Generation Three: Suburbs and Survival

By 1950, American Jews had settled down into two competing visions of what Judaism ought to be. Intermarriage between Germans and Russians veiled the divide to some extent, as did the very vastness of the eastern European numbers which overflowed into the German temples, despite their organ music, strange decorum, and other trappings of a liturgy laundered of its traditionalism. But Jews had to join some “place of worship” after all, as Eisenhower himself made clear, in a decade that was to rival even the 1830s in its reclamation of religion as a grand American spiritual pastime.

America’s mid-century religious revival had many causes, not the least of which was the Red Scare that captured the national imagination. Those were the days when grade-school children practiced air-raid drills and a senator from Wisconsin shouted wild accusations from the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Eisenhower shared McCarthy’s fear of godless communism, as we see from his refusal to grant clemency to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Rabbi Abraham Cronbach, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, a devotee of spirituality, and a pacifist after World War I, recollects visiting Eisenhower in the White House to plead that the chief executive commute the death sentence. He appealed to the overwhelming popularity of the president, saying, “Only you have the power and the stature to prevent an execution that will divide Americans just when we need our unity most.” But Eisenhower was unmoved. This was war, he reasoned, a cold war, but a war nonetheless. Likening the Rosenbergs to “traitors” who allowed fear to paralyze them into inactivity on the battlefield, he asked, “Do you know what we did to those people? We killed them.” End of matter.

But Eisenhower was also religious in his own right. He was a personal friend of Billy Graham, whom he invited to the White House. He had the Pledge of Allegiance altered to include, “Under God.” Referring to himself as “the most religious man I have ever met,” he called on every American to belong to some religion, any religion, but at least a religion. Religion was good; Communists were bad; Communists had no religion. Again: end of matter.

So Americans flocked in droves to church and synagogue, and they did so not just to the places their parents had built. They were busy using post-war largesse to buy all the things they had done without for six years, not to mention all the things they never knew existed but were being newly peddled as part of the post-war economy retooled to serve a ravenous peacetime hunger: refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, new cars and homes — yes, homes, in the suburbs that were opening up everywhere. Most Americans who were alive back then remember to this day the commercials featuring Dinah Shore, singing, “See the USA, in your Chevrolet.” Most of us missed the point. She was actually selling us the interstate highway system, whose ribbons of roads brought Jews to the beltway and beyond, often into communities that hitherto had belonged to the American elite who could afford second homes and country club addresses for the weekend. Now even the upstart Jews were coming. Remember Philip Roth’s Potamkin family from Goodbye Columbus? They were the stereotypical new-rich Jewish family of Long Island, Mr. Potamkin a junk dealer who had made good but lacked Gentile civility. Roth’s characters were caricatures, of course, the children of Jews from Russia, so usually Conservative — indeed, Conservative Judaism dwarfed Reform in the 1950s, and still does in areas like Long Island where to this very day, Judaism as ethnicity is the legacy of the eastern European wave of immigrants. But Roth’s Potamkin, bumbling as he does to learn what has been called “the Gentile Halakhah of civility,” epitomizes the tale of Jews who had to learn the ways of the country, and did so, in part, by building synagogues across from wherever it was that their Protestant neighbors built their churches. Children of immigrants who had little use for religion, they now discovered Judaism as their version of “religion, any religion,” as demanded from the Oval Office.

But Jews did more. Their response to the suburbs was partly just like that of everyone else at the time, but it was also uniquely Jewish. The part shared with others was the fact that Jews and non-Jews alike were having children in record numbers. Women who had postponed having children during the war now joined their younger sisters in together producing the largest population of children America had ever seen, the baby-boom generation, which dominates American life to this day. The boomers peaked in 1957, but attitude surveys reveal a divide that breaks them into two cohorts, early and late, divided by the birth year of 1954. If you were born from 1945 to 1954, you are an early boomer; if you came into the world from 1954 to 1965, you are part of the second wave. Either way, you are a generation, Generation Four, to which I shall shortly turn. You are a reaction, however, to the project of Generation Three, your parents, who discovered inexpensive paperbacks among the postwar material goodies, and savored especially a manual for parenting by Dr. Spock. The doctor taught them that everything should be sacrificed for the children, a position with which Madison Avenue heartily concurred, as it targeted the baby-boomers as the first cohort of children to be expressly considered in ad campaigns. Indeed, those ad campaigns have followed Generation Four throughout its life. And what was good for Dr. Spock and Madison Avenue was equally good for synagogues, who also targeted children, via new school wings that dwarfed the tiny sanctuaries to which they were adjoined.

