The Old New Jews

By Yehudah Mirsky
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It has been 40 years since the publication of a slim but memorable volume of essays by young American Jewish radicals and intellectuals. The New Jews, edited by James Sleeper and Alan Mintz, sought to give voice to a small cohort at once deeply alienated from organized Jewish life and deeply attached to Jewish history and culture. As Sleeper put it in an impassioned introduction, these young people meant to encounter their tradition "with the new urgency of an age which is shaking the very foundations of the human self-image."

The purple language is a reminder of the extent to which, for many young people and their variously defensive, enabling, and bewildered elders, the world really did seem to be changing dramatically in those years. For it was in the 1970s that "the 60s" (to use the convenient shorthand term for a welter of real and imagined revolutionary forces) began to work their way into mainstream culture, there to be variously accommodated, adapted, co-opted, or reversed. 

As in America at large, so in Jewish life, the postwar liberal ethos had come under siege by the New Left and the counterculture, whose conjoined attacks on Israel, on Jewish interests, and on American Jewish identity met an often fumbling and ineffectual response by the liberal center—a clash that would later on play its part in fomenting a broad intellectual counteroffensive in the form of neoconservatism. In this maelstrom, The New Jews unmistakably positioned itself on the side of the New Left's critique of middle-class liberalism, of American society, and of its specifically Jewish institutions and practices. The last of these it proposed to revolutionize not by abandoning Judaism but by making a concentrated effort to dig more deeply into the neglected past in order to vault into a better future.

Most of the essays in the book appeared originally in Response, a journal co-founded and edited by Mintz. Their authors seethe with revulsion against suburbia and the kind of Judaism that thrives there, as preserved in films like The Plot against Harry and reconstructed with dark hilarity in the Coen Brothers' recent A Serious Man.  In one characteristic passage, Sleeper dismisses the entire "existing organized Jewish community" as "little more than a collection of mimeograph machines and pooled nostalgia." In another, Joel Rosenberg assails the stereotypical "pompous Establishment rabbi." Although a few writers acknowledge the achievement represented by suburban life for a generation that had come through urban squalor and the Depression, they proceed to denounce both suburbia and corporate consumerist culture as soul-crushing enterprises peddling sinister illusions that foster alienation and anomie.   

The twist is that, for all the hackneyed rhetoric straight out of earlier radicals like C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, and Paul Goodman, and for all the ritualistic expressions of earnest esteem for Fidel Castro's Cuba and the "Third World," the young radicals of The New Jews also espouse an intensely positive, regularly tender attitude toward both traditional Judaism and the East European Yiddish culture that had been abandoned by their parents. These precious legacies, as they see them, are vessels of authenticity, commitment, and community and, for some, a means of preventing their own radicalism from descending into nihilism.

In working out such thoughts, the authors seem less to be the children of Mills & Co. than to be living enactments of the scenario sketched by Will Herberg—another radical, albeit one turned conservative—who in Protestant Catholic Jew (1955) argued that, in a mixed rebellion against and acculturation to the prevailing American ethos, third-generation Jews were likely to revive contact with the traditions discarded by their forebears as the price of their acculturation. Be that as it may, the centrality of religion to the vision of these twentysomething writers, with some sympathetic thirtysomething rabbis added to the mix, is in retrospect especially noteworthy.

In the hands of young scholars like Arthur Green and Michael Fishbane, classic Jewish texts—Bible, Midrash, Kabbalah—are brought to bear on their own experiences (spiritual and psychedelic alike); in a sensitive essay by Alan Mintz, traditional prayer becomes the medium for bringing to consciousness a sense of transcendence, integration, and moral responsibility. In these essays (and in their at times overwrought prose), one perceives the hovering spirits of the religious philosopher Martin Buber and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Easily caricatured as naïve, not to say jejune, the essays carry the ring of genuine conviction and, thankfully, no trace of the smug postmodern knowingness that today's "radicals" call home.

What catches the eye of today's reader of this cutting-edge thinking circa 1971? For one thing, none of the contributors is a woman. For another, the environment is absent as either theme or cause. Also nowhere to be found, even though it may have presented the then-most stirring synthesis of identity politics and Jewish commitment, is the Soviet Jewry movement (tarred, perhaps, by its seeming to be the Jewish front in the cold war). The Holocaust figures in two pieces but seems not to fit into the weave of the volume as a whole. One essay extols the state of Israel; others explore its more troubling dimensions, though with far greater sympathy than one would likely find today.

The most striking absence of all is Orthodoxy; indeed, a number of essays devoted to the need to capture traditional learning and energies seem deliberately to avoid any reference to the Jewish community already most committed to them. This may be understandable in view of the writers' aversion to authority, and rabbinic authority most of all; but it is also ironic, and for a number of reasons. In that same year of 1971, the zeitgeist hit Orthodoxy head-on with the issuance of a notorious Yeshiva College yearbook whose wild and iconoclastic imagery and heretical musings led to its banning. Radicalism and Orthodoxy would be meeting again in the 1970s through the growing popularity of Shlomo Carlebach's neo-Hasidic musical revivals and in aspects of the ba'al teshuvah movement, which would offer Orthodoxy itself as a powerful answer to a generation's search for identity and authenticity. (The latter connection would be made explicit six years down the road in Ellen Willis's ground-breaking series in Rolling Stone, "Next Year in Jerusalem.") Indeed, some of Orthodoxy's resurgence in recent years can be credited to its adoption of selective elements of the new Jews' program, in particular the emphasis on spirituality and religious experience.

Interestingly, if for the new Jews of 1971 technology was a force for evil, for the young Jewish social entrepreneurs and activists of today it is the very elixir of Jewish vitality. Perhaps that is because the nature of the technology has changed, from the one-way media of Hollywood and television to the multivalent, anarchic Internet. Or perhaps it is because the sheer logic of bourgeois-technocratic society and the real peace and comforts it brings are too powerful for any radicalism to withstand for long.

As for politics, the words "Tikkun Olam" appear nowhere in The New Jews; the phrase in its current meaning would not be minted until the mid-80s, although adumbrations might be seen in the book's heartfelt, uncritical embrace of the idea of revolution. As for the assaults on the Jewish establishment and the rest, the establishment is still standing, federations, suburban synagogues, and all. In many ways, the organized community has grown in reach and capability—in part by adopting a greater emphasis on learning and spirituality and by trying to make philanthropy and programming more personally meaningful. In religious life, meanwhile, some of the spiritual practices associated with the Havurah movement, with which many of the book's writers were associated, have been taken up by the mainstream denominations—although the Havurah model itself, like the Jewish Renewal Movement that grew out it, cannot be said to have made inroads institutionally. The net effects of today's analogous though savvier independent-minyan movement remain to be seen.

In short, much today has changed, and much remains. In a characteristically thoughtful afterword to The New Jews, Mintz describes each essay as "an experiment in thought, a tentative pause and assessment to prepare the ground for action that is historically grounded, culturally viable, and spiritually engaging." The record of that experimentation, in its successes and failures, is a resource for new new Jews, and the newer ones who will come after them. 


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