Middle-Class Judaism: A Case Study
During the past ten years, “Garfield Hills”—the name I have given a compact neighborhood in New York City’s borough of Queens which was once closed to Jews—has turned more and more markedly into a Jewish section. As late as 1930—about twenty years after the community was founded—only 1,000 Jews out of a total population of 46,000 lived in Garfield Hills. Today the total population is over 95,000, of which nearly 30,000 are Jews (as compared with the same number of Protestants and about 37,000 Catholics). Ethnically, the neighborhood now is also varied: Anglo-Scotch-Irish, Germans, Italians, East and Central European Jews.
The growth of Garfield Hills (and of all Queens) in the past decade is easy to explain. After years of housing starvation, many young families in New York found that the great Queens building boom of 1948—1951 offered them a wide choice of apartments at monthly rentals from $75 to $140. Besides wanting a place to live at rents they could afford, these young people were fleeing from the changes in their old neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. They were looking for a reasonable facsimile of the suburbs a half hour from Times Square. Thus Queens now has about 400,000 Jews; and, according to a recent study of Jewish population trends in New York City by Henry Cohen, one-third of New York’s Jews will be living there by the year 1970.
A similar process seems to be marking Jewish migration in most Northern cities. Metropolitan Jews, before they settle in the suburbs, have been moving out of the old, central parts of the city into newer, less crowded neighborhoods at the fringes of the city’s limits. While the expanding Negro and Puerto Rican population has changed the character of the center city, the Jewish population has been changing the character of the outer urban ring.
Like the Gentiles there, most Jews in Garfield Hills today are white-collar workers, professionals, and businessmen. About three-fourths of the people I interviewed had at least some college training; most, in fact, are college graduates who earn between $5,000 and $7,000 per year.
There is still very little mingling of Jews and Gentiles in Garfield Hills, despite the fact that the old exclusionist policies are a thing of the past. Most of the Jews I talked to assured me they got on well with their Christian neighbors, but it turned out that relations were apt to be formal, limited to polite greetings in the elevator or on the street. The only places where Jews and Gentiles regularly see each other are at the political party meetings and the nonsectarian civic organizations like the League of Women Voters and the PTA’s. The familiar preference about finding one’s recreation among Jews came up again: “It’s more comfortable,” “there’s less pressure,” “it’s one barrier less between people.”
To serve the social and religious needs of its 30,000 Jews, Garfield Hills has ten local branches of national Jewish organizations (including fraternal groups like B’nai B’rith, Zionist groups like Hadassah, and defense agencies like the American Jewish Congress) and five synagogues (three Orthodox, one Conservative, and one Reform). Thus, the full ideological spectrum, right to left, ultra-Orthodox to atheist, appears to be represented. But actually, in places like Garfield Hills it is often hard to distinguish one organization from another on the basis of their activities: the truth is that the ideological outlook and ambitions of the great national Jewish organizations are seldom reflected in their local counterparts. As for religion itself, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform as practiced in this country have come to resemble each other more closely than any of them do the Halachic Judaism from which they all ultimately derive. With the middle-class identity of American Jews becoming stronger and stronger, the evolving practices and beliefs of American Judaism are converging into one pattern of nearly uniform observance.
The five synagogues in Garfield Hills have a combined membership of about 1,300 families, or about 15 per cent of the total Jewish population. Half are the kind of transients that pass through the synagogue only long enough for their children to attend its Hebrew school. A fair estimate is that about 40 per cent of all the Jewish families in Garfield Hills have belonged to some synagogue at one time or another. The two oldest and largest of the synagogues are the Jewish Center (Conservative) which grew out of a tiny minyan founded in 1919 by the first Jewish settlers of Garfield Hills, and orginally housed in a bungalow, and Adath Israel (Orthodox) which dates from 1927 and now has 430 members (men only—women are not counted). The other three synagogues were all established within the last decade by dissidents. The Woodbrook Hebrew Congregation—with 135 members—is composed of Orthodox German Jews who came to America in the late 30’s, and were for many years housed by a congregation in a neighboring community. Young Israel, also Orthodox, was founded in 1954 and already has 175 members—a record which probably should be credited less to Young Israel’s ideological or religious popularity in Garfield Hills than to its choice location in the heart of the neighborhood, its nominal annual membership fee of fifteen dollars, and its willingness to accept boys over eleven for Bar Mitzvah preparation. The Reform Temple Menorah, housed in a converted movie house whose marquee announces that every Wednesday is Game Nite, was established in 1947 and within three years built up a membership of 200 families. Half deserted in 1950 when the rabbi was found to have been involved in various Communist fronts, the congregation has never recovered: it is the ragtag of Jewish life in Garfield Hills.
