What if the world woke up one day and there were no Jews left? Would America be worse off? A strange question, perhaps, but an important one.
American Judaism is in crisis, and the root cause of it is that most American Jews cannot answer that question. We can’t explain why an America without us would be worse off, because we have spent the past century trying to become exactly like the culture that surrounds us. Having eradicated virtually all the differences between us and this hospitable land, we no longer have a sense of why we make a difference.
Jews had long believed that if only they could find a tolerant land, willing to let them live life as they chose, they could finally thrive. But America has proved both benevolent and dangerous. Jews are more successful here than their grandparents would ever have dreamed possible, but they are vulnerable in ways we never had cause to fear. America’s culture, we now see, has become our undoing, slowly but certainly eroding American Jewish identity to the point that we no longer know who we are.
What is this American culture? It is Disney, where we are taught that we can abandon all vestiges of our past, join a new and alluring culture and yet still survive in some palpable way. Consider Ariel, the heroine of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Content until she visits the surface of the sea, Ariel falls in love with a wondrous world that is completely unlike her own. Suddenly, her fish tail, which had always seemed natural to her, is an impediment, and she wants nothing more than to trade it for human legs.
The wicked sea witch offers to dissolve the mermaid’s tail and replace it with legs - but at a devastating cost: Ariel can become human, but she must give up her voice. Buoyed by a uniquely American sense that roots are mere baggage and that the future will always work out, Ariel accepts the deal.
So did American Jews. Like the mermaid, the early masses of Jews who came to this country fell in love with a culture different from anything they had seen before. It was a culture excited by new ideas, in which Jews could finally be participants rather than outsiders, in which talent and hard work were rewarded.
So American Jews set out to become as much a part of this new world as they could. But they had their own version of the mermaid’s fish tail. They had come predominantly from Europe, laden with accents, ethnic behaviors and religious rituals that seemed to make them stick out. They didn’t need a witch to tell them that the way into American life was to discard those old-fashioned ways and traditions; that was obvious. So they quickly moved to create a version of Judaism that could still tie them to their roots, but that would not make them different. They acquired American clothes and accents. They attended the finest American universities. They created synagogues and Hebrew schools that didn’t make them feel different, but rather, let them feel Jewish and wholly American at the same time. They would keep Judaism, they decided, but it couldn’t be “too Jewish.”
But Disney movies notwithstanding, we don’t all live happily ever after. Though Disney’s writers kill off the sea witch, restore Ariel’s voice and script a wedding to the prince at which her delighted merfamily is present, American Jews will find no magical solutions.
Hans Christian Andersen’s version of the story had it right: the prince loves the mermaid, but because she has no voice, they can’t converse and it never occurs to him to marry her. As the witch had forewarned, the mermaid senses her death approaching and soon thereafter, turns into the foam upon the sea and disappears forever.
The American Jewish experience is proving Andersen right and Disney wrong. With no voice, no distinctive message, Judaism will have no allure for American Jews. A century of intentional forgetting will not easily be reversed. American Jews know virtually nothing about what our tradition actually says. Nor are we certain that we want to know, for that would entail using our ideas to stand for something. It would mean being different, and we’re not sure that surviving is worth that sacrifice.
That’s why Michael Drosnin’s best-selling “The Bible Code” is so appealing to many Jews. The alleged codes are an argument that God must be the author of the Torah. Thus, they imply a transcendent importance of the Torah, and therefore of Judaism. But they do this without reference to any of the Bible’s ideas. The codes look at letters culled from different words and lines. They ignore the content of the Bible. In the codes, what Judaism actually says about anything is irrelevant. They offer implied reassurance: Jews don’t need to do anything to preserve Jewish life. Judaism won’t disappear, simply because God is its author. Another magical happy ending.
But it won’t work and deep down we know it. To survive, Jews need a reason to be. And to recover that, we’ll need to stand for something. We’ll need to reverse a century of blending in. If we can find the courage to recover our own voice and our own contributions, we may still have a chance. Only time will tell if America has eroded that courage as well.