Commentary Magazine


Saving Remnants, by Sara Bershtel and Allen Graubard

Beyond Assimilation?

Saving Remnants: Feeling Jewish in America.
by Sara Bershtel and Allen Graubard.
Free Press. 333 pp. $24.95.

The authors of this grim book worked on it, they say, for twelve years. It is a believable claim: in number and variety, the Jews interviewed in its pages could hardly have been tracked down overnight. Besides, several of the factoids supplied by Bershtel-Graubard, though true back when Jimmy Carter was President, are false today. (“The total number of American Jews,” for example, “is almost twice the number of Jews living in Israel.”) And yet, Saving Remnants is not dated, for the authors are on to something which people with eyes in their heads have known for a generation and which continues to worry them, namely, that after many false alarms, the American melting pot is really working, at least for Jews.

Choice, not duress, makes it bubble. Yet the outcome of choice adds up, for Bershtel-Graubard, to a question mark hanging over the future of the Jewish community in the U.S. Their book gives no comfort, offers no encouragement, retails no solutions. In making its depressing sociological and cultural argument, it depends heavily on long self-portraits of living-and-breathing types, a picture gallery of recognizable, fairly sad, occasionally admirable real-life heroes and heroines.

The mini-confessions by named and pseudonymous interviewees sometimes ring comically true. Listen to David Biale, a professor with an interest in (as he himself puts it) “Jewish [and] leftist political things”:

I have two sisters. One is in Chabad [the movement of Lubavitch Hasidim], in London. She went into it here in Berkeley. She’s been in it for ten years, and is married with three kids. My other sister is married to a Chicano construction worker, lives in the desert outside L.A., and has no interest in either Jewish or leftist political things. Both their lives are rejections of what our home was like, whereas I’m basically replicating my father’s position. We all gathered in Los Angeles last summer when my father was dying. There were these three hasidic kids, and my Berkeley kids, and these two half-Chicano kids. It was crazy.

Who could quarrel with that last judgment? Or fail to recognize “Sam Silverman,” an ex-baseball fan? Sam is married to a Japanese woman and says, “I felt very bad when the Dodgers went [from Brooklyn] to Los Angeles. . . . I feel about as bad about the decline of Judaism in the United States.” Other authentic voices are more intelligent, if less funny.

But it is not bleakness that makes Saving Remnants so trying. What is a trial are the pages and pages given over by Bershtel-Graubard to building a distinction: between, on the one hand, assimilation as it has usually been understood and, on the other hand, what is happening to more and more Jews from Harvard Square to Thousand Oaks.

Behind the distinction lurks the old belief that America is a unique phenomenon in Jewish history. An “assimilated” Jew in Europe, say the authors, got that way under the pressure of anti-Semitism, self-hatred, or both. Once assimilated, and whether or not converted, that Jew identified himself or tried to identify himself as anything but a Jew. In America, by contrast, although anti-Semitism can be found, it is small-time, no obstacle—you can be as Jewish as you like, and still go as far as your gifts, energy, and luck will take you in this, the most indifferent of big societies. Nothing obliges you to try to disappear into the chorus. You have—and for Bershtel-Graubard this is the heart of the matter—a free choice of virtually an infinite number of ways to live and imagine and distinguish and identify yourself, something Jews elsewhere and in other times never had.

So an American Jew with no ties to the Jewish community can still choose to “feel” Jewish, and it is therefore wrong, insist the authors, to label such people, who form the majority of American Jews and of whom there are more all the time, “assimilated.” The label they offer for this new type is “unaffiliated”—i.e., one who does not officially belong or pay his dues yet is open about and unashamed of his origins and whose familiar, chronic guilt and unease about the results of his choices are the paradoxical evidence that he has not really cut himself off. “Being unaffiliated,” say Bershtel-Graubard, “does not preclude strong and prideful assertions of Jewish identification.” More than one interviewee who does nothing else Jewish makes such assertions.

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Is it true that the U.S. in the last generation has been an unprecedentedly tolerant setting for Jews, giving them more choices and facing them with fewer “brutal bargains” than ever in their history? Well, maybe. Comparisons would have to be made, not only with colonial America but with England after the enfranchisement and Garibaldi’s Italy, comparisons not attempted by the authors because they would go beyond the scope of their focus. But let us say it is true. Let us also stipulate that the growing bulk of American Jews who know neither Yiddish nor Hebrew, do not belong to a synagogue, do not give to a Jewish charity, do not expose their children to any Jewish education, and do bless them as they intermarry, are properly to be called unaffiliated, not assimilated. What difference does it make for the future of the Jews here? Very little, really.

The fact is that in the Diaspora, the Jews have been able to survive in the long run only as a community or communities of parents raising Jewish children who intermarry at their peril. This should be obvious, but for those who believe American Jews are immune to the laws of the Diaspora, or who distrust their impressions, the recent National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) has confirmed that demographically, assimilation and disaffiliation lead to the same thing, namely, a shrinking number of Jews who identify themselves as such. Bershtel-Graubard mention the NJPS, which was published at the tail end of their labors, just once, in a footnote.

