Does American Jewish Survival Rely on the Holocaust?

For a while now, my editor David Swindle has been plaguing me to start a series on Jewish identity. Like any good family we disagree with each other about practically everything, cultural and religious identification included. I can’t think of one Jewish setting in which I wasn’t directly or indirectly accused by fellow Jews of being a “bad Jew” for some mundane reason or another. One incident involved the infamous “pepperoni pizza at a Hillel event, for or against” argument. (Truly the greatest Jewish American struggle of our time.) Joseph’s brothers beat him up, threw him in a ditch, and not much has changed since, attitude-wise. Need further proof? Check out the latest argument over how Jewish Americans relate to the Holocaust.

Apparently 73% of us rank the Holocaust as our top-rated “essential” to being Jewish. This disturbs renowned academic Jacob Neusner who’s made a career out of entwining himself into the vines of the Ivy League. Neusner’s argument boils down to the concept that American Jews have no real sense of or connection to their own identity. Therefore, they need to go outside the geographical box to find themselves, either through the Holocaust or Zionism.

Kinky Friedman, Texas Jew who baffles both Southern Christians and New York Jews alike. DEFINITELY NSFW.

Neusner argues that both Holocaust and Zionism belong to “someone else” other than American Jews:

“…a Judaism whose central focus is lamenting someone else’s past (prewar European Jewry) and celebrating someone else’s future (Israel) can never produce something that can be compelling to a future generation of Jews who choose to live in the Diaspora.”

Neusner’s own ignorance of the American Jewish community is offensive and counterproductive. America was flooded with postwar European Jewish survivors and continues to host Jews with dual American-Israeli citizenship. I’m not quite sure who Neusner refers to when he speaks of his mythical American Jews seeking meaning, but apparently these two groups and their offspring are not included in the mix. It’s not totally his fault. My own Jerusalem-cum-New York Jewish husband couldn’t believe Jews participated in barbecue contests and didn’t eat lox and bagels when I filled him in on my Texas Hillel experience. It would seem that American Jews lack a substantive identity first and foremost because American Jews have no sense of each other.

Neusner’s arguments, however, are not totally without merit. Buried in swaths of commentary is an important point about the driving force behind Jewish identity:

“The visceral obsession of many American Jews with Jewish survival is one consequence of assimilation. But it is also arguably an inevitable byproduct of assimilation. The American Jewish obsession with ‘survival’ (see the Pew Poll and its aftermath) is thus a secular obsession. Religious Jews arguably rely on the covenantal notion of nezah Yisrael (the ‘Eternity of Israel’) as part of the divine promise.”

In other words, the essence and drive of Jewish identity is intrinsically tied to God’s covenant promise. Without this, the burden of our continued existence falls squarely on our own shoulders and we wrestle with it, our calling, our purpose, and our God, as did Jacob. Jewish identity isn’t about wrestling with Holocaust or familiarizing ourselves with our colonial American roots. Jewish identity is about our covenant with God. To accept this we must put faith in both God and His calling on our lives. To reject one or both is to reject being a Jew. Yet, to struggle with both is to admit that we are just like everyone else, and that isn’t a safe space for communal continuity either.

While they could not come to terms with full-on rejection, our ancestors did manage to address the struggle by setting up fences within which our community could contain their internal conflict. The oral law, contained in the Talmud and associated writings, created a “fence around the law” of Torah to keep those struggling safely in the herd. Even though we argue over them, ultimately we like our borders for the same reason children enjoy discipline, because they provide structure.

Over the centuries we’ve accepted the Oral Law, Tradition, shtetls, ghettos, labels, badges and hats, yellow, pointed, black, furry and otherwise all designed to fence us in for one reason or another. Neusner’s argument that American Jews find identity within Holocaust is no different than the argument that Jews find identity within Orthodoxyism. Both are fences designed to keep us within the realm of the tribe by preventing us from facing our soul’s struggle with God. As a result, we’ve also managed to fence ourselves off from ever really knowing one another.

A product of both inheritance and conversion, I was granted a blank slate at birth and as such have been blessed with the perspective of a sheep outside the fence. The wilderness can be a helpful place once one gives in to the God who created it. Being an outsider like Joseph has given me the perspective to understand that we are a lot harder on one another than God is on us. We have prevented ourselves from ever confronting the struggle within our soul therefore we take our confusion and aggression out on one another, arguing within and over the fences we’ve built around us.

God warns us in Torah against moving the borders of the land. That goes as much for the land of Israel as it does for the people of Israel. We were not put on this earth to fence each other in. God designed the borders of the land just as He designed the Torah. Any attempt we make to put a fence around His Word is an attempt to usurp His authority and claim it as our own. We are created in God’s image, but we are not gods.

Artist Credit: Rebekah Bernstein

Mine is a Judaism that actively seeks to remove the fences that our people have put between ourselves and God. It is a Judaism that faces the struggle of God’s chosenness head on with Jacob’s relentless nature and David’s persistent heart. God did not put His Word on this earth to be fenced in, but to be heard and willingly obeyed as the Shema makes clear. But, before we can do both we must remove the fences so that we can hear clearly. That proves to be the greatest challenge we face as a people.

It is not Holocaust, nor Zionism, nor our own assimilation that should be “marginalized” as Neusner argues, but the fences that have become walls between us as a people and us and our God.