In his new book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher, senior contributor to The American Conservative, tells a stirring story of family rupture and reconciliation. Dreher grew up in St. Francisville, a small town in Louisiana that was home to many generations of his ancestors. When he was a teenager, he saw the town as nothing but a provincial backwater and took the first opportunity to escape. His career in journalism led him to such cities as New York, Dallas, and Philadelphia. His sister Ruthie, on the other hand, was fiercely devoted to her hometown: she raised her children within walking distance of her parents’ house, married her high-school boyfriend, and taught in a local elementary school.
But Ruthie also contracted lung cancer. When the people of St. Francisville learned of her diagnosis, they responded with an astounding outpouring of material and emotional support. They hosted a community-wide concert that sold hundreds of tickets and netted $43,000. Neighbors accompanied Ruthie to chemotherapy and religious counseling sessions and, after she died, succored her grieving family with seemingly boundless food, alcohol, and recollections. As Ruthie’s husband Mike told Dreher, “We’re leaning, but we’re leaning on each other.”
Dreher attributes the large-scale displays of affection to his family’s long-standing roots in the area. This recognition forces him to confront his own isolation. Indeed, he realizes that living in large cities has stripped him of a “sense of home and permanence” and finds himself drawn toward the insularity he spurned only a few decades earlier. Ruthie’s illness teaches him that “when suffering and death come for you—and it will—you want to be in a place where you know, and are known.” He concludes he cannot find such a place in a major metropolitan area; and, after further deliberation, Dreher and his wife decide to relocate to St. Francisville.
Jewish readers who grew up in tight-knit communities will understand intuitively what Dreher was looking for. His adept descriptions of a community’s small joys and frustrations will resonate deeply with them. However, many might be puzzled by Dreher’s insistence that such communities are difficult to forge in America’s largest cities. As American Jewish history indicates and recent survey data confirm, America’s strongest Jewish communities are often located in large urban centers. Ironically, if most American Jews were to listen to Dreher and return to their roots, they would return to the very areas Dreher describes as inhospitable to true community.
This circumstance is attributable to the unique character of the American Jewish community, which, in the traditional model, requires abundant resources: synagogues, schools, kosher food, and federations. It is precisely the defining elements of large cities—their proximity to good employment opportunities, wealthy patrons and, most important, young people—that sustain them. However, the continued importance of large cities for Jewish life leads to an outcome that contradicts The Little Way of Ruthie Leming’s core message. While reflecting on his decision to return home, Dreher laments that our individualistic culture encourages us to abandon our roots for the sake of our careers. For many traditional Jews whose roots lie in an expensive suburb or city, though, the situation is exactly reversed. They feel that their return home is conditional on their attending the best schools and pursuing the most lucrative careers (if only to obtain the means to pay for the day school education of a slew of children). From their perspective, career advancement is not a goal one sacrifices for the sake of the community but rather the community’s price of admission. This is not to say, of course, that Judaism does not pose obstacles to engaging in certain professions. Insofar as traditional Jews are concerned, however, the demands of modern capitalism and community are not as incommensurate as Dreher assumes.
One wonders what Dreher would make of the vibrant, tight-knit life of some of the Jewish sub-communities in our major cities. Indeed, this question points to a tension within The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. On the one hand, Dreher seems to make the modest argument that tight-knit community is a blessing, no matter its particular form. On the other hand, he clearly idealizes small towns, viewing them as an antidote to the “deracinating effects of late capitalism” and “the erosion of localist consciousness” that our cities symbolize. One is never quite sure which message takes precedence.
It is clear, however, that the second message should ring false for American Jews. Their experience shows that the size of one’s town does not necessarily bear any relationship to the intimacy of one’s community. The philosopher Edmund Burke put it best when he described the many communities that constitute civil society as “little platoons.” Indeed, platoons are not bound to place and must adapt to their new surroundings; moreover, they maintain their integrity only by adhering to core principles. Burke’s term does not necessarily fit with Dreher’s notion of community, which assigns great importance to specific geographic space. However, it aptly describes many Jewish communities here and abroad whose tightly drawn boundaries allow for robust communal ties despite large, anonymous, and often protean surroundings.
It would thus make no sense for American Jews to participate in the great American tradition of romanticizing small towns, a ritual that rests on the faulty premise that real communities can only exist outside our bustling cities. The American Jewish experience does not accord with this trope; and to the extent that Dreher draws upon it, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is not particularly instructive. To be sure, though, Dreher does not presume that everyone would benefit from living in small towns like St. Francisville; by his own account, his is a deeply personal story. Moreover, one is still well-advised to delve into his book for its smart and sensitive meditations on familial reconciliation. One simply wishes that Dreher had given a similarly thorough treatment to the nature of community.
Judah Bellin is an assistant editor at the Manhattan Institute.
For affiliated and active Jews, it really is different, in that the NY Jewish community offers such a well-organized network of institutions and particularly towns and neighborhoods where Jewish communal life is alive, well and thriving. But this is really only true today for religiously affiliated Jews, and not the secular ones, who are in the same miserable boat as those described above.
In particular, if you want to see a wonderful Jewish community that rivals any small-town St. Francisville, I recommend Riverdale in the Bronx. It probably matches Rod Dreher's home town in all of its virtues and vices (like communal gossip). The success of Riverdale, however, derives from its high-quality rabbinic and communal leadership, who have spent decades building the community after the destruction of literally every other Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx during the 60's and 70's. There is a lot to be learned from the success of Riverdale for what it takes to sustain Jewish life in the 21st century in large atomized cities. But the main lesson for me was the centrality of religious life. You don't see any secular Jewish communities anymore that sustain communal life the way Riverdale presently does, or the way Brookline used to, once upon a time.
We do have a community. We have our Havura. We have a group I call the "exiles of the JCC," now shut down who meet at a senior residential center to provide programming for their residents by participating in our groups. Unlike most of our friends, our children live within driving distance, and we are in touch with them continually, but family is not what we mean by "community."
But modern life has drawn us apart geographically, while modern communications has overcome this geographic separation. However, face-to-face connections have not been replaced by this, although it seems to be an apparently acceptable substitute. But gestures, eye-contact, talk unmitigated by the presence of the face in most cases, are important part of our quotidian inter-human contact and is being lost.
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There is a notable divergence of non-halakhic Jewish and halakhic communities, and their complex relationship to meritocratic success and urban. Recall David Brooks' awe-inspiring tour with Meir Soloveichik in an upscale Modern Orthodox Brooklyn supermarket. Then some liberal communities form in, say, Boulder, CO and Amherst, MA which derive from arguably a love of nature and small towns more than meritocratic, urban success.
I hope the Jewish environmental and farm movement joins this interesting conversation with conservative agrarian types such as Dreher.