I’m currently reading “Outwitting History: the amazing adventures of a man who rescued a million yiddish books,” by Aaron Lansky. My ongoing fascination with Yiddish culture, something of a mystery to me, was accurately summed up in the following explanation of one Yiddish author-Isaac Lieb Peretz.
if you read enough of Peretz and the countless Yiddish writers who follow, a deeper vision begins to emerge: of a Jewishness infinitely more interesting, more challeneging, and more relevent, rooted in tradition, shaped by marginality, fueled by a relentless dialectic, and unafraid of the inextricability of art and action. If anything, Yiddish books are more of a counterculture today–more of a challenge to mainstream values– than they were when there were written.
Now, mind you, i’ve never read a yiddish book. I know only a smattering of yiddish phrases. and the closest I come to speaking yiddish is imitating a thick eastern european accent. Yet, this quote made perfect sense to me. This rich Jewishness is precisely what I’m working to cultivate in an urban Detroit context, and what (in many ways) I found when I lived at ADAMAH.
But it fascinates me that this vision of a rich Jewishness is inherently unattainable in an American Jewish context. We cannot return to Yiddish life: to a time when our identity was shaped by marginality. And though there are other cultural shifts we could surely articulate, such as re-rooting ourselves in tradition, we cannot “hope” to again be marginalized, and thus, a slight disconnect from the sources of our traditions will inevitably persist. In so many ways, I see our current culture as being in denial of the fact that we’re no longer marginalized, celebrating our privileges as though we’re always in danger of loosing them. From my parents generation: some of the first to experience privilege through cultural assimilation, to my own: dramatically removed from marginality and poverty, I see a different relationship to Jewishness emerging.
For myself and my peers, Jewishness is something to rediscover, reshape, make meaningful, tease tradition from… but this is still a countercultural value. There is still very much a mainstream Jewishness that feels safer practicing Judaism as a religion than Jewishness as a culture. Yet, in a secular American context, a generation or two removed from cultural persecution, it is hard for my generation of Jews to relate to the desire to keep our secular, cultural richness tied up in religion. That said, there is enough flexibility in Jewish religious practice that we can often shape religious practice to fit cultural demands.
But, at the end of the day, what is it we share as modern American young adult Jews?
I see, amongst my Detroit Jewish peers, a shared sense of a more just world (or city, to start). I see a shared reverence for complex problems, and complex solutions. and I see a shared desire to lift up the stories of the marginalized, and to stand in solidarity.
Can we create a culture rooted in these values? Do we need a shared OTHER language, physical spaces, cuisine, artwork? If we don’t have these things, do we need a shtetl (neighborhood)? In many ways, the question is, do we need boundaries to define ourselves? To create a dialectic?
And if we don’t need these things, what do we need? if we need anything at all…