Friday, July 15, 2011

Simon and the Question of Jewish Social Justice - A Generational Gap?

Lesson learned: Talk about David Simon as much as I can. That man truly elicits some deep emotions and visceral reactions to his artistic output and statements. Some, from the comments I received, view him as a visionary, a genius, even in his politics, and others, see him as a kook, a blind outsider who doesn't understand the Jewish community and its needs. This post will not attempt to tackle Simon's public persona, or even the specific issues he brings up. Rather, I find it fascinating that the issues he brings up in regards to the allocation of Jewish charity highlight a dividing line between the older generations and the current one.
A recent Jewish Week article reported that those Jews who do choose to volunteer, volunteer largely outside of the Jewish community. Interestingly, many of the comments from the older generation regarding Simon echo their comments regarding this phenomenon. Essentially, the complaint against Simon and against this universalizing trend is that we/him do not understand that if we do not help ourselves, no one will. We, the tiny nation that could, the nation of Maccabees that continuously beats the odds against our survival, both with God's help, but also with our ferocious tenacity, cannot afford (in both senses) to start solving the world's problems when endless problems plague our world (Assimilation, infighting, poverty, attacks against Israel etc.) Apparently, this difference, this sense of urgency in regards to internal issues, or lack thereof, touches upon a generational gap.
These sentiments came to the fore a while back when Jack Werthheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at JTS, criticized the trend to use philanthropy for non-Jewish causes. He lamented that many Jewish Foundations give mostly to non-Jewish causes, which is not an inherent problem per se, but it fails to realize the whole host of monetary issues plaguing the Jewish community. (Tuition alone for Jewish education will eventually costs an astronomical amount for just a family of three etc.) Again, I don't believe I can add much to the back and forth regarding this point, but I do think it highlights an interesting generational gap that needs more attention, because the less we focus on the fact that our generations struggle with different issues the more we will talk at each other instead of with each other.
         Each generation, religious our not, deals with unique issues, asks itself different questions, and seeks to accomplish different goals. In terms of religion, the previous generation felt the real fear of extinction and of rebirth ,whether first hand, or vicariously through the Holocaust generation of their parents. Their experience, besides partaking in the tension of modernity we all partake in, entailed a fight against anti-Semitism, a fight for Russian Jewry, a fight for their way of life, and a fight for equality in the workplace, basically a fight. Our generation, thankfully, and mostly in part because our parents and grandparents already fought for it, does not fight for our Judaism, at least not externally. We draw our battle lines on different grounds.
      Our generation, instead of monetary inheritance, or cultural heritages of songs, dances, and recipes, mostly have received heritages of sadness, hate, revenge, and national insecurities. We are a generation that buckles under an unwanted sense of chosenness. We see little dignity in difference and wish to forgive the atrocities of the past so we can live in the pleasures of today. We embrace apathy more out of resignation than rebellion. Like no generation before us, we feel squelched by the decisions of our elders without the proper tools of rebellion, or appropriation. We realize the opulence of our lifestyle, the ghosts of our collective memories haunt our hedonism, but we lack any real struggle to connect to our pained past. We have fought no wars for our state’s existence, no social battles for our physical safety, and no political campaigns for our right to exist. Acceptance, acculturation, and assimilation serve as our battle grounds and it is a fight we rarely understand the reasons for, and consequently care little about. We do not feel the exigency of the need to fight for Jewish continuation because on a whole we feel ambivalent about the parochialism in this idea. Many of us simply struggle to define what it means to be Jewish in this age of total freedom of choice, in which we can choose any lifestyle, easily.
(Anti-Semitism bleeps on our radar with the faintest of noises, an echo of the last generation. I realize that anti-Semitism rises with every passing year, but this anti-Semitism, for our generation, is forever out there, not impinging on our placid existence. Our religious struggle focuses on apathy, not on attaining validity in the face of hostility. Our battles lies against materialism, hedonism, and nihilism as opposed to any real physical danger.)
Consequently, it would seem, we care about different issues than our parents and grandparents. We might more easily side with Simon because as two generations removed from the Holocaust, living in a time in which the question of the existence of the Jewish state is less urgent than it used to be, we don’t feel the threat of non-existence as previous generations did. The previous two generations, in fighting for their Jewishness, both physically, emotionally, and politically, consequently, do not understand the choices of our generation. They see the veering of wayward generation as a suicidal act of rebellion, or at least a ignorant act of rebellion, as opposed to a search for a way to connect meaningfully to a tradition on our terms– and this is the irony of a post-Holocaust Judaism.
Many survivors thrived after the holocaust so as to continue the great chain of their lofty tradition. To do so they created a world of a stable Judaism, which has led to unprecedented comfort in Jewish life.  However, one of the central components of the deep threat to the viability of Judaism today arises from the comfort with which we live as Jews. Comfort breeds ease. Ease, begets apathy. It is this comfort, amongst many other factors, that has caused many of the issues the previous generation now focuses on. Besides apathy, many Jews now feel they can find no compelling reason to choose the path of Judaism over the other paths of lives we are exposed to on a daily basis. We live in this influx of information age in which we gain exposure to the range of lifestyles whether from our friends, our classmates, the media, the internet, and we become hard pressed to explain why Judaism. When you must fight for your identity, you dont have the luxury to ask why Judaism because Judaism is forced upon you from the outside. It is long been known that one of our greatest assets, ironically, for Jewish Unity and continuation has been a common enemy. Today though, our generation lacks a common enemy, for the most part. In fact, I imagine most of us would find the idea of a common enemy as simplistic and beneath us. The irony then is that the greatest revenge against Hitler: creating a free space in which Judaism can breathe, in a circuitous route, led unknowingly, to a sort of spiritual destruction (in the previous generation’s mind) of the Jewish religion.
In a sense, this explains why for so many young Jews today we look outwards, we look towards universalism to provide meaning for our lives. I believe, and this is highly anecdotal and simplistic, that this difference might also explain other generation gaps. Again, anecdotal, but our generation does not appear to react to assimilation, or intermarriage the same way the previous generation does and did (Other differences can be explained with this idea, but not for now). In these cursory remarks, I am not commenting on who is right or wrong, but rather hope to describe the current situation so as to open up a dialogue.
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