Saturday, September 19, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberal? -Part II

(Tevye will eventually make a guest appearance in this series)

I grew up under the misapprehension that Jews were the third-largest group in my city, after WASPs and French-Canadians. Not until I was an adult did I realise that this view was demographically impossible. Not only were Jews not disparaged in my family, they were openly admired. I was in love with Rabbi Handler’s daughter Honi in 4th grade, and more briefly, with his successor Rabbi Klein’s daughter Judy in 6th.

I was in high-track classes and a math and science guy to boot, so there were Schwartz’s, Sugarmans, and Shapiro’s all around. Cohens & Levys, Altmans and Youngers. Normal life. I greatly misunderstood some things about them, however, despite having a synagogue in the neighborhood and hanging out at the Jewish Community Center my freshman year. I thought they were all a deeply religious people, much more observant and fervent than we Christians were. This was not, in retrospect, because they did any explaining of their faith and customs to me. I believe I concluded that on my own from their attendance at Hebrew School and learning a foreign language for religious study alone. They had their own foods, and rules about them. This all seemed a worthy intensity. Furthermore, the Jews in my Bible stories were all intensely concerned with God, and as they had “only half” the Bible, it seemed reasonable that they would thus be specialists in that part.

Not until after college did I learn that many Jews were quite secular, and it came as a shock. It was my Jewish friends I spoke to about my conversion, not so much to convert them, but because I felt they would understand. Learning that Jack Schwartz had taken a class in comparative religion and been taught by a rabbi that prayer was really just mystic thought, found in all religions, seemed some great sin against the universe. Why did some Jewish hierarchy somewhere not put a stop to such things? Someone was ruining the faith of Jewish children! Such was my naivete.

Nor did I know that Jews in general tended to be politically liberal. I thought it was generational, as it was with gentiles. Rich business people were Republicans, but their wise and sensitive children were Democrats. That many of the other folksingers at our coffeehouses were Jewish seemed unsurprising. They were the smart kids, therefore they were also liberal socialists concerned with justice. Like me. I don’t know where I learned about prejudice against Jews in America. Only rarely did another child tell a Jewish joke or make slurs against them in my presence, nor did any of my Jewish friends complain about or make reference to prejudice. I conclude I must have read about it in news magazines. Just sheltered and oblivious, I guess.

I came late, well into adulthood, to this whole idea that Jews tend to be more politically liberal. That gives me both an advantage of some objectivity, but also a considerable disadvantage in not knowing some things down into my bones as others might.


Donna B. said...

Having been born and brought up in a completely different world (rural Colorado) I have a completely different experience.

My only knowledge of Jewish people and their religion was from books -- Leon Uris and Mila 18 was the beginning.

I never met a Jewish person until I was 25 years old. And, unfortunately, he was not representative of either the religion or the culture. He was a jerk. Jerks know no religious, cultural, racial, or national boundaries.

I actually told this man that, as a Jew, he was a disappointment to me and he said, "Thank you."

Anyway... I have no doubt idealized Jewish people and their cultures. It appears you did also, perhaps in a less "harming" way by actually interacting with them, something I lacked the opportunity to do.

karrde said...

I don't know what to say.

I currently live in a suburb which was originally dominated by wealthy Jews. It is now dominated by upper-middle-class Black people.

Both kinds of people seem to belong to a particular tribal thought pattern; so much so that one of the two national political parties has almost no visible presence in the city.

I don't know what to make of it; I do know that such tribal forces are powerful.

Retriever said...

Avi, Elisheva L has a good post on a service she just endured (PC rabbi hectoring them all) that most of us could relate to. Tho she has some misconceptions about the role of ministers and preaching in the Xian church, as the stuff that drove her wild in the rabbi's sermon is identical to the political posture of many of the PC Xian preachers I have walked out on

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hmmmm. In the big cities on the coast it is easier to be a secular Jew and remain culturally identified, and yet avoid religious observance. It is also easy to be extremely liberal.

In the Intermountain West where I live, in order to have any hope of the kids being Jewish at all--culturally or religiously, one must belong to a synagogue. And then the only experience of Jewishness those kids will have will come from that synagogue alone. Here, migration into NM from the coasts has brought Jews are much more "liberal" (I hate the term because the reality is so CONTRARY to the word root) than those who grew up here in the past few generations. This leads to a great deal of existential angst on those of us who feel we have been invaded by alien Jews from New York. Because to those from the cities, being liberal is so akin to being Jewish, it is like liberalism was handed down from Sinai. This leads to some really strange conversations. On Sunday, at second day Rosh Hashannah service, for example, one of these transplants approached me after the Torah reading. She wanted to console me, and in so doing find out why I needed consolation. When I told her that my daughter was leaving the faith, that she had converted out, this woman shrugged. Then she told me that what had really shocked her was that my daughter had been active in the Young Republicans. Apparently, converting out and leaving your people is not a problem for this Jew. But eschewing liberalism--now that's becoming an infidel!

One more comment on being a secular Jew: generally that is quite acceptable to other Jews. Being Jewish is not a religious belief so much as it is peoplehood. One can be a Jew and be an atheist. The only way to stop being a Jew is to convert out publically to another religion. And even then, history has shown, the people of that other religion will still consider you a Jew.

@nooil4pacifists said...

Growing up in California, Florida, New York and New Jersey, I knew many secular Jews--indeed, few were religious. But not until college did I meet a conservative Jew. Though I haven't read Podhoretz's book, I did scan his WSJ summary and Leon Wieseltier's trashing of it in the Times. Neither was convincing, especially the latter in his class-dominated reasoning and assumption that Republicans couldn't honestly believe that conservatism is the best path to minimize poverty.

For me, the core issue is this: Jews assimilated culturally about as rapidly as any minority group arriving in America, but their politics have been slower to transform. Why? Not sure--except that I think AVI is right that change might be contra-indicated, from an evolution perspective, for the world's longest-surviving tribe.