Without giving it much thought, I had supposed that these different congregations would conform to the ordinary notions of Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform: Orthodox Jews were in my mind associated with poor immigrants, Reform generally with wealthy third-generation German Jews. It turned out that in Garfield Hills many of the older and richer residents are Orthodox—the richest Jew in the community is a nationally known toy manufacturer who has long been affiliated with the Orthodox Adath Israel and his contribution of four figures to the UJA is by far the largest single gift coming from Garfield Hills. By contrast, an active leader of Temple Menorah’s Reform congregation is the owner of a local dry goods store which probably yields a decent living only by dint of the hard work he and his wife put into it. These two instances may be regarded as constituting the not-too extensive range between the well-to-do and the not so well-to-do in a community that is predominantly middle class.
The range in religious belief is hardly any wider: at one end is a small number of ideologically committed Orthodox Jews like the leaders of Young Israel, at the other are some equally strongly committed reformers; most of the rest of the Jews in Garfield Hills, regardless of their formal affiliation, stand somewhere in the center. In such matters as Sabbath observances and kashrut there is very little difference among the various groups—excluding the Reform congregation, of course. A few among the Conservatives and the Orthodox are, indeed, strict observers; but most have made their less rigorous individual adjustments. Melvin Kohn,1 Adath Israel’s first president, told me he thought about 85 per cent of Adath’s members could be classified as “Conservative” in terms of observance (of course, he meant non-observance). In fact, their deviation even from strict Sabbath observance is very conspicuous. When Rabbi Diamond, who for almost three decades has held the congregation formally within Orthodoxy, objected to the synagogue’s Boy Scout troop joining weekend trips that were to start Friday afternoons, his congregation tried to talk him out of his objections. But on his insistence that the boys must wait till Saturday evening to set out, the laity finally solved the problem another way. As one member confided to me: “We began to sneak the boys out without the Rabbi’s knowledge. He never knew about the weekend trips.”
Even the Orthodox German Jews of the Woodbrook Hebrew Congregation are relaxing. Observance among this group, who frequently obey the letter of the Law if not its spirit, is no longer as rigid as it once was in Frankfort.
Nor do the three different seating practices in the various synagogues—total segregation in Young Israel, separation in Adath Israel and the Woodbrook Hebrew Congregation, and mixed seating in the Jewish Center—reflect individual beliefs or commitment. The convictions and practices of the Jews formally affiliated either with Conservatism or Orthodoxy—perhaps even with Reform—have closer resemblances to each other than they do to the separate movements out of which they originally developed. Solomon Schechter and Isaac Mayer Wise would scarcely approve of what passes for Conservatism or Reform in Garfield Hills. As for Garfield Hills’ Orthodoxy, any resemblance it may bear to Halachic Judaism seems accidental. Customs and minor commandments have been elevated to dogmas while Pentateuchic injunctions have been abandoned. I am certain that a proposal for the men in the Jewish Center to discard their skullcaps would create a greater upheaval than if the mehitzah were to be removed from the Young Israel synagogue. For if the Jews in Garfield Hills—and this is true of middle-class urban Jewish communities everywhere—have put their unmistakable Jewish stamp on the community at large, they have also placed an American middle-class stamp on their own traditional religious beliefs and observances.
It would hardly be possible to get a more vivid picture of the religion of middle-class American Jews than through a study of the Conservative Jewish Center of Garfield Hills. The Center is the largest synagogue in the community, the oldest and the most stable, and has in the course of its history encompassed both Orthodoxy and Reform. Its character has been shaped to a considerable extent by the laity.
Its membership of 450 families and 150 individuals provide a yearly income of over $80,000. On this budget the Center maintains a rabbi, a cantor and a sexton, a choir and an organist; a school principal and six teachers; a librarian and youth leaders; office and building staffs. It boasts a sisterhood, a men’s club, a couples’ club, a teenage club, a tallis and tefillin club, Boy Scouts, mothers’ club, youth groups. Its activities include lectures and discussions; bazaars, rummage sales, baseball pools, and sweepstakes; breakfasts, luncheons, dinners, and cocktail parties; dances, theater parties, fun and games. The Center is of course affiliated with all its national correlates in the United Synagogue of America: the National Women’s League, the National Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the Young People’s League, the Commission on Jewish Education. Alvin Spiegel, the Center’s young and energetic rabbi, is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly; he reports periodically on the Center’s activities in the pages of the various publications of the Conservative movement. The Center’s school is affiliated with the Associated United Synagogue Schools of Queens and the Jewish Education Committee. The Center itself belongs to the Jewish Community Council of Garfield Hills and the nonsectarian Garfield Hills Community Federation, a civic improvement association.
