1980 A Jewish Alternative To Alienation by Larry Bush
[Keynote address to the 10th Conference of Secular Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles, Dec. 27, 1980.] Jewish Currents Oct. 1981
I've been wondering ever since I received the invitation to speak at this conference what I could possibly say that would please us both, make you feel buoyant, make me feel honest? I'm 29 years old, I have no children of my own, I've never been to Israel, I speak only a few words of Yiddish, I'm the assistant editor of a magazine with only 4,000 circulation. What can I give you?
The old folks, the Emmas, the Clubs and Societies people, they see me, let's say, at a fundraising dinner, and they usually give me one of two reactions: a hostile glare, a cynical stare that says, You, you don't speak Yiddish, you never organized a union, you never worked in a sweatshop, you probably take drugs, what are you doing here? How do we know you'll be here next year, too? Eh, if we'd succeeded at making our revolution, a scamp like you wouldn't be a hotshot.... Or else I receive an adoring smile, a fawning gaze that says, Oi, light of my life, apple of my eye, at last a young person who understands, who will carry on our tradition. A youth! He doesn't speak Yiddish? So he'll learn! But the thing is, y'see, he's proof that we did good. We made organizations, we made progressive shules, we made unions, we fought for the Blacks and for all kinds of good causes, and against all kinds of discrimination....
Yes, with great respect, I salute them, whether they're cantankerous or sweet-natured. But what do they want from me?
I try to explain to my friends, my peers, why it is that I spend my days working for a shtunky little magazine in a hopeless little movement at wages that a teenager might scorn. I talk about the need for a cultural line in our progressive movement—look at how the New Right has used questions of culture and lifestyle to their advantage! I talk about the inadequacies of certain of our "counterculture" concepts from the '60s— the "Youth Nation" idea, for instance, and all the rejectionist attitudes that flowed from it. Me, I'd like to have dinner with my folks immediately following the revolution. I want my mishpokhe included in my movement. After all, I was certainly included in theirs.
And I tell these friends of mine about the generation of secular Jewish radicals who succeeded, at least in their own lifetimes, at building political-cultural-service networks that could take care of them, sustain and invigorate them, give them a kind of alternative in the face of tremendous pressures to assimilate, recant, despair—and go for the bucks instead of the ideals.
One friend argues: But they were dogmatists! What are we supposed to learn from them?
Well, I reply, the pressures on them were relentless. Perhaps a certain ideological rigidity was required to withstand it. Anyway, learn from their mistakes, if nothing else—you probably won't have time to make them all yourself.
Another friend says: It's all very nice what you're doing, Larry, but it means nothing to me to be Jewish. I'm not religious. I'm an internationalist.
Here, I say, read this article by Max Rosenfeld about Haim Zhitlovsky. It was printed in Jewish Currents over 15 years ago! It's got this line about how the key to the concept of inter-nationalism is the hyphen.
I get interrupted. Nationalism, huh? says a New Left friend. So you're a Zionist! (Is that supposed to be a curseword or something?)
Ahh, then the definitions begin. Zionism. Secularism. Peoplehood. National Nihilism. And of course, Jewish identity is such a complex of forces, spanning centures of history and fitting no single definition of any particular era, defying definition while persisting in existence—it's enough to drive a leftist crazy! We Jews have the unhappy fortune to be the exception to every holistic solution to human problems and, simultaneously, a spark plug that keeps the search for solutions going.
No, I happen not to be a Zionist. I reply. I don't consider myself in exile; I don't consider Israel to be the center of my concerns as a Jew (though as my Jewish consciousness grows, so does my concern and interest in Israel). America is my homeland and my arena for identity and activism.
So finally the definitions are set—only after I myself have referred once again to Morris U. Schappes' The Jewish Question and the Left, Old and New to renew my grasp on these elusive concepts—and then the discussion peters out. More often than not, my friends are no more Jewish-conscious or understanding of my involvement with Jewish life than they were before our discussion.
Oh, there are stirrings of interest here and there: the occasional young progressive who's fed up with being self-conscious about any and all things Jewish because of the insensitivity of his or her peers; or the rare artistic nut who's involved in a revival movement—this one researching klezmer music, that one digging up shundt theater from the archives, my wife creating a dance/theatre piece about the Triangle Fire, I writing a novel about my revolutionary Jewish grandmother. And together we share some words (trying not to feel competitive). We talk about, building community (knowing damn well we have to look out for ourselves). We talk bravely about the Jewish cultural renaissance (secretly wondering what we'll make art about when the boom busts. Who knows, maybe we'll have made it big by then, like Howard Fast, like Woody Allen, who knows?).
