so-called "Yale 5," strictly observant Orthodox undergraduates who sued that university for allegedly forcing them to live on an impious campus. Finally, "Beachwood, Ohio, 1997-1999" details how the Cleveland bedroom community reacted when its growing Orthodox community sought to build a major school and synagogue complex.

The likely result of all this, Freedman suggests early on, is not that American Jewry will "vanish," but that it will splinter. As the author's tales of tormented psychologies unfold, the reader suspects exactly how that might happen - a dramatic conclusion that Freedman, a smooth literary artist, cannily delays until his epilogue.

What he foresees is a "Jewish Reformation" in which the existing branches of Judaism, "like Christianity after Martin Luther, will be divergent faiths sharing a common deity and a common ancestry." Perhaps, like Protestantism itself, Judaism will subdivide into further denominations. Freedman takes a shot at naming and describing the Jewish flow-chart of the future, choosing to divide the Chosen People into "Haredi," "Conservadox," "Reformative" and "Just Jews." It's an inspired performance, from opening page to Freedman's stinging last paragraph, which seemingly faults secular Jews for not caring enough to fight for their ethnic vision of Judaism.

That's where Freedman's "Journalistic Syllogism," while powerful, remains open to question. While giving generous if not equal time across the spectrum, Freedman never really allows the voice of the well-educated, intellectual, secular but philosophical Jew to speak - unless that voice is meant to be his own background music, restrained by the conventions of journalistic objectivity.

Despite a mention here of the late Irving Howe, or a nod there to David Ben-Gurion, almost everyone Freedman cites or profiles believes in God at some level, and so wrestles with the dilemmas of whether this or that twist of ritual will get the Creator's intentions right. Anchoring the Jewish perspective in such frames of mind encourages the us vs. them religious mentality that dates from the massacring God of Abraham and Moses - a persona superbly documented in Jack Miles' God: A Biography. But if, as Freedman repeatedly acknowledges, "roughly half of American Jewry is not affiliated with any branch," don't we need to hear more from the presumably large number who remain secular Jews with an abiding interest in Judaism?

The notion that "Orthodoxy has triumphed" because its numbers are growing - that it's the only "portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future" - ironically shows that Judaism's definition can only be solved by begging the issue Freedman acknowledges as key: the Orthodox premise that "religion defines Jewish identity."

It remains a perfectly fine option for the nonbeliever to argue that Jewish history, not active belief in God, defines Jewish identity, and that to think otherwise is to make being a Jew tantamount to signing on to a platform. Secular Jews can maintain the "Jewish ethnicity" that Freedman contends has been "loved to death" by America, and will cease "to exist in any meaningful way," by reading Jewish history, perpetuating Jewish styles of language and humor, or caring about Jewish issues - even by writing a book like Jew vs. Jew. "What would Seinfeld do?" is not an automatically worse indicator of Jewish identity than "What would the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism) do?"

From that point of view, belief in God, as Laplace told Napoleon, is an unnecessary hypothesis that frees one of arguing over unnecessary corollaries (such as whether it's OK to use a Palm Pilot on a Saturday).

So long as such a secular perspective on Judaism endures, and gets passed down in families, all the fur hats and heavy coats in the world won't settle the philosophical conundrum behind Freedman's excellent Jew vs. Jew.