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October 19, 2000

Competing Good

Samuel Freedman's 'Jew vs. Jew' examines American Jewish conflict.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/competing_good_20001020

"Good vs. evil is boring," Samuel G. Freedman likes to tell his students at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "The real drama is in competing visions of good."

His new book, "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry" (Simon & Schuster) is indeed full of drama as he tells six true tales - each one of which reads like a fine novella - of combustible conflict among Jews, from 1960 to the present. Set in communities across the country, from the Catskills to Jacksonville, Fla. to Los Angeles, the stories relate to issues of Jewish identity, feminism, the Mideast peace process, religious tradition, conversion standards, inter- and intra-denominational differences and the very meaning of community. He describes Temple Beth Am's Library Minyan, which spent three years debating whether to include the names of the matriarchs in their public liturgy; the group of Yale students suing the university for the right not to live in coed dormitories; a suburban community of Orthodox and Reform Jews in Beachwood, Ohio, battling over whether to erect a complex of Orthodox synagogues and institutions; and a right-wing Jew who attempted to bomb a Florida synagogue where Shimon Peres was speaking. The underlying issue in all the case histories is the question of what is authentically Jewish - and who gets to decide.

"I tried to create cognitive dissonance for readers, to make them feel pulled by both sides of the argument, to accept the decency of the people they disagree with," the former New York Times reporter said during an interview in his Columbia office. As in his other books, "Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School," "Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church" and "The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond," Freedman "bears witness" to experiences other than his own, always respecting the people he is writing about. "One of the most important things I've learned," he says, "is that you can't reduce these disputes to simple Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox. The line moves. The frontier of conflict is in a different place depending on the issue."

Even if there weren't a Jewish vice-presidential candidate, Freedman's book would be garnering attention because he writes so well and for his bold conclusions about American Jewish life. He doesn't see the vanishing of American Jewry, as others have predicted, but describes America's 6 million Jews as pulling toward the extremes.

Based on hundreds of interviews, many of which he conducted in Los Angeles, Freedman cites three causes for the level of hostility he finds among Jews - that Israel is now more of a divisive force than a unifier of Jews, that there's no single enemy Jews face, and that America has largely accepted Jews, with Jews now serving in the U.S. Senate and on the Supreme Court. "Nothing in the diasporic past of ghettos and oppression, and nothing in the Israeli present of forming a majority culture, has prepared Jews for the phenomenon of being embraced by a diverse society."

The award-winning author finds irreconcilable differences in opinion among Jews about unity and pluralism. He writes: "As invoked by America's Orthodox Jews, 'unity' means unity if all Jews act and think as we do, accepting the inerrancy of Torah and the yoke of all 613 commandments, the mitzvot. As invoked by America's non-Orthodox Jews, 'pluralism' means that any variation of Judaism must be accepted by everyone, no obligations required and no questions asked." Some have disputed whether the resulting conflicts amount to a civil war, as he suggests, or healthy family squabbling.

In his epilogue, he writes that "the Orthodox model has triumphed." Some critics have misread his use of the word Orthodoxy. His implication is that a Jewish identity based on religion, whether Orthodoxy or another denomination, is what will sustain Judaism. An identity centered on Jewish culture or ethnicity without religion, he writes, is not potent enough to last over generations.

Freedman smiles in agreement when he notes he has been described as a "Conservative BT," referring to ba'al teshuvah (returnee); the initials usually describe someone who's returned to Orthodoxy. The soon-to-be 45-year-old grew up in a secular Jewish home, where his parents spoke Yiddish and he was "marinated in a kind of left-wing Yiddishkayt." As a child, he was curious enough about Judaism to insist on a Bar Mitzvah, but an insensitive rabbi sent him "on a long walk away from Judaism." As an adult, he again felt those stirrings and curiosity. When "Upon This Rock" was published, the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in the New Jersey community where he had recently moved reached out to him, and "Jew vs. Jew" is dedicated, in part, to Rabbi Gerald Zelizer "for opening the door." The author has since moved back to Manhattan and is now a member of B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, where he feels especially comfortable with that congregation's emphasis on singing after his three years around a black church.

He writes that he imagines a Jewish future with four factions: Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, Conservadox, Refomative and Just Jews. Where does he place himself on this new spectrum? "Between Conservadox and Reformative. More in the Reformative camp, looking longingly at Conservadox."

Samuel Freedman, author of "Jew vs. Jew," and Ari Goldman, author of "Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today" will discuss Jews in contemporray American life at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m. (310) 652-7353.

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