Generation Four: Spirituality Seekers

The search for spirituality transcends the empowerment of women and Jews by choice, of course. It is inextricably linked to larger demographic changes that began to be felt in the 1960s when the first phalanx of baby-boomers came of age. Those same men and women are now in their forties, and are but one of three cohorts who stand out as altogether novel.

The baby-boomers themselves are the most evident of the three, if only because of their population size. There are more of them than of anyone else, and they are entering the age range of 45 to 60, the age, that is, when people generally begin to exercise power. To some extent, society has always followed their lead, and now that they are successful executives (including in their number even the president and vice-president of the United States), they are setting the agenda for the country as a whole. They learned early that the world was supposed to provide them with their needs, and although their needs may have changed, their expectation that they should be catered to has not.

Then there are the other two cohorts, the men and women just older and just younger than the boomers. The former are the boomers’ parents, blessed with old age beyond what anyone might have predicted prior to the rise of miracle drugs in the sixties and beyond. We have never known as many old people, especially old people who have spent virtually their entire adult life working hard to care for their children, but giving little thought to themselves. They are not used to building their own lives as if they mattered. From their children’s perspective, these aging parents are too dependent. They want nightly phone calls, news from the grandchildren, and help in the complexities of medical bills, estate planning, and just plain growing older here where change happens faster than they are comfortable with.

Finally, there are the older baby-boomers’ children, the twenty-somethings. Once upon a time, middle-class Americans thought they knew by age twenty-five what they would be doing for the rest of their lives. Not any more. If, by adolescence, we mean “physically adult but still dependent on your elders,” it can safely be said that we have expanded adolescence all the way to age thirty! Teenagers used to complete their education, then get married and (for men) join the work-force, striving for self-sufficiency. Now they can anticipate up to fifteen or more years in which they are financially dependent on their parents. They marry later and later, and have their first child after their parents had their last one. This third cadre of society makes up our final challenge. They too are searching for their adulthood in a society that seems increasingly hostile to their entry as self-sufficient contributing members, secure in their own ability to settle down in homes and families of their own, and to find their place in America’s booming but shaky economic marketplace.

Noteworthy in all three cases is the element of free choice, which simply was not there in the first half of this century. Until the revolution that gave us rock ‘n’ roll, birth control pills, and the baby-boomers who benefited from them both, middle-class roles were largely fixed according to stereotypes bequeathed to us by our Victorian elders.

One element of that legacy was religious denominationalism. The “church” (for us, the synagogue) had become a bastion of American life. It was something people were expected to belong to for life. When Eisenhower called on all Americans to belong to “a church, any church,” he was urging us to return to the old mentality that had preceded World War II and that we all considered normal. You knew in those days that you were a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Methodist or a Jew. You went to church or synagogue school, mixed with others like yourself, and then married them. Jews lived in Jewish areas, met other Jews at college, married in synagogues, and had Jewish children; Catholics did the same with Catholics, and Protestants too kept their distance, not only from Jews and Catholics but even from each other, Baptists preferring Baptists, and upper-class Episcopalians settling comfortably into the same churches that their parents had joined and their grandparents had built. Religious denominations were then hermetic structures sealed off from strangers who frequented other religions and were therefore different not only in belief but in their very being. Religious conversion was rare; intermarriage was rarer.

For a variety of reasons, the hermetic seals that surrounded religious identity began to crack somewhere in the 1960s and ’70s. Within each religious grouping, polarization into right and left, conservative and liberal, began to occur. The mainline churches had taken leading roles in furthering the social agenda of the liberals in the civil rights era, and now conservatives were fighting back. The rise of the religious right has therefore contributed to the bifurcation of hitherto stable religious denominations, as conservative Baptists and conservative Episcopalians, for instance, saw themselves as allies for the first time, and began to side with each other, but against the liberals in each of their respective camps. The liberals had long ago converged in their own interreligious alliances, marching together in civil rights demonstrations, for instance. Instead of thinking of themselves primarily as Lutherans, Catholics, or even as Jews, Americans began seeing themselves as liberals or conservatives, fighting a holy war for the good and the just in conjunction with like-minded citizens across religious lines.

