the calendar has come around again to the time of one of the many proud jewish traditions that has gone out of practice in recent years, though not one that gets mentioned very often.

in ashkenazi communities from nyu-york and buenos (aires) to varshe and london (and i assume to durban and sydney), each fall, on the 10th of tishrey, radical jews – mainly anarchists, though also bundists, communists, and other socialists – held a celebration. the community would turn out in full force, dressed in their best clothes, and pack the hall, sometimes spilling out into the street. they would generally begin by sitting down to a banquet, followed by a musical program that would lead into dancing until the late hours of the night. the event would be held in a hall as close as possible to the official center of the jewish community, the synagogue.

the yom kippur ball drifted out of common practice as the first half of the twentieth century waned. radical jews’ inclination to confront the religious authorities declined as those authorities wielded less and less practical power; their impulse to acknowledge the date of atonement for halakhic transgressions declined as the secular jewish culture they created grew stronger. so why, every year at about this time, do i – three generations of secular radical jewish life past that era – have an urge to throw a really rowdy party?

a majority of jews in the world are secular. u.s. jews are more so than most*, and have been since the earliest days of mass ashkenazi immigration. the allure of the goldene medine was one factor in leaving the old country, but alongside if not ahead of it stands the intense repression experienced by most jews in communities ruled by the traditional alliance of rabbinical authority and economic elite, endorsed and defended by halakhic dictates. similarly, on the other side of the atlantic, rumenye and besarabye have their place of adoration in yiddish song in part because they were seen as the seats of secularism in eastern europe, areas where halakha held less sway. this decided tilt towards secularism continues in the u.s. down to this day. even the synagogue-oriented u.j.a. couldn’t manage to find more than 44% occasional synagogue attendance among new york jews in its 2003 survey – which largely relied on its own membership list (which the survey results show to be disproportionately observant) to find research subjects. religious adherence is the exception in our communities; but you’d never know it from listening to how folks talk about u.s. jews.

predictably, the mouthpieces of the jewish religious right write out of the category of ‘real jews’ not only secularists but all those whose observance they consider inadequate. also as one would expect, the ‘mainstream’ (i.e. right-wing) jewish organizations describe secularists as part of the ‘unaffiliated’ fringe who must be reached out to and made to ‘affiliate’, as (they imply) all good jews have long since. each speaks as if its religious position held the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of u.s. jews, rather than the two splitting a minority between them.

less predictably, the jewish-identified left, in most of its varied forms, also operates on an assumption of observance. the flagships of grassroots jewish progressive politics, from new york’s JFREJ to the twin cities’ JCA to new JFSJ-funded projects in california, have embraced organizing through synagogues as their central ‘base-building’ strategy. their commitment has held firm even when, as in JFREJ’s case, the main effect has been that most of its active long-term members have drifted out of participation and few new arrivals have stayed involved for long. the surviving organizations of the jewish old left, like arbeter-ring/workmen’s circle, list more rosh hashone and yom kippur observances in their schedules than even yiddish classes. and, as is only natural, the several branches of jewish liberation theology – from the reconstructionist and renewal movements to neo-rebbes like michael lerner and arthur waskow, to innovative projects like svara (a nomadic queer yeshive) – are only interested in secularists as recruits.

all speak about ‘jewish content’ to their politics almost exclusively in terms of religious ritual or toyre (usually described as “text study�?, though the secular texts are most often either statistical factsheets, brief personal testimonies, or short poems, and almost never receive analysis as extended as the passages from pirke avos, the bavli, or the tanakh which they accompany), with a hesitant nod to the yiddishist tradition if a known secularist happens to be in the room. none has worked to develop an organizing strategy aimed at jews outside of synagogues. and none has a political analysis of the u.s. jewish community that so much as hints that the well-known statistical lean to the left among jews might have something to do with the fact that we’re the most secular community in the u.s.

an interesting situation, and all the more so when each and every one of these groups, across the political spectrum, claims that one of its goals is to foster positive, strong jewish identity among young jews (who there is no reason to think are more observant than their elders). you’d almost think there was a consensus that secularists aren’t actually jews. which is what any rabbi or shul-going sweatshop owner could’ve told you back in the 5670s, when yom kippur balls kept making it hard to atone in peace and quiet for reading spinoza on the sly.