Rabbi Spiegel makes no complaint about his congregation’s attendance at services. It is not unusual for the Center’s synagogue, which seats about 350, to be filled to overflowing on festivals, even when these occur on weekdays. On Friday nights, on an average, about 150 worshippers are there, mostly couples seated together—the sexes seem about evenly represented. Decorum prevails, in dress and in manners. The service is marked by dignity and evokes a fairly high degree of participation during responsive readings and communal singing. Cantor, choir, and organist provide some pleasant music. The rabbi’s sermon is neither long nor taxing. Abraham Joshua Heschel might have been describing just such a Friday evening when he wrote: “Our services are conducted with pomp and precision. The rendition of the liturgy is smooth. Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony. But one thing is missing: Life.”
If by life Heschel means kavvanah—direction, inspiration, an awareness of the meaning of prayer—there seemed to me to be little of this even on Kol Nidre night, or during hakafot on Simhat Torah. Only the very elderly pleaded for forgiveness at Kol Nidre, and only the children generated excitement during hakafot. But at a dedication of a Torah scroll which was being presented to the junior congregation, I did, finally, it seemed to me, find kavvanah.
The dedication of a Torah scroll has never been set as a fixed observance. The ceremony, which evolved in East Europe, is based on the notion that anyone who inscribes even one letter on a Sefer Torah earns a mitzvah—a good deed. Traditionally the scribe—the sofer—first outlines the letters of the opening and closing verses of the Torah; then the congregation sells these letters to individual purchasers who, on completing them, receive the sofer’s blessing. Parents at the Jewish Center bought letters for their children.
The sofer was a short, ruddy-faced, white-bearded Hasid from Rivington Street. As he approached the Sefer Torah to help the children fill in their letters, he seemed indeed to become transfigured into a living testimony of the joy in serving God. He guided each child’s hand, asked in his Yiddish singsong the child’s name, and blessed him. When all the letters were filled in, his glowing face grew redder still, his tempo, as he sang the Toras-Emes, livelier and livelier. He infected the slower cantor with his own excitement, and the two men began dancing together. When all the Torah scrolls, dressed in their gold-braided satin and velvet mantles, with their silver breastplates, crowns, and rimmonim, were taken from the Ark for the procession, the sofer reached a high stage of God-intoxication. Many of the adults were visibly moved. The children seemed amused, perhaps bewildered, perhaps even embarrassed at the sight of men dancing together.
The congregation at the Jewish Center does not believe that the Torah is Divine Revelation. They regard it as a great religious and historical document. But the sofer from Rivington Street, in the midst of the congregation that night, believed the Torah to be Divine Revelation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He blessed the children in the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while most members of the Jewish Center think that this God is not different from the God of the Episcopalians, Lutherans, or Roman Catholics.
In the course of my visits, I talked to a good many Center members, some of whom even consented to a formal questionnaire interview. I asked them why they attended services and how important these services were to them. All expressed the notion that belief in God was essential to being a good Jew—but the idea that attending services was a way of being brought closer to God was expressed by exactly two persons. Almost everyone said that a good Jew must belong to a synagogue—but only one person declared his belief that attending weekly services was essential to being a good Jew. The majority of those whom I spoke to said they attended services because it made them feel better, or because they enjoyed the atmosphere of the synagogue. But only one of them was able to follow the Hebrew prayers, let alone understand them.
Today most of the members of the Jewish Center say they consider themselves to be Conservative, and they feel they are authentically represented by a Conservative institution. Many of those I interviewed, brought up in Orthodox homes, defined Conservatism as a moderation of Orthodoxy’s “fanaticism,” a loosening of its “rigidity,” a “realistic accommodation to the needs of the modern Jew.” A few thought of Conservatism as a brake against headlong flight into Reform—practically apostasy, in their eyes. As one woman put it, “I never liked the strict old-fashioned Orthodox and I’m a little afraid of Reform. It’s too non-Jewish. Conservatism is just right for the middle class.”
Not many members of the Jewish Center may realize how many deviations from tradition they have accepted. Few notice that they pray in a synagogue without a mehitzah and without a bimah, a synagogue in which the rabbi and the cantor turn their backs on the Holy Ark as they face the congregation, and where female voices join in a choir accompanied by an organ. Thirty years ago, however, the congregation was in constant upheaval over just these changes.
The founding members of the Jewish Center split into two camps: the Orthodox and the “antis”—the latter a highly diverse group whose common bond was the common foe. These “antis” included Jews who thought a Jew, even if he was not very pious, ought to belong to a synagogue; American-born Jews who had joined the synagogue for social reasons; East European Jews—Zionists and secularists—who hoped to turn the synagogue into a community center.
