Ear­li­er this week, Michael Levin wrote about encoun­ter­ing the Hasidic enclave for the first time and the why and how of his art and research on Hasidism. He is a Brook­lyn-based artist and the author of Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress. Michael has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

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.