|By A.D. Freudenheim||
4 March 2002
Reading Adam Gopnik's recent column in The New Yorker (issue dated February 18 & 25, 2002), in which he describes his decision to accept an invitation last year to give the purimspiel at The Jewish Museum's annual Purim Ball - and then reviews his own process to prepare for the event - I saw something cheerless in the portrait he paints of himself. What is dismaying is to imagine that his own experience is likely such a common one in the broader (American) Jewish world.
Gopnik describes himself as (in effect, since these are my words) an extremely secularized Jew, the son of parents who took the opportunity for assimilation in the mid-twentieth century to the logical extreme, and who hoped to purge themselves of any identifiable - or at least any religious - Jewishness. Gopnik apparently inherited this alienation from Judaism, to the point where an invitation to the Purim Ball sparked a crisis in his faith in the secular world. How did they even know he was Jewish at all, he wonders, let alone Jewish enough to carry forward this holiday tradition? With this as his starting point, Gopnik proceeds to describe his evolution in thinking, from a dazed-and-confused assimilation into American culture to a more invigorated acceptance of the challenge: the challenge of being Jewish enough to participate in the Purim Ball.
Gopnik's article struck me as depressing. I have no problem with someone who has chosen to live the life of an unaffiliated, secular Jew - a Jew whose connection to Judaism (as Gopnik describes it) is essentially reliant on rituals involving smoked fish and stand-up comedy. Nor am I bothered by the idea that someone who was once Jewish might no longer describe themselves as a Jew; I believe strongly that the right to chose one's identity should be protected. Yet it is exactly this notion, of protecting and ensuring the ability to self-identify, that makes me think Gopnik's story is not only sad but intellectually troublesome. How awful it is that someone should feel as though they have no choice about the kind of Jewish life they might lead.
The tone of Gopnik's article seems to reflect a prejudice, one that imagines a world where someone is either "Jewish" - perhaps visibly or stereotypically so, wearing a yarmulke and over-committed to rules about what they can eat or whose hand they can shake - or is removed from that world and its traditions into the (presumably secular) American melting pot. It not only pre-supposes that the stereotype of the Jew in the long black outfits cannot fit into American society in happy and productive ways, but also that Judaism is so inflexible that it cannot tolerate a multiplicity of views, perspectives significantly more diverse than whatever might have been imaginable fifty years earlier. Moreover, although Gopnik describes friends with strong connections to Judaism, he seems to view them as born-again Jews, adults who have come back into the fold with the energy and vigor of a convert. Those people do exist, and for every religion, not just Judaism. But why should it be any worse for them to decide that Judaism (and the intellectual and emotional engagement it can represent) is their object of devotion than if they were to decide suddenly that going to the gym needed to be their personal priority? And what if these friends of his had always maintained some connection to religion and, as adults and married couples, were now simply expressing those Jewish connections in ways that were more visible to Gopnik but not substantially different from their previous religious involvements?
In my own life, Judaism has always been present, as much when I tried to push it away as when I have run to it with open arms. The decisions I have made about Judaism - about faith and tradition, and about what and how to practice - would surely be too Jewish for some and not nearly Jewish enough for others, but what ultimately matters is only that it is a Judaism I feel comfortable with. The opportunity to chose, to manage the process of self-identifying, may not have been as readily available in my grandparents' generation, but hopefully those days are long gone. Isn't this what (American) Jews have been working towards for so many years?
After a description of the Purim Ball and his performance, Gopnik closes with an admission: his family celebrated Passover last year, and is pondering whether or not they should join the synagogue across the street from their apartment. Perhaps, he suggests, being Jewish is now something he can actively participate in, instead of merely being an activity of others, passively watched from his window. Maybe the more important lesson, for him and for others, is to realize that he can engage with the faith of his parents or grandparents without necessarily losing himself. There is nothing wrong with the Borscht Belt aspects of Judaism - but there is also a lot more to it than that.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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