In 1925 the congregation hired Rabbi Hirsh Riegelman. Recently from Austria, he was attending Stephen S. Wise’s newly established Jewish Institute of Religion “to get a little American polish,” as a friend had advised. It was he who inspired the “antis” into the desire to make something worthwhile of the little “bungalow” synagogue. The synagogue president, Isaac Milman, had no ambition for the shul beyond its minyan and school; the secularists and socialites had more grandiose ideas.
There had not been enough room within the cramped confines of the bungalow synagogue for conflict, but the congregation’s new two-story building, to which it moved in 1927, could easily hold a house divided against itself. The new restrictive immigration laws were in some sense responsible for the beginnings of the battle. One of the congregation’s important donors had extracted a quid pro quo for his contribution to the new building: the synagogue was to hire his brother-in-law, a Polish rabbi, who would then be permitted to enter America as a non-quota immigrant. But when he arrived, Rabbi Greenstein turned out to have a long beard, to speak only Yiddish, and to be rigidly Orthodox.
Many in the congregation resented attending services at which he officiated. Once having turned their backs on the Lower East Side, they hated to be reminded of their immigrant origins. Besides, going to shul was a social event and the women insisted on equal rights: they wanted to sit with their husbands. The Orthodox Jews, naturally, strongly opposed any such thing. Finally, an arrangement satisfactory to both factions was reached. The Orthodox were to hold their services in the bet midrash—a small synagogue one flight down from the main floor—with women sitting in the rear and Rabbi Greenstein officiating. In the main synagogue, upstairs, where men and women sat together and the cantor faced the congregation with his back to the Ark, Rabbi Riegelman was to conduct what we would today call a “modern” or “liberal” Orthodox service. This was the classic compromise that started the transformation from Orthodoxy to Conservatism everywhere in America.
The new arrangement, however, did not long satisfy everyone who attended services in the main synagogue. Rabbi Riegelman, fresh from the Jewish Institute of Religion, decided to convene a late Friday evening service in a meeting room on the third floor, with a string trio. Thus, in the fall of 1928, three different services were held simultaneously for the High Holy Days: the traditional Orthodox service in the bet midrash with Rabbi Greenstein, the modern Orthodox in the main synagogue with a rabbi hired for the occasion, and a service that today would be best described as Conservative, on the third floor with Rabbi Riegelman.
Clearly, the “third floor” had become very popular, and the annual membership meeting that was soon to be held would have to decide once and for all what manner of services should be conducted permanently. The “main synagoguers” felt themselves caught in a squeeze between the Orthodox and the “liberals,” while the “liberals,” for their part, worried about being forced out by a combination of the modern and traditional Orthodox. Each group sent out feelers: finally at a caucus of the “liberals” and modern Orthodox, a compromise was arrived at which the general membership subsequently adopted. Under this compromise, the old-fashioned Orthodox were to continue their Sabbath eve services in the bet midrash, while the main synagogue would hold a late Friday night service with music—thus accommodating the third-floor practices. But Saturday morning would revert to the modern Orthodox: a traditional Sabbath service without music. High Holy Day services, it was agreed, would be Orthodox, and without music. Once again, the congregation adopted a classic formula on the main road to Conservatism.
At first a small barrel organ replaced the string trio. But when Rabbi Green-stein’s brother-in-law expressed a wish to do something for the congregation that would erase the memory of the trouble he had caused, Rabbi Riegelman suggested the gift of a pipe organ and—no sooner said than done—a $1,500 instrument was installed. That was in 1929. Rabbi Riegelman, proud of his achievement, promptly hired a concert organist for that first late Friday service.
But no organ sang out that evening. Isaac Milman, former president and baaltefillah in the bet midrash, had, with a zeal worthy of the Maccabees, slashed the pipes. The next morning Rabbi Riegelman descended to the bet midrash, calling for repentance. But the congregants openly applauded Milman, for it is said “They that strive with the Lord shall be broken to pieces.” Rabbi Riegelman felt he had no choice but to resign.
During the next ten years the organ was never used, not even for weddings. With Rabbi Riegelman gone, and the stock market in collapse, the reformers’ zeal flagged. They had achieved a great deal—mixed seating, the use of English in the services, dissociation from the immigrant Orthodox. Around 1930 the Jewish Center joined the United Synagogue, thus becoming officially Conservative. But the Center had little interest in its adopted parent, and little money in the bank. Each year it rejected the $250 quota the United Synagogue imposed, unanimously voting to pay only the annual $25 dues. In 1936, the sisterhood of the Center formally joined the National Woman’s League.
