It’s Not About Triumphalism

Here’s a synopsis of a Jewish dialogue that’s been going on for the past several decades:

Non-Orthodox: You guys are headed for the dustbin of history. Your ossified vision of religion is dying out, while we are the future.

Orthodox: You have it all wrong. Torah observance is what keeps the Jewish people alive… And look, now the data is proving us right. You need to turn back our way.

Non-Orthodox: Sha! You’re being triumphalist.

There’s a little bit more to this nonsense than simple hypocrisy. Yes, the numbers demonstrate that the observant community was right all along. Yes, observing that growth is delightful. But the idea that we’re enjoying the downside, that the assimilation of liberal Jews is part of the excitement, is an exercise in projection. Those who previously touted the decline of Orthodoxy, or who would enjoy seeing it happen today, imagine that we enjoy the turning of the tables against them. That’s not the way it works.

David Brooks’ recent NY Times Op-Ed, “The Orthodox Surge,” was a welcome respite from a steady drumbeat of articles in the general and Jewish media depicting the Orthodox in a bad light. It was an accurate and even complimentary portrayal of what goes on in real-world, normal Orthodox communities. So I guess it’s almost predictable that the Forward now has two pieces taking Brooks to task.

Rabbi Shafran has already looked at Jane Eisner’s crass editorial. Turning the old adage on its head, Eisner evidences the belief that “if you can’t find something hateful to say about the Orthodox, you shouldn’t say anything at all.” The Orthodox believe in differences between men and women! [Newsflash, Jane: I bet readers already knew that.] There’s a lot of Orthodox poverty! [Pomegranate, described by Brooks as an “island of upscale consumerism,” hardly attracts the poor.] And what about those accusations about YU? [On which aisle of the Pomegranate market should he look for that? And, perhaps more to the point, before she defends her inane assertion that YU is an institution of “ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn,” would Eisner similarly demand that all coverage of Princeton academics, administration or even student life mention the far more common evil that Princeton itself covers up?]

More recently, Jordana Horn took her turn at being angry. Her word, not mine. And her anger is quite revealing.

Why is she angry? Because she keeps kosher, the Jewish calendar governs her life, and she isn’t Orthodox. And what disturbs her is that “pieces like Brooks’s column… make it seem as though one cannot have a meaningful, multifaceted Jewish life outside Orthodoxy.” According to her, in Brooks’ view the Orthodox “are apparently the only people he can conceive of having a need or desire to shop at a kosher supermarket.”

Of course, that’s not what Brooks encountered, or wrote, at all. What impressed Brooks is that the Orthodox are (factually, not apparently) the only people forming communities with sufficient demand to justify entire kosher supermarkets. There are two others in Brooklyn that, like Pomegranate, I hadn’t heard of five years ago and are publishing full-page color ads today. Baltimore’s Seven Mile Market moved two years ago into a former Safeway location, nearly doubling its (and, for that matter, Pomegranate’s) size. And one thing all of these places share in common: no one checks religious (or Jewish) credentials at the door. They would be delighted to see more Conservative Jews like Horn shopping there. While it is true that adherents of the Conservative movement neither demand such markets of their own, nor shop more frequently at the existing ones, that isn’t something for which Brooks, Pomegranate, or the Orthodox can be blamed.

It doesn’t take long for Horn to admit that the Orthodox aren’t really the problem — rather, Brooks’ admiration of Orthodox shopping forces her to confront a harsh reality. As she writes:

I’m already worried enough about the potential demise of my chosen Jewish path. Because it all boils down to numbers. I’ve had four kids so far, but try as I might, I can’t single-handedly repopulate non-Orthodox Judaism. I fear that when my children grow up, they will encounter a world in which they will have to choose to be Orthodox or secular, and that no other options will exist — that while Conservative and Reform Jews were busy building gorgeous edifices of synagogues, they will have neglected to build communities that ensure their survival.

What bothers Horn so much is that according to Brooks, the Orthodox feel no similar trepidation. They are not worried that the path of Torah and Mitzvos might die out in America (r”l). As she quotes from his article, “Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”

I’m not sure the harried mother loading her groceries into that minivan would describe herself as “self-confident.” But Orthodox Jews believe their community will continue to grow, that the children hopping into the van will be part of the Jewish future, and kosher supermarkets will continue to pop up in response to growing demand. We’re not worried about “repopulating” Judaism.

It is this “self-confidence” perceived by Brooks that Horn finds so disturbing. She’d like Brooks to be able to find something similar in her circles, and she can’t. And instead of limiting herself to seeking improvements within her own circle, she expresses jealous anger against Brooks for highlighting the successes of others.

Instead of raging at Orthodox growth, she would be far better served by looking honestly at why Orthodoxy is growing at such a healthy rate today, especially in contrast to its failures in the early decades of the previous century. It’s not simply that her four children alone will not “repopulate non-Orthodox Judaism,” though her admission that “repopulation” is necessary is both stunning and healthy. It’s that she has no guarantee, nor even a particularly good reason to believe, that her children will prove to be part of a solution rather than further statistical evidence of the problem. While she writes about the importance of investing in a Jewish future, she can’t even bring herself to use the words “Jewish day school,” the one proven method for preserving that future. Whether you are looking for a “leaner, meaner Conservative movement” or “our cups to be full” as she would prefer, without Jewish education you have neither — and Conservative day schools are closing their doors across the country.

And this is where they will say, “Sha! You’re being triumphalist.”

The shoppers of Pomegranate do not feel confident in comparison to anybody else; they do not define their Judaism in comparison to anybody else. They are not looking over their shoulders, nor over their garden fences to look down their noses at Jordana Horn’s version of a Jewish life. They are happy to have the opportunity to raise Jewish families and see their children grow up to create Jewish families of their own. The fact that other Jews will never have that opportunity brings them no joy.

There is a reason why the Orthodox, both impoverished (perhaps as a result of paying full taxes plus day school tuition) and otherwise, are investing so much of what they have left not in “gorgeous edifices of synagogues,” but in giving Jordana Horn’s children a second shot at a real Jewish education: because every Jew is an entire world. Like the proprietors of the kosher markets, we don’t look for labels. It is not about Orthodox, liberal, American or other — it’s about the rich Jewish heritage they don’t even know they have.

Every Jew we lose is a world lost. As afraid as Horn is about the Jewish future she’d prefer to see, I am more afraid of the Jewish future of her kids. If she isn’t sending them to day school, it’s not difficult to predict where the future lies, and I hope we get to change that before it’s too late.

Triumphalist? I think it’s hard to find a triumph when you’d rather cry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *