Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Insularity & Patriotism

(Picture courtesy of usda.gov)

Shoshana (Bershad) commenting on An Orthodox Jew's Christmas Story:

I had early experiences similar to those of your guest poster, "Robot Costume." I grew up in a town in southern Connecticut where Jews were in the extreme minority; my parents had settled there because they married during WWII and moved to a town close to the defense plant where they worked during the war. I attended public school (there was no alternative). In those days, the school day began with the "Lord's prayer," and I simply sat and remained silent while it was recited. I remember being an angel in the 6th grade Christmas play; my Mom made my costume. I enjoyed singing in the 7th and 8th grade chorus, but our Christmas program (they didn't call it a "holiday program" in those days) consisted of Christmas carols, and I remember the conflict I felt; I finally decided to participate but to *hum* some of the phrases I didn't agree with. I even (mentally) changed "C... the Lord" to "C... NOT the Lord." So, in other words, I tried to remain true to my conscience, although I was in a non-Jewish environment. Many of my friends were non-Jews, and I shared much of their culture. I was watchful for antisemitism but, as a child, I didn't experience much of it (unless you can count the knowledge that I'd have been unable to join the Yacht Club if I'd had the desire, the money, and the boat).

Now that I have gotten to know the Chassidic community, I have some observations on their “insularity.” I understand the value of keeping the group cohesive and unpolluted by the alien values, customs, and attitudes of the "host culture," but it troubles me that many Chassidic Jews feel that they live in little islands of Yiddishkeit in a sea of galus. Although they may participate in politics at the community level, they don't seem to value their citizenship in the U.S. and don't see U.S. history as relevant. By seeing themselves only as Jews and not as Jewish Americans, they are perpetuating their sense of "temporary residence" here and denying themselves the good aspects of American culture. They are choosing to be permanent outsiders. I'm referring to the mindset and conscious decision NOT to participate and to the general feeling that Jews are permanently "camping" in America and not "at home."

I told a friend about this essay, and she raised certain points that made me think further on the topic. She pointed out: “we are a nation in exile and are grateful and thankful to the leaders of this country for allowing us religious freedom and other opportunities. (I do wonder though, why you mention specifically Chassidic Jews.)” In response, I would say that the concept "we are a nation in exile" is one that doesn't even occur to the minds of most non-Orthodox Jews. That is, we know our history, so we acknowledge and lament the events that dispersed us around the globe. But, at the same time, the Jews who came to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought freedom from persecution as well as economic opportunity. When they arrived here, they accepted the idea that was current at the time that America was the great Melting Pot. They tried to win acceptance by "fitting in": changing their names to "Americanized" versions, learning English (as was required in the public schools), dressing in modern style, and gradually adopting many of the attributes of secular culture. Although they settled, at first, in large Jewish enclaves in NYC and other cities, they gradually felt confidence to disperse throughout the country. During those first difficult years and especially during the Depression, they took work where it was available, even if they couldn't find a minyan or kosher food. For many, their religious commitment and identification remained strong, but their daily practice (keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, etc) was weakened or lost. The struggle of those who were successful in business was to be treated as equals in society, without discrimination or prejudice. Then, in the post-World War II era, a new wave of immigrants, survivors of the Holocaust, arrived here. Among them were many Chassidic and other Orthodox Jews, who viewed things quite differently and resolved to maintain separation from secular culture and values. I think their reasons for doing so are valid (certainly, they observed, with dismay, what became of their predecessors, and they saw the decadence of mainstream modern American culture), but I regret that there is apparently no way to preserve their values without keeping the sense of being permanently "in exile."

My friend pointed out that the exile is not “permanent,” that “each and every day we wait to be redeemed--- even if we have not fully earned it, but in the merit of our forefathers---and to return to the land which G-d promised to our forefathers, Eretz Yisroel, the land of Israel.” But we have been through other exiles: Egypt, Babylonia, the long centuries of traveling through Western and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We left most of those places because of persecution, enslavement, pogroms, etc. And some of us have already returned to Eretz Yisroel. Maybe others of us are content to stay here, at least for now. Shouldn't we feel at home in our current homeland? Why not feel and act like citizens, when we have the right and opportunity to? We can still be focused on our spiritual lives, following the commandments, making ourselves worthy. It reminds me of the traveler who lives in a hotel and never completely unpacks his suitcase, while his colleagues, former travelers themselves, are settling into communities and putting down roots.