Time proved to be on the side of the Conservatives. The bet midrash congregants began to die out; and in 1937, the new leader of the congregation, Rabbi Levin, discussed with the board a plan to draft men from the main synagogue for the daily minyan in the bet midrash, so that the minyan could go on functioning. On High Holy Days, the bet midrash continued to conduct a strictly Orthodox service for those Jews in Garfield Hills of whom Rabbi Mordecai Waxman has written: “Men and women who stayed away from the synagogue throughout the year wanted the shul they stayed away from to be a shul where people davvened.”
The dues-paying members of the Jewish Center, however, were satisfied with the Conservative service. There were even some newcomers in the late 30’s who had Reform leanings. To satisfy them and himself too (for he was a “left-winger” in the Conservative movement), Rabbi Levin proposed to repair the organ which had been standing mute in the choir loft for nearly ten years. On February 2, 1939, the board, six to three, authorized $90 for repairs. The organ was first used in February in a “dramatic play,” and the organist was paid five dollars. It took a little while before it was generally accepted as part of the ritual. Some members complained, a few resigned, until, on June 28, 1939, the board adopted a motion that it “favors the use of the organ at Friday evening services and authorizes the ritual committee to proceed with arrangements for such use.” Now, too, a compromise had been effected, for having the organ made it more agreeable for the Reform-minded to wear their skullcaps.
The 1939 compromise was identical with the one of 1928—29. But this time there were no bolts from heaven or its representatives.
In 1943 Rabbi Levin left Garfield Hills. He was succeeded by Rabbi Philip Goldstein, a “centrist” in the Rabbinical Assembly. Rabbi Goldstein’s ten years at the Jewish Center coincided with a period of intensified organizational activity on the part of all Conservative institutions to strengthen Judaism among the laity. Postwar developments encouraged rabbinic leaders to set higher standards for practicing Judaism: more Jewish education for children and adults, more synagogue attendance, more observance. People were beginning to come to the synagogue in larger numbers than ever before. Perhaps the war had had this effect, or the Catastrophe, or Israel, or the new exodus to the suburbs. Whatever the reason, it was important to do something for Jews once they were in the synagogue. The wish to do something expressed itself concretely during the years immediately following the war in a drive to give the children more Jewish education.
In 1914, Dr. Mordecai M. Kaplan, then chairman of the education committee of the United Synagogue of America, had said: “With very few exceptions, most of the congregations have to maintain a double system of schooling in order to meet the wishes of the two classes of members that are usually to be found in every congregation, namely those whose slogan is ‘More Judaism,’ and those who ask for ‘Less Judaism.’”
It has been the practice of many Conservative synagogues to conduct both a Sunday school and a weekday Hebrew school; congregants could elect to send their children only to the Sunday school or, in addition, to the afternoon classes twice a week. In 1940 over two hundred children attended the Center’s Sunday school, while only 75 were enrolled in the Hebrew school.
The Rabbinical Assembly continued to agitate for increased Jewish education, and its members in turn tried to influence their congregations in this direction. Finally, in 1947, Rabbi Goldstein succeeded in establishing the three-day-a-week Hebrew school in the Jewish Center. Parents could no longer choose between the Sunday school and the Hebrew school. Members with Reform leanings complained most loudly; and the conflict led to secession and the founding of the Reform Temple Menorah. This left the Center with an almost entirely homogeneous membership loyal to Conservatism.
In the ensuing years, Conservatism became so entrenched that no one even noticed the last gasp of the kulturkampf in the Jewish Center. One weekend in 1957, Rabbi Spiegel took twenty couples to Lakewood for a retreat. During the Saturday morning Torah reading, someone who thought to titillate the group suggested: “Why not give a woman an aliyah?” A woman was called up. Later she admitted she had been uncomfortable. Her attitude coincided with the views of the majority in the Rabbinical Assembly’s Law Committee who felt it was “ill advised to change the general pattern of the traditional Torah reading procedure . . . let the ladies of the synagogue find blessing in the fact that the men take the lead in its rituals.” This episode was mentioned in the congregational bulletin, but scarcely anybody paid attention. It was the sexton who told me about a very Orthodox old man who regularly had attended the daily morning and evening services though he paid no dues to the Center. The old man, aroused by the story of the aliyah in Lakewood, stopped coming to shul.
