As the Jewish High Holidays approach this September, I am musing over a phenomenon strange and a little wondrous to me: the revival of religiosity among American Jews after a couple of generations of indifference, if not outright hostility, to religion. It happened in my own family. I am one of those parents who were hit in the eye with a big stick by their children’s religious conversion.
When my daughter Anni graduated from high school in 1981, she announced that she would go to Israel and live on a kibbutz instead of going directly to college. Israel? Now, I’m not at all anti-Israel, but the atmosphere in which my daughter was raised, I would have thought, would have promoted Paris, London, Europe—the “grand tour,” as it was called when I was in college. But Anni was drawn to the kibbutz, she said. Well, certainly socialist experiences had not gone undiscussed in my household. I was pleased. She would broaden her vistas, see something of life besides American getting and spending, before she began on that career track that most young people of the 80s see college as.
Then, after she’d been in Israel a couple months, she began writing home about how she had found religion. The only time she’d been in a synagogue was for the bar mitzvahs or weddings of friends and relatives. An Orthodox recruiter at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem had put his marker on her. The Wailing Wall is the only remaining relic of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. At the wall, Orthodox notices instruct women to dress properly—no shorts, no sleeveless dresses, no slacks, head covered—in accordance with the ancient proscriptions. The recruiters for the Orthodox, many of them American extremist emigres who are not unlike Moonie recruiters, use the Wailing Wall, a place of great emotion, to entice young people into their midst. Anni was hooked. She wasn’t ready to marry one of them and shave off all her beautiful black hair and wear a wig, but it was pretty heavy. She switched from an irreligious kibbutz where she had been living to an Orthodox women’s yeshiva (college for religious studies) in Jerusalem and moved into an apartment with a couple other students in Mea Shearim, the radically Orthodox quarter of that city.
I was nonplussed. What could I say? I had rejected religion after my confirmation at 13 and, if not openly hostile to religion, I was certainly irreligious and had brought up my kids the same way. But I’m a modern mother. The motto is: support your children as long as they’re not into drugs or something else that’s self-destructive.
Anni came home nine months later and wanted me to keep kosher. That much support I wasn’t about. It wasn’t long before she had to give up her own efforts to keep kosher; the closest kosher meat market was miles away, in Rogers Park. For a time she lived on fruits and vegetables, which are exempt from the kosher laws.
She enrolled at Southern Illinois University that fall, but after six months in the goyish, secular world of a state university, she transferred to an Orthodox women’s college in New York. It took two years for her fervor to dim, but at last she transferred again, this time to New York University, where she would be able to maintain her contacts but could also “get an education.” Over the last few years, she has greatly tempered her ideas, retaining the Jewish identity she forged in Israel, but shorn of the Orthodoxy—she’s embarrassed by what she views now as her attraction to a cult.
And yet, unlike her parents, who were married by a judge, she was married last year in a religious ceremony in a Reform synagogue, and she and her husband are planning to join a synagogue in Brooklyn, where they live. Spiritually, she is a long way from her atheistic, humanistic family, and although the distance is not too great for us to communicate comfortably, there are moments. On a recent visit to New York, I commented that God had been good to me in bringing such good weather. “Don’t use God’s name that way,” she said, and launched into a discourse on the nature of God. I explained that it was only a joke. “God is not a joke to me,” she said.
At about the time that my daughter was undergoing her conversion, my brother’s daughter Elise, who had been raised in a Reform home, decided to become a rabbi. “I didn’t want to become a practicing rabbi,” she explains. “I wanted to become a scholar and I thought only rabbis were scholars.” She spent nearly two years in an Israeli “modern Orthodox” yeshiva (modern meaning that men and women studied together and women wore pants, she says) as part of her American college program in Jewish studies. But “they expected that the women would finish their studies and get married and be good Jewish women,” she says. “I was the only woman headed for a rabbinical career.” Disillusioned, she returned home six months early and now isn’t sure where she’s going. “I will probably become an academic Jewish scholar,” she says.
Over the years, Elise has frequently been more observant than her parents, though she believes that they set the tone for her with their emphasis on Jewish law. Now she says she realizes that “they didn’t want to understand. They just went along with the traditions.” And that’s not enough for her. This past summer, “to try to get a more objective view of Judaism,” she has been interning at the new Jewish magazine Tikkun, which takes highly “progressive” views of Israel and the Arab world and the role of Jews in America. (Tikkun is published by Jews who came of age in the 60s and have since become religiously observant, and who feel a mission to counter the abrasive conservatism of the mainstream Jewish magazine Commentary, which had been liberal when it was founded in the 50s.) Elise doesn’t agree with all of Tikkun‘s editorial positions, but feels “it is a good place to learn and clarify my attitudes.”
About the same time that Elise and Anni were making their similar but unique journeys back to their Jewish heritage, a good friend’s son, having been raised in a family that celebrated the holidays at home and bar mitzvahed its four sons at Northwestern University’s Hillel Foundation, with special coaching from the rabbi there, decided, after a trip to Israel, to “choose aliyah”—to emigrate to Israel and become a “truly observant Jew.” When he went to college he started using his Hebrew name, Shaul, and when he finished college he went to Israel to serve the year in the army required of all Israeli citizens. He’s here now to get a PhD in geography at the University of Chicago; but when he finishes his classwork he will return to Israel to do the research for his dissertation, and only come back to the States for his final exams.
