Jonathan SarnaWriting in the Washington Post earlier this month, the eminent Jewish history professor Jonathan Sarna (pictured right) praised the PBS documentary “The Jewish Americans” for its depiction of Jews as people who landed on these shores a long, long time ago (350 plus years). And, viewers of the film can see that we weren’t always so preoccupied with the Holocaust and Israel.

Sarna, in his essay, goes on to note that things are changing once again. He said interest in the Holocaust and support for Israel is waning among American Jews. The younger generation is, “searching for a fresh understanding of what it means to be an American Jew,” Sarna wrote.

And what does he think will pick up the slack in Jewish identity for those of us in America?

Jewish secularism. Here’s more:

Now, like the proverbial phoenix, Jewish secularism is making a comeback. The National Yiddish Book Center—a creation of young Jews in their 20s—seeks to preserve and in some respects recreate the great Yiddish secularist culture of yesteryear. Reboot, an organization that reaches out to Jews in their 20s and 30s, has produced a wide range of cultural materials including books, a magazine, a record label, and a film—almost all of it overtly secular. Heeb Magazine, the smart, sassy, progressive magazine for young Jews is likewise secular. So are recent Jewish books like Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir. So is the Center for Cultural Judaism, which sponsors grants, publications, programs, and university courses, all directed toward “non-religious, cultural and secular Jews.” And now we have “The Jewish Americans” which celebrates this same cultural phenomenon.

The unexpected rebirth of Jewish secularism reflects, in part, a generational turn: a reminder of the adage that what one generation seeks to forget another seeks to remember.

As for Heeb Magazine, the publication’s humor editor David Deutsch disagreed with the ‘likewise secular’ label and responded to Sarna by writing a column in the Forward.

For my part, I feel like Sarna got it wrong also. I think he painted with a broad brush when a more nuanced approach was called for.

I’d count myself as a potential participant in any of those organizations he mentioned and I’m an occasional reader Heeb (on the Web, of course). But, just as Deutsch noted about Heeb, I would not view them as secular in the same way the Workmen’s Circle was secular. Those yids took a stand against religion. Come to think of it, maybe Shalom Auslander does fit the bill.

In any event, I choose to participate in Jewish cultural activities because at some level it strengthens my identity as a Jew. And, at the heart of my Jewish identity is a relationship with God.

So, it bugs me that Sarna uses the word ‘secular’ to describe anything Jewish that’s not connected to a synagogue.

I actually thought about where the blog Jewlicious fits into this scenario. It’s become a place where I often go to express and exchange ideas with others. From what I can gather, there are Jews of all stripes visiting the site and over the past couple of months I’ve come to know a few of them. And, while I see little discussion of overtly religious or theological issues, I wouldn’t think to label Jewlicious as secular.

It might be something like ‘post-denominational.’ But who really wants to call themselves that? Here, listen: “Oh, me? I’m a post-denominationalist Jew.” See. Doesn’t have the same ring as, “I’m Orthodox” or “I’m Reform.”

I’ll agree with Sarna on one point: some new outlook is on the horizon for the Diaspora and especially for American Jewry. I just don’t see it as secular.

On that note, I’ll wish you all a good Shabbos.

Crossposted on JewishLiteraryReview.com.

About the author

18 Comments

  • At the same time, however, I think that Jewish organizations made up of people in their 20s and 30s need to acknowledge that “secular” should not be an insult. Though “at the heart of [your] Jewish identity is a relationship with God,” this is not true for everyone. As a young Jewish woman who loves Israel, Hebrew, and Yiddish(kayt), and finds the Torah and the ways in which people have read it fascinating but does not believe in God or the supernatural, I’ve often been made to feel, by the younger generation, that there is no place for me within the culture. It’s important to remember that the genuinely “secular” can be, after all, still Jews.

  • I know this is a slight derail, but am I the only one who found “The Jewish Americans” less than?
    What was with the oh-so Ashkenazi “yi-di-di”s playing in the background when speaking of the first SEPHARDI Jews to reach the shores of the US. Or for that matter, why was the show SO pale anyway?
    And I loved how apparently ALL JEWS LOVE black people and WE WERE the heart and soul of the civil rights movement. (No one ever said the schv&*& word according to this documentary). Look, I love the Jews. Heck, I am one! But it was a bit too glowing and uncritical. I guess that was the point, but it was hard to stomach-and I’m a promoter.

  • i agree. there’s plenty of room in the tent and every Jew is on their own unique journey.

    i don’t think ‘secular’ is insulting but i think it’s a stretch for professor sarna to connect today’s so-called ‘secular’ jewish activities with the organized secular jewish movements of the early 20th century.

    those movements took a stand against organized Judaism whereas today’s groups take more of a ‘live and let live’ attitude.

