The recent Pew survey on Jewish America released earlier this month seems to confirm what many already believe: those of us outside of the Orthodox community are finding ourselves increasingly outnumbered, due to our own apparently suicidal commitment to liberal American values. It seems that the tradition of cultural Judaism in American life will soon be as endangered as Orthodoxy was in the 1940s, and that Orthodoxy, in a stunning reversal that nobody saw coming, will soon take from us the power to define what it means to be Jewish in America.
But the answer, as I see it, is not to abandon cultural Judaism, even if it means intermarrying our way into oblivion. Through my work on Jews of Today, I came to know some Hasidim and had several opportunities to hear their thoughts on the future of Jewish life in America. What an insight that gave. They—”they,” the handful of New York Hasidic men I spoke with at any length—are as scared of the collapse of their communities as we are of ours.
Where we have a crisis of numbers, they have a crisis of faith. The old leaders, the rabbonim that built Hasidus in America, are almost all dead. Their heirs have taken up arms against the internet, seeing in it the potential undoing of their earlier victory over television, radio, and other forms of mass-media hostile to traditional life. Yet the internet, at least in the form of a smartphone, is needed for most to make a living.
I nightly see Hasidim sitting in their parked minivans, well after hours, their faces lit up blue. Yiddish internet forums are proliferating, allowing Hasidim to connect with each other on a whole spectrum of topics, including that of dissatisfaction with the mores and strictures of the community. Before, they say, if you were unhappy, a misfit, you assumed you were the only one. No one would talk openly about such feelings. Now, a whole underground of malcontents has formed anonymously and pseudonymously online. How long before that underground makes itself felt above ground?
Back to us cultural Jews. Demographically, we are already defeated. As the Hasidim have 10 kids, we have 1.5, and its likely that not even the 0.5 will be halachically Jewish. So we, the descendants of Jewish immigrants who embrace, rather than reject the treyfe medina, who raise Larry David over the Baal Shem Tov, who break the fast without ever fasting, are disappearing.
But it seems our numbers might soon be replenished by a new wave of Jews hungry for the larger America, again refugees from the old world, only this time not needing to cross an ocean. We, the cultural Jews, must leave them something to inherit, a tradition of reconciling Jewishness with the demands and offerings of American life. So make art, Jews! Make art about being Jewish in this country, in all its forms. Not as apologetics, not as nostalgia, but as a real, hard-thought, heartfelt legacy, so that whoever finds themselves in our position in the future, won’t feel like they are the first to inhabit it.
Jews of Today could never have begun as a project had I not encountered the phenomenon of the Hasidic enclave. As a recent transplant to New York City in 2006, I wandered into Williamsburg like any other would-be gentrifier in search of cheap bars, good restaurants, and an “authentic” atmosphere. I did not expect to encounter such a dense population of Yiddish-speaking, black-frock-wearing Jews. I felt like I’d found my lost ancestors. I was awestruck and attracted. But my early efforts to make connections with Williamsburg’s Hasidim were met with the customary cold shoulder.
I quickly learned that their part of Williamsburg was a virtual fortress, meant to keep people like me (or rather, unlike them) at a safe distance. This of course only enchanted me further. Why? Who knows. I guess I felt like some secret of great importance was being hidden inside their castle walls. The Ethiopians claim to keep the Ark of the Covenant in a church in Addis Ababa, which, after all, no one is allowed to enter…
So how is a Hasidic enclave created? Jewish enclaves have a long history, full of important variations. Of course, they were usually imposed on Jews from the outside, rarely by Jews themselves, and even more rarely by Jews against other Jews. Williamsburg represents an important reversal of that trend. Philip Fishman, a non-Hasidic Jew who grew up in mid-century Williamsburg, has written a vivid memoir on the subject, titled A Sukkah is Burning.
This (somewhat aged) article from Matzav is an important artifact of my research and shows very specifically how my favorite Hasidic enclave is being maintained today.
The following is a “lost” introduction from a previous iteration of the Jews of Today project. It is much different in tone from the published work, but sheds light on the why and how of my art and research on Hasidism.
Hasidism is a revival movement within Judaism. Its chief intention is to restore and safeguard Jewish pride in all its dimensions, and creatively embraces mythical, linguistic, and cultural material from a wide array of sources to further this goal. Moreover, as much as it may appear a closed system of thought, Hasidism is and has always been a highly permeable ideology. As contexts and conditions change, Hasidism absorbs diverse doctrines from its surroundings that shape its internal structure as well as its external posture. As a result, Hasidism is dynamic and polyglot. It is not synonymous with the Jewish past, but like a fishing trawler gathers the detritus of history as it wanders in search of a living. The purpose of this project is to sort through the muck caught in the trawler’s net to give some accounting of those gems of its haul that have most sustained Hasidism up until now.
Many descriptions of Hasidism follow what Walter Benjamin might have called a historicist model. It reduces the history of the movement to a kind of flow-chart. In it, each stage of Hasidism’s development is subordinated to the scholar’s idea of immediate context, consisting of the active figures and important events of any given time, often very narrowly and arbitrarily conceived.
While this format is safe, resting as it does on the idea of historical progress, it risks missing important ways that Hasidism defies this model. Hasidism collapses time and place, miraculous and mundane. As it changes, as all movements do, it follows a messianic logic that should not be dismissed just because it can and often does mask realpolitik. Gilgul, the transmigration of souls, is a valued concept in Hasidism, negating a linear conception of time. The Kabbalah exhorts Hasidim to seek and recover nitzotz (divine sparks) scattered among the goyim, subverting purely endogenous theories of Hasidism’s development. Even the Jewish concept of family lineage, yihus, is so suffused with cult meaning in Hasidism that Mendelian heredity becomes an afterthought to the imaginative, often metaphorical interpretation of one’s descent within the biblical genealogical system.
Although it will take these concepts seriously insofar as they might structure Hasidic thought, this study will not take Hasidism at face value. It will make no attempt to conceal or mitigate embarrassing episodes, nor to patch up the fractiousness of the Hasidic system. What it will do is make use of the logic of hagiography to construct meaning out of mystery. This means permitting the unexplained to coexist with the reasonable.
R’Shlomo of Radomsk once said, “whoever believes all the miracle stories about the Baal Shem Tov recorded in the Shivei ha-Besht is a fool, but whoever denies that he could have done them is a heretic.” With this warning as a guide, this project will search Hasidic legends, the history of the Jews and the lands they have inhabited, and the utterances of Hasidic sages for ways to alert the reader’s imagination to a trove of possibilities, each of which in some big or small way reflects the truth of Hasidism. The result will be neither to flatter nor to smear the subject, but to disaggregate it from the familiar categories and associations that have somehow allowed such a vibrantly imaginative and deeply mysterious tradition to seem at all mundane.