Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jewish hipsters do exist—but not for long

I had not even received contributor’s copies of the July/August issue of Commentary including my essay “The Judaism Rebooters” before I was attacked for it at the triumphantly inane Tablet magazine site.

Well, not me exactly. Marissa Brostoff—watch closely, Marissa, so you can see how this is done—declined to quote me by name, for she had a bear to hunt; she attributed my phrases to the “stalwart magazine” instead. A Wesleyan graduate with “an interdisciplinary degree in history, literature, and philosophy,” Brostoff apparently does not understand the function of an intellectual Jewish monthly like Commentary, perhaps because Tablet so miserably fails at fulfilling it. As Eliot E. Cohen wrote in the editorial statement upon launching Commentary in November 1945,

It goes without saying that the best magazine in the world will not solve our problems. But we have faith that a good magazine can help—by fairness, by searching out the truth, by encouraging fresh and free-ranging thinking, by bringing to bear upon our problems the resources of science, philosophy, religion, and the arts, by seeking out authentic voices and giving them open-house in which to be heard.Cohen wrote in the shadow of the Holocaust and just six months after Germany’s surrender had put an end to the war in Europe. “With Europe devastated,” he wrote, “there falls upon us here in the United States a far greater share of the responsibility for carrying forward, in a creative way, our common Jewish cultural and spiritual heritage.”

Commentary has flourished for sixty-three years, because it has given open-house to many different and sometimes contradictory voices who uniformly accept only one thing—the responsibility of carrying forward the Jewish heritage. John Podhoretz, who became its fourth editor this year, has built upon the magazine’s success and ushered it into a new era, overseeing a design overhaul that has made it more appealing to the eye. His editorial mission is much the same as Cohen’s six decades ago. In an editorial headnote to the first issue of the magazine that he edited in full, he wrote that Commentary would continue its “singular approach to matters Jewish,” concentrating primarily on “[h]ow Jews live and the role their heritage plays in the lives they make for themselves.” It would also maintain its defense of the “traditions of Western civilization, of which the Hebrew Bible is the wellspring.” And among other things, he said, this would require “taking up polemical arms against many of the flippancies of the present moment.”

Which is where my essay on “The Judaism Rebooters” comes in. My essay is a historical description of Jewish hipsterism, a movement (as I write in my opening sentence) of “young urbanites in their twenties and early thirties whose identity consists almost entirely of the assurance that it is cool to be Jewish.” Although hipster Jews like to imagine they are engaged in a daring maneuver “to rewrite Judaism in conformity with the current fashions,” they are nothing new on the Jewish scene. Jewish hipsterism is merely the latest variety of a perennial temptation in Jewish life—the temptation to believe that Jewish culture can be divorced from the Jewish religion and then passed on in the same condition to a receptive new generation. Except that it never works out like that. Secular Jewish movements have no latter-day disciples. They die out, to be replaced by a new generation of secularists who believe they can rewrite Judaism in conformity with the current fashions without losing the divine spark that keeps it alive.

“That must be why there are no urban liberal Jews left on God’s green earth,” Brostoff scoffs, “except for the ones in this article.” Yes indeed—the Bund remains a vital and viable political outlet for young Jews, as does its rival Poalei Tziyon; Yiddish theater remains vibrant in New York City, as do other institutions of Yiddishism (Brostoff herself, described as “a veteran of the Forward,” must surely contribute to the Yiddish-language blog of the Forverts); young Jews continue to extol the study of philosophy and the natural sciences as the highest form of worshipping God, just as the early maskilim did two centuries ago. The enduring monuments of Jewish secularism are many; I just can’t think of any.

There are plenty of urban liberal Jews left on God’s green earth, but urban liberal Jews of the next generation will not be their children, because (to paraphrase the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, whom I quote to close my essay) the Jewish content that the urban liberal Jews want to transmit—or are competent—is too meager to sustain a meaningful Jewish identity. Their Jewishness is haskalah without any sekhel.


R. T. said...

Though I comment as an outsider (nominal Christian), would I be more or less correct if I were to say that being Jewish without being religious is a bit like having an expectation of being a human being without bothering with breathing? That may be a non-Jewish observer's indulgence in an inelegant hyperbole, and not meant with anything but the utmost respect, but I simply do not comprehend the notion of Jewishness as a secular identity. Call me naive, but that is my point of view.

talk2jta said...

JTA's Ben Harris also takes issue with D.G. Myers anti-Jewish-hipster article in Commentary Magazine.