Shaul calls himself dati (from a Hebrew word for “religious”); it’s his way of distinguishing himself from the traditional Orthodox. They take the religious precepts as givens, while Shaul’s theology is his own, derived from his readings and feelings. He has not found a synagogue in Chicago that suits his needs, so he prays by himself, “singing and chanting to myself, projecting myself into a place I’d like to be.” He’d like to be in Israel, where “everything is Jewish, where Hebrew is everywhere,” where prayer “is spiritual,” and where he feels at home. As soon as he found his local bus stop in Israel, he says, “I felt I was at home.”
Shaul wears a knit kipa, the skullcap worn by the observant Jewish man, to distinguish himself from the traditional Orthodox, who prefer black silk kipot or black fedoras. He trims his beard and wears ordinary street clothes. But he does not travel or buy on the Sabbath, and he eats no nonkosher meat. In fact, he says, he is uncomfortable—though he does it—eating in places that do not observe the kashruth—kosher laws. Shaul insists his family “laid the seeds” for his intense observance. He is merely extending his family’s religious practice, he says. But he will get back to Israel as soon as he can.
The daughter of another friend is a recent convert—the Wailing Wall recruiters are still there, still doing the Lord’s work. Over drinks at Riccardo’s recently, I tried to reassure Ann that her 22-year-old Hilary would probably take the same path as my Anni, but Ann is afraid that her daughter is lost to Orthodoxy forever. In truth, Hilary has gone much further than Anni ever did. She is, a year after her encounter at the Wailing Wall, still unwilling to eat anything but fruits and vegetables in her mother’s house. She gets her protein in kosher restaurants, which are nothing like kosher delis and about which the less said the better. She dresses for God. “What, and look sexual?” she cried when her mother suggested that she would be more comfortable during Chicago’s recent heat wave if she wore short sleeves and went without socks. “We went to Loehmann’s to buy her some clothes,” Ann says, “and she bought for a funeral.”
Hilary wasn’t available for an interview. She was too deeply absorbed in her visit to the Lubavitcher community in Saint Paul. The Lubavitchers are among the most orthodox of the Orthodox, which has not always been so. In the 18th century, in eastern Europe, the Lubavitchers were the liberal populists among Hasidic Jews. They arose in response to a tendency toward purism that had developed; an effort to recapture a lost spirituality. But in time the Lubavitchers themselves became the most purist. Not that they are entirely unworldly souls; they control the diamond market in New York.
Jews are not generally proselytizers, but the Lubavitchers send “Torah mobiles” into Jewish neighborhoods to recruit the faithful to their way of life, and they maintain houses on many college campuses. I have heard that the Tannenbaum Chabad House at Northwestern is a thriving operation, but the rabbi there refused to talk to me. The largest concentration of Lubavitchers is in Brooklyn, New York, but there are communities in many major cities, including Saint Paul, where Hilary is visiting.
Ann predicts that Hilary will marry a Lubavitcher and be lost to her. “She needs that kind of tightly structured authoritarian life,” she says. Unlike other Jewish groups, the Lubavitchers regard their rabbis as hereditarily empowered, all-powerful father figures, endowed, it is believed, with supernatural powers. With a particularly antiauthoritarian, antireligious background of her own, Ann feels betrayed by her daughter, not unlike how parents of Moonies feel.
“My father would turn in his grave,” she says.
These four young people—between 20 and 25 years old—are not freaks. They are not cultists like the Moonies or the Jesus People, though their parents do occasionally feel at one with the parents of those people. These young people are returning to their roots, in search of some meaning to life beyond the American dream, long gone sour for so many. What separates them from cultists is 3,500 years of history to which they attach themselves and the legitimacy—expressed in recognition and congratulations—they receive from mainstream Judaism.
By the time of the destruction of the Temple there were as many as 25 different Jewish sects, each with its own observances based loosely on the laws of the Torah—which were commonly believed to have been written by Moses and thought by the most religious to be the words of God. As Jews were dispersed in the world, the Torah remained the basis of observance, but observance varied greatly. Jewish populations stabilized in Europe in the last 200 years and three distinct types of observance emerged; in the U.S. in the last 50 years still another group has emerged. Modern Judaism can be said now to have four major strands in the Western world: the Orthodox, the Conservative, the Reform, and the Reconstructionist.
American Orthodox derive from eastern Europe, whose various strains in the mid-18th century looked back to the Pharisees, a first-century sect. Most Orthodox adhere rigidly to the ancient laws of the Torah and reject anything beyond the laws’ scope, including Zionism and a secular education for their children. One strand of Orthodox, called the Modern Orthodox, founded in Israel in the 20s, is less formalist, and is Zionist.
