Commentary Magazine


Rediscovering Judaism

A couple of years ago I attended Friday night services at a Reform temple in Connecticut. There were about a hundred people present, mostly couples in their forties. One aspect of the service surprised me. Though there was much less Hebrew in the prayers than English, the Hebrew passages were read aloud by the congregation with what appeared to be exceptional emphasis and warmth. These were not speakers of the language—products of Hebrew summer camps, rabbinic households, or junior years in Israel—but recent students, moving carefully through the text in the stiff, labored pronunciation of people attempting a truly foreign tongue. It felt like the prayer of fervent converts.

The explantion offered later by my hostess confirmed something of my initial impression. Several years earlier the rabbi had introduced a program of serious study to prepare adults for belated Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Of course the idea of the Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage marking the transition from childhood to mature responsibility, was artificial, but since some in the congregation were, in fact, converts to Judaism, and others had been raised with a Jewish education too slight to matter, the ceremony was intended to suggest a transition to Jewish maturity based on a degree of knowledge. Students in biweekly evening classes were required to learn at least enough Hebrew to read the Bible, to memorize the major prayers, to master the service. There was also instruction in Jewish customs and ceremonies. At the conclusion of a two-year program of learning, graduating students recited from the Torah before the congregation just as Bar Mitzvah boys customarily do. The temple was now in its third cycle of such groups, and the graduates of the first two were the source of the participatory fervor I had noted.

Touching in its impulse and impressive in its achievement, this spectacle of a congregation reclaiming the rudiments of Jewish worship inadvertently reminds us of how very much has been forfeited. The grandparents of many of these worshipers, even the simplest among them, performed better as young children than these grownups could at the peak of their Jewish exposure. Bearers of an unrivaled civilization, the Jewish immigrants valued what they stood to gain in America so much more than what they feared to lose that their descendants had now to struggle to attain the bare ideal of literacy. The invocation of the Bar Mitzvah goal unintentionally undescores the juvenile level of the Jewish component in adults whose professions and interests otherwise attest to a superior degree of education and competence.

The amount of effort put into this reconstituted Judaism points up (through no fault of its own) the failure of normal cultural transmission among American Jews. The results lack that worn, intimate feel of family treasures, and also the value that heirlooms gain through generations of successive care. Between those Jews who have altogether assimilated into the local culture and the minority that retains the thick texture of Jewish religious and linguistic distinctiveness, these Jews with their reawakened theological impulse seem exceptionally raw. Making their way through the desert, they draw attention to their deprivation.

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Something of the quality of this effort emerges from several recent works of fiction by American Jewish writers now in their late thirties and forties. Products of no single school, but rather isolated, individuated books, they express the will to a more intense religious life that is still greater than its realization. The phenomenon is obviously part of a wider contemporary yearning for spiritual revival. In these works the condition of the Jew in America is a special instance of a nationwide quest.

Elizabeth Klein’s Reconciliations1 is a first novel about a third-generation American Jewish family, some of whose members undergo a process of transformation far more radical than the temple program I have described. The process traced by the book can be broadly summarized by the distance between the opening scene, in which the family gathers for its annual Christmas party, and the close, fifteen months later, when they anticipate their first attempt in many years at a Passover seder. Strands of different family stories are interwoven to show not just the personal development of individuals but the cultural progression of the clan as a whole from “assimilation” to a rediscovered Judaism.

The catalyst of this change is the flight of Gershom, a college freshman at Columbia, from the Christmas party, and his subsequent disappearance. An only child, too lovingly sheltered by his father, Sam, a high-school teacher of literature, and his mother, Celia, a tremulous amateur harpist, he protests against the smothering clutch of his parents and the intrusiveness of the family’s concern. His sudden rupture has a rippling effect: Celia loses or forfeits her powers of speech; her sister, Leah, leaves her husband and moves in with her daughter, Johanna; and Miriam, the libertine among the cousins, breaks off a long-standing affair with a married man to undertake a dramatic new search for inner stability. Gershom disappears from the book as he does from his family. In his absence, the narrative focus switches to Miriam who goes to stay with a Hasidic family, and returns with the determination to live as an observant Jew.

