Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vayyetze 5770 - Vienna, JDub, and the future of American Judaism

This sermon has a sort of prologue:

When I finished writing it, I realized that it is only half of the story that I need to tell. As you will see, I am about to "tear down" a new idea in Jewish life. What I will fail to do in the next 15 minutes is to offer an alternative. So, I'm sorry to say, you'll have to wait for the next sermon I give on Sat. morning, Dec. 26 to hear a better idea. So, in advance, I'm sorry that this is only the first installment of a 2-part sermon.

This past week I read a brief article about JDub, the hip, non-profit record label that produces Jewish acts, and most notably rode the wave of Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu before he dumped them for a contract with Sony. The article, by JDub founder and CEO Aaron Bisman, the son of a Conservative rabbi, argues for what Bisman calls, "bringing authentic Jewish voices into the mainstream." Those "authentic Jewish voices," he says, are musical acts that draw on Jewish themes. They celebrate Jewish culture, he claims, and, contrary to the traditional Jewish emphasis on obligation, highlight a fun, entertaining entry point for young Jews for whom the established institutions hold no interest. He writes,

"In America today, Judaism exists in a culture of choice... and, for better or for worse, we are not interested in a reactive Judaism that expects our participation for reasons of survival. We need to shift the communal narrative away from one of crisis and reaction, which doesn't resonate with young Jews, to one of celebration and transformation - no less present in Judaism but seemingly given less importance by many of our institutions over the last 50 years."

The totality of Bisman's claim is that JDub is where it's at. We can find more meaning in groovy music than in synagogues.

For many Jewish young people, and even for some who have stood at this podium and delivered lovely divrei Torah on the day of their BM, he is spot on. But I also give credence to the idea of a Jewish future, something which JDub records cannot give us, at least not as conceived by its creators.

It is true that for much of the latter half of the 20th c., American Conservative and Reform rabbis relied heavily on two subjects for their sermons: the Holocaust and Israel. These two themes were sufficient for galvanizing their congregants. They spoke less about community, or our personal relationship with Judaism, or God, or spirituality. Much of our identity as Jews was heavily tied to the principle of not giving Hitler a posthumous victory. In fact, that very slogan was my mother's oft-repeated justification for why I had to marry a Jewish woman.

No more. While we still mark our remembrance of the Shoah at the appropriate times, it is no longer a subject that brings Jews into the sanctuary, or staves off intermarriage. We have reached a point where we are either inured to the message of victory over evil, or perhaps so bored by it that we are constantly changing the channel, just like we do in our living rooms.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to have officiated at my wife Judy’s brother’s wedding in Vienna. It happened to be the same night as the Journal Dinner Dance honoring the Puttermans, and although I’m sorry that we missed that event, you can rest assured that we had a very good time that evening anyway. My brother-in-law’s wife is from Vienna, and the vast majority of wedding attendees were Austrians.

I was actually the co-officiant at this wedding with the Chief Rabbi of Austria, a jolly fellow by the name of Rabbi Pauli Eisenberg. As is the case with “chief rabbis” throughout the world (although we do not have them in North America, they are ubiquitous elsewhere), he is orthodox, although known to be liberal.

The Jewish community of Vienna is absolutely fascinating for many reasons, and primarily because of the legacy of WWII. Steeped in history, the city’s stock-in-trade is indeed its many legacies: the Romans and later the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, the artistic and intellectual traditions, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Klimt, Schrodinger, Wittgenstein, and also Freud, Herzl, Buber, Mahler, and on and on. The imperial palaces and the ancient churches that dominate the landscape and are regular stops of the local tourist route are testaments to the glorious history of this city of cafes and composers.

And yet, the tale that is not explicitly told through old buildings or art museums is that of the Jews. The only synagogue that survived the Nazi takeover in 1938 is the Stadttempel, the City Temple that was spared destruction only because of its proximity to other buildings. Even so, that synagogue was only built in 1826, hinting at the fact that throughout the Middle Ages Jews were alternatively tolerated in and then expelled from Austria. Of course, the latest chapter in this cycle of alternating welcome and destruction concluded about 65 years ago, a mere blink of an eye in Vienna's history.

In the Judenplatz, the “Jew Square” in the center of Vienna, there is a memorial to the Austrian Jews that were killed by the Nazis. It is an unremarkable, low slung grey box surrounded by the names of all the camps to which they were deported, and is overshadowed by the grand traditional architecture of the buildings around the Judenplatz.

