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.

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