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.
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.