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.

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11 Responses

  1. L. Oberstein says:

    I am amazed at the rage of those who condemn David Brooks in the “liberal media”. They can’t take a good word about orthodoxy. Those who really care about the Women of the Wall are few compared to those who are immersed in orthodox preparations for Pesach. I feel sorry for those who see their world disintigrating and their children disinterested. Tragically, not all of the sons and daughters who won’t be at a seder are from the non frum world. There are many homes in our world where the empty seat will not be for “Soviet Jewry” or “Syrian Jewry” as it was in my younger years ,but for children of our community who have left the embrace of our community and found their identity elsewhere. Therefore the triumphalism we sometimes feel should be tempered with mourning for our lost children who are more than we care to admit.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Around the seder table, we’ll soon be reciting texts that refer to our collective future in our home, Eretz Yisrael. The strong implication is that the most Torahdik life in our favorite American neighborhoods is no better than second best. It follows that our expressions of triumphalism, or whatever we want to call it, should not reference our community life in America as some absolute pinnacle of success. Moreover, we should really create a vast gloat-free zone so that our fellow Jews who wake up can comfortably join us in service to HaShem.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    It has been at least 30 or 40 years since the non-Orthodox have been engaging in the type of dialogue (at least the first line of it) mentioned by this blogger.

    But more to the point, there is plenty of blame to go around on all sides for mischaracterizations and misperceptions of the “other”. And unfortunately, that’s all too frequently what it is, since nowadays it’s very rare for Orthodox kids and families to have meaningful relationships with Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, “Just Jewish” or secular Jewish kids and families–and vice versa.

    Used to be that all kinds of Jews lived in the same neighborhood, with Jewish commercial establishments, Jewish Community Center, all within easy walking distance. So everyone had a basic understanding of Jewish life and of the variety of Jews within the community.

    Today, however, most Jews are in their own silos, with their own house publications, their own dogmas, their own schools and camps. And the Orthodox even have their own charities and emergency services–so compared to 30-40 years ago, certainly fewer opportunities for them to interact with other Jews (in Jewish settings), let alone others who are not Jewish.

    In my world, it used to be that there was overlap between some of the non-Orthodox and Orthodox kids so that at least they were familiar with each other’s nigunim, tefillot tunes, Shabbat zmirot, birkat hamazon melodies and quirks, etc. While this still is the case in the rarified world that I purposely choose to live in (and where there is considerable cross-fertilization across the board in my special local Jewish community), it is all too rare elsewhere.

  4. SL Zacharowicz says:

    Thank you, Mr Brooks. Sorry, Ms Horn and Ms. Eisner.

  5. ralph berger says:

    Excellent post rabbi menken.anyone who is looking for a real downer ,check out the comment section on the ny times website after the brooks column.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    There is a great future for Orthodoxy, but not in America. The economics and social dynamics needed to keep such a community and its schools going cannot hold up. In a few years most of the MO community will be in Israel.

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    To Yehoshua Friedman. I heard Bibi a number of years ago tell a group of American rabbis that one day Jews would move to Israel to get rich. He said he was serious. If the high tech boom continues, if the natural gas is actually for real and won’t be sabotaged, Israel will be a richer country. If it were humanly possible to have peace, that would unleash the economy even more. The main reason many orthodox famailies can’t make ends meet is tuition. In Israel that isn’t a problem if you have a decent job.The extra fees are minimal for expanded education. But, the cost of living is very high in Israel relative to salaries. As Yair Lapid said over and over, families can not end the month, they run out of money. So, things will have to get better if middle class American Jews will move to Israel and more importantly, if Israelis will be willing to stay in Israel and not move all over the world, to Germany of all places, to make money. There are so many Israelis in this country who would maybe go back if they could have a middle class life and there would be a hudna with the Arabs. Is it possible?

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    “Reb Yid,” saying it doesn’t make it so.

    With the possible exception of the residents of Kiryas Joel, it is not possible for Orthodox Jews to go through life without interaction with their non-Orthodox brethren. Certainly in Baltimore, the relevant community, it doesn’t work that way. Our children have non-Orthodox teachers. We see non-Orthodox doctors. We work with non-Orthodox people in our offices and businesses.

    Many non-Orthodox Jews, by contrast, have little to no contact with the Orthodox. Who moved out of those mixed, united neighborhoods? The Orthodox need to stay within walking distance of the synagogue, whereas the non-Orthodox have spread out to the suburbs, where the mix is ethnic not religious.

    To them, the Orthodox are a curiosity, and their media help them out by providing generous doses of negative misinformation. You won’t find in any Orthodox journal a counterpart to the way your typical non-Orthodox paper talks constantly, negatively, and ignorantly about the Orthodox. Today’s example is the Forward’s ridiculous editorial about OU Kitniyot Certification for Sephardic Jewry. It’s obvious that they didn’t talk to anyone at the OU, or even any Orthodox person, before printing puffery about “acknowledging the halachic legitimacy of consuming kitniyot.”

    This is not the first time that you’ve implied that Hatzalah is somehow a negative addition to the community — and I am not surprised that you refuse to sign your name to something quite so inane. But you’ve one-upped yourself with the claim that the Orthodox have “their own charities” as if those charities, many of which serve Jews of all kinds, is a divisive activity.

    As it happens, our next-door neighbor isn’t Orthodox (his wife and kids aren’t Halachically Jewish), and our kids play together all the time. But they were exceptional, deliberately moving into a neighborhood with a large Orthodox population. It’s quite silly to blame those who still form Jewish communities for the fact that non-Orthodox Jews move away, not in.

  9. Reb Yid says:

    I wrote my post a couple of days before it appeared, but Gary Rosenblatt’s superb editorial in this week’s JEWISH WEEK drives home my point even further.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    David Brooks’ piece, as in many of his articles, and books ( especially “Bobos in Paradise”, where he discusses Orthopraxy) was filled with astute observations , but this time about and why shopping in our communities has progressed from the days of the sawdust filled butcher store to a store where you can get what you need to run a Kosher and halachically compliant home, as well as not be assaulted by the magazines at the checkout counter. As far as the need for the Torah observant community to have its own Tzedakos, the same exist because they are perceived as definite community necessities. With respect to Hatzalah, anyone who has ever been the recipient of their response on any day at any time of the year can testify to the fact that the volunteers who respond to a call are the great unsung heroes of our communities whose response time is well documented to be more rapid than their paid competitors. The comments by the editor of the Forward illustrate her ignorance of the Orthodox world ( i.e. confusing YU with the Charedi Brooklyn world).

    As far as Ms. Horn’s comments, the decline of CJ as a movement with any ties to halacha and the inability to develope a core interested in preserving the Solomon Schechter schools especially in communities where one would think that such schools would be natural draw, speaks volumes.

  11. Mr. Cohen says:

    In response to Jane Eisner:

    I feel frustrated when I see Orthodox Jews purchasing and reading
    the Forward and other Orthodox-bashing newspapers;
    I feel they are committing a blatant act of betrayal.

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