With the transformation of Miriam, the healing process of the book begins. There is a blossoming love between her and Gershom’s favorite teacher at Columbia; cousin Johanna musters up the courage to send her mother back home where she belongs; Sam is attacked in his high school, but this external assault on her husband moves Celia back to health. Through such correlations Miriam’s choice of Judaism is seen to replenish not only herself and her suitor but the deeper spiritual needs of all the family.

The title, Reconciliations, connects the return to Judaism with a return to a healthier, freer form of family life. In the very first scene, the opening of Christmas gifts in this Jewish family is a signal of warped relations. When Gershom receives from his favorite cousin a “chalice” she has made for him, really a kiddush cup in disguise, he calls it “the only ray of human feeling in this exchange.” The complaint does not appear to reflect on absence of feeling, but on inauthentic or unsatisfactory feeling, the necessarily false consequences of a false occasion. Contrarily, when Celia breaks her year-long silence to bring her husband some solace, an unbidden prayer from his boyhood—the shehekheyanu in its original Hebrew—rises momentarily to soothe his pain. Throughout the text, the thoughtless repudiation of Judaism is an index of trouble and failure, while its presence confirms the wholesome integration of personality.

The exceptional sympathy Elizabeth Klein shows for her characters in their transformation makes this a touching book, but one that nevertheless lacks dramatic conviction. The very neatness of the family’s evolution toward Jewish “authenticity” raises questions of literary authenticity; correspondences between individuals and their cultures are never so complete. Unfortunately for its theme, the book is actually least convincing when it is trying the hardest, when the characters attempt to express or explain the meaning and significance of their development. Here is a member of a small prayer group, or havurah, on the joys of Sabbath:

“I know,” she said, “You wonder why shabbat can’t go on forever. That’s why I always put off making havdalah [the ceremony marking the end of Sabbath] to the last possible minute. Most of us here are like you. We didn’t grow up with Judaism intimately. Our parents were too busy trying to be Americans. . . . But listen, Judaism is a well of all sorts of strength and joy. Once you begin to drink from it, you find it’s an endless source. And best of all, it allows you to do all sorts of things to make your life richer. You don’t really miss the thing you give up because what you get is so glorious.”

Miriam stared at her. “How do you know so much about me? It’s like you’re talking out of my head.”

“We come from the same place,” said Elana mysteriously.

It is nice to be embarrassed, occasionally, by an excess rather than an absence of naive sincerity, but no amount of good will can compel credence in this cardboard scene. Just because the narration is so contrived here, the Judaism it celebrates comes to seem similarly stilted, the product of self-conscious promotion not yet at home with its own purposes.

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A more convincing study of an American Jewish family in transition (perhaps because it is also a less ambitious one) is Joanne Green-berg’s A Season of Delight,2 unfairly neglected when it was published last year. Mrs. Greenberg, best known (under the name Hannah Green) for the novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, has often written on Jewish subjects, and this latest work is satisfyingly mature.

Grace Dowben, its heroine, has lived for years in the Pennsylvania town of Gilboa. A fine, active woman in her forties, she is unnerved during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the book opens, by an encounter with a Moonie, a Jewish boy who now says “Judaism is a bankrupt faith” as he solicits funds for the Unification Church. Her own daughter in California runs a feminist center for rape victims and the exploited of the Third World, is divorced from the non-Jew she had married, and lacks any cultural sentiment for Jews. “Some things have to die, I guess,” is her reply to her mother’s concerns. Grace’s son is a member of a Hare Krishna commune somewhere in Illinois. Though she has other satisfactions and other worries, her own sense of responsibility for the perpetuation of her people runs as the unbroken theme of her life—and of this book. Even her flare-up of love for a young man in town is bound up with the desire to reawaken him as a Jew.

It should be said that the best parts of the book have nothing to do with the Jewish theme. Joanne Greenberg, who is herself a member of a fire-fighting and emergency-rescue team in the Colorado town where she lives, has included in this novel some wonderful descriptions of such a squad, of its members, its functions, and the way it works. Gilboa Fire and Rescue serves both heroine and novel as an ideal emblem of civic responsibility and creative personal activity.

