Meanwhile, every weekend I was off to the Saturday morning bar and bar mitzvahs of my wealthier school friends in the suburbs. Afterward there would be a lavish Kiddush or sit-down lunch, then we’d return in the evening for piñatas filled with candy, ice skating parties and endless record hops with ice cream sundae bars. Sometimes there was also a black-tie dinner with an open bar and kosher prime rib. To me, none of this felt very connected to religion or spirituality. Mostly we girls agonized over our clothes, our hair and whether a particular boy would ask us to slow dance. To quote my mother, it was a lot of bar, but not much mitzvah.
I get it — we Jews have been systematically excluded everywhere we’ve lived (including, for many decades, here in America), and the bar and bat mitzvah, in many communities, are a way of stating that we’ve finally arrived. But I wish the statement didn’t involve a 10-piece orchestra playing the theme from “Star Wars” while the bar mitzvah boy was dropped from the ceiling.
I’m happy to report that I did not fulfill my bratty promise to leave Judaism forever. I look back on all the sacrifices my parents made for me, including paying for Hebrew school and making me a bat mitzvah, and I’m filled with awe. I’m glad I learned to read Hebrew, but I still wish the process could have been less of a miserable chore. In the end, I had to go out and find what Judaism could offer me outside the institutional settings of my childhood.
My first step in that direction was an encounter with an Orthodox rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife] from a black hat yeshiva community near where I grew up. Home from college, I sat next to her on a bus one day and she invited me for Shabbat. I loved it and went back many times. Nobody cared what you had or what your outfit cost. Strangers were invited and fed. Shabbat was joyful, song-filled; there was no television or other distractions. Yes, it was the 1980s, and communities were less rigid. I was even allowed to visit a few homes while wearing pants. All summer, I studied with that rebbetzin. She encouraged me to ask her all kinds of hard and even disrespectful questions, and she answered them. Sometimes her husband, a rosh yeshiva, or leader of a talmudic academy, from a famous rabbinical dynasty, joined our discussions. I think he found my pushback entertaining.
No, I didn’t become ultra-Orthodox. Anyone who cares about women’s participation is not going to disappear into such a community — but there is still plenty to be learned from one. Nobody drops off the kids at synagogue and speeds off to go shopping, or teaches them about laws and traditions that are never used at home. Any Jew is welcome to walk into services, including on High Holidays. Nobody goes without a place for Shabbat. And kids aren’t studying or praying to reach a finish line, let alone a party with a buffet, a DJ and a bag filled with personal checks.
I don’t think most Christians have anything quite like the social occasion of the bar/bat mitzvah, but still, reading this short account of how this ultra-Orthodox Jewish community celebrates its faith communally, I find myself inspired, and wondering, “What if our church communities approached our faith in that spirit. That is, if parents were fully engaged with the faith, if families observed the laws and traditions at home, if churches were fully welcoming to inquirers, and families welcomed these visitors into their homes on feast days. And religious milestones were treated with the dignity — and indeed the sanctity — appropriate to them, not co-opted by the usual consumerist garbage.
If Christians of whatever tradition lived in Benedict Option-style communities within their churches, they would look a lot more like the ultra-Orthodox Jews than they do mainstream Christians. And, oh look! Which Jews are going to make it through late modernity with their Judaism intact? From The Forward:
The overall American Jewish population size is stable and growing, but its character is shifting dramatically. The Orthodox population (Haredi, centrist, and modern) is exploding. The non-Orthodox are in sharp decline.
We can chart the rapid growth of the Orthodox by looking at their numbers in the Pew Research Center data over three generations, each encompassing 18 years of age. From old to young, we have the putative grandparents’ generation (age 56-73), the parents (28-45) and the children (0-17).
Counting up all Orthodox Jews, we find 79,000 “grandparents,” nearly 200,000 “parents,” and over 340,000 children. In other words, over two generations, the Orthodox pretty much quadrupled in size.
What about the non-Orthodox — the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and non-denominational Jews? For them, we find the reverse of the Orthodox pattern. The oldest generation comes to 1.48 million. For the middle generation, 1.1 million. And for Jewish children in non-Orthodox homes (including the partially Jewish and Jewish with no religion), we find just 920,000.
The Orthodox, in all forms (including the Modern Orthodox, who aren’t the black-hat types), are marrying within the faith, having lots more kids than non-Orthodox Jews, and actually living out their faith in community. They’re going to make it. The others have much longer odds:
In fact, non-Orthodox Jewish trend lines resemble the trend lines for American Catholics and Mainline Protestants. They’re all marked by declining adherents and participation, as “no-religion” Americans have recently become the largest religious “denomination” in America.
Orthodox Judaism, in all its forms, is what the Benedict Option looks like among Jews.
UPDATE: I will post no more comments from people who write as if “Orthodox Jew” is the same thing as “Ultra-Orthodox Jew”. Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, is not the same kind of Jew as was the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Look it up. There are different strands of Orthodox Judaism. Only some of them are separatists.