The six hundred and thirteen commandments which, according to traditional belief, were transmitted by God to Moses have been widely breached, and it was hard to find any that were universally obeyed among the Center members I interviewed. Fasting on Yom Kippur, removing bread (but not other hametz) from the house on Passover, and lighting candles on Chanukah were the three most observed commandments. One might think the Jews in Garfield Hills were paying heed to Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi’s advice: “Be as attentive to a minor commandment as to a major one, for thou knowest not what is the reward to be given for the commandments.”2
Kashrut has survived in a mangled form: about two-thirds of those whom I interviewed bought kosher meat regularly, but even they did not all keep separate the meat and dairy dishes. Scarcely anyone kashered the meat. Again, about two-thirds of the respondents never served bacon or ham, but these were not the same two-thirds who bought only kosher meat. Some who would not serve pork at home were willing to eat it elsewhere. The general feeling was that observance of dietary laws had no real bearing on whether a person was a “good Jew.”
The vestiges of Sabbath observance are even fewer than survivals of kashrut. (A psychoanalyst could perhaps best explain the effectiveness of the taboos against forbidden foods.) The only Sabbath observance most of the people belonging to the Center still honor is the festive Friday night meal, with its candle-lighting ceremony. But perhaps only one out of every two families begin the meal with the kiddush. On the Sabbath itself, many people work or do household chores, everyone smokes and rides. Hardly anyone is seen going to shul. The Garfield Hills Jews do not know and surely do not care that in 1950 the Rabbinical Assembly’s Law Committee could not agree on whether to sanction riding to services on the Sabbath.
The Conservative Rabbinate, like Gaul, is divided into three parts: right, center, and left. Though the right has the fewest practicing rabbis, its importance is enhanced by the Jewish Theological Seminary faculty, who command extraordinary prestige and whose position on questions of Halachah is pervasive in the Rabbinical Assembly. The Assembly has tried to adapt the Halachah to modern living, but it has done so slowly and with a heavy heart. Perhaps the slowness is intended to thwart the laity’s unseemly haste in making changes. In 1938, twenty-five years after the United Synagogue was founded, the Assembly’s Law Committee took the view that the Friday evening service was unobjectionable even when held at a late hour. It has not yet reached a formal decision on the use of the organ, even though about one-fourth of all Conservative synagogues do in fact use one at services.
The Rabbinical Assembly has modified the ketubah (marriage contract); its Law Committee voted to permit using electricity for illumination on the Sabbath; and a majority sanctioned riding on the Sabbath in order to get to shul. Yet the laity has been riding everywhere on the Sabbath—except, it seems, to shul. One rabbi complained at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly: “While we are discussing the trivialities and the minutiae, the very props of our Jewish life are disregarded, violated, and broken. Not five in a hundred of our members are Sabbath observers; not five in a hundred observe the dietary laws; not two in a hundred are yodei sefer; and not even one in a hundred cares about our decision, or, for that matter, the legalistic decisions of any group.”
To this charge Rabbi Jacob Agus replied in the spirit that has characterized the Conservative rabbinate: “Manifestly, our central purpose is not to save the Halachah. . . . We want to save the Jews.”
In a wholesome effort to save their Jews, the Rabbinical Assembly felt it important in 1950 to launch a national effort for “the revitalization of the Sabbath.” They asked the lay people to pledge themselves: “1. To avoid all avoidable work on the Sabbath, specifically not to shop, not to cook, and not to do any laundry or cleaning work on the Sabbath. 2. To observe the ceremonies of kiddush, candle-lighting, the Sabbath meal, the blessing of children, and Havdallah. 3. To attend public worship at least once on Sabbath.” The United Synagogue undertook to carry out this program, but without any visible results. Five years later, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein wrote that most Conservatives “honestly” declared the campaign for the revitalization of the Sabbath “a flop.”
The United Synagogue has apparently stopped trying to change individual behavior. Instead, it adopted a code setting forth in detail an appropriate standard of congregational behavior on the synagogue’s premises and at official functions elsewhere. Besides demanding the sanctity of the Sabbath and kashrut observance, the code attempts to guide congregations toward decorum and dignity in dress and behavior. The Center’s Rabbi Spiegel, too, frequently addresses himself to raising the level of public taste at congregational functions. But he feels his most important role is to teach his congregation that Judaism “is a response to the most vital and immediate concerns of the Jew, what to do with his life and the days that make it up and how to face suffering, setback, and death itself.”
Rabbi Spiegel’s attitude toward tradition is not very different from that of older rabbis who argue that “out of the naaseh comes the nishma”—the doing precedes the believing. “Tradition,” he says, “is the result of the Jews’ encounter with the Divine. It is what has become public Jewish property after the three-thousand-year cry after God.” Though he believes that preserving and changing Jewish tradition are of the deepest concern to the Conservative movement, he thinks it most important that Jewish tradition be returned to “proper perspective” and again be viewed “as the effect of Israel’s dialogue with its Living God. Jewish tradition ought to be the means to help restore the religious dimension to the Jew, to expose him to the luminous throbbing world of faith.” On another occasion he told me that “living as a Jew creates a sense of holiness in each person and increases his awareness of living in the sight of God.”
