Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to assist in the development of a book website for Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, co-authored by Edgar Bronfman and Beth Zasloff. Beth recently approached me about blogging for the Jewish Book Council, and I’m pleased to share her thoughts below on how she came to write the book, her own struggles with Judaism, and the Jewish identity she wants to instill in her children. Read below, enjoy, and share your thoughts. As always, we’d love to hear from you!
For most of my adult life I have been, like many other American Jews, secular in my outlook and uncertain about my commitment to living a Jewish life, whatever that might mean. Where I differ from the norm is in the time I have spent employed convincing others to commit to Judaism, most recently as the co-author of a book with philanthropist Edgar M. Bronfman: Hope, Not Fear: a Path to Jewish Renaissance.
My first job after I graduated from college was an internship at an organization that promoted Jewish education. This was 1996, and the Jewish communal focus was “Jewish continuity,” a phrase that had come into use since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey sparked the fear that American Jewry would intermarry itself into extinction. I found all the discussion of how to “get” the Jewish young people pretty alienating. I didn’t like the feeling of Jewish organizations breathing down my neck, trying to shape my identity. When the internship was over, I felt a sense of relief to have some distance from Jewish community.
The opportunity to work on a book with Edgar M. Bronfman, former CEO of Seagram and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, came when I was in my late twenties. Bronfman disliked the term “continuity.” The phrase he wanted to bring forward was “Jewish renaissance,” and this was the subject of the book I was hired to help him write. The idea is that American Jews need to do more than continue the Jewish life of their grandparents, which took shape amid the struggles of the immigrant experience and the reality of anti-Semitism in everyday life. The book’s title, Hope, Not Fear, expresses the idea that fear for Jewish survival can no longer be the driving force in the American Jewish community. Young Jews, having grown up comfortably in a society that is welcoming to Jews, need to recreate Jewish life for themselves. The book also argues that Jews should stop talking about intermarriage as an enemy or danger. Instead, the communal focus should turn to welcoming non-Jewish partners and creating vital communities that will be attractive to Jews and non-Jews alike.
The difference between continuity and renaissance may seem rhetorical, but the shift felt right to me. And I found some important points of connection with Edgar Bronfman. He does not often attend synagogue, and says publicly that he does not believe in the God of the Old Testament. After what he describes as a lifetime of alienation from Jewish practice, he started reading the Talmud in his sixties, and now holds weekly text study sessions at his office for his staff and others. The tradition of text study is for me one of the great draws to Judaism. I first encountered it during my high school summer on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel (which Bronfman created and continues to fund), where there was a thrill to jumping into interpretation alongside kids from Orthodox day schools.
My work with Edgar Bronfman came as I faced a new set of choices about the role Judaism would play in my life. Both my daughters were born during the time I was working on the book, and I had to make decisions about Hebrew School and synagogue membership, significant investments of time and money I wasn’t sure I was ready for. I saw both how little and how much it takes to create what the book’s final chapter calls the most important piece for Jewish identity — the Jewish home. Without a strong religious commitment or an active community of Jews, even something as simple as lighting Shabbat candles takes the effort of prioritizing, of weighing the value of one activity against another. I know I want to bring up my three children with an understanding and appreciation of Judaism, but I don’t always find the time and energy to create the kinds of Jewish experiences I have in mind.
Sometimes I feel almost apologetic to the Jewish community for investing in me. One of the ongoing debates in Jewish education has been in-reach versus outreach — is it worth devoting time and money to secular Jews whose interest in Judaism is unreliable? Would it be better to let Jews like me fall away, and invest in the committed core? But then I get back into the mindset of the convincer. I think that Judaism is fascinating in all its layers: its history, texts, ethics, rituals and traditions. I don’t want to give up on the idea that it has something to offer to people who are secular, and that secular people have something to contribute to the new shape of American Judaism.
I also recognize in myself a childlike sense of pushing back at a Jewish community that wants something of me, even as I have been part of the identity building enterprise myself. Among Jews below a certain age, there seems to be a need to feel like we’re always wanted, but also to maintain an ironic distance from the Jewish institutions that hover around us and make us feel guilty. There’s no doing away with guilt or irony in Jewish life — we would certainly be lost without it — but I know from experience that there’s no monolithic Jewish parent out there trying to reshape your life. It’s not Edgar Bronfman, who, like many of the convincers, has done a lot of work to convince himself that Judaism matters, and to explore why. For myself, I know it’s time to take ownership of what I value in Judaism, and to figure out how to share this with my kids.
Beth Zasloff is the co-author, with Edgar M. Bronfman, of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, which will be released in paperback on October 26, 2010. Her fiction and essays have been published in JANE magazine, in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, and in the anthology Third Mind: Creative Writing Through Visual Art. She has taught writing at New York University, Johns Hopkins University, and in New York City public schools.
Beth Zasloff has taught writing at NYU, at Johns Hopkins, and in New York City public schools. She is director of the Midtown Workmen’s Circle School, a progressive Jewish community, and co-author, with Edgar M. Bronfman, of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (St. Martin’s). She and her husband Joshua Steckel received the Studs and Ida Terkel Award for Hold Fast to Dreams.