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n the latest issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Allan Arkush, a Judaic studies professor at New York’s Binghamton University, surveys the American Jewish scene and comes to some depressing conclusions. Along the way, though, are some interesting insights.

He begins by setting out two contrasting early 20th-century visions of how the Jewish story would play out in America. One is that of the British Jewish author Israel Zangwill, in his play The Melting Pot, the title of which became the universal metaphor for assimilation into America society, which he saw as the multi-ethnic crucible out of which “G?d is making the American.”

The other vision was that of Wisconsin philosophy professor Horace Kallen, who argued that America’s diverse ethnic communities would not ultimately homogenize into a unitary societal mainstream. Instead, each would achieve self-realization by developing its own culture, and indeed, it was Kallen who coined the term “cultural pluralism.”

He then cites the influential 1963 book Beyond the Melting Pot by sociologists Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which argued that “the point about the melting pot... is that it did not happen,” at least not in urban centers like New York. With the rise of “hyphenated Americans” who maintained their ethnic identities, it seemed by mid-century that Kallen’s view had prevailed.

Even to this day, there remains a cohort of American Jews who, even if they are not remotely religious or are at least far from Orthodoxy, are engaged both professionally and personally with intellectual and artistic pursuits of a Jewish nature. Professor Arkush is one of them; he attended Jewish institutions and camps, is a longtime teacher in university Judaic studies programs and adult education programs, and is an author, translator, and editor of Jewish-themed books and magazines.

“Yet,” he continues, “I have to say, too, that I’ve never been able to escape, from the very beginning, a sense that I was fighting a losing battle.” He recalls a conversation in a rowboat 54 years ago in which his counselor at the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah exhorted his campers to “go back home… and remake our communities in the image of the camp…. Our job was to build a future in which it was not just the rabbi and a small coterie of his supporters who lived genuinely Conservative Jewish lives but the whole congregation.”

The young Arkush didn’t argue with his impassioned counselor, but as he spoke, “I thought of all of my classmates who had dropped out of Hebrew school right after their bar and bat mitzvahs…. How could we ever induce them to prefer Friday night services to movies and Saturday morning services to playing golf or skiing? It seemed far more likely that we would slip away, one by one, to join them.”

And, he concedes, since then,

I’ve heard a lot of other pep talks. I’ve even given some. And I’ve been part of a number of Jewish programs and projects that have fared quite well. But I’ve never felt like I was on the winning team…. I have never lost sight of the large and ever-increasing distance between people more or less like me and the great majority of Jews in America….

Outside of my usual Jewish haunts, I less and less often meet Jews who know or care very much about Jewish culture or religion. While there are exceptions to the rule, the typical Jews I meet are evidence not of a thriving cultural pluralism but of the widespread disappearance of the selfhood Kallen thought to be intrinsic and inalienable…. Glazer and Moynihan notwithstanding, we never really got beyond the melting pot.

He introduces a forthcoming book by Jack Wertheimer, the Conservative Jewish historian who “has over the years written many penetrating studies of the American Jewish condition… which reflect a keen, deeply informed understanding of the disintegration… as well as a persistent refusal to acknowledge its inevitability.” His new book sounds like it continues in that ambivalent vein.

Wertheimer surveys efforts to revitalize non-Orthodox Jewry through experimentation with the “next iteration of a new/old Judaism,” which “remix Judaism for the current age” through the creation of “more cohesive, participatory, and spirited communities.” True to form, he views many of these developments with a mix of skepticism and hopefulness.

For his part, however, writes Professor Arkush,

when I weigh everything that I myself have witnessed together with all of the statistics signaling decline — Conservative Judaism has gone from representing more than 40 percent of American Jewry to less than 20 percent in a generation, 28 percent of those raised Reform have left the Jewish religion altogether, and so on — I can’t muster any comparable hope for the future of Judaism in America, except among the Orthodox.

He follows this with a report of his experience several years ago when, after giving a talk to a group of students at Yeshiva University, his hosts walked him across the street to show him a bit more of their institution. It was around 9 p.m. on a weeknight, and although he doesn’t recall what he had been expecting,

I do remember my sense of astonishment when we entered a large, very crowded beit midrash (study hall). I was… surprised to see hundreds of young men robustly and loudly engaged, in pairs, in the study of rabbinic texts when I myself was just about ready to go to bed. While I had been in batei midrash before… I had never witnessed a scene like this. Here, I thought (though I didn’t say it, perhaps because I felt that my hosts wanted to hear it), if anywhere, is a force capable of resisting the pressures of assimilation. I can think of nothing like it outside of the precincts of Orthodoxy.

 

THEN, TO FURTHER EXPLAIN HIS PESSIMISM about the American Jewish future, he writes what may be the single most important sentence in his essay: “I can’t believe in the long-term survivability of any form of Judaism in our modern liberal democracy that isn’t rooted in solid convictions and consolidated by a disciplined and more or less segregated communal life.”

Arkush’s essay ends on a note that’s very sobering for anyone who loves the Jewish People:

Some Jews who are much less rigorously religious may yet manage to sustain a strong presence on the scene, but it is undeniable that their overall numbers are shrinking. Those Jews who cannot quite say yes to G-d but cannot say no to Jewish peoplehood will fit, a little uncomfortably, into some of these communities…. And the large majority of the rest of America’s Jews will in all likelihood (although not inevitably, as I must remind myself), like millions of their predecessors, disappear in the great American melting pot that continues to bubble away.

As for the Orthodox, however, he says that while he doesn’t “want to admit that the game is over… the guys in the black uniforms do look like the team that will eventually win.” The “solid convictions and… disciplined and more or less segregated communal life” that he identifies as the sole guarantors of Judaism’s long-term viability in our society are attributes, he writes, that “the Modern Orthodox possess… in good measure, and the ultra-Orthodox do so to an even larger degree.” As a result, they “will go on, for the most part, doing what they do.”

But I wonder whether this non-Orthodox academic is being too charitable to the Orthodox.

Of all of the documented ills owing to our ongoing infatuation with technology, the one least discussed is its role as a prime vehicle for inviting the surrounding society, its trends, its values, its personalities, into every corner of our lives. All these little boxes, they’re spiritual Trojan Horses in miniature, subtly transforming how Jewishly we think and feel.

This, in combination with growing affluence, spiritual vapidity, and other factors, has thrust our community into the throes of a very real process of acculturation to gentile society. After largely finishing off secular Jewry, assimilation is at — perhaps even within — our gates. Does Allan Arkush appreciate the extent to which, as a result of this sustained assault, the strength of frum Jews’ convictions and their commitment to segregation from society are progressively weakening?

Then again, do we?

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 722. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com