The Vanishing American Jew: in Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century
by Alan M. Dershowitz
Little, Brown, 395 pages, $24.95
In Chutzpah, his 1991 best-seller, Alan Dershowitz made the wildly implausible claim that American Jews still don’t feel fully at home in this country and, as a result, shrink from promoting their interests for fear of offending their gentile compatriots. “Deep down we see ourselves as second-class citizens,” he lamented.
In The Vanishing American Jew, Dershowitz reverses course. Now, according to the Harvard law professor, civil libertarian, and shameless defender of celebrity miscreants, American Jews have become all too comfortable in their American skins. Moving freely through even the most rarefied precincts of American society, it is their Jewishness that is in jeopardy. Dershowitz sets himself the task of fashioning a Jewish identity that can survive the siren song of assimilation—and he fails precisely because of his unwillingness to assert the distinctive claims of Judaism against the wider secular society in which American Jews have enjoyed so much success.
For Dershowitz, as for many observers of American Jewry, the great conundrum for the coming decades is “continuity.” Despite signs of vigor among the more observant, the Jewish community as a whole is simply failing to propagate itself. Jews today are more likely to marry non-Jews than coreligionists, and even those who stay within the fold are opting against large families, giving Jews an abysmally low birth rate. At the same time, many Jews have left organized Jewry behind, maintaining no connection to synagogues, charitable causes, or Israel. Jewish ignorance of Jewish things has become endemic. The dire implications of these demographic and social trends are not lost on Dershowitz: “The upshot may be that where the Nazis failed in their nightmarish plan to eliminate Jews as a potent force in the world, we ourselves may succeed.”
The irony, of course, is that the leading cause of these distressing developments is the virtual disappearance in America of institutional anti-Semitism. Even Dershowitz, who has described himself as being in a “constant state of preparedness for potential persecution,” concedes that professional and social barriers against Jews, commonplace a couple of generations ago, have melted away. Anti-Semitism now chiefly resides on the crackpot fringes of American life. As Dershowitz rightly sees, American Jews have paid a price for this great blessing: with the passing of the siege has gone the siege mentality, with its solidarity and social cohesion. Jews no longer have serious enemies and detractors to confirm their Jewishness; they have only themselves and the freedom, as Dershowitz puts it, to forge a “positive” Jewish identity.
The most obvious candidate for an affirmative Judaism is Orthodoxy, and to his credit, Dershowitz says as much. Orthodoxy has withstood the pressures of assimilation far better than the less traditional varieties of American Judaism: its adherents marry other Jews, have more children, and live a life informed by halakhah, by Jewish law. Dershowitz pays his respects to such halakhic Jews—“They are doing a fine job and need no help from me”—but ultimately dismisses them as irrelevant to the vast majority of American Jews, who are not ready to embrace a “God-centered, rule-bound, [and] ritual-driven” solution to their community’s troubles. These “secular” Jews—who apparently are put off even by the lesser rigors of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements—will need something far different, “a self-sustaining Judaism that can thrive in the kind of open society in which most [of them] want to spend their lives.”
Unsurprisingly, Dershowitz finds it difficult to say what such a godless, lawless Judaism might look like in practice. Much of The Vanishing American Jew thus feels like an effort to buy time—and, inevitably, to plume the author’s feathers—before the prescriptive chapter with which such an exercise must end. Detours include long discussions of how to deal with Holocaust deniers and the Nation of Islam, a predictable attack on the “theocrats” of the Christian Right, lovingly told anecdotes about Dershowitz’s dealings with presidents and prime ministers, and an endless collection of tired Jewish humor of the “So old man Schwartz gets sick” variety. When Dershowitz finally attempts to shed light on his radical project, he succeeds only in begging still more questions. The “single most important mechanism for assuring Jewish continuity,” he informs us, “is Jewish education.”
For all its familiarity, this is a perfectly respectable solution, in principle at least. All the major branches of American Judaism have embraced education as an antidote to their members’ waning allegiance. Synagogues now offer beginners’ services for learning the Hebrew liturgy and more advanced instruction for leading prayer or chanting Torah. In cities with big Jewish populations, you can find evening classes on everything from kabbalah to koshering your kitchen. And Jewish day schools and summer camps have produced a generation of young people who are often more learned and observant than their parents. These efforts have not reversed the wider trend toward assimilation, but they have inspired many Jews to lead far more Jewish lives.
Alas, this is not the sort of education that Dershowitz has in mind. For his resolutely secular Jews he wants a resolutely secular Jewish education, one that samples the varied riches of Jewish civilization—from Torah and Talmud to Yiddish literature and Zionist political thought—but attempts in no way to promote traditional belief or practice. This calls for a whole new array of Jewish schools, because up until now only the more observant have invested in Jewish education, putting young Jews under the “monopolistic control” of rabbis. Under Dershowitz’s new dispensation, secular Jews will also know their Jewish stuff, and debate within the community will no longer be skewed “in favor of the religious component of Judaism.”
And what will prompt assimilated Jews to steep themselves in Jewish sources? What secular motive will take the place of the religious stirrings that have sent many Jews back to synagogue or the nostalgia that Dershowitz so clearly feels for his own Orthodox upbringing in Brooklyn? Here Dershowitz shows the incoherence of his cause—and the pitiable narrowness of his horizon. American Jews will turn to Jewish learning, he says, not for the spiritual sustenance that they lack in their workaday world but for the “competitive advantages” that it will provide them “in their business, professional, and personal lives.” As he continues, “Best-selling books have been written about how the teachings of Confucius, Jesus, Machiavelli—even Genghis Khan—can lead to success. Why not the writings of the prophets, Maimonides, Rabbi Akiba, Israel Salanter, Joseph Soleveitchik, and Ahad Ha’am?” For Dershowitz, it would appear, modern Jewish life will have reached its zenith when it can point to a shelf of its own, full of “usable” wisdom, in the self-help section of the local bookstore: Jewish chosenness, with all its obligations, will thus have given way to Jewish choosiness.
Dershowitz is anxious to present this sad diminution of Judaism as yet another stage in the progress of an evolving civilization. But at times, as when he admits to his own discomfort with his son’s marriage to a Catholic woman, he seems to recognize the inadequacy of his secular ideals. He closes the book with an unintentionally poignant proposal for creating “a worldwide twenty-four-hour-a-day Jewish television educational network.” His aim is to offer a new Jewish ritual, one that might replace Sabbath rest, communal prayer, or any number of other practices that the tradition demands.
But even the most committed secularist must see what’s been lost here. Indeed, it is hard not to imagine Dershowitz himself seated before a TV screen with his grandchildren, channel surfing in the desperate hope that something on his Jewish network might capture their attention for a few fleeting moments.
Gary Rosen is the departing Senior Editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.