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Washington Post Review of JEW VS. JEW by Samuel G. Freedman

Assimilation & Its Discontents
by David Brooks, August 6, 2000
David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author of "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There."

Remember when God was dead? Through much of the 20th century, the forces of modernity - science, individualism, progress - seemed to be trampling all over Him. Among American Jews, in particular, secularism ran rampant. There were only five Jewish day schools in this country in 1917. By 1930, only a third of all Jews belonged to a synagogue, and only a quarter of Jewish kids received any religious instruction. By 1955, a noted sociologist was calling Orthodox Judaism "a case study in institutional decay." Jewish consciousness was still high, but Jewish identity was based on secular Jewish culture - Yiddish literature, Zionism, Saul Bellow, the United Jewish Appeal's charitable crusades - or shared victimization from anti-Semitism.

But at some point history pivoted. God, as is His wont, revived, and now modernism seems old-fashioned. Now it is the secularists who are in retreat and the faithful who are on the march. In each branch of Judaism, younger, more devout Jews challenge the old order. Reform Judaism is becoming more observant. Younger Conservative Jews flow toward Orthodoxy. And the Modern Orthodox are being swamped by the people the media refers to as ultra-Orthodox.

Among those who still practice Judaism, the trend is toward more and more rigorous observance. Six weeks before his death, the literary critic Irving Howe conceded, "I think that those of us committed to the secular Jewish outlook must admit we are reaching a dead-end." And Samuel Freedman concludes his brilliant book Jew vs. Jew by writing, "In the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the Orthodox model has triumphed." In other words, the Torah, and not Zionism or Woody Allen or the Holocaust, henceforth will define Jewish life.

But the change has not been peaceful. In Jewish circles, Freedman argues,two world views vie for supremacy. On one side are what might be called the Pluralists. These are assimilated Jews who are at home in mainstream American secular culture. Some are not religious but still feel culturally Jewish. Others in this group are more religious, but they don't feel there is just one true form of Judaism. There are, instead, multiple paths to God. Their creed, summarized by Freedman, is "I am what I feel: I define the terms of my Jewish identity."

On the other side are those who march under the banner of Unity. There is only one path to God, and it is laid down in the Torah and the 613 commandments. Deviation is error. Many of these are the Jews who are invariably described as "ultra-Orthodox" in the media; the men typically wear black hats, and the married women wear wigs. Others in this camp don't stand out so much. But they do defer to the authority of the Torah, and don't believe that Jewish law is a piece of clay that can be molded to fit the zeitgeist.

Freedman captures the "civil war" between these two world views through a series of gripping, real-life stories. For example, he has a long description of a vicious zoning battle in Beachwood, Ohio. That Cleveland suburb was once a secular Jewish community, but when Orthodox Jews began arriving in large numbers, the older secular Jews rose up to stop the influx. The battles to get permission to build new Orthodox schools and institutions grew intense. "You started to feel pushed, crowded," one of the secular Jews told Freedman after the Orthodox influx. "You didn't want Beachwood to be a ghetto." After Beachwood's mainstream leaders beat back an attempt to build an Orthodox community, one Orthodox rabbi asked abjectly, "What is it about us as Orthodox Jews . . . that has engendered this kind of enmity?"

Freedman is sympathetic to all sides and rigorously impartial. One of the great beauties of this book is the way he is able to weave storytelling with fascinating history and short bits of analysis. A former New York Times reporter, he specializes in capturing broad national issues through intimate narrative. His 1990 book Small Victories described the life of a high school teacher, and his 1996 book The Inheritance described how three families shifted political allegiances from Roosevelt to Reagan.

Freedman has a chapter about a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles that struggles over whether to introduce feminist language into the Amidah, one of Judaism's central prayers. The members of the congregation are mostly left-wing children of the 1960s, but as one congregant muttered amid what became a bitter dispute, "You can't just put in whatever you want." Freedman also has a fascinating chapter on the Yale Five, the devout Jewish students who sued Yale University, claiming that the school was trampling on the irreligious beliefs by forcing them to live in a dorm with, among other things, co-ed bathrooms. Freedman tells that story through the father of one of the students, a man named Daniel Greer, who had been a liberal aide to New York Mayor John Lindsay before becoming disenchanted with government and liberalism and finally becoming dean of the New Haven Yeshiva.

Freedman is writing about articulate people. And they are often anguished to find themselves in bitter disputes with their fellow Jews. He gives them ample room to vent, and uses their words as windows into the state of Jewish life. But this approach also tends to be a little over-intellectual. For example, he never really describes the differences in lifestyle between the secular and the devout. Yet these issues are often the crux of the disputes. Many polished, secular Jews simply don't like the way the ultra-Orthodox live: Most particularly, the secularists feel discomfiture over what they take to be sloppiness and overcrowding of the Orthodox - their ostentatious disdain for worldly vanities.

I'd also say that Freedman is overstating things by claiming there is a "civil war" within American Jewry. The disputes get vicious, and often it is the so-called pluralists who are most intolerant of diversity. But surely most Jews are members of neither the party of Pluralism nor the party of Unity. They wrestle with ways to reconcile the pluralism of our country with the absolute Truth of the Torah. They follow the Torah rigorously until they come to a passage that implies that Judaism is the only true creed, or that the enemies of Israel should be smote down. Then they work up ingenious explanations for why the Torah doesn't mean what it clearly says. With good reason, even serious American Jews do not want to forsake pluralism. They fudge and live with contradictions.

Still, Freedman's tour de force of a final chapter is his most persuasive. He writes that we are on the verge of a Jewish reformation that will reshape the categories of Jewish life. Instead of the Orthodox-Conservative-Reform-Reconstructionist categories we now have, he predicts that there will be new categories. First, the Haredi, or ultra-orthodox, who segregate themselves from mainstream American culture. Then, the Conservadox, made up of Modern Orthodox Jews and orthodox-leaning Conservatives, who observe Jewish laws but who believe women should be able to practice Judaism just as men do. This is Orthodoxy with feminism.

Freedman's third group is the Reformative, made up of left-wing Conservatives and more religious Reform Jews. This branch will be less observant than the Conservadox and will accept gay marriages; it's basically conservative Judaism with gay rights. And the final branch Freedman calls Just Jews. These are the secular Jews who feel Jewish but are not observant. This is the largest group and also the most fragile. These Jews intermarry, know little about Jewish practice and presumably will soon be indistinguishable from the rest of America.

Freedman is being bold in making such predictions, but he doesn't consider the possibility that should really shake us up - that the trend toward orthodoxy might be only half over. We parents who send our kids to achieving Jewish day schools (with hopes of getting them into Princeton) might wake up one day to find them in black coats living on the West Bank of the Jordan River throwing rocks at cars on Saturdays.

If that happens, Freedman is going to have to get a flak jacket and write another book. But until then, it is hard to imagine a more exciting introduction to the state of the contemporary Jewish soul than Jew vs. Jew.