Insularity & Patriotism
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.