The recent Pew survey on Jewish America released earlier this month seems to confirm what many already believe: those of us outside of the Orthodox community are finding ourselves increasingly outnumbered, due to our own apparently suicidal commitment to liberal American values. It seems that the tradition of cultural Judaism in American life will soon be as endangered as Orthodoxy was in the 1940s, and that Orthodoxy, in a stunning reversal that nobody saw coming, will soon take from us the power to define what it means to be Jewish in America.
But the answer, as I see it, is not to abandon cultural Judaism, even if it means intermarrying our way into oblivion. Through my work on Jews of Today, I came to know some Hasidim and had several opportunities to hear their thoughts on the future of Jewish life in America. What an insight that gave. They — ”they,” the handful of New York Hasidic men I spoke with at any length — are as scared of the collapse of their communities as we are of ours.
Where we have a crisis of numbers, they have a crisis of faith. The old leaders, the rabbonim that built Hasidus in America, are almost all dead. Their heirs have taken up arms against the internet, seeing in it the potential undoing of their earlier victory over television, radio, and other forms of mass-media hostile to traditional life. Yet the internet, at least in the form of a smartphone, is needed for most to make a living.
I nightly see Hasidim sitting in their parked minivans, well after hours, their faces lit up blue. Yiddish internet forums are proliferating, allowing Hasidim to connect with each other on a whole spectrum of topics, including that of dissatisfaction with the mores and strictures of the community. Before, they say, if you were unhappy, a misfit, you assumed you were the only one. No one would talk openly about such feelings. Now, a whole underground of malcontents has formed anonymously and pseudonymously online. How long before that underground makes itself felt above ground?
Back to us cultural Jews. Demographically, we are already defeated. As the Hasidim have 10 kids, we have 1.5, and its likely that not even the 0.5 will be halachically Jewish. So we, the descendants of Jewish immigrants who embrace, rather than reject the treyfe medina, who raise Larry David over the Baal Shem Tov, who break the fast without ever fasting, are disappearing.
But it seems our numbers might soon be replenished by a new wave of Jews hungry for the larger America, again refugees from the old world, only this time not needing to cross an ocean. We, the cultural Jews, must leave them something to inherit, a tradition of reconciling Jewishness with the demands and offerings of American life. So make art, Jews! Make art about being Jewish in this country, in all its forms. Not as apologetics, not as nostalgia, but as a real, hard-thought, heartfelt legacy, so that whoever finds themselves in our position in the future, won’t feel like they are the first to inhabit it.Find out more about Michael Levin here.
Michael Levin is a Brooklyn-based artist and the author of Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress. Purchase a copy here.