Tuesday, March 5, 2024

In This Moment: If "The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending" Can We Find Happiness This Adar?


In This Moment

The front page that Israelis woke up to, and the pain that just doesn't subside. The headline says, "After five months, the UN finally recognizes the atrocities committed by Hamas." Quoting from the report: "Rape. Sexual Torture. Gang Rape. Inhuman Cruel and Degrading Treatment." On the lower left, the columnists write of "The Unheard Voice" and "The Buds of Justice." Perhaps it is the beginning of a long path to justice for the sexually abused victims of October 7. But it is no less painful to confront it. This, I must remind you, is what Israelis are facing each and every day. It does not justify other acts of cruelty, but it helps us to understand where Israel is at right now. And that brings us to today's quandary for American Jews:

How Can We Find Happiness This Adar?

Especially When Our "Golden Age" is Ending...

Be Happy! It's Adar!

Yeah. Right. How is that even possible now? Things are as bad as ever.

As if things couldn't get worse, I was greeted yesterday by an email announcing that the cover story for the April edition of the Atlantic is Franklin Foer's longform essay, "The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending." It is an excellent and politically-balanced summary of the trends that led to this "Golden Age," as well as its supposed demise. I'm not sure I agree that there ever was such a halcyon era, but I'm pretty darn sure that whatever it was, it's not over, despite all the evidence presented to us over the past five months. Yes, it's been five months since October 7. I also agree that things aren't looking up for Jews in America right now, but I'm not about to pack my bags (he said, while literally packing his bags), because things can turn on a dime.

Still, I liked the essay, despite its sensationalist, clickbait title, and it's destined to become a landmark in chronicling the American Jewish story - and I would love to discuss it in greater depth over the coming weeks, if enough of you read it. I've shared some key excerpts at the bottom of this email.

For the fact is that in the past, even when things have been great, Jews have always found something to complain about. I recall when the historian Jonathan Sarna visited us in 2005 as a scholar in residence and he proclaimed that there was no real crisis of Jewish continuity, at a time when that's all we were kvetching about. Sarna's main point, as spelled out in a 1994 article of his in Commentary, was that prophecies of gloom and doom have always been with us, but:

Previous predictions of American Jewish decline and demise have proved utterly wrong—just as wrong as their opposites, the glowing prophecies of a new “Zion in America” dispensed by uncritical optimists.

He notes that Look magazine dedicated a widely-discussed 1964 cover story to “The Vanishing American Jew."

"Today," Sarna adds, "Look itself has vanished—not just once but twice—while the Jewish people lives on." That classic article in Look has often been the subject of derision in Jewish academic circles, for instance this piece in eJewishphilanthropy, written last year, which reminded us that both Purim and Passover celebrate the ability of the Jewish people to survive against insurmountable odds. It turned out to be just plain wrong.

So if we survived Pharaoh and Haman, and even Look Magazine, should we really be so afraid of Elon Musk and a few misguided Ivy League presidents?

I understand that Foer is not proclaiming the end of the Jewish people on these Golden Shores, just the end of our Golden Age. Both Look's article and the 1990's continuity crisis were far more foreboding. And both prophecies of doom could not have turned out to be more laughable. Assimilation did not lead to our disappearance then. But will antisemitism now?

No doubt we have lots to worry about, but we worry even when things aren't so bad. The past half century may have been a Golden Age for American Jewry, but not for a moment did we stop worrying. Perhaps only now can we understand how good we had it. And maybe the more salient message of Foer's piece is that we may not be noticing that golden things are still happening right now, right under our - ahem - non prosthetic noses, Bradley Cooper.. As bad as things seem, we should still look for ways to be happy, especially in this our happiest month.

In the words of Psalm 34:12:

Who is the one who seeks life, embraces every day and sees the good?

That person, the one whose outlook is imbued with hope - who sees the glass as half full - who pursues life and seeks peace. That is the person who is truly happy.

How could such a glass-half-full religion be gifted to such a glass-half-empty people, one that refuses to take "Yes!" for an answer, one that refuses to "see the good?"

Yes, things are less than optimal right now for American Jews. But I've seen enough to know two things:

1) The embers of antisemitism will never be completely snuffed out. They always emerge, on the right and on the left. Just as the "idea" of Hamas can never be truly destroyed in Gaza. With support, however, hate can be held at bay - that's what happened in Germany after the Holocaust. But we can't quell hate alone. Still, we've managed to thrive in uncertain times before, and we can again.

2) Elections matter. A fortuitous change of government in Israel could make all the difference. Not that lions will suddenly lie down with lambs, but we've seen before - just a couple of years ago - that the Bennett-Lapid government was able to frame the conversations about Israel in much more positive directions than the current Knesset crew. Benny Gantz came to Washington today and the usual histrionics were kept to a minimum. Taking the temperature down a few degrees won't solve the problem completely, but it certainly helps. I pray for a new Israeli government, and when that happens, I personally would not object to a high government position for Noa Tishby. She spoke to 4,000 Jewish teens a few weeks ago - remarks you can see excerpted below. I'd like Israel to invest in cloning her and placing a Noa Tishby on every campus in the country. But my point is that elections can change attitudes overnight, empowering forces for stability, reason and tolerance that can help to bend that arc toward justice. Better, more coherent and well-explained policies can make a difference.

It's Adar, so we should be happy, despite the threats and the hate. But how?

One of my favorite sermons of the past 37 years, delivered on Yom Kippur Day 2014, was about happiness.

In that sermon, I shared ten keys to a life of happiness:

Here are a few of them. I hope they will help all of us, including maybe Franklin Foer, to navigate these hard times with a little more hope.


  • Nachman of Bratzlav said, “If you are not happy, pretend to be.  Even if you are totally depressed, act happy.  Genuine joy will follow.” This one might leave you skeptical, but Reb Nachman believed that when we activate joy, it ignites a spark inside us, it opens up our aliveness and lets us see the world from a God’s eye view.  As Rabbi Mark Novak put it, “Putting on a smile is not intended to cover over anything, but to make room for what is here – the divine presence – in each breathing, sacred moment.  The smile, which leads us to joy, which leads us to wonder, calls upon the child within us to live with curiosity and creativity.” 

  • Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav understood, way before Freud, that sadness can lead to sickness. Nachman himself struggled deeply with depression.  Aristotle called happiness "the chief good," the end towards which all other things aim. And in full agreement, Moses Chayim Luzzato, who in the 18th century wrote “The Path of the Just,” begins the first chapter saying, “The human is created to take pleasure.”  For him, there was no greater pleasure than seeking closeness with God. 

  • Laugh your way through the tears. Henny Youngman put it in the form of a joke: says "I go to the doctor and the doctor says I have six months to live.  I told him I can’t pay him.  So he gave me six months more." That is the quintessential Jewish joke.  We all have six months. We’re all up against literally a dead-line.  But if we can laugh at it and stand up to it, it will give us a reprieve from the sadness – and that’s like bargaining for six months more. What else can we do in the face of death but laugh at it?

  • Cultivate He-sed-ic Communities. Not Hasidic – but Hesed-ic.  Communities filled with Hesed (lovingkindness).  Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement, saw a scholar with a forlorn look on his face during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  The scholar said he was worried because these are the days when God is judging us. To which Salanter replied, “But other people won’t realize that that’s what’s bothering you. They might think that you are upset with them. In order to be truly happy, we’ve truly got to care about the happiness of others.

Not long ago, PBS aired a film called “Happy,” tracking the phenomenon all over the world.  The producer spoke about how he had heard that happy people tend to be healthier, get sick less often and live longer than unhappy people – and that for some reason, the oldest people in the world came from Okinawa in Japan.

He went there on a whim and found that it was a resounding YES, they were happy.  The key is was how different generations come together on a regular basis.   One day, he noticed a group of elderly women visiting a preschool as the kids were having a footrace.  The grandmothers convened at finish line. They hugged all the kids as they finished. The producer went to congratulate a grandmother about having such a grandkid.

She said, ‘That’s not my grandchild. None of these are my grandkids.’ She was asked, ‘Is this your friend’s?’ She said, ‘None of the women here are related to any of these children.’

  • In a big square in Copenhagen, there is an enormous interactive wooden pixel screen called the Happy Wall.  When I first saw it, I said to myself: Perfect: We’ve got the Wailing Wall and the Scandinavians have the Happy Wall.   That’s just the way it is.  