So I stand here today, knees knocking from more than stage fright. Speaking at this conference is rather like becoming a bar-mitzva boy. I have dreams of precocious glory, of becoming what Itche Goldberg has called a "secular rabbi." I feel pressed, like any good bar-mitzva, to deliver an inspirational message, filled with hope, respect and praise for the secular humanist Jewish tradition and avowing my commitment to the furthering of that tradition. But I feel a streak of doubt in me that I surely hope no 13-year-old boy could feel. Inspired by our movie-actor president¬elect, I have an impulse to say, "The envelope, please," collect my applause and never mind the inspirational message.
At least, then, you'd be spared my description of what alienation in America means to me. You'd be spared the deadly litany about racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, exploitation; the panicky comments about the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, the Holocaust Revisionist movement; the sad reminders about growing old in America, being young in America, living with the constant threat of nuclear holocaust in America. You'd be spared the statistics about cancer, suicide, wife-beating, rape, child molestation, police brutality, prison conditions, unemployment, drug abuse, alcoholism, gambling, homelessness, hopelessness, shiftlessness, involvement with totalitarian religious cults and all manner of psychopathologies.
We could skip the figures about corporate profits, military budgets, cost overruns, advertising expenses, planned obsolescence, unsafe products, poisons in our environment. I wouldn't have to tell you how many hospitals could be built instead of one battleship, or how many McDonalds hamburgers it would take to stack up to the moon (fewer than they've already sold!). We would not tire our brains with abstracted phrases about the immaturity of capitalism, the decay of monopoly capitalism into fascism, the alienation of labor, or even the time-honored, time-ravaged Jewish question.
Why bother going into details about such grisly things? In just 24 days Ronald Reagan will be inaugurated as President of the United States until 1984. That event, the culmination of America's desperate, panicked search for its own pulse beat in the face of corporate hegemony and deadening alienation, says it all for me.
Besides, who wants to talk politics at a secular Jewish conference? I've heard it said that secularism and progressive politics don't necessarily mix. It reminds me of a joke that Annette Rubinstein told me of three Czechoslovakian citizens sitting on the park bench. The first one sighs, the second one sighs, and the third rises and hollers, "If you're going to discuss politics, I'm leaving!"
I'm not leaving. Instead, I must insist that we recognize the political content and quality of Jewish affirmation today.
For us, the younger folks, who are removed by at least a generation from what I would call "organic" Jewishness—the Yiddish language, its literature and music, the pioneering days of Zionism, raw anti-Semitism, etc.—for us, Jewish affirmation involves a process of voluntarism and active seeking. The struggle to find, preserve and use Jewish identity is a political struggle. It is my long hair of the '80s. It is the affirmation of an alternative identity in corporate America, a human way of being in a dog-eat-dog system, a folk culture in the face of mass mindlessness, a Jewish calendar and clock instead of the rat race. It is an identity that recognizes as necessary and nurturing to my integrity, my self-determination as an individual, my survival as a humanist, my continued commitment to struggle.
Therefore, however dwindling and even anachronistic the secular Jewish movement sometimes seems to be, I search it out, I cling to it, I seek to extend and revive it. However lacking in truly satisfying Jewish ritual my secular life may be, I light those Hanuka candles and scour my bookshelves in search of meaningful passages to read over the flames. For I am desperate to affirm an identity that can serve as an alternative to alienation. I am desperate not to have to internalize and personalize my feelings of revulsion for the system into a self-destructive sense of failure. I am desperate to consolidate my feelings as rebel and humanist and artist into an affirmative identity, never again to say to myself: What's the matter boy, you scared? You can't compete? You can't hack it?
I don't want to hack it. I reject most of my society's standards for success. I don't want to go for the gelt and let society be damned. I don't want to erode into cynicism.
But frankly, I am scared.
I'm scared when I read Irving Howe—one of the careerists, the true archivers of the secular movement—saying (in the Autumn, 1980, Present Tense) that "A phase of Jewish history—the one to which I have been strongly attached—seems to be reaching its end: the phase of Jewish secular life and Yiddish culture which flourished for perhaps 150 or 200 years." Or when I read the words of the renowned Jewish historian, Gershom Scholem, speaking of Israel: "I have no doubt that pure secularism is not enough and will not succeed because it will end by the destruction from within of the psychological foundations upon which the idea of a Jewish state is founded, namely the consciousness of Jews as Jews.... We have seen that people lived through and became aware of a certain emptiness in secularism...." (same issue of Present Tense.)
On a more personal note, I'm scared that perhaps I'm romanticizing secular Jewishness into something that it is not. Perhaps I'm just taking some warm feelings, some memories of shule, of Camp Kinderland, of family discussions around the kitchen table, and blowing it up into a full-fledged fantasy of "a secular Jewish alternative" to capitalist ethics. I remember, as a red-diaper baby, growing up forever in the minority but forever convinced of the Tightness and goodness of our views. Perhaps the conviction should be better described as obtuseness? Shortsightedness? Romantic idealism?
I'm scared about Israel, too. I'm afraid that Israel will become to me an intimate nemesis, an insane relative whom I must protect from enemies and from suicidal exceeses while, in the process, exhausting my moral reserves. It is conceivable that I will find myself in a position where I am defending a nation for having nuclear weapons and even, when push comes to shove, for using them? The plight of Israel, as exploited and exacerbated by its enemies and its own reactionary leadership, threatens to gut me of political principle, of notions of internationalism and anti-imperliasm— most significantly, of central Jewish ideals and values—in the name of Jewish survival. As the American Jewish community gets increasingly caught up in the throes of reaction—reaction to Arab terrorism, to Soviet anti-Semitism, to resurgent fascism, to the terribly reality of historical persecution—and as sector of the Jewish community yield their souls to religious fanatics, militarists or home-grown imperialists who promise salvation in the form of belligerence and intransigence, I fear that I will be reduced to the role of a helpless gadfly.
In essence, it is political and cultural extinction I fear. We, as progressive secularists, are a minority within a Jewish minority. I, as a young secularist in an aging movement, am a minority within a minority within a minority. How many times can a community be subdivided and remain a real community? At what point does my secular Jewishness—weak and ignorant as it presently is—become merely a divine obsession?
But let me be done with my kvetching. A Jewish proverb says that if you look for hallah, the black bread gets stale. Another says that if you examine carefully enough, everything is treyf. I’ve preferred, thus far in this bar-mitzva speech of mine, to give an honest slap rather than a false kiss to the secular Jewish movement. But more than anything mine is a panic reaction. Obviously we must be more historical in our approach to progressive secular Jewishness than simply to behold the approaching countenance of Ronald Reagan and run scared.
I must remember from Jewish history the whole array of Hamans, far worse than the unproven Reagan, whom the Jewish people have rarely conquered but always outlasted. 1 must remember the genocide against us, only one generation ago, and the Auschwitz number that we wear like psychic dog-tags in our battle for Jewish survival and for a humanistic world. Austrian Jewish Auschwitz survivor Jean Amery, in an essay entitled, "On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being Jewish," writes that the Auschwitz tattoo on his arm "reads more briefly than the Pentateuch or the Talmud and yet provides more thorough information. It is also more binding than basic formulas of Jewish existence" (New German Critique, #20). Let us therefore scorn nothing Jewish, not even the slim pickings left to our secular movement. Let us instead feel great pride about how far our people have come back in regenerating themselves and their culture, creatively and affirmatively, from the brink of utter destruction. And let us approach our future with eagerness by trusting in yet another Jewish proverb: All things grow with time except grief.
Let us take warning from the Holocaust experience to have no illusions about the "voluntary" nature of Jewish identity when it comes to the anti-Semite's plans. But let us not allow the sheer scope of the genocide to overwhelm us with a mystical sense of the inevitability of ineradicability of anti-Semitism. The central lesson of the Holocaust, to my mind, is about totalitarianism: that in the face of devastating alienation—national, economic, cultural—an entire population is capable of embracing mythic, absurd worldviews such as Hitler's racist ideology in order to feel a part of a meaningful community, however abhorrent its meaning; and that when people believe such absurdities, they will commit atrocities, including the ultimate atrocity of genocide.
We Jews must be the harbinger of this terrible truth. It's a grim irony that several German-Jewish and Austrian-Jewish scientists who fled Nazi persecutions were centrally involved in the creation of the atomic bomb in the United States. At times I think that these survivors brought about the nuclear age as the revenge—or, more optimistically, as the last will and testament, a warning from beyond the mass grave, of the six million. How loud must the warning signals of history be before the collective consciousness of mankind is awakened?
Let me not, either, in my search for a relatively secure future as a Jew, scorn our troubled relative Israel. Let us remember that it is Israel's passionate struggle and affirmation of Jewish life (although Yiddish has suffered abuse in the course of Hebrew's ascent) that has made our own so-called Jewish renaissance in the arts and general culture possible here in the United States. It is Israel that made the global Jewish community resilient enough to rebound from the depths of the Holocaust shock. Let us remember that it is Israel's mistreatment in the international arena that has forced many of us to choose between the mask of assimilation and concern for our Jewish future. It is the relentless persecution of Israel and Zionism in the international arena that has pitted our rather abstract notions of anti-imperialism and internationalism against our gut feelings of self-interest. Whatever political ideals do emerge whole from this crucible are well-tempered, mature ideals, unclouded by preconception or dogma and well worth fighting for.
Our Jewish consciousness serves to keep our politics honest—a contribution to progressive thinking that has yet to reach full flower and will not soon fade away. Whereas in 1966 Isaac Deutscher, in any essay entitled "Who Is a Jew?", could write, "Only if the search for an identity can help the Jewish intellectual in his struggle for a better future for the whole of mankind is that search at all in my view justified" quoted in Jewish Socialist Critique #3), today we can and must assert almost the converse of his statement: "Only if the Jew's struggle for a better future for the whole of mankind is rooted in his or her search for an identity as a Jew will it be genuine."