The laws of the Torah (technically the Five Books of Moses but more generally thought of as the whole body of Jewish writing) dictate, for the modern person, a highly proscribed way of life. Even in ancient days, the laws were pretty limiting. Such as no sex for the conjugal couple during the menstrual period of the woman, who is believed to be unclean and who should not be touched until she is ritually purified in a special bath called a mikvah. (There is a mikvah in Rogers Park that is still kept busy by the Orthodox women of Chicago.) Such as no sex before marriage, a revolutionary concept in those primitive times, and marriage as a religious duty, which was almost as revolutionary as the monotheism the Jews made the foundation of their faith. There are proscriptions in Jewish law against birth control and abortion. There are dietary laws and laws for the observance of the Sabbath. There are, in fact, rules for almost everything in life, and the strictest of the Orthodox who still live by those rules are not unlike the Muslim fundamentalists resurgent in the Middle East. Their rules are similar, especially those pertaining to women and marriage.
One of the most enduring memories of my life is one week in 1978 when I “sat shiva” with my sister and her Orthodox in-laws after her husband’s death. The shiva is the seven-day mourning period after the death of a family member. As the outsider—I was only a sister-in-law—I performed all the household tasks—cooking, cleaning, etc—while the family sat on hard chairs—they took the cushions off the sofa—and ate and prayed. They covered the mirrors to keep out the angel of death, who would steal their son’s soul before they had properly mourned him. They held prayer meetings each dawn and dusk with any ten men who would join them to make a minyan. They did not wash, change clothes, comb their hair, go out of the house, turn on the lights, radio, or television, answer the phone, or in any way live in the world. Any living in the world in that house that week was done by me and, on the sneak, by my sister and her two children. After three days of this regime, my sister, her children, and I stole downstairs to the basement late at night and “lit up.” The tension in that household was too much for ordinary people of this world to bear, regardless of the grief they felt. When my brother-in-law’s father died, he left his accumulated wealth—not an inconsiderable amount—to his other son, the Orthodox rabbi, who had followed in his footsteps. To my sister’s children, who had joined the world, he left nothing.
The Orthodox are recognizable by their garb. At the least, they wear a knit kipa, the symbol of the Modern Orthodox. At the other extreme are the Hasidim, who wear large-brimmed beaver hats, long black coats, and untrimmed beards and earlocks. The majority of the men wear black suits and fedoras; the women cover their heads and their arms. The strictest Orthodox women wear wigs to cover their heads, which were shaved in a rite of marriage.
In Western Europe in the early 19th century, some Jews departed from the Orthodox. The model for Reform Judaism was the German Lutheran Church. Hebrew was replaced with the vernacular, a sermon was introduced along with choral singing and organ music, and the observance of the Saturday Sabbath was forsaken. As were the dietary laws and other proscriptive laws; as was the emphasis on the return to Jerusalem. (“Next year in Jerusalem” had been a traditional part of the prayers for hundreds of years.) The black garb was discarded, along with the kipa, men and women worshiped together, and synagogues came to resemble churches. Reform Judaism stresses the prophetic teachings at the expense of ritual, and it stresses social justice. It views itself as “a light unto the nations.” It might be said that Reform Judaism is a more intellectual than pious religion, a religion of the mind rather than of the heart. There are some who insist it is closer to Unitarianism than to Judaism.
My childhood was spent in this tradition, at the then prestigious Washington Boulevard Temple, to which Reform Jews came from all over the city. (Orthodox Jews do not have such options: the Torah forbids any travel, except on foot, on the Sabbath, so they must live within walking distance of their synagogue, or shul as they call it.) I sang in the choir of boys and girls. I went to Sunday school, where I learned the history and philosophy of Judaism without any idea of the extraordinary strictures under which some of my fellow Jews were laboring. We had roller-skating parties on Saturday. I was suspended from Sunday school in my last year for drawing naked ladies on the blackboards with my friends. When I was 13, I was “confirmed” in a ceremony for which we wore long, white, formal dresses and carried flowers. We were blessed by the rabbi, which was the closest to communion a Jew could get. While I was being prepared for my confirmation, my Orthodox and Conservative (more about them later) brethren were learning in Hebrew the section of the Torah they would recite at their bar mitzvahs, the traditional coming-of-age ceremony that the Reform synagogue had replaced with a confirmation. While I was going to Sunday school from 9 to 11, the Orthodox and Conservative boys were going to Hebrew school every afternoon after school. The Orthodox and Conservative girls didn’t count. I never learned Hebrew, nor did I learn much about the Torah. I didn’t return to the Washington Boulevard Temple after my confirmation. I hadn’t gotten religion, and the social life, which was 90 percent of the life of that synagogue, seemed to me, even at that tender age, to be superficial and stuffy. It is this social life that Philip Roth and other contemporary Jewish writers have satirized so savagely.
In recent years, as part of a wider trend of Jews returning to their roots, some Reform synagogues have restored to their services some of the rituals removed 200 years ago. Hebrew has been reinstated in the liturgy; there are Saturday services for those who want them; and there is a general return to ritual among the members. While there are still “classical” Reform temples, among them Sinai Temple in Hyde Park, more have followed the lead of Rabbi Felix Levy, who as early as the 30s became a Reconstructionist and a Zionist, and who pioneered a theological turn to the right in Reform Judaism.