But as I drew closer to the Happy Wall, it drew me in.  There are 2000 wooden boards of all different colors, and people are invited to write messages or create patterns, animals, words or statements grouping many of the boards. 

I looked at some of the messages close up. 

“Happy marriage for 30 years: Andrea and Gunnar.”  

“My family is my everything: Isabel.”  

“M.L: The answer is yes.”

Now I’ve never read the messages that people put into the Kotel, but the messages I saw on the Happy Wall were probably very similar – only happier.  At the Happy Wall we might see, “I love my great aunt Sylvia’s potato blintzes more than life itself.  I’ll love her forever.”

At the Kotel we might see, “My great aunt Sylvia was bitten by a mosquito in the back yard.  Please keep her from dying of malaria.” 

The messages at both walls are about caring about something beyond ourselves.  And that’s what make us happy. It’s Hesed. It’s unconditional love, the kind of love that makes not only makes forgiveness possible – it makes it inevitable.  It’s warm puppy happiness. 


I realized that, in the end, we’re just a bunch of boys and girls (and nonbinary folks too), standing in front of the world, asking it to love us.  

Embracing our brokenness, focusing on the here and now, laughing through our tears, accepting our flaws, removing the masks, cultivating kindness, letting anger go, smiling even when we don’t feel it, coming together to celebrate and cry with community.  That's what makes us happy.

  • Live your Second Life.

I’m not talking about “Second Life,” the online virtual world followed by a million people. 

I’m talking about something that was said by Steven Sotloff, the American Jew (and Israeli citizen too,) whose experience was all too real.  Before he was so brutally murdered by ISIS, he was able to smuggle home a few correspondences when former cellmates were freed.  He wrote this letter that was read by his aunt at his funeral, before a hushed congregation:

Please know I’m OK.”  He said.  “Live your life to the fullest and fight to be happy. Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”

If Steven Sotloff could fight to be happy where he was, we have no reason to give in to despair back here.  He was the embodiment of that rabbinic dictum that we must repent on the last day of our lives.  And since we don’t know when that will be, so must we repent each and every day.

When you realize that you have only one life, you will fight to be happy.  

For those of us created in the divine image, i.e. all of us, we must do nothing less.  We must fight to be happy by marshaling the forces of steadfast kindness to prevail inside of us.  We must find a way to let go and forgive.  We must find a way to hug someone else’s child.  We must find a way to laugh through the tears.  

So our American Golden Age might indeed be ending, but the real point Foer is making is that we need to look beyond the mirror for just one second and recognize that our struggle is part of a much larger battle. This fight is bigger than us. As he writes, "...if America persists on its current course, it would be the end of the Golden Age not just for the Jews, but for the country that nurtured them."

An America that is no longer a safe and suitable home for its Jews is an America that has succumbed to the worst instincts of the far right and the far left. We need to fight hard to save, not ourselves from America, but America from itself.

And there will be nothing more satisfying, more conducive to overall well-being, than fighting this good fight.

And that's how we can find happiness this Adar.

Recommended Reading

A letter from President of SCSU Hillel Nathaniel Gross calls on the administration to rescind its invitation to Beinart, saying Beinart “adds fuel to this fire” of antisemitism that has been on the rise on college campuses since before the conflict. The letter, sent Friday evening, was also signed by members of the Judaic Studies department....Beinart said the call to cancel his talk “deeply saddens” him. He said he argues for the right to speak on campuses of people whose views he strongly opposes, per Jewish tradition of respectful debate between people of different views. He said he hopes the signatories of the letter attend the talk and ask hard questions so they can learn from each other.

  • "This is the moment of truth for Israeli society," says Yair Lapid about the Haredi draft. Is Israel about to change a long-immoral policy? (Daniel GordisWith Israel desperate for more military manpower, the notion that 13% of the country will continue to refuse to serve seems outrageous and immoral; Gantz and Gallant have refused to push forward legislation that the army needs to keep more manpower mobilized unless the Haredi men are now included. It’s all more complicated than this, but those are the basics. If Bibi sides with the army, the Haredim will leave the coalition and (as they did earlier this week) riot in the streets. His government will end. And if he sides with the Haredim, Israelis will take to the streets out of sheer rage and exasperation. This could blow.