Jewish public life in the last few decades has been monopolized by rabbis with such singleminded dedication to nationalism and social justice that we have become unaccustomed to rabbis who place God above His people. Under thirty-five, and a postwar graduate of the Jewish Thelological Seminary, Rabbi Spiegel has been in the rabbinate ten years. His Godcenteredness, like that of many of his contemporaries, has been molded by many elements: personal tragedy, the war, existentialism. His teachers have been Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Intellectually attracted to Reconstructionism under Mordecai Kaplan’s powerful influence in his student days, Rabbi Spiegel today complains that the movement offers no “compelling idea of God” which can satisfy his needs or those of his congregation.
Rabbi Spiegel hopes to teach his view of Judaism to his congregation not by sermons nor even by his enormous number of lectures, talks, discussions, reviews, and courses, but by personal example. Being a Jew, he says, is a joyous experience. He likes to think of himself as part of the Hasidic tradition and he wants to show his people that Judaism need not be morose, dogmatic, or ascetic. Has he been successful? Perhaps half the people I asked thought a rabbi should be “a source of inspiration and faith,” in good times and bad, and a “counselor for guidance and advice.” They look to him for facts, guidance, information. They want to find a faith or formula that will help them cope with life, death, and suffering. A sisterhood parlor discussion about the Book of Job attracted many women, seeking an answer to the question: “Why does God make suffering?”
These are the people who attend the pleasant service in the Center, the people who are looking for faith, peace, and comfort. Some hope to find understanding in a discussion about Job, as they seek to find comfort in the service. They are worlds apart from the rabbi. Yet I daresay there is more communication between him and his congregation when he teaches them the centrality of God and faith than between the congregation and the United Synagogue when the latter promoted the revitalization of the Sabbath.
As to the question of the ethical element in Judaism, practically every single person I interviewed recognized that a “good Jew” must lead an ethical and moral life. (Whether an ethical and moral life meant belonging to a synagogue or whether it meant supporting humanitarian causes, the questionnaire was not refined enough to establish.) About half my respondents thought it essential for a Jew to promote social justice by working for civic betterment, helping the underprivileged, and helping to achieve equality for Negroes. This action, it would seem, is in the mainstream of the Jewish tradition. For it is written that when man appears before the Throne of Judgment, the first question asked him is not, “Did you believe in God?” or “Did you pray and perform ritual commandments?” but—“Did you deal honorably and faithfully with your fellow man?”
Yet the modern Jew’s concern with social justice does not, I think, derive from the ethical teachings of Judaism, which rise in turn from the religious wellsprings of belief—the belief that man was created in God’s image and should imitate him in the ways of justice, truth, and mercy. The modern Jew’s impulse to help the wronged and the oppressed springs, it seems to me, from the fact that he associates his own security with a democratic, liberal, and secular society. He looks upon a threat (even if not directed specifically against him) to any of these aspects of the society he lives in as an evil to be combatted. To be sure, Jewish advocates of good deeds and social welfare draw upon the teachings of the Torah and the prophets to stimulate Jewish involvement. But chapter and verse merely serve to adorn the will to self-preservation.
The feeling of group survivalism is mainly, I think, what shapes the Jewishness of the Garfield Hills Jews I talked to. Being Jewish is as real to them as being an American or an accountant or a mother. They were born Jews and reared as Jews. But the only way they can express their identity as Jews consciously is through the synagogue, even if most of them rarely attend its services, are ignorant or skeptical of its teachings, and fail to observe its laws. They no longer live in a natural Jewish milieu and having rejected the culture of Eastern Europe and its American transplantations they have no viable Jewish culture of their own. They have spurned Yiddish, which today survives only in a few expressions and jokes. They are, at best, helf-learned in the religious literature. The specifics of the Jewish ethos are dissolving and only vague, haunting forms remain.
Fear of anti-Semitism persists, no matter how good conditions may be. Such fear is either concealed in withdrawal and hypersensitivity or exposed in assertiveness and paranoia. When we observe the middle-class Jews of Garfield Hills week in and out, the fear seems groundless enough, but in the pitiless glare of Jewish history it is not totally irrational. And this fear has its counterpoise in the wish to remain Jewish and perpetuate Jewishness, in a refusal to elude the ineluctable Jewish fate. Every person I talked to said that accepting one’s Jewishness and not concealing it was essential to being a “good Jew.” It was an elementary, almost biological expression of group survival.
