January 12, 2006
Bye Bye Diaspora, Hello ‘New Jews’
"New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora" by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer (New York University Press, 2005).
Earlier this month, I participated in a consultation on "Jewish community in an era of looser connections." Despite the presence of various paradigm-shifting luminaries, more than one reference was made to three absent influences, specifically, two people and a book. The people: Aaron Bisman and Matisyahu; the book: "New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora." Bisman's JDub Records seeks "cross-cultural ... dialogue" through music indigenous to just about anywhere except Israel; Matisyahu, JDub's breakout idol, is a baal teshuvah Lubavitcher who sings "Chasidic reggae." They are the New Jews to whom the book's authors, Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, refer.
Aviv, a sociologist, and Shneer, a historian, are both native Angelenos who now teach at the University of Denver. They argue that the bipolar models of home and exile, center and periphery, Israel and Diaspora, no longer apply to contemporary Jewish life. "What," they ask, "does ... an upper-middle-class professional, secular Jew in Los Angeles have in common with a working-class Israeli Sephardic religious Jew in Bnei Brak except the fact that each one calls herself a Jew?"
The authors propose a new map with "multiple homelands" that displaces Israel from "the center of the Jewish universe." They point out that since the mid-19th century, most Jewish religious innovation has originated in the United States, rather than in Europe or Israel. As of 2003, more people emigrated from Israel to Russia than vice versa, and New York is the communal and philanthropic center of Jewish life. Ultimately, the authors find, contemporary Jews are at home wherever they live. "New Jews," they argue, "connect emotionally and culturally with multiple places and traverse routes across national boundaries but are nonetheless rooted in a specific place they call home."
In five case studies, Aviv and Shneer explore the implications of their argument. In Moscow, they find an increasingly vibrant Jewish urban center where Jews want to live, not leave. An examination of organized youth tourism to Poland and Israel uncovers a manipulative identity-building agenda that reveals the desperation of late 1990s "continuity" campaigns -- but also points toward a future in which Jews crisscross the globe to explore their diverse cultural heritage. Two other chapters complement one another. A minisequel to their previous book, "Queer Jews," considers collective identities that connect across geopolitical boundaries, and an ethnographic meditation explores the deep diversity cohabiting within the boundaries of New York City.
Finally, Los Angeles stars in a study of the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center. Aviv and Shneer provide long-overdue histories of the creation of these two institutions -- and important critiques of their respective programs. At the Museum of Tolerance, the authors highlight the tension between the universalistic message of tolerance and the particularistic focus on the Shoah, a tension that leaves the visitor "suspicious of the comforts of America." At the Skirball, they find a deeply assimilationist message in which Jewish values explicitly are presented as indigenously American. Even as the Skirball upends the logic of Diaspora and exile, the authors observe, it remains "intolerant of difference" when such difference might divide Jews from other Americans.
Religion largely is absent from the discussion, though this appears to be by design. Freed from the theological bonds of Klal Yisrael -- though by no means dismissing its importance -- the authors make no apologies for their challenge to the political centrality of Israel in secular "Jewish geography, culture, and memory." They question the sociological utility of thinking about some entity called The Jewish People.
"The only thing that Jews have in common," Aviv and Shneer conclude, "is the fact that they self-identify as Jews."
To those who grew up within the narratives of the Holocaust and the return to Zion, this will be distressing; to those in Aviv and Shneer's generation, like Bisman and Matisyahu, as well as to Chabad emissaries no less than Conservative and Reform outreach advocates -- it is old news.
"New Jews'" greatest strength -- that it is an open-ended introduction to a conversation, rather than a self-contained argument -- also may be its primary weakness. Although I agree with Aviv and Shneer's assertion that contemporary Jews are at home where they are, rather than in exile from an imagined homeland, I would have liked to see them explore some of the more dynamic implications of Jewish cultural transnationalism, or what scholars call "flows." To study flows is to follow the movement of ideas, money, even music. Debbie Friedman tells of a Polish youth group's request to hear the "traditional" melody for "Havdalah" (they meant her own, of course); I have sung Adat Ari El Rabbi Moshe Rothblum's "V'Shamru" at a Czechoslovak Shabbaton. The late Pakistani Sufi musician Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan wrote a qawwali called, "Allah Hu"; a group of Americans and Israelis living in Israel adopted, adapted and exported the chant to the United States, where it was popularized by Debbie Friedman, Danny Maseng and New York's Congregation B'nai Jeshurun as the liturgical song "Hallelu."
The authors also do not contend with the sporadic but serious conflicts over Jewish being-at-home, whether in Paris and Brussels or on "Bill O'Reilly" and MSNBC. In the United States, controversies last year over Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and this year over "Christianization" and the "War on Christmas" paradoxically juxtapose cultural complacency and communal insecurity. In Western Europe, anti-Semitic attacks by immigrant Arabs reflect both anti-Israel political violence and the jealous rage of the socially marginal against those perceived to have made it "inside," those who are "at home." These, too, are the experiences of "New Jews."
Still, one hardly can fault the authors for provoking the reader to respond. And this is Aviv and Shneer's greatest achievement with this book: to force us, gently but insistently, to consider the global implications of a world where Zion is a given and not a proposal; where perfectly respectable Jews emigrate from Jerusalem and make pilgrimages to New York; where, indeed, Los Angeles is the center of a Jewish universe.
J. Shawn Landres is the director of research at Synagogue 3000 and a visiting research fellow at UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies.