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Phoebe Maltz on the Singles Culture of American Judaism

Phoebe Maltz  |  Spring 2007  -  Number 205


In New York City it often feels as if all Jewish events are Jewish singles events. The 92nd Street Y hosts seminars on ‘How to Meet More Men After 40’; ‘Date Bait’ events for various categories of singles, including ‘professionals’ (woe betide the single Jewish unskilled worker), and a $35 event called ‘Dating Circles’, a speed-dating event led by someone with a PhD. The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan insists on its website that it does not offer ‘programming that focuses on matchmaking or speed-dating’. Nonetheless, the JCC does hold workshops on interfaith dating, teaching men how to deal with the opposite sex and one called ‘What’s the Deal with Jewish Men and Jewish Women?’ in which participants

explore the stereotypes and history of the relationships between Jewish men and women, and discover what influences the choices we makRegina’s Lost Worlde about who we date.

It also hosts a monthly event, ‘Jewish and Single in New York?’ for those 39 and over.

Even college students, those in the age group most likely to be enjoying rather than lamenting singledom, are targets. New York University, where I am a graduate student, hosted an undergraduate event on 20 January called ‘Singles Jewnite’, which apparently included speed-dating and a date auction. Facebook, an online networking site aimed at American college students, has groups with names like ‘Jewish Singles Click’ and ‘Jewish, Single and Ready to Mingle’. The idea that unmarried Jews are ‘singles’, in the sense of unmarried despite their best intentions, is thus introduced to 18-year-olds, many of whom will continue to hear this story well into middle age.

Birthright Israel is no exception to the singles culture of American Judaism. Created both as a way to connect Diaspora Jews with Israel and to fight apathy and intermarriage in the Diaspora itself, the 10-day free trip to Israel is largely about coupling. While Birthright is not advertised as a dating and mating service, continuity through avoidance of intermarriage is undoubtedly one of its goals. It would be one thing if the programme were meant to put 18- to 26-year-old Jews in close proximity for 10 days in the hope that couples may form. But on my trip in January 2007 such matters were not left to chance.

The tone was set upon arrival in Israel during our first of two sessions with Shlomo ‘Momo’ Lifshitz, founder and president of Oranim Educational Initiatives, the organizers of the tour. As book-ends to an otherwise informative and exciting trip through Israel, from the Golan to Eilat, Oranim participants meet with Momo and get lectured on, among other things, the unquestionable importance of coupling off with another Jew, preferably on day one of your Birthright trip.

The first session, right after our arrival at Ben Gurion, took place at a moment when the Birthright participants had more urgent needs - lunch and sleep among them. Momo, a middle-aged Israeli man who speaks what he admits is intentionally incorrect English, has a whole series of catchphrases, among the most memorable of which are ‘What’s cooking?’ and ‘It’s all about the love.’ The former is what you are supposed to say to fellow Jews of the opposite sex, and the latter sums up his reasons for us being in Israel. He tells us we only need to know how to say two things in Hebrew, ‘Aifo ha sherutim’ (Where is the bathroom?) and Ani ohev otach (I love you). One of Momo’s favorite topics is ‘Jewish babies’. We are in Israel not just to see the country but to make Jewish babies. At the opening session he instructed us to sit boy, girl, boy, girl, rather than girl, girl, girl, girl. He provided us each with two free drinks at a dance club in Tel Aviv (filled only with other Oranim participants, dressed for American frat-party-style good times), packed us in tight and waited for things to happen.

Momo appoints himself the honorary, cuddly but disciplinarian father of all the young Jews taking part in the Oranim Birthright trips. While our own parents may not care if we date Jews or gentiles, Momo provides us with pseudopaternal admonitions against getting involved with non-Jews.

Inherent in Birthright Israel are several interconnected paradoxes. The goal of the trip is in part that we should fall in love with Israel - yet how great can a place be if people have to pay for us to visit? Birthright intends us to return to America and reassure people that Israel is safe and not the war zone you see on the news - yet we spend our trips on tour buses with armed guards and are never allowed to stray from the group. Got an hour free at a hotel in Jerusalem and want to go out and grab a cup of coffee? Think again. Momo brings the desperation level of Birthright to new heights by letting us know, during the opening session, that he will pay for the honeymoon in Israel of any couple that meets on one of his trips.

At the closing session in Jerusalem Momo asked us to reflect on our trip. One girl said that she’d been concerned about safety before going but was reassured that Israel is a safe place, not like what you see on the news, because she had felt so safe the whole time, with the armed medic always around. This obviously contradictory statement was, as absurd as it sounds, the ‘right’ answer. Another girl mentioned that the trip had been educational but had not changed her religiosity, to which Momo responded by asking her if she intended to raise a Jewish family. When she replied that this is a personal decision, that she herself is from an interfaith household, Momo replied that she was among family. Momo likes to say that all Jews are family. I’m not sure how that is supposed to make intermarriage less rather than more appealing.

During my 10-day trip to Israel there were several ‘Mega Events’, bringing together thousands of Taglit-Birthright participants for a night of light shows, philanthropists’ speeches, musical numbers and club-style dancing. At our first session Momo told us that, until we speak, it is impossible to tell who, among the Jews from all over the world at the Mega Event, is from which country. If this were true, I thought, it would be a remarkable sign that Diaspora Jews have failed to assimilate in their respective countries. At the Mega Event groups from Brazil, France, Canada and the United States were all asked to wear the same long-sleeved T-shirt with cartoon images of Birthright Israel participants on the front.

Dressed identically it was indeed hard to tell who was from which country. One of the groups from France frequently burst into French song, which was something of a giveaway, but otherwise we did indeed form a homogeneous group. While the event, with the light show, music-and-dance numbers and masses of highly emotional young people, felt at times like exactly what cynical New York Jews imagine to be middle-American or Southern evangelical Christianity, it was hard not to be touched in some way by the gathering. I happened to be sitting near members of the Strasbourg contingent, and ended up translating much of the proceedings into French - all Jews are family, but English-speaking family members get preference - and this was an experience I could not have got from all the reading I’ve done about French Jews.

We were dressed identically in order to insist on a point. Birthright was telling us that Jewish identity matters more than any other; that, even in 2007, one is more Jewish than French, more Jewish than American, and so on. But is that really true? In day-to-day life Jews from America by and large look American, Jews from France look French. Israel exists and waits with open arms, yet Jews remain in the Diaspora.

In Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, Alexander Portnoy, a protagonist whose main focus is his sexual attraction to non-Jewish women, describes his visit to Israel:

What was incredible and strange to me, more novel than the Dead Sea, or even the dramatic wilderness of Tsin, where for an eerie hour I wandered in the light of the bleaching sun, between white rocks where (I learn from my guidebook) the tribes of Israel wandered for so long (where I picked up as a souvenir - and have in fact right here in my pocket - such a stone as my guide informed me Zipporah used to circumcise the son of Moses) what gave my entire sojourn the air of the preposterous was one simple but wholly (to me) implausible fact: I am in a Jewish country. In this country, everybody is Jewish.

My dream begins as soon as I disembark. I am in an airport where I have never been before and all the people I see - passengers, stewardesses, ticket sellers, porters, pilots, taxi drivers - are Jews.

For Portnoy, the most compelling aspect of the Jewish national project is the physicality of the Jewish people.

Of course, not everyone in Israel is Jewish, in Portnoy’s world or our own, but the protagonist’s main point - ‘Hey, here we’re the WASPs!’ - is undeniably part of the country’s appeal. It’s a cruder way of putting it than Momo’s catchphrase, ‘Welcome home’, but it is a more precise description of what an American Jew - or any other Diaspora Jew not under a constant antisemitic threat - feels upon arrival in Israel. What makes Israel special isn’t that it’s safer than the Diaspora - it isn’t - but that in Israel, and nowhere else, it’s a normal thing to be a Jew.

This is not a superficial sentiment in the least. National self-determination is at stake. In an ideal world Jewish-Americans could feel a national connection to Israel whilst feeling fully, politically American. And, just as an Italian-American may feel some ties to Italy, but his grandchildren may have only a vague sense of Italian heritage, due to intermarriage or merely having grown up in the United States, a Jewish-American would, ideally, be free to have unhyphenated-American offspring.

But Israel’s existence is under attack. This is why one can still refer to oneself as a Zionist -Zionism is the movement for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and while one certainly exists it is not yet seen, by many around the world, as anything more than a project, an ill-advised one at that. So for those of us who understand that there is such a thing as a Jewish nation, that Israel is the physical location of this nation, and that nations have the right to go on existing as such, Israel’s existence must be defended. Or, more precisely, asserted. By showing Diaspora Jews that Israel is not just a project, that there is a country with road signs and chocolate bars in Hebrew, Birthright opens up the possibility to those among us who wish to take part in the political aspects of the Jewish nation - who wish to ensure that their offspring feel the same connection they do to this nation, and who want to prevent the nation’s disappearance, either through dying out or through insufficient defense - that Israel exists and that we can make aliyah and be a part of it.

The current - if hardly new-found - craze over intermarriage avoidance is the biggest misjudgment the American Jewish community could make. We must re-examine the war against intermarriage. Those who care about Jewish continuity - a group that does not include all Jews - ought to take actions likely to lead to more Jews in the future.

The future of the Jewish people is in Israel and, to a certain extent, in religious observance. Guilt and vaguely familial pressure will not and, frankly, should not be what keeps people Jewish. Those who care about the continued existence of the Jews as a people must either become religiously observant and live in closed communities of other observant Jews, or they may move to Israel, the only country where, as Momo enthused, the hot girls on the beach are, more often than not, Jewish.

Critics will counter that cultural Judaism has existed throughout the modern era. True enough. Communities of Jews tied together not by religion, language or nationality are kept away from intermarriage and full assimilation when society around them is sufficiently antisemitic to keep them so. In a liberal, secular community, in which Jews blend in and are not systematically subject to discrimination, those who lack specific interest in things Jewish - or, to put it in less negative terms, whose interests lie elsewhere - will fall out of the Jewish people, and their descendents will not be Jews.

Theodor Herzl, prior to writing The Jewish State and becoming the father of modern political Zionism, advocated the mass baptism of all Jews. He did not, as is commonly said of late-nineteenth-century Central and Western European Jews, just believe in assimilation. As Ernst Pawel explains in The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl  (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), ‘True equality, [Herzl] continued to believe, was possible only through conversion and intermarriage.’ His conversion to Zionism occurred once he understood the nature of modern antisemitism - that the Jews are considered by antisemites to be Jews by blood alone. While he was right to change his mind about the feasibility of converting all Jews to Christianity, his desire that his own descendents should be non-Jews so as to be spared antisemitism is, if not a good sign about the situation of Jews in fin-de-siècle Europe, entirely realistic. Pawel quotes Herzl as follows:

When I said the Jews ought to convert, I meant it half in jest and half in earnest. I, who will not convert, can permit myself to say it. But what about my son, Hans? The pressures of Judaism may well teach him a lesson in humanitarianism, but do I therefore have the right to make life as needlessly difficult for him as it was, and will go on being, for me? I hope that as an adult he will be too proud to desert the faith, though he no doubt will have as little of it as I do myself. That is why Jewish boys ought to be baptized in infancy, before they have a mind of their own and while they can do nothing about it one way or another. Fade into the majority.