I hope that my remarks are not taken as criticism of the Chassidic community. I am not pushing assimilation. I respect the reasons for insularity. It just saddens me that some Jews seem to reject or de-emphasize their identity as American citizens. If my impression is mistaken, I would like to hear other views.

Robot Costume responds:

Thanks for your input - I see that we're pretty much on the same page!

I currently live in a Chassidic neighborhood, and am Chassidic myself, and I am also disappointed in some people's lack of respect, gratitude or loyalty to our country. However, you would be glad to know that this is changing with the younger generations, and it grows from day to day. I would guess that a large percent of Chassidic Jews 35 and younger have patriotic feelings for the USA - and among the Litvishe population (non-Chassidic but still religiously right-wing orthodox) it is even stronger.

I think that the sentiment was based on two things:

1. Chassidic Jews did not come to the USA by choice as many immigrant populations did - rather, they came mostly because the war forced them to. As a result, they maintained and harbored great suspicion and fear of the secular, host country.

2. They grew up with a number of anti-American prejudices before they were forced to come here: A) As Europeans, they were products of cultures and countries that were anti-American. B) America was a place that all Chassidic Jews shunned as a country of assimilation and loss of tradition. Jews who came to America in those days generally did not remain religious, so it was labeled as an "unkosher land." And when they arrived here, they still had this feeling deep in their thinking.

Now, a couple or three generations later this is changing.

20 Comments:

At September 4, 2007 at 8:30:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz.. said...

as a Jew who was raised in modern orthodoxy and a lot of american culture.. (4th generation american)

AND

as an oleh (of 7 years) to eretz yisrael

this conversation makes me feel sad.

The relationship isn't one-way. It's not like we got all these things from America for free. Sure we need hakarat haTov, but lets be thankful for the real good. America benefitted quite a bit from us being there. And there really are many pitfalls awaiting any child growing up in american culture--not just Jewish children.

But now that we have Israel, that Israel needs the help of every Jew so very much, why are we debating how Jews should live in america, in an insular fashion or in an embracing one? Who took for granted that Jews should be living in america?

Sending tzedaka is important, but it's a selfish endeavour. We know that HaShem will provide for us here in Israel. Sending tzedakka from chutz la'aretz is for the benefit of your neshamot, your well-being, not ours.

The actual help that does help Israel is coming here bodily to stand (and live) with your brothers and sisters.

Anyone in chutz la'aretz should feel the lack of Israel in their hearts, daily. (like the kind of pain that puts one in hard-core denial with the worrying notion that maybe they should talk to the cardiologist (chas v'chalilah) we're not talking heartburn 'pain.'

if from that perspective there are still issues of how insular one should or shouldn't be in america.. b'seder.

[my apologies to those who I may have insulted. it was not my intent to insult any individual person. every person has their own cheshbon, their own difficulties, their own goals and their own challenges. I was taking issue with a general mentality. I hope the love I feel for each and every one of you is genuine, honest, and most of all reciprocated.]

 
At September 4, 2007 at 8:56:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Yitz: I will not disagree that living in Eretz Yisroel is certainly the ideal and something we should all strive for. I do want to ask you about one sentence you wrote though.

You stated, "Sending tzedakka from chutz la'aretz is for the benefit of your neshamot, your well-being, not ours."

I also do not dispute that a person giving tzedakah receives a certain benefit, however I don't understand how you could say that the money I am sending to Eizer L'Shabbos to help the needy people in Tsfat does not help them as well. So, it appears to have mutual benefit. By sending tzedakah, I perform a mitzvah and a person living in Eretz Yisroel receives food in his or her otherwise empty refrigerator.

 
At September 4, 2007 at 9:25:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Al Raebder said...