The authors, however, are nobody’s fools. On the basis of the knowledge they picked up during all those years in the field, they too know that theirs is a distinction without a practical difference. “When it comes to the fundamental questions of choosing a spouse or transmitting one’s culture and community to offspring, Jewishness remains marginal, at best, for the unaffiliated.” So that while Bershtel-Graubard consider unaffiliated Jews neither disturbed nor bad, while they argue that they are in no way culpable, they do seem to realize that most children of the unaffiliated will not even feel Jewish. This can only hasten what the authors themselves describe as the collective end-product of, yes, assimilation—“the dissolution of the community.”

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What about the large minority of American Jews who still, formally anyway, belong? Can the dues-paying members of Reform temples and Conservative, Orthodox, and hasidic synagogues retard “the trend to disaffiliation”? Is there a “strong and vital Jewish community, whose culture, religion, and forms of solidarity would attract commitment and loyalty” out there? It must be said to the authors’ credit that for them this question is not transparently rhetorical. After presenting the realities and the voices, they actually do try to answer it.

Their answer is that for the most part, there is less to the Reform and Conservative movements, to which nine out of ten affiliated American Jews belong, than meets the eye. Growing membership lists are deceptive, say Bershtel-Graubard. The Judaism of their Reform and Conservative interviewees, including rabbis, adds up to little more than a species of liberalism—it no longer has anything to do with the bedrock of faith, God, destiny, history. And the culture provided after religious services, or in place of them, is only a copy of American upper-middlebrow culture generally, a thin, vaporous gruel.

According to Bershtel-Graubard, what remains for the Reform and Conservative movements is nothing truly religious or distinctively cultural but only residually ethnic. Its prime expression is solidarity with Israel, not Zionism but “Israelism,” a taboo on saying anything uncomplimentary about Israel within earshot of Gentiles. Here is one of the places where the authors let whatever bias they have get the better of them. For the truth is that increasingly during their twelve-year odyssey of research, they must have seen and heard Israel berated, not only from Reform pulpits but on op-ed pages and TV shows where rabbis and other affiliated Jews, far from censoring themselves, have begged their non-Jewish fellow Americans not to associate them with those nasty Israelis. But never mind—on the general point the authors may be more correct than not in contending that the dams raised by the Reform and Conservative networks do not seem to have what it takes to keep Jews, especially young Jews, from continuing to seep away.

Then what about Orthodoxy? Bershtel-Graubard hear the Orthodox out with respect and write about them with savvy. If masses of American Jews were going back to the old-time religion, this book would be entirely different, maybe would never have been conceived. But that is not happening. The ballyhooed revival of Orthodoxy amounts, demographically, to no more than this—that the Orthodox “are holding their own.” Few are the American Jews not born and raised Orthodox who do the about-face. The Orthodox themselves, especially the women, are still impaled on the horns of the old dilemma—Torah-true Judaism or modernity?—and numbers of men and women born into the one are continuing to opt for the other. Anyway, even if the Orthodox can go on holding their own, they certainly cannot stem the overall trend. Which is also true, in spades, of the “fundamentalists,” the Hasidim and their born-again recruits.

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It is hard, after all this, to figure out which Jews or group of Jews are being referred to in the authors’ title. What is the “remnant” from which salvation will flow? In their penultimate section, “The Revival,” Bershtel-Graubard introduce us to the people closest to their own taste: the yuppie-ish, loosely Orthodox couples and singles of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan; the Aquarian Jews in Berkeley; the feminists, the lesbians and gays—all inventing new Jewish activities and communities in the New World. The authors’ hearts are with these people, and they obviously wish them the best. But their heads tell them that it cannot work. Some kashrut now and again, women strapping on tefillin, a collage of the ancient and the perishably brand-new—finally, this indefatigable “creativity” is “expressive of the very forces of dissolution it hopes to stem.”

And so it must be, for the genius of the so-called revival is nothing more than the freedom to choose, nothing other than the inalienable, profoundly American freedom to change one’s mind and style in order to become, if not positively happy, at least, for a time, less unhappy. But will the grandchildren of these “creative” Jews feel or be any more Jewish than those of the stick-in-the mud unaffiliated and affiliated?

When choice permeates all commitments, the conditions for the maintenance and continuity of a separate historical community of faith are inevitably undermined. . . . Creativity is problematic as a basis for establishing stable institutions and providing continuity over generations.

Saving Remnants, precisely because it comes from a quarter sympathetic to the left-wing revivalists, may be received in those precincts as an unwished-for diagnosis. Indeed, of the two best-known treatments of American Jews published during the authors’ long period of research—Charles Silberman’s cheery A Certain People (1985) and Arthur Hertzberg’s The Jews in America (1989)—the implicit conclusion of Saving Remnants is closer to Hertzberg, who explicitly predicts the imminent end of American Jewish history. Bershtel-Graubard, letting their readers put two and two together, say no more than the following in their short epilogue:

Identity, formerly objective and imposed, has become constructed and chosen—Jewish identity, like all others. There can be no return from this disposition to choose. The future of American Jews will continue to be determined by the place that individualism, modernity, and choice afford to Judaism—not the other way around.

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