Zev Eleff is the author of Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism: A Doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry. He is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

In July 1984, Ann Lan­ders penned a response to a woman in Dal­las who had had enough of her new­ly Ortho­dox chil­dren. The let­ter-writer, the irri­tat­ed Not Kosher Enough for Our Chil­dren in Texas,” com­plained that her son and daugh­ter-in-law had recent­ly embraced the Ortho­dox Jew­ish reli­gion,” a deci­sion that had tak­en a step toward fam­i­ly divi­sive­ness and gen­er­at­ed ill will.” The Dal­las woman found it ter­ri­bly offen­sive that her son refused to eat in his par­ents’ home, even though I wouldn’t dream of serv­ing shell­fish, bacon or ham or pork” — icon­ic non-kosher items. Nor would he answer the tele­phone on the Sab­bath, leav­ing the con­cerned moth­er to won­der whether a pro­to­col was nec­es­sary if God for­bid, there were a tragedy in the family.”

In truth, the sev­en­ty-year-old Tex­an con­fessed that she could get past the dietary and Sab­bath restric­tions. More than any­thing else, she wor­ried about the idio­syn­crat­ic behav­ior of her born-again” Ortho­dox chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. First, her daugh­ter-in-law tend­ed to serve gas­tro­nom­i­cal­ly chal­leng­ing foods. When we eat at their house the food is so heavy it gives us heart­burn and indi­ges­tion,” she told the renowned advice colum­nist. Sec­ond, the whole Sab­bath leisure expe­ri­ence appeared to her some­how un-Amer­i­can: They just sit [at] home and do noth­ing. No TV. No cards. Noth­ing.” Third, she feared for her grand­chil­dren, who she imag­ined would be con­sid­ered pecu­liar by their friends” as they got older.

Landers’s mes­sage was appar­ent: in Judeo-Chris­t­ian Amer­i­ca, reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties were sup­posed to con­form to those red-white-and-blue val­ues. In 1955, Will Herberg’s best-sell­ing Protes­tant-Catholic-Jew had con­vinced mil­lions of Amer­i­cans that all three of these reli­gions served as steam­ing pots intend­ed to boil out all of the hyphen­at­ed descrip­tors and extra­ne­ous cul­ture that got in the way of becom­ing tru­ly Amer­i­can, and Landers’s advice resound­ing­ly echoed this sentiment.

Ortho­dox lead­ers would have object­ed to the columnist’s rec­om­men­da­tion. The appli­ca­tion was off, and fur­ther­more encroached upon the rigid stan­dards of Jew­ish law. Yet the idea prob­a­bly res­onat­ed with many Ortho­dox Jews who sought to blend tra­di­tion­al Judaism with basic Amer­i­can val­ues. Armed with a strong philo­soph­i­cal under­pin­ning, these folks pushed for mid­dle­class refine­ment, advanced edu­ca­tion for young women and men and a healthy embrace of high- and mid­dle­brow cul­ture. When­ev­er and wher­ev­er pos­si­ble, they would have it, Ortho­dox Jews should endeav­or to syn­the­size the best of Judaism and America. 

But not every­one agreed. Landers’s advice trou­bled Rab­bi Pin­chas Stolper of the Ortho­dox Union, prag­mat­i­cal­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly. As the for­mer direc­tor of the Nation­al Con­fer­ence of Syn­a­gogue Youth (NCSY), Stolper had made a career out of con­vinc­ing reli­gious­ly unini­ti­at­ed young peo­ple that Ortho­dox Judaism offered great sub­stance to life. As one of the many pied pipers of the grow­ing Ba’al Teshu­va Move­ment (lit­er­al­ly, Mas­ter of Repen­tance”),” Stolper could tes­ti­fy to the thou­sands of Jews who had returned” to Ortho­dox Judaism. He there­fore dashed off a pri­vate note to Ann Lan­ders to dis­pel her notions of all-or-noth­ing Amer­i­can­ism. He told the pop­u­lar colum­nist of the count­less Jews who observe the Sab­bath” and the tens of thou­sands more [who] have joined their ranks.” No doubt, Stolper’s num­bers were exag­ger­at­ed but this mat­tered lit­tle in his qui­et polemic. Not using the phone, the car or the tele­vi­sion on the Sab­bath is one of life’s great­est bless­ings,” he wrote. What could be more reward­ing and relax­ing than one day off from the tech­no­log­i­cal bar­rage, the slav­ery to gad­gets, the noise and bab­ble of the media?” Stolper also had had some choice words for Lan­ders’ cor­re­spon­dent in Texas:

The lady says that they sit at home and do noth­ing. No TV. No Cards. Noth­ing.” TV and cards are noth­ing” even on a plain Tues­day — on the Sab­bath, Ortho­dox Jews enjoy fes­tive fam­i­ly meals, rest and relax­ation, prayer, read­ing, good con­ver­sa­tion, Torah study, vis­its to neigh­bors — it is a day of rest, joy and spir­i­tu­al ele­va­tion. As for lights and air-con­di­tion­ing, that’s all on auto­mat­ic clocks like any good mod­ern estab­lish­ment. As to heart­burn and indi­ges­tion — some Jews enjoy eat­ing heavy foods — but this has noth­ing to do with the kosher laws. I know Ortho­dox Jews who are veg­gies,” health nuts,” and all the rest.

In a way, Rab­bi Stolper had band­ed togeth­er with oth­er small­er reli­gious and racial groups in the Unit­ed States who, in the 1980s, argued for a mul­ti­cul­tur­al out­look. These advo­cates sug­gest­ed that hyphen­at­ed iden­ti­ties like Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can” or Jew­ish-Amer­i­can” were hard­ly incon­sis­tent with the pre­vail­ing cul­ture in the Unit­ed States. This view reject­ed the post­war melt­ing pot” notions of the Amer­i­can per­son­al­i­ty, believ­ing it too sti­fling of nar­row. This argu­ment was what soci­ol­o­gist Charles Lieb­man described around this time as com­part­men­tal­iza­tion.” Ortho­dox Jews, observed the social sci­en­tist, tend­ed to sep­a­rate areas of their lives that could not, in their view, be syn­er­gized. To the con­trary, men like Rab­bi Stolper won over adher­ents on the sup­po­si­tion that it was per­fect­ly fea­si­ble and accept­able to com­part­men­tal­ize rather than synthesize.

In the final analy­sis, claimed Stolper, where there is love, car­ing and good will there is no rea­son why the chil­dren and the par­ents can­not keep each oth­er hap­py with­out break­ing any of God’s laws.” No doubt, his rec­om­men­da­tion came from a good place and was indica­tive of the suc­cess of the Ba’al Teshu­va Move­ment. It also sig­naled, how­ev­er sub­tly, a sea change in main­stream Ortho­dox Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy — one with unsub­tle implications. 

Zev Eleff is the chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer of the Hebrew The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege, Chica­go. He is the author of five books and over thir­ty scholas­tic arti­cles. His book Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism: A Doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry was recent­ly pub­lished by the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Society.

Relat­ed Content:

Zev Eleff is the chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer of the Hebrew The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege, Chica­go. He is the author of five books, includ­ing Liv­ing from Con­ven­tion to Con­ven­tion: A His­to­ry of the NCSY, 1954 – 1980, and edi­tor of Men­tor of Gen­er­a­tions: Reflec­tions on Rab­bi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He has also authored more than thir­ty schol­ar­ly articles.

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