Herzl, of course, ceased to believe in the desirability of fading into the majority. Denying even the possibility of assimilation, he went on to advocate the creation of a Jewish state. In The Zionist Idea (New York: Meridan, 1959), Arthur Hertzberg introduces the early-twentieth-century Russian Zionist Jacob Klatzkin, who, while certainly not as influential as Herzl, was perhaps the most sensible and insightful of the founding Zionists:

In all of Zionist literature [Klatzkin] has been known chiefly as the most radical denier of any possibility of a future Jewish life in the Diaspora. It has been less emphasized - though, I think, more significant - that he is the most important Zionist thinker to affirm that a third-rate, normal, national state and culture would be enough. Klatzkin’s Zionist position is based on his general definition of nationalism. What makes a nation, he asserted, is land and language. Therefore, the Jews needed to reacquire their land and again speak their language, Hebrew. Let there be no talk, therefore, of spiritual uniqueness, of destiny and mission, for all this is a mark of the diseased abnormality of an un-nation. Obviously, it also follows that all Jews not only will but must, with all deliberate speed, either emigrate to Palestine or disappear by intermarriage. There could be neither a middle ground nor an alternative, so Klatzkin insisted, to these solutions.

In one of Klatzkin’s essays, ‘Assimilation is Possible’, he writes:

We cannot brush off the theory of assimilation as a solution of the Jewish problem by asserting that it is impossible for the Jewish people to assimilate. On the contrary, assimilation is very definitely possible. Now that the walls of our religion have been breached, the spirit of Judaism, its philosophy and Weltanschauung, is not strong enough to erect a containing wall in the Galut and guarantee our national survival within its boundaries.

Klatzkin is worth examining as a way of getting past another irritating paradox of contemporary American Judaism: American Jews are presented simultaneously as unassimilatable and as assimilating too much. On Birthright, we are asked both to crush American antisemitism (so as to make America more livable) and to believe that America is no place for a Jew.

I am a fourth-generation New Yorker. I know English better than any other language, I know how to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the weekend train service and when songs that were on Z100 when I was in fifth grade come on at a party, I’m no less excited than any of my American peers. How dare anyone - antisemite or well-intentioned Zionist -deny the different components of any individual’s identity as though only being Jewish counts? I am undeniably Jewish as well as undeniably a product of a certain time, place, culture, class, as well as someone with inclinations that may relate to but are not directly dependant on any of this.

Furthermore, the idea that an assimilated American Jew is somehow truer to himself if he reconnects with Judaism is patently absurd. It entirely misses the fact that many American Jews were not raised observant and would in fact be abandoning the values of their families if they chose to become so. Contrary to Momo’s definition, my family is not ‘the Jews’, but a whole series of Maltzes, Hymowitzes and others, some Jewish, some American, some neither.

The word ‘assimilation’ implies adherence to a conventional, bourgeois, vaguely or explicitly Christian American way of life, so as to avoid being held back by Jewish particularism. This is only part of the picture. We must remember that that ‘assimilation’ includes not just suburban life and occasional visits to a Methodist church, but also any number of alternative lifestyles - punk, fashion model, dominatrix, convert to Islam, trust-funded hipster - all of which have in common the fact that they are not forms of Judaism.

We must understand that assimilation is not merely possible but desirable in the American case. Assimilation of all cultural and ethnic groups in America is what allows people to choose their own particularisms, to be as conventional or unconventional as they wish. Same-sex marriage is desirable because once gays can wed ‘gay’ will no longer mean ‘alternative’ and men and women who are in same-sex relationships will no longer be under excessive pressure to think of themselves as ‘queer’. This is true for Jews as well. America and all its possibilities must be open to all. Among those possibilities, for American Jews, are observance of a strict religious lifestyle and emigration to Israel; those possibilities must remain, but other possible life choices must not be restricted. Continuity of the Jewish people as a people, regardless of religious faith, is impossible in the Diaspora. But there’s no reason that in a tolerant America or France, for example, Jews could not continue to exist indefinitely as a religious group, or that interest in Jewish culture, among Jews and non-Jews alike, might not persist.

What matters is that people have the right to be Jewish and that people born as Jews have the right to live their lives as they see fit. The State of Israel is there to ensure that those who do wish to live in a Jewish country may do so. Religious communities in the Diaspora must continue to exist. And to ensure that those born Jewish are no less free to pursue their passions - romantic and otherwise - than anyone else, an end to the desperate, dating-service mission of American Judaism is in order.

Phoebe Maltz is a student in the French and French Studies doctoral programme at New York University.

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