From Ethnic to Spiritual: A Tale of Four Generations

by Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman

From the Synagogue 2000 Library

Our long-term goal is the spiritualization of the North American synagogue. Whatever kind of congregation we attend, whatever our movement or ideological allegiance, we all have this in common: we are on a Jewish quest for a better tomorrow, and to judge by all the evidence, we are a generation in search of the spiritual.

Of Generations and of Projects

Authentic Jewish spirituality does exist. It is not just rhetoric, and it is not anti-intellectual. It is a genuine part of life, akin to the arts, reflected in ritual, and celebrated in moments of personal transcendence. It is implicit in moments when we know somehow that we are not alone; that life has direction, purpose, and hope; that we are part of a healing community that cares. The questions to which we will return again and again are how to infuse this spiritual ambience into our synagogues — and why we need to do it now.

I turn here to the latter question, “Why now?” Charles Dickens once made literary history with, “A Tale of Two Cities.” I invite you now to make spiritual history with your own story, “A Tale of Four Generations.” Each of us exemplifies a whole larger than our individual selves: we are all part of a generation of seekers, who share the project of making spiritual meaning. Let me speak, then, of generations and of projects.

A generation is more than a random group of people who happen to be born at the same time. Such a group would be just a statistical category called a cohort. We are all, by chance, a particular cohort, like the cohort born between 1975 and 1980, or the cohort who reached maturity on the eve of World War II. Cohort attribution is arbitrary, potentially insignificant. But the generation to which we belong matters; it matters supremely. A generation is a group of people who may never have met but who know they share something important. They encapsulate a little bit of history that is theirs, because it is what directs their lives. They may be of different cohorts — born, that is, at different times, related as parents and children (or even as grandchildren) to each other. But they are one generation nonetheless, because they have been present at the unfolding of their own unique chapter of history. They may be “local generations,” like the generation of the San Francisco fire, or more recently (1993), the generation of the Midwest floods. But generations may be geographically broader in scope as well, as when we say that most of us were once the Cold War generation; or now we are the generation that saw the Iron Curtain crumble. We may also be the Vietnam generation, as our parents were the generation of the Great Depression.

The generation we are leaves its mark on us for all time. Members of the depression generation, for instance, do not throw things out; they save them in dusty attics or moldy basements, in case they or their children ever need them. (They never do). An Israeli veteran of the old yishuv tells me he never lets the water run; how could he, with the rarity of water etched in his being from the days when all of Israel was a desert? Soldiers of the Cold War never even quite fade away — they continue to keep guard over American democracy forever, always suspicious that the Russian Bear will bestir itself again. The Vietnam generation will never trust its government with the same naive passion that the Roosevelt generation invested in its FDR, much of whose presidency was illusion (truth be told), but unlike the Vietnam debacle, a happy one where a crippled chief executive looked superhuman, and we had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Jews too have their ways of counting generations, and in so far as we are both Jewish and American (or Canadian, British, or anything else), we are part of overlapping generational events that jointly make us who we are. More than the Vietnam generation, I am the generation of the Six Day War, for instance, as my parents were the generation of the Shoah. Imagine your life charted as the coordinates of several generational events: your own, certainly, but also touched by the radiating influence of the generation you called your parents’. You are therefore the generation of the Six Day War and of the rescue of Soviet Jewry, but also of the Shoah and its aftermath; You are autonomous, you think; you decide your own destiny. That is true only in part, because you react necessarily to the cataclysmic affairs into which you are born. If you are Jewish, you cannot escape some relationship to Hitler’s inferno, to Ben Gurion’s vision, and now to the agenda forced upon us internally as members of Jewish North America — to which I shall return shortly.

For what we are is more than what we individually plan on being. Life is what happens while we are busy doing something else, as the saying goes. We are regularly buffeted by waves of history that we neither plan nor anticipate. They mold our generation, and they define our project.

A project is the second way we have for determining our place in history. By “project,” we mean something greater in scope and in design than just our work. We do not all have the luxury of conceptualizing a project. Slaves in Auschwitz made do from moment to moment; they were lucky to stay alive. The poor who huddle beneath New York’s Brooklyn Bridge have no project; they just make it through the night. Children have no project; they move from moment to moment at parental whim. But adults who surpass the most elemental stage of animal need make up projects; that is our glory. God had projects; so do we; we are created in the image of God. A project is the connective tissue that gives enduring worth to the individual acts of labor that fill our days. When we despair of what we are about, it is because we have lost sight of our project. When we know somehow we matter, it is because we glimpse a larger pattern to our work. We “project” ourselves upon the larger screen of human history, or at least upon some temporal expanse beyond the moment.

Human conduct is therefore filled with the divining of a project. We join a cause that stands for something larger than ourselves; build a home and decorate it with mementos of a life — family photos on the wall, and scrap book pictures of vacation spots, the relics of times and spaces we touched, reminders of the links that make us who we are.

Poet Laureate of the Jewish People, A.M. Klein, says of his and our Jewish quest for a project greater than ourselves, “I lift my visor. Know me who I am,” for “Not sole was I born.” Rather,

[to those] that begat me…
This body is residence. Corpuscular,
They dwell in my veins, they eavesdrop at my ear,
They circle, as with Torahs, round my skull,
In exit and in entrance all day long pull.
The latches of my heart descend, and rise —
And there look generations through my eyes.
(Psalm 36: A Psalm touching Genealogy)

When we die, our heirs insist on taking stock of who we were, what we did, what we amounted to. People talk about us when we ourselves can no more say anything at all. “He loved his family,” the rabbi says, in a eulogy that captures someone’s project; or, “What a mother, daughter, sister, our beloved was.” Our eulogies would no doubt surprise us, could we hear them. “Your father was a builder, patriarch and hero,” says the rabbi to the grieving daughter. “Was he?” she wonders briefly? “Is that what made him do whatever it was he did when he left home each morning?” Her father has been granted a posthumous project; his life makes sense now; the children put closure on who he was, maybe identify his project with their own, or move on to consider what they shall become.

Without a project, we are barely human: servants of time and circumstance. We humans seek something more of life, something momentous, not just momentary.

People of a single generation share a project. That is what unites them. Their lives take shape along a single vector. Take the Vietnam Generation: they are either for the war or against it, but they must take a stand on one side or the other; or the Roosevelt generation, which never quite gives up on the promise of the New Deal; just as members of the Kennedy generation ask over and over again what they can do for their country, not what their country can do for them. Projects differ within generational representatives, naturally. It is not the same for men as for women; for old-timers and for newcomers; for the young and the old. But despite our differences, if we share a generation, we share also the everlasting impact of the historical waves that make it up, and we cannot avoid sharing too the projects that those waves of time have dumped upon the shores of our lives.

So all of us in Synagogue 2000, young or old, men or women, share a project, because we are a generation: the fourth generation of Jews to occupy North American space and time, as it happens. We have decided to pursue our project together. Let us look back at the generations that came before us, to see how our project matches theirs, yet how different we must be if we are to remain as true as they were to the hand of history that destiny deals to us.