A nephew of Levy’s, Rabbi Arnold Wolf, typifies this passage as well as anyone. Twenty years ago, Wolf was rabbi to Highland Park’s ultramodern Congregation Solel, housed in a splendid modern temple on the lakeshore. I met him in 1965 on the bus taking us to join Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. Wolf was one of the chaplains on the bus, along with a black Baptist minister. We marched that long, hot Sunday ten abreast behind King along asphalt highway 80 to Montgomery. A strong part of Wolf’s concept of his role as a rabbi was to preach and practice social justice, a tenet of Reform Judaism.
In the years since, Wolf has moved, as he says, “more left in politics and more right theologically.” He says, “I went from being a Roosevelt liberal to being a socialist.” Theologically, the process began in the 40s, he says, but it was in 1972 that he took a sharp turn to the right when he left Solel to become rabbi for the Hillel Foundation at Yale University. “I was no longer a rabbi for just Reform Jews. There were all kinds of Jews, and I started keeping kosher, keeping the Shabbat [Sabbath], and so on. I’d always done it to some extent, but I was more careful about it there, because I was responsible to a larger community and I wanted the experience of fuller participation.” He spoke and wrote about a return to the laws of the Torah.
Seven years ago, Wolf returned to Chicago as rabbi to Hyde Park’s merged KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation, whose membership today is equal to that of either of the original congregations before World War II, when Hyde Park had a huge Jewish population. Despite being Reform, KAM incorporates much of the traditional ritual in its liturgy and offers a traditional Saturday morning minyan.
When I asked Wolf if he was still as frum (observant) as he had been at Yale, he answered, “I do the best I can.” He explained, “At home, I’m a vegetarian, but in public [which is often], I eat in a lot of places where I wouldn’t have while I was at Yale. I walk to services on Saturday, but if there’s an emergency I’ll drive to the hospital, which I think is permissible. I’m still careful, but I’m not as strict as I was at Yale.” Sometimes his politics and his theology clash. He is “for the right of abortion with the hope that nobody will use it.” He said “the Talmud speaks of all kinds of birth control, but you don’t do it for convenience, only for such reasons as health.
“One thing is certain,” he said, “I do not pick and choose how I will observe the law. The Torah will decide what I should do. What I do is what I can. What I can do is not everything, but it is not limited by principle. It’s limited because I’m too weak, too old, too young, too American, or whatever.”
Asked whether his is a religion of the mind or of the heart, he said, “The mind is a very slender instrument. It goes very little into life, so that most of the big issues you have to decide on other than the basis of thinking them through. What you should do with your life, you can’t figure out rationally. But I’m not interested in New Age spirituality. I’m interested in playing the Jewish game with as whole a heart as I can. And not thinking about it, not criticizing it, not modifying it, not justifying it, not cutting parts out. Who the hell am I to do that? Believing in God is the easy part; the hard part is doing what God wants me to do. I know a lot about what God wants me to do from the Torah and elsewhere, and it’s just very hard to do.”
A small, balding, curly-headed man with twinkling dark eyes and a little too much girth, Wolf, 63, has always been a popular rabbi and leader in left political circles in Chicago because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a rabbi. Open, warm, gregarious, given to occasional cursing and to speaking his mind, he probably has found a very comfortable niche in Hyde Park, where there are so many maverick types in his congregation.
As in most synagogues today, the young members of Wolf’s are the more traditional and observant. “The center of gravity in our synagogue is people in their 40s, and now beginning, people in their 30s,” he says. “One of the symptoms of this phenomenon of return to religiosity is the bar mitzvah of these days. The kids are incredibly traditional. They do things I don’t know how to do. They chant the Torah the way I can’t. Translate everything. Some of them give it up when they reach 16 or so, but at 13 they are incredibly observant, knowledgeable, and skillful. That’s quite new, even since I came here seven years ago. I don’t know where it came from. Nobody told them they had to do it.”
In the mid-19th century, about 30 years after the Reform movement set in, there was a counterreformation in Europe. These rebelling Jews—Conservative Jews—wanted to preserve more of the traditional law. Conservative Jews consider the Torah divine but subject to interpretation. Observance is a matter of individual conscience: some observe all the laws of the Torah; others, like Wolf, do what they can. In recent years, as the Reform synagogues have moved rightward, so have the Conservative, incorporating more and more of the ritual into their liturgies, returning to some ceremonies that haven’t been practiced in hundreds of years outside the Orthodox shuls.
In the 1930s, still another strand of Judaism burst forth on the American scene with the publication of Judaism as a Civilization, in which Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan laid the foundations of Reconstructionism. Though they remain few in numbers, the Reconstructionists appeal strongly to young Jews who want to return to the pious ways of their forefathers without forfeiting a modern view of religion. Reconstructionism sees God as a natural force rather than as the personal deity of mainstream Judaism and Christianity. God is the goodness, the righteousness in all of us, said Kaplan. One of Kaplan’s most important tenets was the abandonment of the centuries-old concept of “the chosen people.” If there is no personal God, the Jews cannot have been chosen above others as superior. The words were deleted from the prayers, a dramatic change in the liturgy. Goodness and righteousness, according to Kaplan, are in all of us, Jew and Gentile alike.
But Roger Price, general vice president of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, explains that a visit to a Saturday-morning Sabbath service in a Reconstructionist synagogue looks very much like the service in an Orthodox shul, except that men and women pray together and the Reconstructionist prayer book, though in Hebrew, omits the concept of a chosen people and treats God as a natural force in the universe. Price insists that the Reconstructionist movement has influenced mainstream Judaism “far beyond our numbers. We pioneered the bat mitzvah [an equivalent coming-of-age ceremony for girls not normally provided in Jewish religious life], meaningful gender equality, and bilineal descent [recognizing as a Jew a child born of a Jewish father as well as of a Jewish mother], which have been adopted by both the Reform and the Conservatives,” Price says.
According to Price, the object of Reconstructionism, far from being the elimination of ritual and tradition, is “to make them more meaningful, rational, and understandable for contemporary Jews.” As might be expected from those who have consciously turned their backs on one of the basic tenets of Judaism—that of the chosen people—because of its implied bigotry, Reconstructionists have a strong social justice component to their belief.
Most Reconstructionists are young people—college students, new professionals, and so on. The movement was slow to grow until the last few years, when the Reconstructionists won their share of the Jews returning to religiosity. Only in 1968 did a rabbinical college open. At the time, there were only four or five rabbis in the country. Since then, more than 100 have graduated from the college, which is in Wyncote, Pennsylvania. Today, there are more than 1,000 families, few containing members over 40, in three Reconstructionist synagogues in the Chicago suburbs.
Kathi and Fred are not atypical Reconstructionists. Fred’s parents kept a religious home to please his grandmother. When she died, they gave it up to attend the synagogue twice a year on the High Holidays—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. Young Fred let the religion drop after his bar mitzvah and a year of Jewish high school, an after-school religious program in Rogers Park. Until he was 39, Fred thought about religion once a year, when he would agonize over whether to work on the High Holidays, and whether to go to the synagogue and please his parents. When he was 25, he married Kathi, a daughter of fundamentalist Baptists, who had also given up her religion. A justice of the peace married them.
Religion played virtually no role in their lives. They had two children, Fred was becoming a successful corporate lawyer, and Kathi had her nursing. In addition, they were involved in liberal politics. Their lives seemed complete—except before the High Holidays, when Fred went through the same agony every year.
Five years ago, with Fred approaching his 40th birthday and the holidays again upon them, Kathi said, “This is a stupid discussion. You have to decide what you’re going to do—give up your Jewish identity and forget the guilt or sort it out and become a Jew again.” His decision, and hers, was made during a Friday evening visit to a Reconstructionist synagogue to which they’d been introduced by a friend. “I felt that for the first time in 20 years I was agreeing with what a religious person was saying. I liked the whole concept of God and the Divine as they described it,” Kathi says.
They went back again several times over the next few months, and Kathi started reading. “I decided that within a year I would convert.” She and Fred took the 16-week conversion course offered by a group of Conservative and Reform rabbis, and a year later, she was, indeed, a converted Jew. Since then, the family has been attending Saturday-morning services every week. Kathi has learned enough Hebrew to teach children, and has, further, earned a BA degree in Judaic studies from Spertus College of Judaica.
Kathi and Fred’s 11-year-old daughter attended a Jewish camp for the last two summers, both children attend Hebrew school twice a week, they keep a kosher home—which is easy because they are vegetarians and the major task in a kosher kitchen is to keep separate all meat from all dairy products—they traveled to Israel last year, and they have brought Fred’s parents into the Reconstructionist synagogue with them.
This religion to which Kathi gives so much of herself appealed to her mind, not her heart. “It is intellectual,” she says, “because that’s my temperament.” Judaism is a scholarly religion. And a Judaism that denies a supernatural being must depend almost solely on its intellectual attractiveness. The heart is not generally invested in humanism, though Rabbi Wolf would dissent. On the other hand, the sociologist Emile Durkheim said in the late 19th century that the credos of a religion are irrelevant; it is in the group rituals that significance will be found. If he was correct, then Reconstructionism, with all its formal ritual, is indeed a religion of the heart, even as it denies a personal God.
There is still another authentic branch of Judaism—the irreligious—which is represented by me and the many like me who, in the manner of so many Christians in recent generations, have fallen away from any religious observance. (Of the 228,000 reported Jews in the Chicago area, only 44 percent are affiliated with synagogues, according to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, although there are more religious Jews than that—those associated with informal Jewish groups I will talk about later.) But as the writer Dwight MacDonald said 50 years ago, “A Jew is someone who calls himself a Jew or is called one.” A fallen-away Catholic or Protestant says, when asked, “I was raised as a Catholic [Protestant],” but a Jew remains a Jew, religious or not. Those of us who fell away from religion call ourselves and are called Jews. Some of us proudly identify with the intellectual and artistic prowess of Jews who preceded us—Freud, Marx, and Einstein were Jews—and with the intellectual traditions of Judaism, but we live atheistic lives. It is our children who are now returning to their religious roots.
As was evident in the tales with which I began this story, Israel has been an inspiration to young people. The 1967 Six-Day War had a powerful effect. But there are other, more subtle, influences at work, influences from the 60s and 70s that also sparked Christian revivals and the growth of Eastern religions among the young. It was an era of religiosity of a sort that has repeated itself periodically in this country since its inception. In his book Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, William G. McLoughlin describes four such religious revivals: the first in 1740, with Jonathan Edwards, and again in the early 19th century, in response to a wave of secularism that had swept the country. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the third revival swept the country, particularly its small towns, climaxing in the famous Scopes trial that pitted biblical literalism against evolution. McLoughlin identifies the present period, beginning in 1960, as the “fourth great awakening”; among other things, he says, it is characterized by the gentrification of the evangelicals.
In the wake of the Vietnam war, the election of Richard Nixon, and the disbarment of whites from the civil rights movement, many whites found themselves in a spiritual void. Religiosity has moved in to fill the void. A study recently reported in the Chicago Tribune identifies a rise in fundamentalism among college students. Sociologist Robert Suchner found that in 1986, one college student in five was a fundamentalist, compared to one in seven in 1978. Many young people were rejecting American materialism in favor of a religious commitment scorned by their parents.
Furthermore, the emphasis on participatory democracy of the 60s and 70s led many young people away from traditional religious institutions into their own more participatory forms.
Shaul is extreme. He calls himself idiosyncratic. He can find no established group with which to worship. Some Jews, not so extreme in their feelings but unable to accept the atmosphere of the traditional synagogue, have formed minyanim—small worship groups renting space in large synagogues. A minyan is traditionally the minimum number of men—ten—required to be on hand if Jews are to worship as a community. At Reform and Conservative synagogues, these groups now typically include both men and women, and they often exceed the minimum by a healthy number—for instance, the Egalitarian Minyan, which meets in Ner Tamid synagogue in West Rogers Park, has as many as 50 worshipers on a Saturday morning. Kate Kinser, a member, says that although the Egalitarian Minyan is more traditional in its worship practices than other minyanim, women, as the name suggests, have equal status with men. That’s unheard of in a traditional shul.
But the chanting and chatting and praying-out-loud and singing that one would find in a traditional shul, which might also remind some of a street-corner religious meeting, and which is so different from the silent, authoritarian atmosphere of a Reform or Conservative synagogue, is present in the Egalitarian and other minyanim. The Egalitarian Minyan started eight years ago, Kinser says, among a group of young people who “wanted a warm, friendly Shabbat service.”
For those who want a less traditional way of being religious, there is the havurah. The havurot movement takes its name, which means gathering of friends, from the worship groups formed by the Pharisees and other sects in the first century AD. Arthur Green, now head of the Reconstructionist Seminary, founded Havurot Shalom in Boston in 1965. The idea quickly spread across the country. Small groups of Jews gather in each other’s homes to worship, study Judaism, share a meal, and celebrate the holidays together. Some havurot are affiliated with synagogues, others are not. Once consisting mainly of the young, the havurot now include older people as well. Shaul’s parents are members of one. Fred and Kathi’s parents are members of another. In Chicago, there are estimated to be about 60 havurot, but the actual number is not known because so many are so independent.
The National Havurot Committee, founded in 1979 and headquartered in New York, holds annual summer institutes (a bit like family summer camp, according to Merilee Gordon, who organized one in the Chicago area and is active in havurot work) and publishes a newsletter and magazine.
There is also a growth in traditional synagogue membership among the young. It is occurring at a time when mainstream Christian churches are losing their grip on youth, according to Martin Gardner, in a report in the August 13 issue of the New York Review of Books on the rise of the evangelicals. Even where the demographics are against them, in communities that no longer attract large numbers of Jews, synagogues are experiencing modest increases in young families. Rabbi William Lebeau, at Highland Park’s North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, says that his Conservative synagogue’s children’s Sunday school has doubled its enrollment since he came nine years ago.
“But the educational programs for children involve parents, too,” he says. “They stress learning how to live according to the Jewish calendar,” which is now in the year 5747 (dating from the year of “creation”), and which denotes Saturday, not Sunday, as the Sabbath.
In another synagogue, B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, in Glenview, membership and activity have grown among the elderly, but, says Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, “there is a greater commitment to Judaism in the home among the young. They are lighting candles on Friday night, keeping kosher, building sukkot [wooden structures built outdoors and covered with branches and flowers to celebrate the harvest festival Sukkot], which wouldn’t have been heard of a generation ago.” In 1984 Rabbi Zeplowitz initiated a Saturday-morning minyan that has taken on a life of its own. The members conduct their own services.
“I wouldn’t associate synagogue membership with religious life,” Zeplowitz says. To him, it reflects “a need to establish social ties.” But the activities in the home and the Saturday-morning minyan indicate “much more strongly a new religious commitment by very independent people,” he says.
Rabbi Herbert Bronstein of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe echoes Zeplowitz. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, people asked how long the wedding service would be. They wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. Now they ask the same question for the opposite reason. They want to get all the tradition they can, all the richness of the service there is to be had.”
Bronstein’s Reform synagogue has initiated a series of programs especially for young people who have recently joined. One is the hamerkaz, or parenting center, which offers Friday evening services with potluck suppers for people with “babes in arms.” These dinners attract as many as 200 people. Bronstein says, “It couldn’t have been conceived of 15 years ago.”
In the summer months, Bronstein holds an outdoor kabbalat Shabbat (“welcome to the Sabbath”) service early Friday evenings. It is highlighted by guitar playing and communal singing. These services attract so many people, Bronstein says, that “we always worry about having enough chairs.” They’re another event that Bronstein says was unimaginable a few years ago.
In the city, at Anshe Emet Synagogue, a Conservative synagogue in Lakeview, there is a great variety of activity for young people, including a singles club that has about 200 people meeting twice a month for religious services that Rabbi Michael Siegel says are “much more participatory.” Siegel points out that many in this group know little or nothing about the ritual. He has made an audio tape to guide them in their Friday evening observances at home—the lighting of candles and praying over meals. “Both men and women who never had anything but a minimal synagogue experience are now hungry to learn about Jewish life and thought,” Siegel says. He conducts a “learner’s minyan” on Saturday morning for about 75 persons who come from all over the city and suburbs. Again, he uses tapes.
Anshe Emet began afternoon religious classes for children three years ago. Attendance has risen from 50 to 120, while the traditional Sunday school has only 50 children.
Most startling, perhaps, are the dozen or so adult bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs that Siegel has performed in the last couple of years. These have been people 25 to 40 years old who underwent two years of preparation for a coming-of-age religious ceremony that normally takes place at 13. But they or their parents had scorned it earlier.
Another interesting phenomenon at Anshe Emet concerns the 25 or so converts Siegel trains every year, most of them individuals who are involved with a Jew and who, like Kathi, choose to embrace the religious traditions. Rabbi Joseph Tabachnik of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest explains that American Jews are like other immigrant groups in that the third and fourth generations are intermarrying more and more. In the 60s, about 5 percent intermarried, he says; today the figure is 30 to 40 percent.
Most Christians who marry Jews convert to Judaism, Tabachnik says.
The Chicago Region of the Rabbinic Assembly (Conservative) and the Chicago Reform Rabbinate have converted 2,000 people since 1973. And many of these converts, like converts to other faiths, have tended to be more religious than their born-to-the-faith spouses. About 85 percent of them send their children to religious classes, compared to only 50 percent of the born Jews and only 30 percent of those spouses who don’t convert, according to Tabachnik.
The most startling revival is among the Orthodox, a tradition that has been felt as a burden to Western Jews for nearly 200 years. While only 4 percent of Chicago Jewry was Orthodox in 1985, there has been a new growth in very recent years, indicated by the appearance of two new Jewish day schools, bringing the total to five that enroll 1,500 children, and by the revival of a figure who has hardly been seen in America although he was a permanent part of the 19th-century eastern European Jewish village scene—and the source of much lore—the yeshiva bucher, the man who dedicates his life to the study and teaching of the Torah and is supported by the community. There are two new koleilim, groups that support these perennial students, and about 30 new students.
Yiddish literature could hardly exist without the yeshiva bucher. He was both the pride and the burden of the eastern European shtetl or village. These towns were poor, but the yeshiva bucher had to be fed and housed by the community because he was, along with the rabbi, who was similarly supported, the learned man of the community. Of course, his learning was limited in the sense that it all came from the Torah, but for the religious Jews of the shtetl any other learning was sacrilegious. The proper study of the Torah taught one all he had to know in life.
In Jewish literature, the yeshiva bucher was often at the center of wonderfully absurd situations, and one of the greatest plays of the Western stage, The Dybbuk, by S. Ansky, written in 1916 and made into a film, an opera, and a ballet, has as its central character a yeshiva bucher. (This fall, the National Jewish Theater will offer the first Chicago production in 35 years.) That there are now 30 such young men in Chicago being supported by the Orthodox community attests to its renewed vigor and growth.
Another dramatic addition to the Orthodox scene is Rabbi Ahron Levitansky’s Yeshiva Migdal Torah, a study program to teach people how to practice Orthodoxy. The tuition for these classes is only $15 a term for 30 classes. The ridiculously low fee is to make clear to people, Levitansky explains, that “religion is not a money-making business.” The costs of supporting Levitansky, his building in West Rogers Park, and satellite classes throughout the city and suburbs, and six teachers, is borne by individual contributions. (Despite their unworldliness, Orthodox Jews have prospered in the business world.) “The mind-set of the community is to be charitable, to be helpful,” Levitansky says. When he started his yeshiva nine years ago, he had nine students; today he has 125. And there are three other Orthodox yeshivas.
“Orthodoxy is the authentic Jewish manner of living,” Levitansky says. “It was given on Mount Sinai by God. There are times that lulls come into the practice, but we were guaranteed that the Torah would stand forever. Not too many people can say that they are happier because they have freed themselves from the bondage of Orthodoxy. When there are major upheavals, like when the Jews were driven out of Europe, many people drop out. But as we mature as a community, we can provide a greater Torah, a true education. Materialism—an overabundance of it—leads people to realize that that’s not what life is all about. Some have memories. Some are searching for meaning.”
One of the many Orthodox strictures is against birth control. Levitansky, at 42, has eight children. He assumes, he says, that they will abide by his teachings to ignore a secular education and go “either into the rabbinate or business.” The women, of course, will be housewives. “The education I’m exposing them to will give them a high priority of Jewish values.”