Hashem may provide for you in Israel, but his tzaddikim in chutz l'aretz sometimes also encourage donations. Here is one such example.

 
At September 4, 2007 at 9:47:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

ASJ: I will not disagree that living in Eretz Yisroel is certainly the ideal and something we should all strive for.

It's a mitzva, slightly more than just an ideal (or at least many Rishonim think so)

I have alot of hakarat hatov to America...and while IMHO, Eretz Yisrael is the place to be, my July 4rth posting adds some of my personal insight.

I gladly use tzedaka from people in chutz la'aretz, like my EMT Defibrillator and red strobe light, which I use to try and save lives with...or my bulletproof vest for chasing terrorists.

The zechut from that tzedakka is invaluable.

 
At September 4, 2007 at 11:39:00 AM EDT, Anonymous chabakuk elisha said...

A couple years ago I was speaking with a Holocaust survivor (today a retired businessman) originally from Viznitz, and I remember him telling me:

“In Europe we all knew that America was an insignificant joke of a country – seriously, a country that young was hardly worth recognition.”

His son (today in his mid-forties) is a frum Litvishe businessman who is active in the Aguda, and is extremely into American politics and history. I’d say that he’s as patriotic, if not more so, as any American (president Reagan is one of his heroes and his picture is on the wall of his office) – to the extent that he told me that once someone tried to convince him to go out with a girl from Europe, so he did. Subsequently, he laughed it off saying: “You can’t imagine how badly it went – honestly, I can’t imagine marrying anyone other than American.”

 
At September 4, 2007 at 4:26:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz.. said...

@ASJ,

First of all I was not trying to denigrate the mitzwah of Tzedaka..

What I was saying is exactly what Mordechai said to Esther HaMalka:
Revach v'hatzolah (pun for the sake of jameel) yavo m'makom acher. v'at u'beit avich toved

"Comfort and salvation will come from another means [of HaShem], but you and your father's house will be lost."

It's a very basic Hassidic (read:Torah) ideal that the mitzwoth are there for ourselves, when someone asks us for tzedaka we should thank them for giving us such an oppurtunity (they are doing more for us than we are for them) -- in exchange for some of our livelihood in this world, we are receiving life in the world to come.

I was pointing out that while tzedaka given to support eretz yisrael is a wonderous thing -- the Tanya goes into this in great detail -- it does more for oneself and one's spiritual well-being (and of course klal yisrael) than for the recipient of that tzedaka.

It's no exchange for living in Israel. (this is of course only an issue for someone who CAN make aliyah and doesn't, not for someone who is in a situation where this is currently impossible.)

and like I said I was not trying to insult or offend anyone and I try to judge everyone in the best possible light---not because I'm a nice person but because the Baal Shem Tov explains that it's in my own interest to judge everyone else favorably.

 
At September 4, 2007 at 4:57:00 PM EDT, Blogger yitz.. said...

@Al Raebder

If you will read that perek of Tanya in depth you will see that he extolls tzedaka to eretz yisrael for the sake of one's own spiritual wellbeing.. which is exactly what I was saying.

(the daily tanya covered this perek only a few weeks ago---actually while I was in the states formulating this very idea)

 
At September 4, 2007 at 6:15:00 PM EDT, Anonymous A Yid said...

The issue of forgetting being in Golus because of relaxed environment is more serious than it seems.

There is a Agodo in the Bava Basra, which describes a story, where sea travelers came to an island an started cooking food. Suddenly the island started to turn over, because it was a gigantic sea beast. They almost drowned, if not for the boat nearby.

This parable hints to the flow of our Golus, which is like the stormy sea. We come to some land, which is only the island, but we get relaxed starting feeling too much at home (cooking). The moment it happens, we a reminded where we are standing.

 
At September 4, 2007 at 9:46:00 PM EDT, Anonymous emes said...

"Chassidic Jews did not come to the USA by choice as many immigrant populations did - rather, they came mostly because the war forced them to. As a result, they maintained and harbored great suspicion and fear of the secular, host country.

