Jewish Journal

A House Divided


by Gene Lichtenstein

Posted on Jul. 10, 1997 at 8:00 pm

My grandparents were Orthodox Jews. They arrived on these shores shortly before the onset of the first world war and had four children, two sons and two daughters. Two of the children were artist-intellectuals, somewhat on the bohemian side (a musician and an artist) and quite political; two were conventionally middle-class. None followed in my grandparents' religious footsteps.

In my early years (I was at their house much of the time), I thought of my grandparents as different, as European. My grandfather taught me to read; my grandmother, how to play cards. They cooked my favorite foods and gently schooled me in manners. I adored them and was adored in return.

Their house was not without conflict. They argued about the proper course to follow with their children. My grandfather -- more modern, more worldly, himself a singer-intellectual -- prevailed. You either accept your children for who they are, he insisted, or you lose them. My grandmother went along, albeit reluctantly. She believed that families should not waver in their religious commitments. Perhaps she hoped to get her own back with her favorite grandchild, me. And, so, they kept a warm family together for a few years (they both died young), watching their sons and daughters move away from Judaism but not away from being Jewish. In the process, they gave me some glowing memories. Who am I to say, today, whether they were right or wrong?

I am reminded of them and of my own family history when I read the comments and arguments that appear on these and the accompanying pages of The Jewish Journal. The divisions in the United States between Orthodox Jews on one side and Reform/Conservative Jews on the other have widened over the years, perhaps hastened by the increase in intermarriage, by the tendencies of the two groups to take opposing sides recently on political issues, by the demographic changes that have tilted in favor of the Orthodox.

In the past, the split resembled a family quarrel, two factions going their separate ways. Since they rarely came in contact with one another -- there were few family gatherings -- anger was not often expressed, and overt hostility was generally kept to a minimum. The Orthodox were viewed as marginalized, at least by most American Jews.

There was, of course, a certain amount of condescension on both sides, and some embarrassment on the part of Reform Jews at the dress and cultural style of the haredim. This was more prevalent 40 years ago, when American Jews were struggling to be accepted by the larger society: to gain admission to the major law firms, to the elite universities and to the better, restricted suburbs. Philip Roth's story "Eli the Fanatic" captures this with a certain comic acerbity. This, fortunately, no longer holds true today.

Given our history in the United States, there is an irony today in the fact that Jews have, in general, been accepted into mainstream society, have become part of almost every major institution, only to be rejected by a small group of fellow American Jews. The Orthodox indictment would seem to be fairly straightforward: The price of adapting so successfully to modern America, of embracing it so completely, has been a falling away from Judaism. It matters not that some, perhaps many, Reform and Conservative Jews observe the traditions, from Shabbat to keeping kosher; their brand of Judaism is inauthentic.

In the past, these differences have carried a low profile for most of us. The rabbinate has been an exception, for there, the back of the Orthodox hand has left an ever-present mark. But we have moved in two separate worlds, rarely coming together. It is possible to argue that those among us who have integrated American society have made it easier for Orthodox Jews to follow their own path in the United States with ease, freedom and acceptance. But equally on their part, it can be said, they have kept a road alive for the rest of us that extends back to what looks like a Torah-grounded past which we are grateful to see still exists.

But time changes everything. An active Jewish presence as well as Jewish numbers have declined within federations and within Reform and Conservative Judaism; accompanying this numerical falling away, not incidentally, we have witnessed the rise of Orthodox Jews in prominence and as an active, expanding percentage of U.S. Jewry. With this has come a competitive demand for political influence. Orthodox Jews have begun to flash elbows and express a separate voice; sometimes, as they see it, The Authentic Jewish Voice. And, so, the division has become as much a political struggle as a religious or ideological one. At present, the outcome here is far from certain. But the schism is wide, the rancor harsh.

And, now, to complicate matters, ideology and politics suddenly are swirled together, with the conversion bill in Israel and the issue framed as Who is a Jew? -- both there and here.

The question arises for those who seek some comity among us: Is there a common political goal that might unite all religious Jews. I think so, namely, there is a need for a spiritual center in contemporary America, or, in other terms, there is a need to fill the hole that lies at the center of our consumer life. Surely, this is a bond that is shared by all, a genuine focus for a dialogue that can bring the family of Jews together within the same house.

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