  • I like Sarna. I’ve met him numerous times and I’ve usually enjoyed his commentary. Here, I think he’s off, and almost sounds like he’s just babbling.

  • “I actually thought about where the blog Jewlicious fits into this scenario.”

    Much as I am personally loathe to categorize or label a person or site, if pressed, I would probably offer “center-right” politically, and “LWMO-leaning” religiously.

    Of course, ck would insist he is “liberal” not center-right, but I don’t think that is really accurate since Jewlicious’s focus is Zionism, not economic policies (heck, you guys don’t even tackle the oil issue), and I recognize that there are “liberal Jewish” writers for this site as well, certainly TM…but the general beat does seem to be LWMO in many respects at least a little more.

  • tovitim,

    i’ve only sat through the first episode but from what i’ve seen so far it does appear that they played it a little too safe.

  • dk,

    i actually had to google LWMO and the top result said Low Weather Minima Operations.

    luckily, an entry from your blog was the second result.

    now i know.

  • Kelsey, are you dating anybody now? If not, would you like to date Chutzpah?

    I know we have ck and Rabbi Yonah, but we also have Muffti and myself as the old-timers here. I don’t see how we can be LWMO or anything more than part MO. Among the new crop we also have some balance. Froylein and Steve seems to counter YLove. Phoebe is much closer to Muffti than to me, much less than to ck. Etc.

    With respect to politics, since when is Zionism a center-Right ideology? I think we have expressed both center-Left and center-Right views among the key participants here. On occasion somebody will write something that leans farther to one direction, but we don’t seem to have any militants on either side. We also seem to bounce between center-Right and center-Left, which suggests little bias politically even if strong support for Israel.

    Most important, however, is that we’re all good-looking. Every single one of us.

  • Hey, Y-LOVE’s my brother at heart. (Here, my heart: <3)

    We’re all good-looking? Looking in the mirror fiveish in the morrows, all that comes to mind is, “Who are you, and why should I wash you?”

  • i counter Y-Love?

    well, i am a dorky white guy but, come on. i do a great sinatra. then i go into my don rickles routine.

  • That wasn’t what I meant. YLove is chassidic and I gathered that neither one of you was Orthodox. I get the impression both of you are traditional but non-observant, a little like yours truly.

  • Oh, hmmmm, maybe ck should fill you in a bit. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if Y-LOVE and I had a few common friends…

  • Heeb is hardly the rock upon which a new secular Jewish culture can be founded. Sarna is dreaming.

    Back in the day, there was a Jewish culture. You were Jewish because you were, well, Jewish. You lived with Jews, went to school with Jews, belonged to Jewish clubs, dated Jews and married Jews. All of that is gone now. There really isn’t a coherent Jewish culture anymore except among the religious/traditional. The new secular Jews like the Heebsters are just pulling it out of their collective ass. It used to be that Jews who left Yiddishkeit knew what they were leaving. The Heebster-type Jews don’t know anything, so there’s nothing they can reject. Their whole thing consists of examining their conflicted feelings about being Jewish. They’re not about being or doing or living Jewish. They’re just about talking about how they feel about being Jewish.

    I guess ck’s right: you gotta start somewhere. But to hope that anything really Jewish or lasting can come out of this sort of self-referential psycho-drama is optimistic, to say the least.

    And I second the “where were the Sephardim?” thing about the “Jewish Americans” documentary. Most of the Jews in the US are Ashkenazim, it’s true, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and not a single mention of the Sephardim was just, well, wrong.

  • Ephraim – I’m not exactly a softie, but I think you are a bit too harsh in characterizing the Heeb generation.

    A lot of Jewish-American parents and grandparents were profoundly ignorant of Judaism. One of the reasons they threw over Jewish practice was that many of them were going through the motions, and Eastern European shtetl life was so threadbare (in many ways) that no rationale was offered.

    So what is better? Large numbers of Jews doing Jewish things and marrying Jewish because of ingrained habit and a still-fresh memory of oppression (American Jewry circa 1950) – or young people actively seeking out Jewish identity and involvement as a positive choice (the Heeb generation, a bit more charitably described than you do)?

    Sure, I don’t a agree with all the approaches used to connect up – I am an Orthodox Jew – but they are connecting up.

    Yes, I deeply mourn the loss of the apathetic majority of American Jews who either no nothing – or would be better off not knowing the canards they’ve been fed about Judaism (and now Israel). But the Heeb generation is seeking it out, wants to connect up.

    Abraham and Sarah had a tent with a door on every side – remember? I will definitely talk to people who come into my tent about our binding covenants of Torah and halacha – but first let’s welcome them in, wash the dirt off their feet.

Leave a Comment