Thursday, July 02, 2009

Such Jews are not hipsters

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency is a nearly century-old institution of Jewish life in America. Although it is a news service, describing itself as “the definitive source for American Jewish community news and opinion,” its press releases are written in a style familiar to anyone who, out of idle curiosity on the way to the trash can, has dipped into the free community newspaper tossed into his front yard once a week. The JTA provides the fillers between the ads and activity calendars in Jewish weeklies around the country. Given its position of dependence, it is extremely protective of institutional Jewish privilege in the U.S.

So it comes as no surprise that a JTA writer by the name of Ben Harris has taken the trouble to savage my essay “The Judaism Rebooters,” which appears in the July/August issue of Commentary. The essay, Harris says, is “[m]ore caricature than fact,” it is a “screed,” I am “wrong,” I am “lazy,” I have “chosen to condescend.” (Rather than what? To gnaw on the jaw-breaking ideas of the leading hipster thinkers? Harris names none, because it is easier to accuse me of going after “the low-hanging fruit” than to correct my negligence with an introductory reading list. Perhaps, however, the reality is that there are no hipster thinkers to name.) Worst of all, I offer “no answer to the question of how to engage Jews in contemporary times.” I have “nothing to say about how to understand an ancient tradition in a radically changed world.”

Most of Harris’s charges deserve no reply. True, he does catch a typo. I misspelled Jennifer Bleyer’s name. Yes, I did; it was sloppy of me. Sadly, I have made this kind of mistake before. But Harris’s ideas (such as they are) do not provide much of a correction. They derive wholly from current commonplaces, and his grasp of history is shaky. In my essay I had pointed out that “the term hipster came out of the jazz scene around the Second World War,” and then was “given currency by Norman Mailer [in the] 1957 essay ‘The White Negro.’ ” To which Harris responds:

His observation that the term hipster itself emerged from jazz and the counterculture is instructive. Then too, it was fashionable for elite intellectuals to attack the craven self-indulgence of hippie culture. They were an easy target: pot-smokers who dressed funny and smelled bad and spent their days listening to the Dead and having casual sex. (Hippies also spoke about radical freedom and unfettered personal expression but then, depressingly, everyone wound up agreeing on the sartorial virtues of tie-die and bell bottoms.)The term did not emerge from the “counterculture.” Speaking as an ex-hippie (“Gimme a head with hair!”), I regret to inform Harris that it was already dated by the ’sixties. The difference between the era of “The White Negro” and the era of Black Power, to say nothing of the difference between the hipster and the hippie, is rather significant.

So too the difference between radical personal autonomy and freedom. Here is the one point, and one only, where I need to expand my essay to reply to Harris. “The shift from external authority to individual control over Jewish identity is the hallmark of the hipster movement,” I had written. Harris observes that this is “also the hallmark of contemporary society,” failing to draw the obvious conclusion that Jews who insist that they themselves decide whether and how they are Jews—regardless of their birth, marriage, or daily regimen—are thus the products of contemporary society and not Jewish tradition. The question, Harris goes on doggedly, is “how to reconcile” the ethic of radical personal autonomy “with the external demands that Judaism has traditionally sought to exert.” How do you do that “in an age when personal autonomy is deemed sacrosanct and in a country where notions of liberty and freedom from government interference have birthed a culture of radical individualism?”

But personal autonomy and “freedom from government interference” are not the same thing, and deeming the former “sacrosanct” does not make it so. (It is also not true that radical autonomy was “birthed” by American notions of liberty, but that’s a discussion for another time.) The quick and dirty answer is that the doctrine of the “sovereign self,” as Harris calls it, cannot be reconciled with Judaism. In as far as the age deems radical autonomy sacrosanct, Judaism is countercultural. It provides an alternative to the sovereign self, a means of escaping the limitless demands of personal fulfillment.

It seems never to occur to Harris that some Jews, young and old, might experience their freedom, not as a liberation from external demands, but as the elective decision to treat someone other than themselves as sacrosanct. And whatever else they are, such Jews are not hipsters.

Update: Daniel Sieradski decides I “dislike” that hipster Jews “are liberal.” No, what I dislike is the confusion of political liberalism—well, liberal attitudinizing, really—with Jewish commitment. Nor is this confusion particularly new, although Sieradski prefers to call Jewish hipsterism the “innovation movement.” (The thing I like about Judaism is that it is immemorial.) Whatever it is called, Sieradski claims that the latest movement of liberal Jewish secularism has “succeeded tremendously.” I doubt it, but we shall see in a generation or so. In the mean time, my money is on Orthodoxy.