On the emergency squad Grace can bring immediate relief to victims of disaster. Securing the welfare of the Jews is not so easy, especially since in this area Grace has no firm remedy to offer. Her own love of Jewish ritual and her informed appreciation of its ceremonies and teachings is not based on faith, because, as Grace admits, “Belief is a gift with us,” and not one that is transferable to one’s children, either. She herself is haunted by several ghosts of the murdered Jews of Europe who fight among themselves about just what sort of legacy they would have her inherit from them, but who become collectively her fiercest reason for Jewish survival. Fortunately, the author understands all the pitfalls of such an argument, and tries to parry the unspoken objections, but she still seems to need it for its emotional power. In an elaborate metaphor (for which she apologizes in advance: “Don’t laugh”) she compares the Jews to a hemorrhaging body, in deep and possibly irreversible shock if no immediate transfusion is forthcoming.

The book leaves no doubt about the author’s or the heroine’s disciplined response to this state of emergency, only about their ability to make it meaningful to others. In the book itself, Grace’s influence on the younger generation is left an open question. Once again, as in Elizabeth Klein’s novel, the prose is at its weakest when it tries to be most persuasive. In a work where so much else succeeds, this is particularly regrettable.

Judaism is not so much the atmosphere of both these books as their aspiration, the name of their desire. Just as the revitalized synagogue is an unintentional reminder of how much has been lost, so too these novels, which have to work stiffly to prove the worth of Judaism and assess its need, invite comparison with earlier American Jewish writing that was carelessly drenched in a Jewishness it saw no need to perpetuate. Isaac Rosenfeld is hardly lyrical when he describes his stepmother’s Sabbath in Passage From Home (1946):

My stepmother baked no challah, traditional woven loaves, billowy or braided like wigs and covered with a glossy patina of egg; nor, covering her head and cupping her hands, did she light candles after sundown. All this was left to my grandmother. Stepmother’s tabernacle was the toilet, and the tub was mikveh enough; she braided her hair in place of dough, and as for the gleaming of candles, she found an equivalent in cold cream which, even applied to her nose in particular, was as good a substitute as you could want.

The boy watching this attenuated ritual, and the man describing the boy, trip up on the facts (candle-lighting precedes sundown by eighteen minutes), and couldn’t care less if they do. Yet despite their attitude toward it, the Sabbath emerges fresh from this scene as the stepmother from her tub, not willed into being with guarantees attached.

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Would it be any different if the subjects of contemporary Jewish writing were practicing Orthodox Jews, and “lifers”—as Jews raised in the tradition are improbably known—rather than “penitents”—the equally inappropriate term for the newly faithful? What if the setting were a thriving urban community rather than a remote American small town? Would this result in a more convicing representation of Judaism as well?

As if in answer, we have the recently published first book of Allen Hoffman, a collection of short stories named for the longest of them, Kagan’s Superfecta.3 Moe Kagan, like all the main figures in these stories, is an observant few from New York’s Upper West Side, as steeped in practice and texts as any character of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Hoffman’s heroes regularly attend the morning minyan and study the Talmud. They speak in the patois of modern Orthodoxy, in which pity is rachmones, the synagogue is the smaller, more intimate shtibl, and questions are an acceptable alternative to declarative sentences.

For all that, Hoffman’s book has much in common with the two novels I have discussed. He too is not so much telling the story of Jews as telling it to confirm the power of Judaism. All the zany energy of his narration cannot hide the author’s pure inspirational zeal.

Hoffman is an Orthodox hipster. Avoiding altogether the middle class that has been the staple, or the bane, of American Jewish writing since the 1940’s, he picks for his heroes interesting strays—the president of a congregation who is also a pyromaniac (“Hymie the Torch”), a beggarwoman who protects her donors from their own generosity (“Beggar Moon”).4 Moe Kagan of the title story is a compulsive gambler and perennial loser who puts a touch even on the attendant at the ritual bath. Judaism, for Hoffman, is a spiritual adventure in which only the daring and nervy excel.