so what can account for this intriguing blind spot – if one can call something interrupting most of someone’s field of vision a ‘spot’, that is. i can’t claim a well-researched, historically documented answer. but i do have a few thoughts.

the past few decades have seen an overwhelming swing towards religious language as the single effective legitimating factor in u.s. political discourse. if you aren’t talking about god, or at least faith, or at least a ‘spiritual’ or ‘moral’ tradition, you might as well keep your mouth shut. the temptation to wrap one’s political expression in the phraseology of faith is understandable, especially when it can be justified to oneself as a tactical measure making it be possible to be heard. but measures that start out as tactical lip service often wind up reshaping the mind behind the lips. that principle, in fact, is so well-established that it essentially defines the traditional jewish approach to observance – belief is not the key element; practice is.

over a somewhat longer period, especially intensely from the late 1960s/5720s on, the number of u.s. jews centering their jewish self-definition on zionism and the state of israel increased radically. this shift affected much of that era’s jewish left, from the old left stalwarts at the arbeter-ring/workmen’s circle to new left future makhers like lerner and waskow, who shifted previously critical stances towards broad expressions of support. this has placed these groups and their younger cousins and descendents in a complicated position. if they aren’t ready to match the jewish right’s enthusiastic and unquestioning support of the israeli government’s every act, they either have to challenge the basic identification of zionism and jewish legitimacy, or find another source of jewish identity and authenticity which does not conflict with it. the readiest – and perhaps only – such source to hand is religion. the clearest other options for a center of identity are jewish folk cultures and communities’ specific histories (both of which imply a pluralistic approach that avoids equating ashkenaz with jewishness). but to choose either of these as a basis of jewish identity runs directly counter to the basic zionist principle of shelilat hagalut (‘negation of the diaspora’), which holds that the ‘degenerate’ jewish cultures of the diaspora are to be eliminated in favor of the new israeli culture, and their history regarded as a detour from the narrative running from moses to masada to mapai.

where these dynamics have left progressive and radical jews, however logical, is by no means good. a jewish identity centered on support for a heavily armed nationalist movement with a large army and a more-or-less blank check from the u.s. government has at best minimal appeal to young radicals. and one centered on most versions of jewish religious practice has almost as little, and even less when it isn’t centered on a specific version. in some cases the lack of appeal is because they are pretty thoroughly free of content (as in the various versions, from reform to orthodox, of what micha josephy has called “suburban industrial judaism�?), in others because they have politically reactionary aspects at their core (as in non-egalitarian strains, frum or not), and sometimes it’s simply because they are religiously based (for radicals who have a critique of theism). jewish liberation theology can gain some new adherents, but for the most part by drawing them from other strains of observance.

the secular majority, which is more likely to be radically inclined (and would still contain a larger number of radicals even were the proportion equal), sits in the dark, nibbling on stale bagels. or, more frequently, sets its jewishness aside as an incidental fact and joins a movement that has something to offer it as a home and community of struggle. the labor movement. queer liberation struggles. feminist projects. immigrant justice work. palestine solidarity organizing. anarchist agitation. anti-racist fights. resistance to militarism. even (gasp!) building sectarian vanguard parties. all (except the last, and even it at times) important and valuable work. all struggles that explicitly jewish groups have in the past engaged in and contributed to in ways that drew on their experiences, perspectives and cultures as jews.

which is what makes me angry in all this. the loss of the specific things that jewishness can add to our movements. the loss of the things our movements can do to our jewishness. the willful avoidance of the clearest places to find jewish and radical sitting in the same identity. the willingness to discard the people who live in those places.

which in turn is why, one of these years, i’ll probably end up throwing a hell of a party around this time of year. i hope i’ll see you there.

20 elul 5766 – 9/13/2006

* there isn’t good comparative research i can cite on this. but the general ‘common sense’ is that the jewish israeli population is somewhat less than half observant, which is a bit higher proportion of believers than the u.j.a.’s latest survey (which is methodologically weighted towards synagogue members and attendees) found in the new york jewish population. the jewish communities in the former u.s.s.r. are probably more secular than u.s. communities; despite the best efforts of missionaries from chabad and the u.s. reform movement (see aviv & schneer’s analytically flawed but interesting new jews for descriptions of those conversion projects). in most places outside these three largest jewish population sites, my impression is that the communities tend to be more observant than in the u.s.