Anonymous said...

"Savaged"? Wow -- you are one thin-skinned neocon.

As for "The JTA provides the fillers between the ads and activity calendars in Jewish weeklies around the country." Be careful, because one day Commentary may hire the editor of such a paper to be its own executive editor.

Oh wait, they already did.

D. G. Myers said...

If you’re so intellectually tough, why post your comment anonymously?

I am sorry, though, that you did not catch the characterization of Harris’s views implicit in that verb.

EV said...

Your essay was astonishingly ignorant and atrociously researched, not just on the topic of "hipsters" or "young Jews" but on the topic of modern Judaism itself. Even if it had been published in 2003 -- the only year it might have made any sense to publish it -- it would have been almost completely tone deaf to contemporary Jewish culture. The only venue that would print such a straw man screed is Commentary, the official magazine of "World War IV."

In any event, you might enjoy seeing youself in a satire of such imbecilic analysis of "hipsters" published two years ago:

"Inevitably, there are those who disagree. '[A Jewish food] and [a Jewish entertainer] are insufficient [plural noun] for identity,' argued Rabbi [Old Testament Prophet] [Jewish surname] of [sparsely populated state]. 'You can only go so far on [insert “t-shirts,” “concerts,” “blogs,” “Jewfros” or “drugs”] before you realize there’s no nourishment there.'

"'It can’t be all [mood],' agreed Professor [four-syllable name] [three-syllable name] [Jewish surname], recipient of the American Jewish [noun] Foundation Award for Excellence in [adjective] Jewish Thought in 1956, 1957, and 1959. 'Besides, we have zero evidence that the so-called "hipster" culture leads Jews to [active verb, sexual] and marry other Jews. So what’s the point?'"

D. G. Myers said...

I seem to have touched a nerve. If my essay on Jewish hipsterism is so “astonishingly ignorant” and out of date (by six years!), why so defensive? Who should care?

But O my god! What biting satire! Hilarious! Pure genius! I am reeling in shame.

OJ said...

um, DG, when people call you out for inaccuracies, take a deep breath before getting defensive. You need to remember that you, as a conservative, live in a different reality than the rest of us. You create your story and "fix the facts around it".

I actually don't know anything about you, in particular, but I'd hazard that you just have the misfortune of not having met committed Jews who don't fit your cookie-cutter image. That doesn't mean they don't exist, but it does mean that you're not qualified to write about them.

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, Benjamin, that is exactly what being conservative means. How you knew that I worked this way, though, is beyond me.

I have met plenty of Jews who declare that they are “committed,” just not to the mitsvot. They are the ones wielding a cutter. They wish to trim Judaism to fit their needs.

EV said...

Who should care? I think those of us with high hopes for Jewish cultural expression get upset to see such a paucity of intellectual insight in a once-great publication such as Commentary.

That's why this matters.

D. G. Myers said...

“Cultural expression,” “paucity of intellectual insight”—now there is some sharp and original phrasing!

You know, all of you hipsters complain about my piece and sling insults, but none of you actually construct an argument. You know, like a refutation.

I write, for instance, “Traditionally, a Jew was a Jew by virtue of a dual relationship: a vertical relationship with God, the concrete image of which is the law handed down to Moses, and a horizontal relationship with the Jewish people, which takes shape in history.”

I grant you that this is not particularly insightful. But is it true? Or are you hipsters Jews in some other way that history has not yet learned about?

And as for the quality of Commentary. I don’t think you have to worry with John Podhoretz at the helm.

Anonymous said...

you want an argument, you got it

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks, Mobius. But see “Update, I” above.

Sieradski faults me for being “out of touch.” He’s right. I’m a square. I’ve got used to it.

He also sneers that no one has ever meet a Jewish hipster who went to Texas A&M, but it seems not to occur to him that this might be a recommendation of the College Station campus.

For those who need more social background on hipsters than I provided in “The Judaism Rebooters,” go here. I particularly like the campaign by Brooklyn hipsters to ban Mister Softee ice cream trucks. The jingle annoys them.

EV said...