The parents who had never been trained to appreciate religion anyway wanted it only for their children, so rabbis went back to school to learn how to be educators; that way, they would matter. Adults barely bothered with religion for themselves; they had joined synagogues just because Eisenhower said they should. Belonging was the American thing to do; going was another matter, especially since services were held on Friday night and Saturday morning when suburban life offered other options that appealed more and were in keeping with the children-first ethos: take the kids to little league, or shopping, or piano lessons. Everything for the children.

That much was shared with Christian suburbanites as well. Churches too catered to the not-yet-adult crowd. But Jews had their own take on the situation. Only Jews had to come to terms at the same time with the Shoah. I remember growing up in the late ’40s and ’50s, seeing survivors come to town. I would look up at their tattooed arms, and hear my parents murmur things like, “The camps.” Usually they said nothing at all — just looked at each other. I later found out that they debated adopting a war baby. In the end, they decided not to, but their dilemma epitomizes what we were going through then. We had lost 6,000,000, a number higher than anyone had ever counted. Nowadays, everyone throws around big numbers with abandon: billions of kilowatts, bytes, even dollars. But back then, six million was a big number. It meant more than it does now. And it meant Jews, a lot of them, killed under our noses, while American war planes wouldn’t even bomb the gas chambers.

So American Jews had a special reason to have a lot of children, to educate them in synagogue schools, and to shower everything we owned on making sure they would grow to Jewish adulthood. Theologian Emil Fackenheim captured our poignant anguish when he charged us with this altogether novel postwar mitzvah: not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. We sort of knew that anyway. And that is why Jews, especially, manufactured what can only be called “pediatric religion,” Judaism for the children.

Simultaneously, we turned to saving Jews elsewhere. The war was over; the killing of Jews was not. There were “DP’s” (as my father called them) over there in Cyprus and wandering throughout Poland, all of them looking for a home when there was none. If Generation Three had been intent on peoplehood before, it was doubly or triply so now: its project loomed large and unmistakable. It had to save the Jewish People. Having children and educating them was the priority at home; securing the State of Israel and marching for Soviet Jews became our foreign policy. Generation Three thus virtually abandoned synagogues except as way-stations for their children’s Jewish education.

Jewish life revolved about what came to be known as an altogether novel Jewish religion, the religion of UJA: the Jewish People as a corporate entity with its own corporate economy allocated with corporate efficiency, none of which synagogues could deliver. We thus invested in corporate Judaism, and designed a novel calendar rich in days like Yom Hashoah, Yom Ha’atzma’ut, and even Super Sunday. For rituals, we had missions and marches. We moved life- cycle celebrations to Masada or the Wall — synagogues could educate our children, but the actual sacred rite of passage would take place on sacred ground. Synagogues complained as they watched their best and brightest abandon them for headier pursuits in Federation councils, but truth be told, synagogues were increasingly irrelevant and Federation Judaism wasn’t. If we have moved to a new project now, it is because Israel is secure, or nearly so, we pray, and the Soviet Union is no more. We have airlifted Jews to safety from Yemen, Ethiopia, and a host of lesser known cities and settlements, the latest being beleaguered outposts in Chechnya. That stuff comes easily to us; “Oh,” we say, not without the hint of the pride that everyone felt with Entebbe, “Leave it to Israel to do that.” But we move on, as we must in life, and so it is that Generation Four, raised in marches by their parents, have moved on to a Jewish project of their own.

The secret of that project comes from a tale that Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman tells about his mother who used to feed him castor oil every night at bedtime. One day, he says, he had an epiphany rivalling the visions of Isaiah and Jeremiah. It suddenly dawned on him that his mother gave him the castor oil but never took any herself.

So too, through all those years of childhood education in the synagogue, despite the millions of dollars poured into classrooms and the thousands of education degrees awarded to rabbis, the grand lesson learned by kids of Generation Four was that Judaism was like castor oil; their parents never took any.

Jews in Generation Four have had to pioneer religion all over again. Their grandparents of Generation Two, the ones who came from Russia, had no use for it; their parents in the suburbs never took it. Yet simultaneously with this insight came an unprecedented American return to religion, a search for the spiritual that no one could have predicted. In its own way, it is like a wave of internal immigration. If the Sefardim came first, followed by Germans and then Russians, we now have an even larger immigration stream: I mean the empowerment of women and of Jews by choice. We don’t think of them as immigrants, because they are not foreign-born. But in terms of their involvement in Jewish life, they are foreign indeed. Until this generation, women were never seen as rabbis or around the boardrooms of Jewish life, and “Jew-by-choice” was an exercise in self-contradiction. In Generation Four, these two groups do indeed constitute the latest example of a migration. They more than double the ranks of the pool from which to select the leaders who will determine the destiny of the Jewish People. One very interesting Jewish statistic from American annals is the fact that women have always supported religion far more than men have. And Jews by choice choose Judaism as a religion, not as an ethnic group