Tomorrow's Front Pages

If Wednesday's front pages haven't been uploaded yet,

try clicking the same link later this evening.


The Jerusalem Post

Yediot Achronot

Excerpts from Franklin Foer's Atlantic cover story:

“As anti-Semitism faded, American Jewish civilization exploded in a rush of creativity. For a time, the great Jewish novel—books by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, and Bernard Malamud, inflected with Yiddish and references to pickled herring—was the great American novel. Under the influence of Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Elaine May, Gilda Radner, Woody Allen, and many others, American comedy appropriated the Jewish joke, and the ironic sensibility contained within, as its own.” 

By the mid-’90s, experts had declared the end of anti-Semitism. It persisted, of course, in the dark corners of American political culture—in the wacky cosmology of the Nation of Islam and in the malevolent rantings of David Duke, the ubiquitous ex-Klansman—but that proved the point. The only Jew haters to be found were hopelessly fringe; anti-Semitism disappeared from polite conversation. Leonard Dinnerstein, a historian who devoted his life’s work to studying anti-Semitism, concluded his magnum opus, published in 1994, with the admission that his scholarly obsession was becoming a relic: “It has declined in potency and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

Like the end of history, the end of anti-Semitism was a post–Cold War reverie, a naive declaration of a golden age without end. American Jews now worried that they might become too accepted. The great anxiety of the fin de siècle was intermarriage.

This all ended on September 11, 2001, Foer argues: “It didn’t seem that way at the time. But the terror attacks opened an era of perpetual crisis, which became fertile soil where the hatred of Jews took root.” Foer continues, “In the era of perpetual crisis, a version of this narrative kept recurring: a small elite—sometimes bankers, sometimes lobbyists—­maliciously exploiting the people. Such narratives helped propel Occupy Wall Street on the left and the Tea Party on the right. This brand of populist revolt had long been the stuff of Jewish nightmares.

America’s ascendant political movements—MAGA on one side, the illiberal left on the other—would demolish the last pillars of the consensus that Jews helped establish. They regard concepts such as tolerance, fairness, meritocracy, and cosmopolitanism as pernicious shams. The Golden Age of American Jewry has given way to a golden age of conspiracy, reckless hyperbole, and political violence, all tendencies inimical to the democratic temperament. Extremist thought and mob behavior have never been good for Jews. And what’s bad for Jews, it can be argued, is bad for America.

After 1967, the previous moment of profound political abandonment, the American Jewish community began to entertain thoughts of its own radical reinvention. A coterie of disillusioned intellectuals, clustered around a handful of small-circulation journals and think tanks, turned sharply rightward, creating the neoconservative movement. Among activists, the energy that had once been directed toward Freedom Rides was plowed into the cause of Soviet Jewry, which became a defining political obsession of many synagogues in the 1970s and ’80s. Meanwhile, Jewish hippies turned inward, creating new spiritual movements centered on prayer and ritual.

Although not all of these movements proved equally fruitful, this history, in a way, is cause for optimism, an example of how conflict might provide the path to religious renewal and a fresh sense of solidarity. It’s also a reminder that the Golden Age was not an uninterrupted rise.

The case for pessimism, however, is more convincing. The forces arrayed against Jews, on the right and the left, are far more powerful than they were 50 years ago. The surge of anti-Semitism is a symptom of the decay of democratic habits, a leading indicator of rising authoritarianism. When anti-Semitism takes hold, conspiracy theory hardens into conventional wisdom, embedding violence in thought and then in deadly action. A society that holds its Jews at arm’s length is likely to be more intent on hunting down scapegoats than addressing underlying defects. Although it is hardly an iron law of history, such societies are prone to decline. England entered a long dark age after expelling its Jews in 1290. Czarist Russia limped toward revolution after the pogroms of the 1880s. If America persists on its current course, it would be the end of the Golden Age not just for the Jews, but for the country that nurtured them.

Temple Beth El
350 Roxbury Road
Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 | www.tbe.org
A Conservative, Inclusive, Spiritual Community

No comments: