Generation Two: Preserving Peoplehood

What the German founders never did appreciate was the positive pull of peoplehood on the Jewish psyche. How could they? When they arrived here, their claim to belonging was precisely the fact that they were not a people at all; they were a religion. That claim had been implicit in the Enlightenment all along. Even Moses Mendelssohn had known that. Back in the early 1700s he would meet on a Shabbat afternoon for a friendly game of chess with his Catholic friend, Father Lavater, rejoicing in his new-found Prussian residency that he could and did justify only because he was a man of reason and as such, deserved equal rights before God. As to nationality, however, he was a German. He spoke German, therefore, and even translated the Bible into German so that his fellow German Jews could read it in translation. When Lavater tried nonetheless to convert him to Christianity, Mendelssohn responded that he preferred to remain a Jew, not because the Jewish People had any claim upon him, but because Judaism as a religion was so perfectly rational that he could think of no reason why any rational thinking soul would want to leave it.

By the time the French Revolution had furthered this noble Enlightenment goal, even massive revolution against the old order was being justified by shouts of “Libert√©, Egalit√©, Fraternit√©,” all worthy values if (and only if) all human beings really are free, equal and fraternal — which is to say, members of the same family, all one people, so to speak, the people of God known also as the human race, but divided into national enclaves called states purely for purposes of administration. Napoleon thus overturned age-old national boundary markers — the rivers and valleys that accidentally staked off one duchy from another. Starting from scratch, he subdivided Europe into squares called consistories, each of which corresponded to nothing deeper than lines of arbitrary latitude and longitude. Forget the age-old claims made by Europe’s several peoples, the German Volk, for instance, which could and should be swallowed up into the international and wholly rational redrawn map of Europe. The Sanhedrin of Jews that assembled in Paris on February 4, 1807, told Napoleon exactly what he wanted to hear when it announced it was a religion, and implicitly renounced any and all claims of Jewish Peoplehood.

To some extent the second migration of Germans had watered down these radical claims of the Enlightenment. Having lived through the reactionary era that denied Napoleonic geography, they had experienced the reassertion of the German Volk. Only by the 1880s would that nationalism flare up into full-fledged anti-Semitism, which Jews tried to ignore as a passing fancy, in any case. They celebrated their identity as both Jews (by religion) and Germans (by national culture). Religion was one thing; citizenship and loyalty to the United States were another; but national culture was yet a third. Until the First World War, German Americans (Jews included) saw no conflict between their European culture and their American home. As late as 1900, 90% of the Lutherans in the mid-west still worshipped in their European language, not in English. In 1816, the philosopher Hegel was appointed to the coveted chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught that history reached its zenith in the German state. By 1870, Hegel had been dead for 39 years, but he was alive and well among German Jews who agreed with him absolutely, to the point of doubting whether anything worth while could be expected from a cultural backwater such as the United States, without Germanic culture to help it along.

As much as German Jews celebrated their German heritage, they were ambivalent about their Jewish tradition, which looked far too medieval to be proudly displayed as the equal of what Germanic culture seemed to offer. Modern Jewish scholars therefore spent the century redeploying the literary output of the Rabbis, featuring the things they liked and ignoring what they didn’t. They coined the term “Golden Age” for Spain, because Spain had given us philosophy and poetry, the highest cultural carriers as German aesthetics viewed them. Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore composed the forerunner for the Union Prayer Book almost solely in German, and he epitomized his generation of rabbis by delivering flowery (and long!) German sermons to German auditors who were supposed to identify progress with the spirit of Germanic culture. He was by no means ashamed of his Jewish heritage, even though the heritage he championed was a selective perception of what Judaism really had been. He preached a kind of Judaism that resembled Germanism, which he regarded as the model for cultural value and the standard to which Jewish creativity should strive. He was all three: an American by citizenship, a Jew by religion, and German by culture.

By the end of our high water decade of the 1870s, that purely religious view of Judaism was about to be challenged by the largest wave of Jewish immigrants ever to move to one place at one time. They would stand the entire German scheme of things on its head. Whereas the German project entailed building Judaism as a religion, the new immigrants, from eastern Europe, came here with almost no regard for religion at all. We distort reality if we picture only pious Chasidic synagogues on New York’s Lower East Side. It takes a mere instant to discover that the whole tenement district is dominated by the building that once housed The Daily Forward, hardly a bastion of religion. The stone facade above its door now carries Korean characters affixed by new owners who bought it from the Jews, but scrape away the Korean (and the Chinese under that), and you find the carved-out images of the people who really mattered to the eastern Europeans: not Moses and Abraham but the American socialist leader who ran for president five times, Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926) and his German equivalent Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919)! Some of these Russian Jews trashed the whole Jewish project, so enamored were they of the rival Marxist promise of a classless society — the second aliyah to Israel actually kept May Day more than they did Yom Kippur. But most remained true to Jewish identity, being careful only to differentiate “Jewish” from “religious.” It was religion that they despised. They were Jewish as a matter of peoplehood.

They arrived at that conclusion because Napoleon did not triumph in eastern Europe. The transformation of Judaism into a matter of modern western faith occurred only in the western orbit of the Parisian Sanhedrin, never in the yeshivot of Vilna and Volhynia, and certainly not among the rank and file socialists, the intellectual Yiddishists, the land-intoxicated Zionists, or any of the other ideological luftmenschen who argued their way through every passing day. For sure, the idea that we are just a religion never dawned on the masses, whether or not they attended the synagogues and shtuebels of the time. Neither classical Hebrew nor Yiddish even has a native “Jewish” word for “religion” as western thought understands it. Religion is a western concept through and through, a generalization offered up by 18th- and 19th-century academe in its quest for the equivalents of Protestantism among the peoples of the world. It is what western Jews decided they must be, if Napoleon was not to kick them out; what German Jews had to aspire to if they were to rate citizenship in the Prussian state.

Eastern European Jews knew instead they were a people, a nationality like the other groups who constituted Czarist Russia and after that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. “Republics,” note! Like Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Bessarabians — national groupings all, peoples, with customs and a language and a land, all their own. No wonder debate among the Jews who filled the Eastern European coffee-houses focussed on the Zionist question of land, the missing ingredient in the Jewish equation if Jews like the others were to be a licit people, not only a religion.

Both in the west and in the east, therefore, modern Jewish strategy circled round the question of how to justify inclusion in the body politic. In the west, inclusion meant being a religion, so the west gave us religious reform, a means by which Jews who had a medieval thing called Judaism could emerge with that medievalism retooled and reshaped into western style religion. In the east, it was land, not religion, that was missing, so there Jewish thinkers divided into “territorialists” who wanted to carve out a Jewish state in eastern Europe (where Yiddish, the language of the masses would be spoken), and Zionists who insisted on returning to the land of our ancestors (and their ancient language also).

In any case, religious reform did not capture the attention of Generation Two, who came to these shores not to seek religion but to celebrate peoplehood. Here they needed no separate land. They did, however, establish Yiddish theater, a Yiddish press, and a fully Yiddish ambience without much religion, for which they (frequently as socialists anyway) had little regard.

But they quickly discovered that Jews here were expected to have a religion. This was a Protestant country after all, and Protestants knew a religion when they saw one. German reformers were aghast at the very thought that their eastern European cousins would join them in their Temples, but eastern Europeans were equally offended by the Protestantized religiosity that Reform temples had developed. So a compromise was reached. Wealthy Reform bankers bailed out a bankrupt place called The Jewish Theological Seminary, making that the home for eastern European Jewish strivings. By 1910, the beginning of the emblematic decade for Generation Two, Jews had settled into a happy divide: western European Jews in Reform Temples where Judaism as a faith was preached, and Judaism as a variant version of Protestant religion was celebrated; and eastern European Jews in Conservative synagogues, where Judaism as an ethnic enterprise reigned supreme.

Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionism was the logical consequence of Conservative Judaism, as we might expect from this American master who arrived at his ideas while teaching homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary itself. If Judaism is essentially a people’s ethnic folkways, Judaism must be not just a religion but a civilization. In America, where even peoples ought to have religions, it must be a religious civilization. Synagogues should be more than sanctuaries, then. They should be gathering places for the clan, houses of assembly, even community centers of a mildly religious sort. How ironic that Kaplan, the most American of all Jewish thinkers, influenced most by Thomas Dewey and American pragmatism, should have missed the very essence of America’s religiosity, its insistence on religion as the dominating hallmark of what Jews must be.

Much much later, his Reconstructionist descendants would modify his radicalism, inviting, as president, Arthur Green, a religious seeker rooted in the very Chasidic mystical tradition that Kaplan’s rationalism deplored. The changeover in approach had been heralded when the federation of chavurot had joined the ranks of the old-time Reconstructionist Movement. But in the heyday of Generation Two, the era when Conservative Judaism was just being born and Kaplan’s ideas were only coming into being, these developments were a long way off. No one would then have predicted just how much even eastern European Jews would return to religion as a source of their identity. That return is the essence of the spiritual quest that dominates the Fourth Generation of our time. But before turning to ourselves, we need to analyze the Third Generation, which reached its pinnacle in the suburbs in the 1950s.