Speaking of and With Jews

26 May

Jewish learning


Last week I spoke to a havurah in West LA.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a havurah is a kind of Jewish interest group, a collection of Jewish people mutually interested in study, or music, or prayer, etc.   By forming these small groups and meeting at weekly or monthly intervals, members of large and impersonal congregations can create intimate groups of friends and colleagues. The group I spoke to seems most interested in dessert—learning, too, but dessert plays a big role in the way they plan and structure their meetings.  The first time I spoke to them (I have visited this particular havurah three times in as many years) my host made much of the group’s intelligence, their lengthy history as a havurah, and, of equal importance, the quality of their desserts.  As a fat guy, I really appreciate their interest in post-dinner noshing, and as a scholar of the American Jewish experience, I appreciate the fact that, despite having heard me speak in the past, these folks continue to invite me to their gatherings and pay me for the privilege of talking and eating—two things I would gladly do for free. 

My talk focused on a side project I’ve been interested in for a few years, now, a study of the Jewish institutions on the Sepulveda Pass, what they mean and how they got there.  And so I spent an hour or so talking about the rise of Conservative and Reform Judaism, the ways in which American Jews have celebrated ethnic pluralism, the westward movement of Jewish communities in the City of Angels, and other topics of interest…well, at the very least, topics of interest to me.  At the end of my presentation I asked if there were any questions and to my delight there were.  The first question was about the Holocaust, as was the second, and the third.  The fourth question may have been about Israel, but surely the fifth question was about the Holocaust, and on, and on, and on. 

The Holocaust was not really my topic of conversation—though one of the institutions I talked about was named after a prominent German rabbi who survived that terrible tragedy.  I had spoken of America’s history as a center of Jewish creativity and vibrancy, of the ways that American Jews had formed new ideas and new approaches to Judaism that continue to have meaning and resonance, and my audience, a dozen or so well-educated, upper middle-class Jews whose very gathering (the havurah) is part of a lengthy trend in American Jewish innovation, wanted to know more about the tragic past of European Jewry and about how to protect the State of Israel from its critics.  I was extremely disappointed.  No, that’s not the right word, I was… disillusioned, disenchanted, disheartened?  I don’t know.  None of those words seem to sum up my simultaneous feelings of frustration with, sadness towards, and, yet, affection for the members of that havurah.  Even now, I suspect that my written attempts to express my feelings on that night are as utterly confused and confounded as they were during that question and answer session.  Even their very fine desserts could not ease my mind.

While I was extremely frustrated with my audience’s questions, sadly, I was not at all surprised.  I see it all the time.  A sizeable number of American Jews (somewhere between, let’s say “some Jews” and “a whole lot of Jews”) myopically focus their interest in the Jewish past and present on these two important, but limited and fraught topics. These people, my people, are the inheritors of a fascinating, complex, and exciting history, and yet, when it comes to thinking about the Jewish past and the Jewish condition, they will only think about and discuss an historic and horrific genocide and/or how to protect the State of Israel (this despite that state’s continued demonstration of disdain for the validity and vitality of the American Jewish experience).  Indeed, often when I tell people that I am an American Jewish historian they ask me if I have seen the latest Holocaust documentary or read the latest book on that awful, painful tragedy.  When I tell them that I don’t study the Holocaust, they move on to discuss the history of New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the last century, a topic I also don’t study.  Soon, a bewildered look will cross their faces as if to ask, “Well what the hell do you study, then?”

To be clear, the Holocaust and the State of Israel are important topics for any Jew, and they are extremely worthy of serious discussion, consideration, and commemoration, but so, too, are other fascinating topics in Jewish history.  I have spoken to numerous havurot (the plural of havurah), always about the exciting and meaningful ways that American Jewish thinkers have tried to keep Judaism and Jewishness a vibrant compelling option in the American marketplace of ideas, and yet when we get to the Q & A very few people ask more in-depth questions about that topic.  While I wish I could say that my talks are so good, so complete and informative that people need not ask questions about the topic of my discussion, that is surely not the case.  And even if it were, when these folks go off topic, which they typically do, they do not ask me about the Jewish experience in Muslim Spain, or the remarkable development of Jewish culture that took place in Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  They have no interest Hank Greenberg (the great, Jewish, baseball player), Simon Greenberg (the one time president of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary), or even Señor Greenberg (the San Diego restaurateur who cleverly opened a “Mexicatessen” in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to appeal to American tourists).   No, they are only interested in two things, the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

Jewish history is lengthy, rich, and complex.  It is filled with stories of brilliant scholars, powerful leaders, unsavory (but let’s face it, very interesting) gangsters and criminals, of horrible tragedies and heartwarming triumphs, of successful AND failed attempts at building new types of communities and centers of learning, and much, much more.  When we boil this rich and complex history down into two admittedly important but extremely limited topics we deny ourselves a valuable historical inheritance.  Equally important, by narrowing the focus of Jewish history down to these two topics, we create a story about the Jewish people that operates between what has been called the two poles of Jewish history—the lachrymose and the triumphant.  And while, yes, those parts of the Jewish experience are very real and very important, so too are the other parts of the Jewish story.  We are not just victims and heroes.  We are scholars and athletes, farmers and soldiers, scientists and entertainers, mothers and fathers, rabbis and congregants, and (of particular importance to my insatiable appetite) bakers and chefs, to name a few.  And the American Jewish community, with its almost unlimited access to a wide variety of media, is likely better positioned than any other Jewish community on Earth to learn about the entirety of the Jewish global experience (I am sure my European and Israeli friends would beg to differ with me on this last point).  I say we start with a focus on the lives and experiences of American Jews.  Europe and Israel are cool, too, but we live in the States so let’s start there.  Let’s just hold off on discussions about the Holocaust and the latest efforts of the BDS movement for a bit, OK?  We can talk about those things later.  For now, let’s try and learn something new. And afterwards, dessert!

As always, stay tuned.


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