2. They grew up with a number of anti-American prejudices before they were forced to come here: A) As Europeans, they were products of cultures and countries that were anti-American. B) America was a place that all Chassidic Jews shunned as a country of assimilation and loss of tradition. Jews who came to America in those days generally did not remain religious, so it was labeled as an "unkosher land." And when they arrived here, they still had this feeling deep in their thinking."

For the record, quite a few Chassidim came here way before WWII, and at least some of them came with permission of their Rebbes, sometimes with blessings too.

'Chassidim' does not mean only certain Hungarian and other sects that came after WWII. Many Galician and Russian Chassidim came way before them.

Chassidim does not necessarily mean Hungarian or 'survivors'.

 
At September 4, 2007 at 9:51:00 PM EDT, Anonymous emes said...

Additionally, other Jews didn't necessarily come to America totally willingly either. They also were affected by wars, persecution, threat of being drafted into the army and economic difficulties.

So the picture that the earlier poster painted that other Jews (frum and lihavdil other) came to America willingly, while Chassidim didn't until the WWII period when they absolutely had to, is inaccurate, wrong on both sides.

 
At September 5, 2007 at 3:44:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz.. said...

an update:
today's Tanya expressly says "if you don't give tzedaka to the poor person, who will?" In seemingly direct contradiction to what I've said here.

This can also be seen in sefer Devarim, where we are warned not to ignore the poor lest they call out to HaShem and he will find us sinners.

To my humble understanding this doesn't actually contradict what I have said: We are given parnasa beyond what we ourselves need so that neshamoth that are connected to ours and come to us for tzedaka can be completed and complete us through the act of tzedaka.

In this way, we can understand the Baal HaTanya, If you don't give the money (that HaShem set aside for that poor person) to the poor person, who will?

Also what we quoted from sefer devarim is clear, since HaShem alotted this money for the poor person, he has a legitimate claim on the money and a court would certainly instruct one to pay up, so of course we will be found guilty.

On a deeper level though, we can see in both of the sources, the truth of my point:

the Tanya says if we don't have mercy on these people, who (literally 'mi' מי) will. Mi is a name that refers to Ima Ila'ah, the partzuf of 'mother superior' the source of all din (judgement) and in which all din is sweetened. So if we don't have rachamim on the poor, then HaShem will bring down rachamim from the the highest source for them.

and in Devarim (15:11) HaShem tells us that there will always be poor people--"mikerev ha'aretz" it would make more sense to say "b'kerev ha'aretz" (in the midst of the land rather than from the midst of the land) From this we can see that in fact, tzedaka is "mekarev ha'aretz", it brings the land closer. It brings eretz yisrael closer to each Jew even those in Chutz la'aretz. If poverty was simply a result of distribution of wealth, how can HaShem tell us that there will always be poverty. Rather, since tzedaka in Israel is the means through which Jews outside of Israel can "bring the land close to them" then as long as there are Jews in chutz la'aretz there will always be poverty in the land of Israel.

 
At September 5, 2007 at 12:36:00 PM EDT, Anonymous shoshana (bershad) said...

Emes: I agree with you that there are exceptions to every generalization. Most of the earlier Jewish immigrants (1880s to 1920s) from eastern Europe are descendants of Chassidim. Certainly, they came here to escape persecution, pogroms, and conscription into the Russian army, but they also sought economic opportunity and saw America as the Goldene Medina. In contrast to later immigrants, they tended to view their migration as a permanent resettlement.

A Yid: The parable shows that appearances can be deceiving. But parables, like statistics, can be used to prove almost any point. Since we are taught to have faith that Hashem will provide for us, why shouldn't we think that Hashem guided us to America as a good place to sojourn until the time of Moshiach? Wasn't Europe golus as well?

 
At September 5, 2007 at 1:59:00 PM EDT, Anonymous emes said...

" Most of the earlier Jewish immigrants (1880s to 1920s) from eastern Europe are descendants of Chassidim."

Where do you get that from ?

Some were. But most ?

 
At September 5, 2007 at 3:19:00 PM EDT, Anonymous shoshana (bershad) said...