The dedication plaque at the front of the monument tells a subtle story in three languages. It reads, in German and English, “In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945."

זכר למעלה מ-65.000 יהודים אוסטריים
שנרצחו בשנים 1945-1938
.ע''י הפושעים הנציונלסוציאליסטיים ימ''ש

In Hebrew, however, there are a few additional words. The first is Posh’im. Not merely the Nazis, says the Hebrew, but the “National socialist criminals.” There is also a three-letter acronym after National Socialists - yod-mem-shin, standing for "yemah shemam." May their names be blotted out. It is a slight dig that would most likely only be noticed by our own people; the Austrian Jewish community’s way of expressing just a hint of anger and bitterness that they could not express in their adopted language, the tongue of their tormentors.

And yet, you might say that the Jewish community in Austria is thriving. After WWII, about 500 Jews remained in Vienna, and although estimates vary, there are somewhere between 10-20,000 Jews in Austria today.

Viennese Jews represent a microcosm of world Jewry. The bride, Nicole, grew up strongly identified with Orthodoxy, even though her family was not particularly “religious” in the way that Orthodoxy has redefined itself today. She and her friends were regular participants in Benei Aqiva, the Zionist Orthodox youth group, and although respectful of tradition, they were not shomer shabbat or shomer kashrut. In America, Nicole feels most comfortable in the Conservative movement.

Many of her nominally-Orthodox friends, however, in the last 20 years have moved increasingly to the right religiously, such that this wedding of two not-particularly-traditional Jews featured men and women seated separately during the ceremony and during birkat hamazon, separate dancing, and of course Nicole herself could not speak under the huppah. (Nicole tells me that some of her old Benei Aqiva friends will no longer invite her over for a Shabbat dinner, because they know that she will be driving home afterwards, and would not want to encourage her to transgress.)

But what was most striking about this wedding and our entire Viennese trip was a toast that Nicole’s younger brother Marcel gave her during the course of the evening, during which among other things, he captured the stark differences between Austrian and American Jewry. Austrian Jews, he said, are stifled by the constant reminder of the Holocaust; it is their imperative to live and thrive in this historically anti-Semitic environment, to prove to the gentiles that they are not going away. But America, where his sister now lives, is a land of freedom, a land where Jewish people can choose from a variety of options. American Jews are free of historical obligations, said Marcel, but don't forget where you came from.

While he was speaking, we felt in the room this electric moment of absolute truth, a brave attempt in the city of Freud to make the subconscious conscious. I remember thinking that here was a Jewish Malcolm X, who shouted into a microphone all of the things that African Americans could only think, for fear of upsetting white society.

So here is the irony. In the very center of Western culture, in a city that fostered so much intellectual and creative energy, Jews have been merely tolerated for 800 years. As a result, the defiant few who live there maintain zealous ties to Israel and to ever-more right-wing religious activities. The need to breed in the wake of WWII is palpable. Living among the people who gladly joined the Third Reich, Austrian Jews proudly refuse to give Hitler a posthumous victory.

And yet, here in America, where Jews live perhaps more comfortably than they have ever lived in any society anywhere, we have indeed forgotten where we came from. Why go to synagogue, teach our children Hebrew and Torah, marry Jews and have lots of Jewish children when we can build our Jewish identites by hearing really cool bands at downtown clubs?

As authors such as Jonathan Sarna and Arnold Eisen have pointed out in their books on American Jews, the trend here today is the quest for individual fulfillment rather than communal identity. It's all about the self. All about me. And this is short-sighted. Today's hip tunes will surely sound dated tomorrow, but Hebrew is the eternal language. And while JDub's people tell us that they are reaching Jews who would never set foot in Temple Israel, e.g., I am not convinced that this re-entry point will create the next generation of strongly-identified, Jewishly-knowledgeable members of our tribe.

What will it take for American Jews to recommit to the greater communal need? Will we allow ourselves to disappear through intermarriage, attrition, and simply changing the channel? Or will we find a way to re-engage our unaffiliated relatives and colleagues, building a new generation that has a strong Jewish identity and is familiar with Judaism's vast storehouses of ancient wisdom?
This is, to me, the essential question of our time.

I hope you'll join me for Part II in 4 weeks. Shabbat shalom.