Jewish Assimilation: its prominence as a subject in current times and how Popular Culture affects it.
Nimi Einstein, Sunday, May 18, 2014
If there is one long lasting, self-aware community, it is the Jewish People. For whatever reason, we have always been concerned about passing on the tradition, and the loss of said tradition has been the biggest fear. Within almost 4000 years, the Jewish people have lived and died, been fortunate and not, but most importantly, have been together and aware of the importance of holding on. In my research within popular culture, I have stumbled upon a couple of different articles talking about Jewish assimilation into American culture, and I would like to share them to discuss why assimilation so important as a topic, and how popular culture can influence and affect our perception of it.
At around 1800 BCE, Judaism began with Abraham. 400 years later, the Israelites where enslaved in Egypt and one hundred years after that, Exodus; the Jews departed for Israel. 600 years later, the Jews where in Israel and the first temple was completed. Another 400 years and the first temple was destroyed, many wars happen in between and come the year 7O CE (approximately,) and the second temple was destroyed with the Romans ruling Jerusalem. Fast forward almost 2000 years, and WWII and the Holocaust ravages Jewish populations in Europe. A little bit later and the state of Israel is founded.
We are now in 2014 and the loss of Jewish culture and tradition is still up among the biggest and most talked about issues within the Jewish community. In 2014, unlike when it first started, Judaism has many different denominations and all of them identify as Jewish. The first split is that of religious and secular. While most people would not identify as Christians, Muslims, and etc. if they where not religious, many Jews identify as Jews even if they do not practice Judaism religiously, I being one of them. After the religious / non-religious split we have several main groups: Alternative, Classical, Reform, Conservative, Humanistic, Haymanot, Karaite, Liberal, Orthodox, Progressive, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, and Traditional. Each practice Judaism differently; some reading the Torah, (the main Jewish religious text) more literally and some interpret parts more loosely. In the end, all of these denominations and sects were born out of the same roots, but between the different groups, like any large group of people, there are always problems, controversies and politics.
The first noteworthy article I found while researching was an eight-paragraph op-ed in a leading Israeli online newspaper “Ynet” called Dangers of assimilation. In it, the author, Bambi Sheleg, is telling us about Rabbi Yuval Cherlow’s trip to America to visit with American Jews and learn about the problems of assimilation. Rabbi Cherlow, who is a prominent religious teacher and helps run the Tzohar rabbinical organization, came back to Israel with horrifying news of American assimilation. He published an article discussing horrible number of Jewish loss in culture.
“It is estimated that about 50% of students who can be linked to Judaism do not have two Jewish parents. Some very serious studies show that 5% of New Yorkers who identify themselves as Jews are not Jews according to any definition (not even the Reformist definition) and have not gone through any conversion process – even Reform conversion – yet they still consider themselves to be Jewish.”
Rabbi Cherlow is part of the Jewish Orthodox tradition that is very strict with the rules of the Torah. The Reform movement that he discusses is a much newer interpretation of Judaism, which started in Europe but has gotten very large in the United States. Since the movement started, there has been a big conflict between the Orthodox and Reform movement due to the Orthodox movement not accepting Reform as a legitimate Jewish religious group. Instead of focusing on Rabbi Cherlow’s efforts in stopping assimilation, Sheleg comments on this religious arguments within different religious groups saying that
“This is one of our greatest national tragedies: One cannot discuss any existential issue without being accused of crossing the lines.”
Sheleg then throws in the Holocaust and talks about loss of life and really uses guilt to say that we are all in this together, so everyone should be accepting of each other. With a title like Dangers of assimilation, in a very large newspaper, I assume that many readers arrived to this web article to listen to solutions and outcomes. Because this opinion article instead brings in a victimized point of view instead of a factual, enthusiastic, and optimistic push, I believe that readers could get discouraged about the problems of assimilation and would not be hopeful for the future. I think that is a key ingredient in continuing to cherish and enjoy a tradition.
Sheleg also does not provide us with a link to Rabbi Cherlow’s article. After much personal searching for this article, I found many other reactions to it, but no copy of the original text. Among the many blogs and articles, several where White supremacist pages. One user on a website named storm front, white pride world wide named “White Dude” states
“I find it really interesting how it’s okay for Jews to protest their assimilation and third worlders moving to Israel. But if Whites protest our assimilation and the third worlders invading our countries, we’re called “racists”.”
If articles like this give ammunition for people to hate, I do not see how it is a worthwhile cause. Why would a person decide to continue being part of a community who constantly excludes members due to beliefs?
The second article I found was much more uplifting in nature. Viewpoint: Judaism is Too Afraid Of Assimilation written by Douglas Rushkoff, Oct. 01, 2013 on Time magazine’s online Op-ed forum discusses problems with trying to stop assimilation and the alienation that can occur when positive intentions are not implicated well. Rushkoff ends his history laden, tongue in cheek article with very happy twist.
“All Judaism needs to do is bite its tongue and stop putting this frightened, scarcity-based logic at the forefront of its effort to engage its people. Instead, spend as much time just doing and celebrating whatever Judaism means to you. The rest will follow.”
An article like this, to me, is way more fun to read. By the end, I am optimistic. I finish it wanting to continue this tradition. In 2009, 3.4 million subscriptions of Time where sold. If you add the other people that read but didn’t buy the magazine, you will get a whole lot of people reading articles like this daily. It is these kinds of articles that take people who don’t usually think about assimilation and bring them to think about their ancestors. The people that think about assimilation and its problems are active in their Jewish lives, so really, you have to reach the ones who do not discuss it to change the problem.
The last article is much more informative. It doesn’t give any point of views or decides for you which way to look at this problem.Birthright Israel, By Shaul Kelner, teaches us about the Israeli program Birthright. The article, which is hosted on Myjewishlearning.com article is broken down into 4 sections; Birthright’s history, structure, controversies, and impact. The first two sections are based within the interworking of the organizations and the last two are quite longer and really delve into the outcome. Kelner really manages to bring in different parts of the issue to create an unbiased setting for us to take away our own outcome.
“Some critics have contended that the trips promote a vicarious Jewish identity centered on Israel, rather than on Jewish life in the tourists’ own countries. Others have argued that the trips reinforce a classical Zionist core-periphery model that implicitly devalues Jewish life in diaspora.”
I truly appreciate both Kelner’s and Myjewishlearning.com’s approach to relaying information. I think that if I was curious about this issue that I would like to find a source of information that I could easily form my own opinion from.
It’s hard to say which of these authors is doing it right. The way we receive information through popular culture artifacts many times changes how we react to the material given. Beyond that, people differ greatly in what makes them tick, and there is no one way that people will listen.
I personally believe that each of these main authors are trying to help solve these issues. No matter how they put the information out to the world, they know that their platform of online articles reaches a large and diverse audience. I know that as our population increases and time goes on, more and more Jews will begin to assimilate into the populace, so outlets like this hold both power and importance as our communities try to continue our traditions.
Sheleg, Bambi. “Dangers of Assimilation.” Ynet News. 31 Dec. 2012. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0%2C7340%2CL-4326173%2C00.html>.
Dude, White. “Rabbi Warns of “Dangers of Assimilation” for Jews – Stormfront.” Stormfront RSS. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.stormfront.org/forum/t936149/>.
Rushkoff, Douglas. “Is Judaism Too Obsessed with Assimilation?” Ideas Viewpoint Judaism Is Too Afraid Of Assimilation Comments. Time, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://ideas.time.com/2013/10/01/viewpoint-american-jews-worry-too-much-about-assimilation/>.
Kelner, Shaul. “Birthright Israel.” Birthright Israel – My Jewish Learning. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/israel/Contemporary_Life/Society_and_Religious_Issues/Israeli-Diaspora_Relations/birthright.shtml?p=0>.
  Sheleg, Bambi. “Dangers of Assimilation.” Ynet News. 31 Dec. 2012. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0%2C7340%2CL-4326173%2C00.html>.
 Sheleg, Bambi. “Dangers of Assimilation.” Ynet News. 31 Dec. 2012. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0%2C7340%2CL-4326173%2C00.html>.
 Rushkoff, Douglas. “Is Judaism Too Obsessed with Assimilation?” Ideas Viewpoint Judaism Is Too Afraid Of Assimilation Comments. Time, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://ideas.time.com/2013/10/01/viewpoint-american-jews-worry-too-much-about-assimilation/>.
 Kelner, Shaul. “Birthright Israel.” Birthright Israel – My Jewish Learning. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/israel/Contemporary_Life/Society_and_Religious_Issues/Israeli-Diaspora_Relations/birthright.shtml?p=0>.