Emes: OK, I concede that "Orthodox," not "Chassidim," would have been a better choice of words.

Abba Eban, in My People: The Story of the Jews, says: "After the death of the Besht in 1760, his disciples carried Hasidism into every corner of Poland. ... it soon gained hundreds of thousands of adherents, and in time was embraced by the majority of East-European Jews ..." (p. 241).

Irving Howe, in World of Our Fathers, says that "in the 33 years between the assassination of Alexander II [1881] and the outbreak of the First World War, approximately one third of the east European Jews left their homelands ..." (p. 26). He notes that Orthodox Jews and the older generation were most skeptical. In 1881, "thousands of refugees in flight from pogroms that had spread across the whole of the Ukraine, poured into Brody; in the next few years, an organized pathway of emigration and relief organizations was established. ... between 1901 and 1914 the number of Jews who left Europe, almost all of them from Russia, Romania, and Galicia, came to 1,602,441" (p. 30). "Between 1881 and 1914 close to two million Jews arrived in America, the overwhelming bulk of them either directly or indirectly from eastern Europe. A migration of such magnitude must have drawn upon all segments of the Jewish population, though in varying proportions at different points in time" (p. 58). "At least before 1905 Jews who held strong religious or political convictions were less likely to emigrate than those who did not ... the Orthodox Jews [believed] that America was a jungle of worldliness in which faith might be destroyed..." (p. 61). But, after the failed revolution of 1905, "the number of Orthodox Jews entering the migration also increased, not out of ideological decision but because the postrevolutionary reaction in Russia was deeply discouraging to Jewish life" (p. 62). There is a lot more here (but, as I said, it mostly refers to Orthodox but not necessarily Chassidic Jews).

 
At September 5, 2007 at 4:05:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The chasidim were the majority in Europe. Immigrants can be a different issue.

 
At September 5, 2007 at 6:16:00 PM EDT, Anonymous emes said...

They were a majority in some towns and places, not all.

 
At September 6, 2007 at 8:44:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

My great-grandparents (on my father's side) were Chassidim who arrived from Hungary and Galicia over 100 years ago. One great-grandfather was involved in founding a shtiebel (Shearis Yisroel) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Many non-Chassidim also arrived in the same time frame, from Lithuania, White Russia, etc. My mother's family came in various stages to Boston from Lithuania before 1900. Her mother's father from Lithuania lived for a time in Scotland before moving to the US.

The culture shock of moving to the US, and the low availability of shomer shabbos job opportunities eventually took its toll even on many families who came fully intending to remain religious.

Here are some articles about the fight to create the five-day work week in the US:

http://www.uiowa.edu/~lsa/bkh/jewish_sabbath1.htm

http://www.ajhs.org/publications/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=299

http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/whaples.work.hours.us

 
At September 10, 2007 at 10:57:00 AM EDT, Anonymous little mordie said...

I wonder if we're getting sidetracked here.

IMHO, the issue is not what different brands of orthodox Judaism think, but whether an attitude is or isn't justified.

On the one hand, credit (even to less-than-perfect gentiles) must be given where credit is due.

On the other hand...

In some ways, America is a much worse kind of golus than even Europe was - European antisemites would (eventually) reveal their true feelings. Whereas the US smiles at eg. Israel, and twists her arm behind closed doors to concede territory et al...

Eisov hates Yaakov, even in good ol' America, and we should never forget that.

 
At October 22, 2007 at 8:18:00 PM EDT, Anonymous A Yid said...

You seem to be confusing patriotism and good citizenship with liberal western culture. Most chasidim are good citizens, as patriotic as anyone else, and very appreciative of America.
Insularity helps perpetuate a religious culture, a mindset, and a way of life.
It's no reflection on their citizenship, and as a matter of fact, they're probably more appreciative of American tolerance than you are.

 
At November 5, 2007 at 1:29:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello? Is this the 21st Century?

Being insular leads to intolerance. If you're SO different than every other human being, no wonder Jews have so much trouble in this world.

 

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