MASA is a campaign designed to fight assimilation among American Jews. Sponsored by the Israel based Jewish Agency, MASA’s latest Israeli television ad sought to raise funds for its programs by placing photos of young American Jews on missing-person posters with the tag line, “over 50% of Jews abroad are assimilating.” The 50% of Jews abroad who had not assimilated complained and the ad was pulled.
Obviously assimilation of Jews into the broader culture is still a sensitive issue. But pulling ads that highlight it doesn’t really do much to stop it. In fact nothing really does much to stop it.
What does it mean to assimilate, anyway? Am I assimilated?
I try not to be. I have a beard, that’s Jewish. I wear Levi’s, their Jewish. I make a point of being able to pronounce the “ch” sound in Hebrew and Yiddish, and make fun of those Gentiles who can’t. I can spread my fingers in such a way as to offer the Priestly Blessing or say hello to Mr. Spock and wish him a “Live long and prosper.” And I get Jon Stewart’s Jewish jokes on the Daily Show. Is this good enough? How Jewish do I have to be?
On the other hand, I just bought the remastered Beatles collection, I read the latest Dan Brown novel (being a newly minted Master Mason myself, I wanted to see how we secretly rule the world), I like country and bluegrass music, and own a pair of cowboy boots. How goyish do I have to be?
I really don’t care about assimilation. If Jews want to be something else, that’s their right. Nor do I think that MASA’s program of schlepping young Jews to Israel to show them the Walls that define us (the Western Wall and the Separation Wall) is actually going to stem the tide of assimilation. If you want people to be Jewish, you have to make being Jewish matter.
Orthodox Judaism, for example, matters. It matters because it takes itself seriously, it believes what it says, it makes demands of its members. Unfortunately this is also why most Jews who are not Orthodox don’t choose to become Orthodox. To many Jews, Orthodox Judaism is a bit too Amish. I don’t want a religion that is afraid of zippers, or makes a fetish of Canaan.
How can we liberal Jews make Judaism matter? By reclaiming its roots as a radical counter-culture. By promoting Shabbat as a global play day, free from work and consumerism. By promoting kashrut (kosher) as a way of uplifting our consuming to the highest ethical and environmental standards (forget about separating milk and meat; promote vegetarianism instead). By promoting tzedakah as right livelihood: the just earning and use of finances. By excommunicating Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff. *
Judaism at its best, at its coolest, is in fact unassimilatable. It is counter-culture. It is all about argument, doubt, and imagination. It is all about everything that our conformist, consumerist society is not. Why not sell that to the kids?
Why not? Because most of the so-called unassimilated are really assimilated! Sure they refer to themselves as Jews, and maybe even attend synagogue once in a while, but they share the same values as the majority of Americans.
Assimilation is a nonissue. It is like dealing with a leaking bucket by adding more water at the top rather than plugging the leak at the bottom. The real issue is imagining and then teaching a Judaism that challenges people to be something other than the middlebrow, middle-class, middle-minded self-satisfied liberals who think watching MSNBC makes them superior to those who watch FOX News. I know these people. I am these people. Come on, MASA, don’t put my picture on a milk-carton, offer me a Judaism that matters.
* Did you ever notice that AbrAMOFF and MADOFF are made up of the same letters with the exception of the letter “d”? Is this a coincidence? I think not.