What I learned as a part Jew

by Sam Smith

Progressive Review, http://prorev.com/, January 23, 2007


I grew up part Jewish. It was hard not to if you lived in a New Deal family where your father was involved in things like starting Americans for Democratic Action. My own introduction to politics came as a pre-teen stuffing envelopes for the local ADA director Leon Shull as he helped organize the removal of Philadelphia's 69-year-old Republican machine. Shull was one of those who early convinced me that there were three branches of Judaism: your Orthodox, your Reform and your Liberal Democratic, with the last clearly the most powerful. I was certain that Jews were put on this earth to run labor unions and win elections for the good guys.

If you think I'm kidding, consider this: for many years we lived across the street from a prominent activist couple - she black, he Jewish. One day one of their sons came over and slumped at our kitchen table. "What's the matter?" asked my wife. "I had a terrible night," the boy explained. "I dreamt I was Jacob Javits." He had already learned to fear becoming a Jewish Republican.

Although I knew Jews went to synagogue, I wasn't all that impressed. After all, as my friend Peter Temin was going to Hebrew school on Saturdays, I got to go to the Henry Glass music store and take drum lessons, clearly the better deal. During the week we went to a Quaker school where perhaps a quarter of the students were Jewish and nobody thought it odd. The tradition continues. The joke about Washington's Sidwell Friends School is that it is a place where Episcopalians teach Jews how to act like Quakers.

Much later I would figure out what Quakerism and Judaism had in common: a blend of individualism, pragmatism, and responsibility, with a particular emphasis on the last. You didn't come into the world pre-ordained and your primary goal wasn't to leave it saved; what really mattered is what you did in the meantime.

For much of my life, what I have done and what I have thought have been deeply influenced by existential Judaism and its practitioners. I can't even begin to count the number of times I have come across Jews in the lonely corners of hope trying to do what others, through lack of interest or courage, would not.

But a number of things have happened since I was first introduced to Judaism. The direct ties to the often radical Jewish immigrant tradition began to fade. The offspring of the immigrants became wealthier and less involved. America of whatever ethnicity began paying less attention to others and more to itself.

As I put it once, "The great 20th century social movements [were] successful enough to create their own old boy and girl networks, powerful enough to enter the Chevy Chase Club, and indifferent enough to ignore those left behind. The minority elites had joined the Yankee and the Southern aristocrat and the rest of God's frozen people to form the largest, most prosperous, and most narcissistic intelligentsia in our history. But as the best and brightest drove around town in their Range Rovers, who would speak for those who were still, in Bill Mauldin's phrase, fugitives from the law of averages? The work of witness remained."

A whole history began to disappear. A part of the story was told by journalist Paul S. Green in his memoir, From the Streets of Brooklyn to the War in Europe. He notes that by the dawn of the 20th century

"Jewish youth in Poland grew more and more impatient with the narrow focus of their lives. They were determined to take part in the opportunities opening up around them - exciting new developments in science, the arts, in social relationships. This brought them into conflict with their parents and grandparents. In seeking a different way of life, they began to do the unthinkable - to reject the strict age-old Orthodoxy of their ancestors. "

Out of this grew several new movements, one of which, Zionism, looked towards retrieving a Jewish nation. Others were socialist, ranging from hard-core Bolshevik to the Bund, which Green describes as

"An organization of free-thinking Jewish youth who whole-heartedly embraced Yiddish culture and a Yiddish life that completely rejected traditional religion. The Bundists believed that only a socialist government - evolutionary rather than revolutionary - could hope to bring together all peoples of whatever origin and outlaw racial and religious conflict, with all men becoming brothers, thereby bringing an end to anti-Semitism and pogroms."

And so we find, not too many years later, the New York City Jewish cigar-makers each contributing a small sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked - reading aloud the classic works of Yiddish literature. And the leader of the New York cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers, became the first president of the American Federation of Labor.

Green's own family joined the rebellion:

"In embracing the principles of free-thinking non-religious belief, my parents had made a profound break with the past. The generation gap with their own parents was unbelievably deep. They had been born and brought up in a world that brooked no deviation. . . They were turning their backs on the fearsome God of their forefathers who had ruled Jewish lives for thousands of years. . . They realized that maintaining their beliefs set them apart from the mainstream of Jewish life, but the fact that they were a small minority did not bother them. "

They became part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It helped to create the organizations, causes, and values that built this country's social democracy. While Protestants and Irish Catholics controlled the institutions of politics, the ideas of modern social democracy disproportionately came from native populists and immigrant socialists, heavily Jewish.

It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or the Vietnam protests without the Jewish left. There is, in fact, no greater parable of the potential power of a conscious, conscientious minority than the influence of secular Jews on 20th century modern American politics.

Sadly, however, social and economic progress inevitably produced a dilution of passion for justice and change not just among Jews but within the entire post-liberal elite. And, in many ways, Israel became the icon that replaced the cause of social justice. This is not to say that the two are antithetical. That certainly wasn't the case when I was younger. But as Jewish rhetoric and politics became increasingly in the hands of powerful conservative interests, an iconic, unexamined Israel began to serve Jews much as an absurdly trivialized Jesus has been used by the powerful conservative Christian interests to serve their ends. And other things just got forgotten.

Just as it is important for Americans not to define their country's past by the tragic distortions of the past quarter century, it is important for Jews not to be misled by a powerful right wing's reduction of Judaism to the goals of a deeply misguided and militaristic nation.

The fact is both America and Israel have badly damaged themselves through grandiosity, arrogance and narcissism. Beyond that is a truth few want to admit: no culture, no ethnicity, no value system can exist in a vacuum any more. This is not the fault of terrorists or anti-Semites. It's the result of television and multinational corporations that have usurped the role of culture, values and ethnicities. Add to that Israel's demographic trends and you've got a problem that AIPAC and Abe Foxman can't help you with in the slightest.

The answer, to the extent there still is one for the human species, is to be found in honest, personal witness. You can't save Christianity with hypocrisy and you can't save Judaism with missiles. What might work, however, is to reach back into the past of one's own culture or ethnicity and find examples of actions and behaviors that produced positive change. Neither Christians nor Jews have always been as absurdly self-destructive as they are today. And before they offer any more dangerous directions for dealing with today's problems, they need to rediscover their own good paths.

It is along such paths - and not on battlefields - that faith is solidified, admiration is encouraged, and loyalty is attracted. And along the way you may even pick up some unorthodox stragglers like me.

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