If you want serious intellectual argument, okay: Why did you base your analysis on decontextualized quotes from a couple of books and from letters to the editor in Heeb, and not on the full range of innovative Jewish cultural expression happening today? (Where was Guilt and Pleasure, Jewcy, Zeek, Habitus? Have you even heard of Habitus?) Why did you say "Jews do not choose; they are chosen," when even Orthodox Judaism has evolved from such a static view of Judaism? In an essay published in 2009, why did you mention Matisyahu as your single musical reference point? Why did you mention "rebooters" and not discuss the organization by that name? Did your read the essay published in New Voices that analyzed the interplay of innovative Jewish culture and foundation funding as seen in the Reboot initiative? Have you heard of New Voices? Why did you write this essay?

Are you at least willing to concede that in using Heeb as your primary target instead of the broad range of contemporary Jewish cultural expression, you were engaging in empty straw man pugilism? And that sweeping statements such as "To qualify as hipsters, young Jews must seem to be in the know" are deflated by such lazy, apathetic research? This is why people -- not hipsters, again; despite your continued straw man insults, none of the people criticizing you here are hipsters -- are stunned that such an essay was published, even in Commentary. We've come to expect cantankerous reactionary screeds in Commentary, but we hope at least that they are based in research and fact, and not on some random letters to the editor.

You had a great opportunity for a reasoned, researched essay, D.G., and you blew it. And you still haven't answered any of your critics here or elsewhere. But keep calling us "hipsters," and keep quoting from letters to the editor in past issues of Heeb if it helps you get tenure. I think on one thing we can probably agree: Academia is a crock.

D. G. Myers said...

EV: Didn’t see your comment till motsei Shabbat. Sorry.

The first rule of criticism is to criticize what the author wrote. Not what he should have written. Not what you wish he had written. The reason I did not discuss “the full range of innovative Jewish cultural expression happening today” is that was not my subject. Jewish hipsterism was my subject, and Heeb was the story. You object that Heeb is a straw man. Absurd. Straw men do not exist. You and I may not like it much, but Heeb exists. And it is culturally important in representing an attitude of some currency among self-described and attention-getting Jews.

Certainly it is more important and has a wider circulation than Habitus. While Habitus is interesting, if unfocused, it’s hardly a hipster journal. It represents, in fact, a different movement and attitude altogether. Let’s call it the diaspora movement—the campaign to embrace the diaspora as home at last. Perhaps this too might be characterized as an “innovation movement.” If Caryn Aviv’s and David Schneer’s book by the title is to be trusted, it too is a movement of “new Jews.” But, again, this is a different subject. An interesting one, I’ll grant you. But a different subject. The diasporists are not hipsters.

I wrote an essay on Jewish hipsterism, since you asked, because it is one of “the flippancies of the present moment,” which John Podhoretz has promised that Commentary will “tak[e] up polemical arms against” under his editorship. I am persuaded that Heeb is the best representation of a movement among young Jews, who grew up under a regimen of multiculturalism, to treat identity as elective and difference as substantive. Something like this is what Jennifer Bleyer means by the image of “dim sum Jews.” The ideas may be incoherent, but they are disseminated far more widely and exercise a far greater influence in the culture than the diasporic claims of Habitus and Aviv and Schneer.

So too for Jewcy, Zeek, and Reboot’s journal Guilt & Pleasure. After trying to fit them in, I decided in the end that they simply made the picture too diffuse. A single magazine provides a coherent story line. The minute two different magazines are yoked together as belonging to the same movement, all sorts of questions are raised. Commentary and the Weekly Standard might both described a neoconservative journals, for example, but it is impossible to imagine the Standard’s publishing “The Judaism Rebooters.” Besides, with its combination of self-congratulatory attitudinizing and arch irony, Heeb struck me as the ideal “cultural expression” of Jewish hipsterism. It also has the longest track record and the best shot, in my opinion, of being around in five years.

Finally, your assertion that “even Orthodox Judaism has evolved away” from a “static view” of the Jews as a chosen nation is vacuous. I should have liked to see you corroborate this assertion. For despite its name—a misnomer, really—Orthodox Judaism has no central and correct doctrine to “evolve” away or toward or up or down from anything. Some Orthodox Jews believe that “Jews do not choose; they are chosen.” And some who believe this are even figures to be reckoned with in Orthodox circles. The theologian Michael Wyschogrod, who has influenced my Jewish thinking more than anyone, says that it would be “inexcusably arrogant” to hold that “the Divine election” were instead “the self-election of a people.” The “proclamation of biblical faith” is that “God chose this people and loves it as no other, unto the end of time.” Norman Lamm—the former president of Yeshiva University—makes a similar point. Citing the 15th century Rabbi Israel of Bruna, Lamm says that “one’s lineage as a Jew” is “essential and eternal,” and it “concomitantly obligates performance of mitzvot. . . .”

