Why being a modern American Jew is so hard

Our local, family-owned Kosher supermarket was on the verge of closing this week when some angel investors rescued the business. Our Jewish community was temporarily devastated at the prospect of losing this local institution. For many, the Crown is more than just a supermarket. While they cater and butcher and provide the local community with Kosher delicacies, it’s not just about the food. Food is an important part of every ethnic community and the institution that provides the food–and thus the source of comfort–is beloved to so many people that the (potential) loss of a place feels a little like the loss of a person.

Everyone wants to know why this could have happened and the economic realities are pretty clear. The Crown Market is in spitting distance of three large, big-box markets: Big Y (a family owned company out of Massachusetts), Whole Foods (the national organic brand of market) and the Neighborhood Market (owned and operated by Walmart–I have never been there on principle). Though serious competition likely led to their demise, the potential closing of the store has spurned another, and I argue, more important conversation: who are we as American Jews without the institutions that bind us together? Is the fabric of our religious and cultural community fraying?

To be honest, we should have started asking ourselves these questions a long time ago as a people. How do we transition our religious and spiritual life into a modern age? Locals want to point fingers, lay blame, apologize and even pray, but I would argue that as modern Americans Jews, we’re largely lost. The fact that we’re lost is really the problem, and these mea culpas won’t help us find our way. The virtual loss of this place is an indication of the confusion and contradiction of being a member of a cultural group that struggles with issues of identity, economy and spirituality. As a people, we have not come to terms with the relevance and antiquation of our religious and cultural norms and mores. 

I am certainly one of the lost members of the tribe and I am not the only modern American Jew who feels conflicted about my own religious and cultural identity. I consider myself a feminist, yet I can’t bring myself to wear pants to shul on Saturday mornings. I eat some treyf (non-Kosher food), but squirm at the idea of a cheeseburger (not Kosher) and prefer Kosher pullets (special soup chickens from the Crown Market) to make my mother’s chicken soup. I’m progressive but I still don’t embrace the idea of wearing a kippah (head covering) or a tallit (prayer shawl) even though many other women in our congregation do. When you feel like a walking contradiction, how do you find your place or establish your voice in a sometimes stodgy and often rigid Jewish community?

Finding your path or establishing your voice, getting “found” instead of lost, seems to be a matter of our priorities. Many modern Jewish families have a different relationship with Judaism than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations did. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation faced great anti-Semitism and they clung to temple life and temple ways because they had few other options. Keeping a Kosher home, focusing on religious education, joining and engaging in synagogue life were their only choices, but now these choices are in competition with a host of other more convenient choices our generation has in front of them. The Pew Report on Jews and Judaism may have stunned many spiritual leaders, but we should not be surprised that a secularization of our religion is on the rise. And marrying a Jewish spouse is not a simple answer–both my sister and I have Jewish husbands raised with varying spiritual experiences and integrating religion into our homes is still a struggle because as modern Jewish folks we don’t have to only choose Judaism.

Choosing Judaism means actually having an opinion about your culture or your religion. We cannot simply create meaning for people. We cannot will people to simply change their beliefs over night–or, worse, to have any beliefs at all. But we can begin to ask ourselves to tough questions rather than clinging to old ways simply because that’s what we have always done. We are also innovators–we would not have survived centuries of persecution if we weren’t creative.

There is worry that other Jewish institutions are also at risk, places like Jewish day schools or synagogues. Economic decisions surely impact the choices people make around sending their children to day school or joining a temple. BUT, making these decisions means you have operating beliefs about the community you envision. If I had more money, I would not immediately enroll my children in the local Jewish day school because I believe in and support local public schooling. Paying our temple dues is hardship enough when you factor in other expenses. Many members of our local Jewish community may be ambivalent about Judaism and the Crown potentially closing may not be that big of a deal to them. For these people, joining a synagogue or sending children to Jewish day school are also not priorities. Now is the time to inspire creativity and ask ourselves, what are we doing here? Without thinking creatively about future generations, we’re screaming and lamenting in a giant vortex. No one hears us.

As a religious group, we compete for and are in competition with each for time and money. Rather than lament the potential loss of this local institution, perhaps now is the time to combine efforts and resources (read: money AND time) to determine our modern needs as a modern Jewish community. Rather than point fingers or apologize for our real economic choices, perhaps now is the time to mobilize around the challenge of bringing people back to Judaism, around making meaning and reconnecting with lost members of the flock. At the same time, perhaps we should re-think and re-conceptualize our spiritual life for a modern era. Before this group of investors announced Monday evening that they would keep the Crown from closing, many local folks had already started to re-think and re-conceptualize what the Crown Market could be in an evolving modern Jewish community–maybe it would be a deli or a butcher shop or even a co-op.

I don’t want to lose our major Kosher butcher even I don’t keep a Kosher home. I want a place to foster connections with people around the food that binds us together. And though I have made choices to shop across the street and not at the Crown, that does not mean I cannot contribute thoughtfully and actively to a new Jewish institution that could serve the needs of other spiritually and culturally minded members of our community. The economic and spiritual realities of a modern Jewish community are complicated. Hopefully, we will join together to begin this very crucial conversation about moving American Judaism into the 21st century.

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About rglw

Sociologist mom writes for work and for pleasure.
This entry was posted in being jewish, blogging, community, culture, everyday life, food, holidays, religion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why being a modern American Jew is so hard

  1. Ilana Garber says:

    Yes! Looking forward to the conversation. It’s the only way we can make any change……need to get everyone to come to the table, wherever and whatever that table may be.

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