Also, all but one of the group I interviewed thought a “good Jew” must marry within the Jewish faith. Their “explanations” were merely repetitions of their disapproval: “I’m a Jew; my boys are Jews and they should marry Jewish girls.” Or: “I don’t believe in ethnic exploration.” Conversion is the unspoken horror of intermarriage, the symbol of a Jew’s death at the hands of the Christian. In the classic story of intermarriage, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der Milchiker, Tevye’s antagonist is not his daughter Chave’s Christian husband, but the priest who converts her. When an intermarried couple stay away from both synagogue and church and give their children an Ethical Culture Sunday school education, the Jewish loss is less poignant: the Jew who does not become a Christian remains a Jew.
Doubtless the most public and lavish expression of the desire for group survival is loyalty to Israel—all expressed warm feelings for the State. Many referred to it as the “Jewish homeland,” which they uniformly defined as “a place where Jewish refugees can find a home.” Everyone was eager to help Israel—though no one had considered settling there. Raising money, all agreed, was the way to help Israel, yet no one thought Israel’s needs should come before those of American Jews. It was important, my respondents said, to influence American policy in behalf of Israel, but they insisted that we must protect America’s interests too. Though all were very proud of Israel, none had thought to study Hebrew in order to keep up with Israel’s culture. The very idea of this struck people as strange. What goes on inside Israel seems of less moment to them than what goes on—perilously—around its borders.
But philanthropy, too, is an index of group survivalist feeling. Garfield Hills is not a big-money neighborhood. In 1958 the UJA raised $29,000 in Garfield Hills, which would be about a dollar per Jewish head—though a good part of this money came by way of the UJA’s business and industries division. But however slim the philanthropic pickings in Garfield Hills, the Jewish organizations take most of what the Jews have to give.
Finally, however, the most striking evidence of the desire for group survival is the stress the parents put on Jewish education for their children—most people join the Jewish Center for that very reason. With two exceptions among the group I spoke to, the parents themselves had had a meager education. Only three adults knew Hebrew well enough to understand the prayers; about half knew Yiddish, but only one person, who had attended a Workmen’s Circle school for three years, knew that Yiddish was more than an immigrant’s language; in many homes the Hadassah Newsletter was the sole form of Jewish literature. But everyone wanted his children—particularly the boys—to have some Jewish education.
I was reminded of a tale about the rabbi of Kotzk, as told by Martin Buber. A man came to Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk to ask how he could make his sons devote themselves to the Torah. The Kotzker replied: “If you really want them to do this, then you yourself must spend time over the Torah and they will do as you do. Otherwise, they will not devote themselves to the Torah but will tell their sons to do it, and so it will go on. For it is written: ‘Only take heed to thyself . . . lest thou forget the things which thine eyes saw . . . make them known unto thy children and thy children’s children.’ If you yourself forget the Torah, your sons will also forget it, only urging their sons to know it, and they too will forget the Torah and tell their sons that they should know it, and no one will ever know the Torah.”
What about the children in Garfield Hills? Their parents, at any rate, are very optimistic. “Don’t worry about the future”—that seems to be a general motto. “Everything is getting better,” a young woman assured me. “More and more young people are joining the synagogues. Maybe they’re not as religious as their parents were, but they recognize they’re Jews and they want to be with Jews.” One mother said, “My son knows more about Jews and Judaism than I do. I know that he’ll stay a Jew all his life.” Many parents argued that they counted heavily on the rabbi and the Hebrew teacher, the professional transmitters of tradition and knowledge. “It’s up to the rabbis and teachers to develop the young people into good Jews,” said one of the Center’s more active lay leaders.
The optimism about the Jewish future was ultimately grounded in optimism about America. “This is the best country in the world for Jews,” one man said flatly. Another expressed his view of the bright Jewish future in these terms: “Life is getting better and easier all the time. Our children have more leisure than we did. They will have more time to rediscover Judaism’s enduring Values.”
Here, then, we see the Jewish way of life in America, the Jewish aspect of what Will Herberg has characterized as the American Way of Life—a way of life in which religion is neither theological nor fanatical, making no demands on personal behavior. This religion, as it lends its moral sanction to mundane purposes, reflects a middle-class outlook, and it is therefore not surprising that American Jews—who belong predominantly to the middle class—should have embraced it so enthusiastically as their own.
1 This like all proper names used here, is a pseudonym.
2 Lapses in observances and changed emphases in tradition are not unique among Jews—Catholics, too, have been seduced by urban industrial America. In the Dynamics of a City Church, a study of an urban parish in the South, Father Joseph H. Fichter writes that the diocesan Lenten regulations “admit such a latitude of interpretation that they seem to be observed more in breach than in the practice.” His comments on the unexpected popularity of Easter over Christmas and on the social function of confirmation and midnight Mass show that secularism has made drastic inroads into the Catholic church.