To be a Jew means to be chosen by God to perform his commandments. Innovative cultural expression may be nice, but it’s not essential.

D. G. Myers said...

Lee Solomon: Your language is strikingly similar to Norman Lamm’s, quoted immediately above. For the hipster Jew whom I describe in my essay, “The chosenness of being part of the Jewish people isn’t some all penetrating essence of this kind of person's being. It is merely one way to describe that person.” One way among many. On this showing, a person is a convergence of identities—a Venn diagram of various and shifting loyalties and commitments. The intersection of the circles is the person. And of course we chant the fluidity of subjectivity, as we have been taught by postmodernism. Today’s intersection of identity will not be tomorrow’s. Identity is not a static essence—according to EV, not even Orthodox Jews believe that any more—but a dynamic and ever-changing construction that arises out of the struggle against restrictions of systematic inequalities, hierarchies, and asymmetries.

I even believe there is some truth to this hogwash. For adolescents, at least. Becoming an adult means accepting the limits of personal flux and putting an end to personal drift. And as Levinas said, Judaism is a religion for adults. Whatever “beauty and value” to be found in the Jewish tradition are dependent upon the Jewish religion. They have no independent existence. They are like those brightly colored fish that fade and turn pale when removed from the water. The only way to get young Jews to return to Torah Judaism is not to tell lies about it or trim it or make its demands less onerous. You either accept being chosen, or you do not.

ShanaMaidel said...

A)Not meant as a personal attack- For the sake of your UI but you need to change your CSS- your post a comment link is very light in comparison. Also, since I do respect academia and academic blogs, and hate spambots, turn on your captcha.

B) This is a ShanaMaidel Needs to start Blogging again sort of comment. I apologize in advance for pithiness.

C)Lets be very clear on the matter. While I, as a millenial, owe you a great gratitude and respect for broadening my Jewish mind, and for starting a variety of Jewish trends- the groups and methods commented on here are only extensions of trends that have been happening for the past three or four generations.

In terms of research, you owe us gratitude. Had not the panic over UJA federations both lack of data and trendlines for affilation behavior, we would not have forced a situation into more studies by groups such as Hillel, Slighshot, Reboot, Synagogue 2k, etc. We know now what makes for an effective Jewish education, what makes for an intermarried couple likely to join a synagogue over a church, or a nothing, and what causes people to affiliate.

We changed the way we raise money and distribute it. Hazon is becoming successful because of the Bikkurim grant system. And it is hitting people who are not Millenials. The idea that yes, Jews should teach each other, large to small how to do things, is radical, but also very conservatively so- isn't that the essence of the Lakewood Chaburah?

Two last points- I have two very interesting friends.

One is Dr. Norman Lamm's assisstant. Still in smicha. Still figuring it out. About my age. Off the record and paraphrased (I am hiding a large part of the context on purpose, for the sake of his identity, he's a nice guy, and very smart), He made the point to me that it is very difficult to come to terms with the apparent disengagement with Orthodoxy as it stands.

The other comment, aslo paraphrased (it has been a long time) was from Dr. Rabbi Alan Yuter's son, Rabbi Josh Yuter, a prominent intellect in his own right, and a good friend, a real mensch. Of the people I know out there- I would say he is a real expert on conversion and a strong background in social sciences, which was the background of the conversation. He said to me, approximately, "It would be better to have committed Jews than more Jews."

Knowing parts of the history of such things very well, (Does Steven I. Weiss and Protocols right bells to anyone here?), and knowing the data (that there is a desire for young people to form autonomous, consensus oriented groups that embrace their total identity as a person-including their Jewish identity, which is how the internet became so crippling to a large percentage of Jewish organizations, and how for periods of time young people maintained Jewish organizations with massive draws on shoestring budgets, like independent minyans) what would you rather have:

A)The hispters who are committed through thier recongition that in a postmodern context, their is no such thing as a primary identity, beyond perhaps human. Everything is perhaps now derived, and one can shift more easily now over time. They are therefore engaged both with the social context, and some, for the first time with thexts surrounding those social context in order understand and cause change by delimiting healthy scopes and to peer at the root of truth of what is Man?

