Commentary Magazine


Members of the Tribe, by Ze'ev Chafets

Burial Tour?

Members of the Tribe: On the Road in Jewish America.
by Ze’ev Chafets.
Bantam Books. 253 pp. $18.95.

In December of last year my wife and I drove into Natchez, Mississippi. Seeing the dome of a large building that dominated the skyline, we headed toward what we assumed was the town hall or one of the antebellum houses for which Natchez is justly famous. It turned out to be Temple B’nai Israel, the local synagogue.

Having spent several months in the South, we were not surprised by such a prominent public display of the Jewish presence. Throughout November the main thoroughfare of Memphis had been adorned by hundreds of handsome blue-and-white banners announcing an exhibition called “Danzig 1939: Treasures of a Destroyed Jewish Community.” When the banners came down from the utility poles they were replaced by alternating Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs. At the very same time, Arkansas’s state capitol in Little Rock was offering visitors an exhibition on “The Jewish Presence in Arkansas.”

But when we tried to enter Natchez’s synagogue, we found it (on a Saturday afternoon) locked. It was only when we arrived at our motel and began to read Ze’ev Chafets’s account of his travels through Jewish America that we learned what was—and was not—to be found behind the grand exterior of Temple B’nai Israel:

The temple’s sanctuary has a powerful tracker organ, stained-glass windows, and a marble ark that holds five Torah scrolls. Polished oak pews seat three hundred downstairs, and there is a special section upstairs which was once reserved for noisy children and their black mammies. There are no more mammies in Natchez, however, and only four Jewish children. . . . What’s left of the congregation [is] thirty-four people in all, twenty-four of them over the age of fifty.

This poignant description appears in Chafets’s opening chapter, which recounts the dignified and heroic efforts of a Jew from Louisiana to provide “a decent funeral” for the many once-flourishing Jewish communities in the South that are now dying. Chafets accompanies him on his “macabre burial tour,” the aim of which is to create a memorial museum to Southern Jewry and to use any surplus funds that are raised for the care of Jewish cemeteries.

Although Members of the Tribe tries hard to convey a sense of the endless varieties and unpredictable possibilities of Jewish life in America, the mortuary tone of its opening chapter pervades much of the book, replete as it is with impressions of assimilation, decline, evanescence. In Sioux City, Iowa, an AIPAC activist groans over his “dying community . . . a total disaster.” At the Concord Hotel at Lake Kiamesha in the Catskills, where Jewish “singles” look for spouses, Chafets finds himself in the midst of 1,800 non-Jewish Jews: “There had been no Jewish songs, no Israeli dancing, not a single Jewish conversation that I hadn’t initiated.” A young woman from Colombia, hoping to preserve and enhance her Judaism by studying at Brandeis, allegedly a Jewish university, “‘found kids who were just Americans . . . there was nothing Jewish about them.’” In his visit to Century Village, a retirement community in Florida, Chafets finds himself amid the “first generation of American Old Jews,” who turn out to be “selfish, individualistic, pleasure-oriented.” One resident, who has taken upon himself the quixotic task of organizing a minyan (mainly for the purpose of praying for the dead), complains to Chafets: “‘It’s just assimilation . . . nobody’s Jewish anymore. Believe me, sometimes I cry at night just to think of it.’”

Ze’ev Chafets is an American-born Jew who, at age twenty, took the high road to Jerusalem. In the succeeding twenty-two years he has made a reputation for himself as one of the shrewdest, most effective directors the Israel Government Press Office ever had, and as the author of one book about Israeli society and another about the double standard employed by the media reporting from the Middle East. Chafets went to Israel in order to make sense of the incoherent shards of Judaism that had puzzled and intrigued him in his youth. His parents wished him to think of himself as an American of the Jewish persuasion; but when he attended the Passover seder at his grandparents’ home he had the sense of an entire way of life—a different land, a different language, different holidays, different aspirations—pursued secretly in the midst of people, Gentiles, who knew nothing whatever about it. These tantalizing hints of another time and another place to which he might belong led Chafets to Israel, where he “found what my ancestors had once had but failed to pass along—the attitudes and skills, spirit and substance of a distinctive, self-contained Jewish civilization.” Then, perversely, Chafets became curious about the American Judaism he had abandoned, and this curiosity led to his travels through Jewish America.

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The story of these travels, lasting six months and covering thirty states, subtly confirms the Tightness of Chafets’s long-ago decision. Ostensibly, Chafets is committed to the doctrine that nothing Jewish is alien to him, and that even the most assimilated, or alienated, or ignorant American Jews may often turn out to be “Jewish in their hearts.” His strict tolerance fails him only on rare occasions. He is not enamored of the leftist Jewish millionaire whose New Israel Fund is an instrument for transforming Israel into a country “that would meet the approval of the ACLU, the Nation magazine, and the Sierra Club”; he does not warm to the idea of a “lesbian hot tub Havdalah service” in the gay synagogue he visits in San Francisco; and he gives a mordant account of the “Crazy Eddie of American Judaism,” a Miami rabbi offering conversions to Judaism in one day and guaranteeing “‘to marry anybody to anybody, anytime and anyplace.’”

