This article was written in response to Leon Wieseltier’s working paper, Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry, which was presented at the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
Writing at the turn of the 20th century, Moses Weinberger, a disgruntled rabbi who hailed originally from Hungary, limned a scathing portrait of America’s Jews. By his lights, they were an empty-headed, foolish bunch, given to strutting and preening and not much else. If Weinberger had his druthers, European Jews would not make the same mistake he did. They would think twice before crossing the high seas to throw in their lot with this community of dunderheads.
Though Leon Wieseltier‘s prose is far more nimble, his range of sources far more encyclopedic, and his sensibility far more knowing and canny than Weinberger’s, the celebrated New Republic literary editor and cultural critic is at one with the good rabbi in his unabashed disdain for American Jewry.
Abraham Geiger believed Hebrew
to be dead in the 19th Century.
In his “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,” Wieseltier, like Weinberger before him, cannot find a kind word to say about his American coreligionists, whom he dubs the “spoiled brats of Jewish history.” That America’s Jews have created an unparalleled network of Jewish institutions of higher learning, dramatically expanded the range of opportunities for Jewish women, and in things large and small display enormous cultural vitality and originality at the grass roots is, for him, of paltry, glancing significance when compared with what he takes to be the community’s wanton disregard of its textual and linguistic patrimonies.
Back in Germany
Perhaps they have. But then, American Jewry is hardly the first modern Jewish community to turn its back on Hebrew. In its rejection of that language, German Jewry had its New World counterparts beat by a mile–and a century.