Although I’m an atheist humanist (in the original sense of that now misused word), the name of Rabbi Daniel Leifer, of the University of Chicago’s Hillel Foundation, has drifted in and out of my consciousness for 20 years. He has been one of Chicago’s major radical religious Jews. The minyanim across the nation are loosely modeled on the Upstairs Minyan that he started in 1965 as a Sabbath morning service in which men and women could participate equally and young people with little or no experience in it could read from the Hebrew Torah. The Upstairs Minyan celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1985. It has continued, over the years, to maintain a group of about 25 undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and people from the community. A definite process of self-selection is influenced by the religious service, which tends to be less traditional than the Conservative service on which it is based, and by the minyan’s left-liberal political orientation. Sabbath morning services include a discussion, often of a political or social problem, and the “progressive” views that inevitably prevail have, over the years, discouraged some people from attending.
Assuming that Danny Leifer is still on the cutting edge of the Jewish community, I visited him at the University of Chicago. The Hillel Foundation is the Jewish student congregation founded in the 20s by B’nai B’rith; it exists on most large college campuses. It is led by Reform rabbis, though there has been a tendency in recent years for these rabbis, like other Reform rabbis, to return to more traditional forms of religious practice, such as having Hebrew in the liturgy. Leifer says that the younger generation of Hillel rabbis are much more observant than was his generation.
Leifer is a small, casual-looking man save for the piercing blue eyes behind his glasses. A great crop of graying hair grows out from all sides of his head and face. We sat in wooden rocking chairs in his homey office in a 1907 mansion that has been home to Hillel since 1943. Leifer wore chinos and an open-necked striped shirt, and talked softly and earnestly about the return of Jews to religious life.
“Three different times we tried to offer a kosher lunch program here, thinking that we needed at least 15. Only in the last couple years were we able to do it, and now we have about 25 people who come regularly,” he said. “More people are coming to Friday evening Sabbath dinner, to Passover seders, and other holiday celebrations. If I can judge from the number of people attending various services, there is a definite increase over the last years in the interest in religious observance. It’s as though the fight of an earlier generation with religious institutions is over and now it’s sort of calm. There’s a place for doing Jewish things in life now.
“On top of that, there’s a small number who are more observant. More people wear yarmulkes, more people come here with Jewish day school educations, more people want to keep kosher, there is a greater respect for religion. It is much more a part of their identities. Many who come to Shabbat services and dinner will then go off to a movie or a party. They come mainly to have the experience of a Jewish meal with other Jews.
“On the other hand, there are the baal eh teshuvah, meaning ‘those who are returning.’ These are people who had little or no religious experience who have become Orthodox or right-wing Conservatives, strictly keeping kosher and the Sabbath. It began in the late 70s and has revitalized Orthodoxy and the yeshivot here and in Israel. It was largely the result of recruitment done by Hasidim and yeshivot people. The Wailing Wall is a favorite place to pick up people. These people are often found on college campuses in the Orthodox minyan. They don’t know much, but are often strongly, vociferously Orthodox, like most converts. It’s not a huge population, but a significant one.”
Leifer talked about the growth of the minyanim and the Havurot movement, about the amazing growth of Orthodoxy (a reception after the recent wedding of the children of two chief Hasidic rabbis in New York entertained 20,000 people at the new huge Jacob Javits Convention Center). Leifer described how, after his Upstairs Minyan was formed, similar groups were organized around the country on college campuses and in the larger cities where there are concentrations of Jews. A number of the members of the Egalitarian Minyan, he says, were first members of the Upstairs Minyan when they were students.
“There are many reasons to explain this return to religion,” he said. “The changes among Jews, first of all, reflect the changes in the world at large. The move toward tradition is happening all over. It’s a response to the political and social uncertainties of modern life. And to things that happened in World War II, and the change to a postindustrial society, and changes due to the large flow of immigrants around the world. The return is also a reaction to some of the liberalism and new sexual mores of the 80s.
“For the Jews in particular, it has to do with events in Israel. The year 1967 was the watershed year. I saw something very striking at this university. During the ’67 war, I saw faculty here I’d never seen before, who had never exhibited their Jewish identities, crowded into Hillel on an afternoon, struggling to figure out what they could do to prevent the Holocaust in Israel. It happened to a large number of people. There was a dramatic shift in their association and contribution to Hillel. There was in the general Jewish community a similar thing happening. For a lot of people, being responsible to the Holocaust is to be more Jewish. These two things, the revival of the homeland and the feeling of responsibility to the Holocaust, make people say, “We better be more Jewish now. We had better worry about our children and the continuity.’ The Reform synagogues that used to be hostile to Israel are now sending people on trips there. They have three Reform kibbutzim and seminary students have to spend their first year there. It has affected everybody. It has motivated people to have better educational programs.”
There is a third factor and that is the Gush Emunim movement–the movement to retain the occupied territories taken in the 1967 war–said Leifer. “Even those who disagree with the idea of ownership believe these sacred spots should never be judenrein [the Nazi term meaning “free of Jews”] again. The capture of those sacred spots is at the heart of the return to religion. It combines archaic national and religious feelings about land, religion, and a return to the sources of energy in a very physical way. The sacred spots have a greater opening to the divine imagery. It speaks to something deep in Jews and is behind the religious revival. To be close to the sacred spots is to be closer to God. In [religious historian] Mircea Eliade’s words, it’s a ladder to heaven.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.