Thursday, November 17, 2005

Shmutz Is Shmutz, Not Jewish Continuity

The desperate effort to maintain flickers of Jewish identity among the great number of American Jews who have married out or demonstrated in other ways their wholesale abandonment of identification with our religion, people and community has resulted in what I have termed anything goes Judaism. What counts these days is the label, not the contents, and it matters little that the label bears little resemblance to what Judaism has stood for. Nor does it matter whether what is being marketed is offensive.

As discontinuity packaged and marketed as continuity continues to yield little beneficial fruit and as surveys show further loss, our identity efforts have become more desperate, more removed from anything that can legitimately be described as Jewish and more tolerant of what is hostile to Jewish continuity.

I accept that Orthodox or conventional outreach touches only relatively few of the Jews who need to be reached out to, if only because most of those whom we continue to call American Jews are not paying attention. Yet, I am struck by the sagacity of the Talmudic sages who cautioned that as with physical salvation, spiritual salvation is a retail enterprise, the saving of just one life at a time. I believe that along with traditional learning and prayer, the Orthodox would achieve more if they focused more on the power of music and the impact of chesed activities as ways of reaching out.

Because the stakes are high and the odds are strongly against reversing contemporary trends, it is good that a huge investment is being made in Birthright Israel and Masa, the new Israel government and Jewish Agency initiative to bring thousands of young American Jews to Israel for learning and cultural experiences that will last for up to a year. The financial cost is immense and while the payoff will be limited, these activities will have some beneficial impact, in large measure because they are hospitable and not hostile to our traditions.

The overall picture remains disheartening. There is a spreading inclination to accept what is bogus, as in the Kaballah fraud that is the rage, or perhaps worse yet in the soft core dreck of Heeb and activities that debase our community.

Jews are not the only American ethnic or religious group experiencing severe membership loss. The melting pot may not melt away ethnic distinctiveness as quickly or as completely as once was believed to be the case, yet in this land of opportunity, social mobility and freedom, acculturation, assimilation, intermarriage and other yardsticks of ethnic decline are not mirages. What distinguishes us from other groups that are losing members is that uniquely we think that by embracing what is thrilling but base we somehow can salvage some of what is being lost. While other groups have standards or at least a sense of shame, we have few standards and little shame.

A case in point is the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which is billed as New England's largest Jewish cultural event. According to Sara L. Rubin, its executive director, "more than ever, this year's festival speaks the current language of our younger audiences." Translated this means that more than ever the festival is removed from Judaism and more than ever it is outrageous and open to obscenity.

One of its feature films is Sarah Silverman's "Jesus Is Magic," which just opened in New York, with A.O. Scott, the Times reviewer, noting that when Silverman opens her mouth, "the vilest, filthiest things you've ever heard come pouring out of it." Apparently she does speak the language of some younger audiences. The movie also contains this line in one of its songs, "I love you more than bears love honey/ I love you more than Jews love money."

I emailed my reservations about the Boston festival to a deservedly respected local Jewish leader, asking why the community is sponsoring such material. The good news, conveyed in his response, is that the movie has "nothing to do with proselytizing." The other news is that "it's actually worse about African Americans and Hispanics ... plus it's outrageously obscene." I was also told that "this stuff attracts outliers and unaffiliated Jews." This may be the most distressing part of the episode. Silverman is not the first to demonstrate that a dirty mind and dirty mouth attract attention, yield financial benefits and transitory fame. And she won't be the last. What is hurtful is the eagerness of persons who are responsible for Jewish continuity to embrace obscenity in the name of reaching out.

Again, no other ethnic group has stooped as low as we have. Nor has any mainstream film festival. I imagine that except for those that deliberately market obscenity, what is obscene is off limits. I should mention here that the Boston Jewish leader also told me that there is "actually worse stuff on the program" than Silverman's trash.

I wonder whether those who decide programming for the Jewish community reflect on the implications of what they are willing to do. Are there any limits to how low we will stoop? Do we care that other Americans look at what we are promoting and too many have come to believe that Jews stand for cultural degeneration? Do we care that while people may come to our programming which features dirty jokes, there is no evidence that such activities result in an even attenuated form of Jewish identity? Put otherwise, are we able to recognize that our indulgence in shmutz is for shmutz's sake?

There is no reason to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that we are nearing the bottom of the barrel. Unless more of us speak out, the Boston Jewish Film Festival will be a way-station in the ongoing process of American Jewish debasement.

Have we no shame?