Social solidarity of religious ethnic life is gone forever. Longstanding Reform Jews on Long Island’s south shore, for instance, will tell you that they have little in common with the newly arrived Chasidim who regularly make them unsolicited offers to buy up their homes and lock up the area as an Orthodox citadel. But these same Jewish liberals share a lot with the liberal Christians whom they meet at work or at parties and who are equally threatened by the right wing of their own religious denominations. What goes for liberals goes for conservatives as well. The New York Times of June, 1993, reported that New York’s Cardinal O’Connor was using Pat Robertson’s list of evangelical Protestants for his mailings against abortion — a moral position fully supported by Chasidic Jews as well. Once upon a time, Robertson had fulminated against papists, and the only thing right-wing Protestants and Catholics agreed upon was the need to convert Jews. Now all three parties support a host of positions, from anti-abortion, to an end to church-state separation. Yehudah Levin is an Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn: seeing abortion as an outrage against God, he joined 800 protesters, including three other rabbis like himself, several Evangelical Protestant pastors and half a dozen Roman Catholic leaders, in an effort to close a Manhattan abortion clinic. “When you have a secular society,” Levin warns, “you have the rapists and the muggers and the family breakers… We traditional Jews appreciate any positive efforts on behalf of the Christian clergy and leaders to protect moral standards.” On the left and on the right, Jews have thus reached the point where the people with whom they share their values are not the people who are necessarily Jewish; while the ethnic or religious community that they have inherited is not the group with whom they count on sharing their deepest commitments.

But if ethnic Jewish solidarity is a thing of the past, so too is Catholic or Protestant solidarity. Religious identity is thus up for grabs. Instead of something into which we are born, religion is seen as something we choose; rightly or wrongly, it becomes less something to which we feel we owe allegiance, and more something on which we feel we can make a claim. It owes us, and if it doesn’t deliver, we go elsewhere to get it.

With the demise of lifelong and certain religious identity, we have seen the death of guaranteed family and gender roles. Women, therefore, constitute a special case in this new world of ours where free choice and marketplace options have replaced traditional loyalties and inherited roles.

In the fifties, Jewish women had few choices in life. They were expected to attend college, meet husbands, get married, and have children — all within a few years time. What happened after that, no one very much noticed. It was widely assumed that women’s very nature outfitted them as natural nurturers of the family.

The notion that it is part of women’s genetic makeup to stay home and care for the family does not go back as far as people imagine. It has its origins in the Victorian era. But becuase the high-water mark of Generation One (our founders) corresponded to the 1870s when Victorian values were rampant in our urban centers, the Victorian view of women was inculcated into our synagogue culture. Men did not attend synagogue very much in those days. They preferred their men’s clubs: the B’nai B’rith, for instance, or lodges like the Freemasons or the Oddfellows. Women, however, were expected to take their children to the synagogue for moral training, and also to serve as synagogue volunteers in various charitable projects. Until the turn of the century, these projects were often large civic endeavors — the equivalent of the Christian Temperance League among non-Jewish women, for instance — but as the migrations of the 1900s swelled the ranks of the urban poor, professional social workers displaced the volunteer women, moving the women into subsidiary positions within their churches and synagogues. Our sisterhoods and women’s auxiliaries arose, therefore, as a consequence of women’s charity role being deflected away from the urban crises that professionals were handling, into the local efforts of synagogue maintenance and program.

By 1910 (the high-water mark for Generation Two), women had been relegated to the role of Victorian or Edwardian mothers on one hand, and synagogue volunteers on the other. Take Boston’s venerable Temple Israel, for instance. One Saturday attendance in 1898 included “1 man, 8 married women, 6 young women, 5 girls and 2 boys.” What was true of Boston was true elsewhere as well, to the point where one contemporary observer opined that without the women who attended, sanctuaries would be empty. Rabbis preached largely to women as mothers and wives.

The most revealing sign of what happened when traditional American society collapsed in the sixties is the revolution in clothing that accompanied it. I think particularly of the staple of Victorian wear: the corset, designed to hold you in, but to make your constriction look natural. In the 1920s, Americans flirted with freedom and demonstrated it by outlandish styles of the flapper generation. The conservative fifties saw a return to suburban solidarity, but the corset effect was permanently withdrawn by the Vietnam years, when men and women began dressing the same way, making a sartorial point to their elders who clucked their tongues at the impertinence of unisex styles.

My father once warned me not to say “Forever.” “Forever is a long time,” he would remark. It may well be, however, that the corset effect is gone forever. At least it is gone for the foreseeable future. And with it, we have lost much of the certainty of life. Instead of inheriting our identities, we choose them. The world in which we live arrives unprepackaged now. Whereas once it came to us in the recognizable shapes of old familiar neighborhoods and predictable relationships that claimed you for life (whether you liked it or not), the only thing we can say for sure now is that nothing much is for sure. Instead of fitting into the cozy confines of the way things necessarily are, we are left to our own devices to decide how we want to sort the world out and the way we want things to be. Even the Army advertises, “Be all that you can be.” We civilians want at least that much.

At its core, spirituality is the sense that things all fit together despite the momentary fear that things are falling apart. It posits connectedness where there seems to be none. The search for spirituality is the yearning for shape when old contours have eroded; for belonging when the old structures (like family) to which we belonged, have broken down all around us; for meaning in a world so fragmented that we ask again and again what it’s all about. The hit song of the baby boomers growing up tells it all; “What’s it all about, Alfie?” “It” — life, the universe, history, destiny, everything — must be all about something, we insist. It cannot be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Part of us wants to return to the conservative days when families could be counted on and the streets were safe for walking.

Part of us, however, knows that we can’t go home again; and many of us, those who value choice anyway, have good reason not to want to. We know the new world where religious identity is elective is not all bad. The conservatives who yearn only to return to the social system of yesterday have been called loyalists. Those of us who want to make the most of the challenge that Generation Four faces can be called Seekers. We seek something to hold us together and connect us beyond ourselves, as we go about choosing the paths that will take us through the labyrinth of life. Our reality is made of parents who are old or dying, children who are young but struggling, and selves who are finding out that nothing is forever.

I return, then, to the notion of a migration. This Fourth Generation is indeed a new generation of immigrants, people from within our own community who have set out no less than Sarah and Abraham on a journey to a new internal life of the soul. I mean especially women, for whom choice has opened up as never before, but men too, who are no longer corseted in to the way things have to be, and who therefore may as well welcome the new era in which choice is crucial to our destiny. And I mean Jews by choice, people who now seek Judaism because it offers a spiritual road map to the rocky terrain of modern life where the old signposts no longer can be counted on to point our way.

No matter how old we are, we are Generation Four: the aging parents who are discovering (as one woman said to me), that aging is not for the faint hearted; the middle-aged baby-boomers who drive the cultural engine of our time; and the young adults still borrowing from parents and going to school, or casting about for careers and security, marriages and meaning. As we reach the end of the 20th century, our schools don’t educate, the police can’t protect, government doesn’t govern, and the family neither prays together nor stays together. Is it any wonder that synagogues struggle to reinvent themselves? The Germans of Generation One built bastions of Reform religion. The eastern Europeans of Generation Two shaped habitats of Conservative ethnicity. Suburbanites of Generation Three reorganized street-corner synagogues to educate their children. And we, the Seekers of Generation Four, need to make synagogues into spiritual places that offer a taste of ultimate meaning.

Doing that successfully is our mandate. Synagogue 2000 will chart with you the road to the synagogue of the next century, a place where members matter, where compassion counts, where learning runs deep, and ritual rings true — a place where the presence of God is patent among us.