Joseph Lieberman is an Orthodox Jewish vice presidential candidate. Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen have become Jewish icons of pop culture.
What do these public figures represent for American Jews? Samuel G. Freedman answered this question Wednesday at a lecture on the UC Berkeley campus about his new book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”
“This is a decisive moment in shaping the Jewish-American identity,” Freedman said. “I think these things are wonderful, but can it perpetuate a culture? Is it enough to volt Judaism into the next generation?”
In his new book, Freedman discusses the “civil war” between two strands of Judaism. The conflict, he says, is between the pluralists, the more mainstream Jews who have assimilated into the American culture, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are more conservative and adhere to a literal interpretation of the Torah.
But Freedman said that the divide is not as simple as it might seem. “There are debates within these factions,” he said. “It’s not just the Orthodox Jews vs. pluralists. In my book I wanted to force people to see the humanity of both sides. Even the side they don’t agree with.”
Freedman, who is also a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of three previous books, said the idea of his latest book came from his research on Judaism’s history and personal experiences as a Jew. He weaves the debate among American Jews into his narratives about the embroiled Jewish community. The autobiographical part of his book came out of his journey back to the synagogue “at a time when the tribe was tearing each other’s eyes out,” he said.
In “Jew vs. Jew,” Freedman illustrates the Jewish war through a series of real-life stories, from a Cleveland, Ohio suburb battling over the right to build Orthodox schools, to the Yale campus dorms where devout Jews protested the school’s co-ed bathroom policy. The stories stretch from the 1960s to the present and detailed the lives of Jews from the Catskills to Los Angeles.
He said the Jewish divide stemmed from inherent differences in ideology between the two groups. After World War II, the American Jewry was defined by those who had already shed their religious identity before immigrating from Europe. Once they came to America, this group identified Judaism with culture, language, and ethnicity rather than religion, he said. There was also the ultra-Orthodox Jews who did not come by choice, but left Israel as refugees of the Holocaust.
“It came as a shock to everyone that the Orthodox Jews, the 10 to 15 percent minority, built a stronger following than the other group, and there was this resurgence of the orthodoxy,” Freedman said. “There was this Orthodox impulse no one expected to be so vibrant.”
He said Lieberman is an example of a person embattled in that very struggle about Jewish identity. On the one hand, Lieberman is “a unanimously applauded symbol of Jewish achievement,” but, on the other hand, he is an Orthodox Jew accused of “spewing Godspeak” as part of his platform, Freedman said.
“Jews are both proud and worried,” Freedman said. “He’s an observant Jew,…but Jews are worried that if things go awry, we’ll get blamed.”
At the end of his book, Freedman avoided offering any final solution to the Jewish conflict. Instead, he said he wants readers to recognize there are no easy answers to the “agonizing question of what it means to be Jewish.”
Jew Vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry Simon and Schuster, $26.00, Published Aug. 2000.