January 20, 2000
The Veil is Lifting
When I first began speaking before Jewish groups some years ago, I was urged by program organizers: "Make them cry."
I was confused. True, my husband had died, and I was raising my young child alone. But that wasn't my main message, which focused on Jewish success in America. And anyway, I like to laugh. I just am not sad enough.
The big success stories on the Jewish circuit, once the Israeli army generals and pioneers lost their star-quality, have traditionally been those by speakers who could draw on personal experience to evoke national tragedy. Holocaust survivors. Kindertransport veterans. Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hidden Jews who discovered their Jewish identity only by accident.
In our sincere effort to pay tribute to the heroes and victims of the 20th century, nothing has been more intrinsic to Jewish organizational life than the three-hanky weep.
But as intimate connection to history was lost, and the numbers of committed Jews, we relied on communal pain as a vehicle of transformation. For good reason: Crying often leads to catharsis, and catharsis prompts reconnection to history and heritage. Not to mention a better fund-raising drive. As our numbers dwindled and our common experience less secure, crying was a glue that could keep us together until dessert was served.
So you can imagine my amazement when I was ordered by Ilene Berg and Melanie Ross, the exuberant mother-daughter co-chairs of last weekend's sold-out Generation to Generation luncheon for the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance at the Calabasas Inn, "Do not make them cry!" Their event brought together 270 Jewish women, average age 41, many of whom had never been to an event sponsored by the organized Jewish community. This was not the time for lamentation.
And I'm not allowed to make them cry in San Antonio, TX this weekend, either, when the topic will be "New Jewish Women Role-models: Madeleine Albright, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Monica Lewinsky"! And in St. Petersburg, FL last month, the topic was "Baby Boomers Return" stressing the success story, not the calamity, of community. If they cried in St. Petersburg, it was over lost time.
Beyond my own speeches there's an undeniable turn toward the positive. Hebrew Union College and USC's Institute for the Study of Jews in the West are sponsoring a two day conclave of America's leading Jewish historians, Feb. 6 and 7. Its title: "The Reappearing American Jew: Identity and Continuity." The theme: how the last century's experience in America, and our history of thriving in multi-cultural settings over 3,000 years, has prepared us for a Jewish revival.
Recently, I met with Andrew Cushnir, a 36-year-old attorney and advisor to Eli Broad's SunAmerica Corp. Cushnir heads the new Leadership Development Council (LDC) of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles aimed at bringing 22-45 year old leaders back into community life. On New Years' Eve, some two dozen young leaders spent the weekend at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, lighting Shabbat candles and toasting the new millennium.
What drives these new leaders? Cushnir told me, "We are not like the Baby Boomers. We know that Jewish community works.
"And the way to reach us is not with guilt and tragedy. For us Jewish community is a value in itself. We want to give back." Their desire is to make the institutions of Jewish life function even better.
One day I'll give Cushnir the column he and his group deserve in their own right. But for now I must marvel at the shift implicit in the goals he defined. My own generation of boomers was ambivalent at best about Jewish life. We reevaluated and reconstructed everything. But here, in the year 2000, comes the Leadership Development Council, our younger cousins, making peace with it all: Not for nothing is LDC's symbol the havdalah candle; the three entwined wicks symbolize Community, Campaign and Meaning.
Now there are some who will argue that this turn away from the tragic is bad for the Jewish people. Thane Rosenbaum, writing in last week's New York Jewish Week, writes about the new Holocaust backlash, pointing specifically to films that treat the Shoah with disrespectful irony. I suspect he would find the taste for celebration in today's young Jewish groups disconcerting, a relinquishing of the burden of memory.
But I think not. The next generation of Jews -- the lovely, energized thirtysomethings -- know their history and its sorrows. But sorrow does not tell the full story of the Jewish world in which they live: a world of day schools, of synagogue building campaigns, and where spirituality is not reserved for "Kaddish" ritual, but is part of the optimistic air they breathe. They need -- we all need -- to be allowed a fuller range of emotional expression than the shedding of a tear.
When I speak to such a group, today, the laughter comes easy.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press.)
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.