January 6, 2000
Is Jewish the Next Next Thing?
Is Georgetown at the tip of the iceberg?
Madonna, Roseanne, Elizabeth Taylor and Sandra Bernhard are among the pop celebrities studying Kabbalah, a once-obscure form of Jewish mysticism undergoing a remarkable renaissance.
Best-selling books over the last year include "Kosher Sex" and "Kaddish," and in "The Big Lebowski," a recent Hollywood film, John Goodman plays a bowler who proclaims, "I never roll on Shabbos."
What's going on here? Is it "in" to be, and "do" Jewish these days?
The anecdotal evidence is strong. Michael Jackson attends an Orthodox Friday night service, comedian Adam Sandler has a hit with his "Happy Hanukah" song, kosher food products are found in supermarkets everywhere, Barbara Streisand records "Aveinu Malkenu" on a recent album, and Crown Books signs Francine Klagsbrun to write a book about the Sabbath.
Is Judaism the next big trend to sweep American society? Is there a downside to this, and if not, why do some of us feel vaguely uneasy about this seeming infatuation with things Jewish on the part of non-Jews?
Richard Siegel, the executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, notes that Jewish culture has become increasingly mainstreamed into American society, from television and movies to Broadway and literature. He says that in his travels around the country, he sees more regional theaters and symphonies and museums doing plays and music and exhibits with Jewish themes.
"The phenomenon is in the normal integration of the Jewish experience into American life," says Siegel. "Despite our demographic problems, we American Jews have been successful in maintaining our specific identity within an open society."
We still obsess over which famous personalities are Jewish, though we tend to be quite arbitrary and selective, claiming popular movie stars with tangential ties to their heritage while excluding born-Jewish criminals or other embarrassing individuals as not really one of us. We seem to have matured to the point of no longer insisting on a "Jewish seat" on the Supreme Court (though we have Ruth Bader Ginsburg), but take inordinate pride in the fact that the champion of professional wrestling is a bald brute named, simply, Goldberg.
Some Jewish leaders believe that one way to bring unaffiliated Jews back to Judaism is to show them that non-Jews are interested in Jewish teachings and ethics. If Madonna studies Kabbalah and Michael Jackson goes to shul, then maybe Jews will be impressed sufficiently to explore their own religion, according to the theory.
But Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, is not convinced that any of this adds up to a new mainstreaming of Jewish life into American culture. Forty years ago, he points out, Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr. were converting to Judaism, but so what?
Americans in general are obsessed with celebrity, and like most minority cultures, he says, American Jews are looking constantly for reassurance from the majority. "It's pathetic and anachronistic," he says, "like those books about American Jewish sports heroes. We should be beyond that by now."
Jenna Weissman Joselit, who teaches American and Jewish studies at Princeton University, puts the issue into historical perspective. Jews yearning for acceptance by non-Jews is nothing new, she says, noting that an exhibition of Bezalel art from Palestine at Madison Square Garden was a big hit in 1914, and Jews were thrilled to see Christians buying Jewish art.
"It's a symptom of our insecurity," she says, adding that the increased mixing of cultures of late may be a product of the growing rate of intermarriage and a heightened interest in "the other."
So what are we to make of all this? The evidence is clear that Jews and things Jewish are increasingly part of American life, but the impact of that presence is far more difficult to gauge, and much of the reaction is personal. Are you filled with pride when a TV sitcom character mentions how he or she celebrated Chanukah, or do you cringe with embarrassment?
The deeper question is whether this mixing of cultures will have a positive or negative effect on American Jewish life. The fear is that if America accepts Jews and their culture too readily, we will lose our distinctiveness as a people and assimilate completely. That's already happening in terms of interfaith marriage, since Christians now see Jews as acceptable marriage partners.
The positive view is that with acceptance, Jews will feel more comfortable with their identity and will be emboldened to observe their rituals and maintain their distinctive customs and lifestyle with pride.
In the end, then, it's what we make of it. We can relish the normalcy of it all, with Yiddish words (including a few off-color ones) commonly used by average Americans, or bemoan the fact that we still seem to care whether Gwyneth Paltrow is Jewish. Maybe the question we should be asking in this context is not "who is a Jew?" but who cares, and why?
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week.