B)Static individuals who are not engaged?

Who would you to prefer to carry your torch?

D. G. Myers said...

ShanaMaidel: I have sworn off further comment on the social phenomenon of hipster Jews. So I have little of substance to add to your excellent comment, which has gone further to provoke me to reexamine my thinking than any other comment I have received. (For your priority is tradition, not innovation.)

I will say only that I agree wholeheartedly with the view that you ascribe to Rabbi Josh Yutel, and withhold further opinions on whether this or that group or organization or movement is truly “committed.”

Commitment, for me, means: (1) guarding the mitsvot; (2) acquiring Jewish literacy; and (3) affiliating with the community, which entails (4) accepting its standards.

ShanaMaidel said...

No- Actually, I'm a radical if anything. I embrace my postmodern existence fully. I've written for those very hipster, and hung around YU on breaks, while watching their students waste away into other behaviors, and other affiliations. I decided I was sickened. At the same time, I cannot say there is true depth with the hipsters. That is mostly a product of a failed education system that is still being tinkered with. It is difficult to provide a real, serious educational system at an equitable price that most Jewish people will buy into, considering that most parents have had horrible educations themselves.

I would hang site specific art at a Mimmamakim reading about the state of Sexuality on the West Side due to Ohab Zedek. I know where it hurts now- its been on the internet for a very long time.

And I have a long memory- and I am connected in a variety of ways to a variety of people.

It is like noting that a friend of mine got a Mazel Tov by a Chareidi Gadol for his blog on Orthodoxy and Aspergers while linking up to those who convert outside of Orthodoxy. It is seeing the over 200 comments on Dovbear and Hirhurim and seeing lists and Usenet groups discussing halacha and talmud, of all stripes, dating back to the 90s. I equally witnessed how the jewish political landscape changed with the rise of work like Jewlicious and Jewschool.

I watch. I want the strongest, healthiest system. My work is barely started. I'm young in this game. And I frankly don't give a damn, because I read the surveys. Being raised Orthodox is a cointoss for staying Orthodox as an adult. And despite Simple To Remeber- there are very few ba'alei teshuva in proportion to the total amount of Jews in the US. I suspect those numbers are only going to go up. There is a tuition crisis brewing, and many people don't know why they are Jewish at all, as I have said before. Platitudes are not enough when economies of scale come crashing down on young families' morgages.

And I watched the communities of Judaism multiply, shift, change, grow, and fracture over the past 10 years as I grew up. When the basic premise falls for the traditional, calling out the gamechanger is not going to help.

I'm radical because I treat this like the genetics of bacteria in a hospital- satisfy or people like me will mutate in super-drug resistant bacteria. You might as well let us spawn, and satisfy on a real intellectual and spiritual level.

Not that they are developed yet. Far from it. A blog post is not a book. But the Mission Minyan Reads Levinas. Not everyone there admits to being raised to read someone quoted by Simone De Beauvoir for his read of Talmud.

I throw my hat in with those I think will long term withstand the pressure. I'm no Existential Marxist, but it is good to know that someone, somewhere, is passing on forms of my tradition.

ShanaMaidel said...

And his name is Yuter- he's had the distinct honor of being quoted independently of his father by Chacham Jose Faur.

Josh is a tower in his own right and a real mensch. And a good friend. I'm obliged to protect his last name. :)

D. G. Myers said...

And his name is Yuter. After inadvertently changing Bleyer to Breyer, I thought it only fair to change Yuter to Yutel.

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks to both of you, Lee Solomon and ShanaMaidel. I am not commenting futher, because the topic of Jewish hipsterism is carrying me farther from the central purpose of this Commonplace Blog.

Seriously, though, because you attacked my views in the spirit of something other than mockery, you two have obliged me to rethink my conclusions. I am not ready to say anthing more. But I feel another article coming on.

In the mean time, perhaps later today I shall try to exposit Levinas’s conception of Judaism as “a religion for adults.”

D. G. Myers said...

Special note to my critics. Please consider formalizing your objections to “The Judaism Rebooters” by writing a letter to the editor of Commentary.

Here is the link.