The notion that a “Jewish heart” continues to beat even in the breasts of Jews whose minds and lives have become entirely Americanized is invoked from time to time by Chafets as a unifying device, and by his interlocutors as a desperate excuse for their derelictions. One man describes all the Jewish families in his town who have converted to Roman Catholicism as “still Jewish in their hearts.” Another assures Chafets that “‘I’m a Jew in my heart, not in my head.’” In fact, however, the only thing that is likely to convince the reader of this book that such a collective anatomical endowment exists in and sustains the American Jews is negative evidence: the startling absence of anything resembling mind in this allegedly brainy people. Almost the only Jew in the book who appears to have been blessed with both a mind and a heart is the Bostoner Rebbe, Levi Yitzhak Horowitz, encapsulated in one of Chafets’s finest portraits.

Despite this ritual sprinkling of the spice of Jewish “heart” over his large, variegated cast of characters, Chafets writes as a Zionist who believes that it is Israel and not an amorphous “tribalism” (as in the offensive title) that sustains American Jewry. Everywhere he went—which did not include the offices of Jewish journalists or academics—he met people who “identified with Israel in a deeply personal way,” encountered Jewish communities united only by support for Israel, and heard that “‘Israel raises money for local projects, not the other way around.’” Even in the gay synagogue, carrying more than the ordinary complement of leftists, the majority are “mainstream Zionists of the AIP AC variety.” The Jews in Graterford prison in Pennsylvania (one of the most religiously observant groups Chafets met) raise money to support an orphan in Netanya, and are close observers of events in Israel. There is a touch of understandable Zionist triumphalism in Chafets’s voice when he observes that “increasingly, American Jews . . . need to import Israelis to help them carry out Jewish activities.”

But if Chafets embraces the notion that when a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist, he cannot hide his resentment of the meretricious qualities in American Zionism. He finds something fraudulent in the “We Are One” slogan of “wealthy, secure young Americans who want to share in the drama and romance of the contemporary Jewish struggle without paying a price higher than a tax-exempt donation.” And he takes note of another worrisome element in the Zionism of American Jews, but does not fully acknowledge its implications. He suggests that the preoccupation with Israel (like the preoccupation with the Holocaust) derives from a sense of guilt over the failure of the American Jewish community to act to save European Jewry during World War II. But he does not go on to say that if American Jews should once again find that the security of their brethren in far-off lands is not a compelling interest of their own government or fellow-citizens, they may behave as timidly as they did in the past. Will they adhere to their Zionism if the price does become higher than a tax-exempt donation? If not, what then will sustain American Jewish life?

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Chafets makes no claim to comprehensiveness or inclusiveness. A reader may complain, with some justice, that he goes out of his way to avoid “representative” figures in favor of exotics and eccentrics, and ignores the very places—large-city synagogues, rabbinical seminaries and yeshivas, university programs in Jewish Studies—where Jewish life would seem to be thriving. But his impressions are nevertheless convincing, and have the ineffable power of bouncing us into the truth—far more so than all the articles and books written by doctrinally cheerful American Jewish demographer-sociologists laboriously explaining how the signs of decay, assimilation, and decline that Chafets sees are really, if one defines them artfully enough, portents of a great revival.

Some years ago I heard a venerable historian deliver a series of lectures on American Jewish history. The first two, dealing with colonial Jewry and the ascendancy of Central European Jewry in America, were sober, analytic, dispassionate; and they were warmly received by an audience of respectable size. The third and last, on contemporary American Jewry, was delivered to an adoring audience of over 500 people who responded passionately to the speaker’s invocation of the usual statistics about the large number of Jewish Congressmen, professors, millionaires, and Nobel Prize winners as incontrovertible evidence of a new golden age. Afterward, at dinner, I asked the speaker where he was heading next. To California, he replied, to visit his many nephews and nieces; a pleasant prospect in one sense, but still more painful than pleasant, he added, because not a single one of them had married a Jew or maintained any link with Jewish life.

This combination of public optimism with private despair, rather like the grandly impressive but nearly empty Natchez synagogue and other public displays of the Jewish presence in America, may serve to confirm the truth of a famous remark by a character in one of Chaim Grade’s stories about the transformation of Diaspora Jewry. The old slogan of Jewish assimilationists, he says, was to be a Jew at home and a man in public; now it’s to be a Jew in public, and only a man at home.

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