“Kagan’s Superfecta” is a risk-laden Yom Kippur story. On the eve of the most holy day of the Jewish year, just as he emerges from the ritual bath, the mikveh, Kagan “sees” the numbers of the next day’s superfecta race, and knows that he has the perfect bet. His private angel, Ozzie, an occasional, not altogether reliable companion, encourages him to squeeze in a quick visit to Off Track Betting if he is so certain, but Kagan resists the temptation. His struggle for his soul continues throughout the Yom Kippur service, heightening his appreciation of the gambling motif he suddenly discovers in the liturgy. One of the passages read during the day describes the ritual in the ancient Temple in which the High Priest conducts a “lottery” with two pure goats, one to be sacrificed to the Lord, the other to be sent to atone for the sins of Israel. “Why is a game of chance needed to atone for our sins? It’s not what you would expect Aaron to do on Yom Kippur.” Though Kagan realizes that applying his mind to this question is like attempting to cut granite with a toothpick, he goes after it strenuously, and is rewarded before the closing of judgment, at the final Neila service, with a charge of understanding.

Kagan is himself a cohen, a descendant of the priests who must still bless the congregation before the Gates of Judgment close. He stands in a line of gamblers, men of action, beginning with Moses, the greatest gambler of them all, who picked a winner on Mount Sinai, only to have the Children of Israel kill their chances with the golden calf:

Then what did he do, a man who had picked ten straight, doped out the Red Sea, and finally dropped one? Was he philosophic: you win a few, you lose a few? Did he return to his tent and take the dog for a walk? The poor thing hadn’t been out in forty days and forty nights. No! What did he do? Action! He went back up the mountain for another forty days and another forty nights and not for just a straight bet either. Oh, no, although he had no business playing the same number twice, Moses decided to increase the odds. He played a parlay. He was betting that God would give him another set of tablets and that the Jews would accept them. That’s a gamble: picking God and the Jews in the same event! One certainly will come through, but both at the same time? Who but a cohen would make such a bet?

The translation of traditional Jewish practice into the idiom of sport and gaming is funny and sometimes unexpectedly keen. When Kagan, in the high point of his wagering career, “chooses life,” both gambling and Judaism are shown to bright new advantage. Nevertheless, sustained over the stretch of too long a story, the Jewish hipster is as tiring as any other. He is always reaching for effect, and before long the effects—or mannerisms—take the place of character and true invention. Worse, they overpower the religious feeling they are slyly meant to enhance. By the time Kagan reaches his crescendo of understanding, and takes over the rabbi’s prerogative of explaining the meaning of Yom Kippur, he is pumping much too hard. Deeply immersed though it is in the purifying water of faith, Hoffman’s writing is still not at ease with its own religious convictions, or it would not be working so hard at selling them.

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After reading these three books I was reminded, perhaps perversely, of a story my father used to tell about his youth in Bialystok when the city became a part of Poland after World War I, and the school system suddenly changed from Russian to Polish in language and orientation. Asked to write on national motifs in the works of the three giants of Polish literature—Mickiewicz, Slowacki, and Krasinski—my father was handed back his effort with a failing grade, but not a single correction. When he sought an explanation, the teacher said simply, “Kochana ojczyzna.” This phrase, “beloved fatherland,” had appeared so often in my father’s essay that the teacher, a Polish patriot, was roused to doubt its sincerity. Emphasis in literature often has that effect—though in the case of these new works, of course, it is not the sincerity of the authors that is to be called into question but its literary consequences.

Still, given the secular assumptions of modern literature, not to mention the aggressively secular character of American Jewish writing in this century, it is small wonder that the reintroduction of religious earnestness seems to demand such feats of self-justification, just as the beliefs themselves require prodigies of exposition. Small wonder, too, that this rekindled religious imagination still shows such traces of self-consciousness and exertion. Perhaps, as with the groping Jews in the temple in Connecticut, one, should pause over the greater wonder that it thrives at all.


Footnotes

1 Houghton-Mifflin, 364 pp., $14.95.

2 Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 252 pp., $12.95.

3 Abbeville Press, 304 pp., $12.95.

4 “Beggar Moon” and another story, “Building Blocks,” were first published in COMMENTARY.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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