Rabbi Mintz

Variable, Vital, And Frequently Chaotic: American Jewry

Dana Evan Kaplan’s Cambridge Companion to American Judaism is a worthy addition to ‘‘Cambridge Companion’’ series that has made scholarly topics accessible to scholars and layman alike. In this volume, Kaplan, a visiting research scholar at the University of Miami and a rabbi in Albany, Geor- gia, presents essays on a wide variety of topics by an impressive array of scholars. The volume is divided into two parts, the first titled ‘‘Historical Overviews’’ and the second ‘‘Themes and Concepts.’’ The second part includes sections on religious culture, identity and community, living in America, Jewish art, and a final one titled ‘‘The Future.’’ Kaplan has successfully blended more traditional topics—for example, Lloyd Gartner on ‘‘American Judaism, 1880–1945’’ and Nathan Glazer, a pioneer in the field of American Jewish studies, on ‘‘The American Jewish Urban Experience’’—with such less conventional topics as David Biale on ‘‘The Body and Sexuality in American Jewish Culture’’ and Biale’s fellow Cali- fornian Murray Baumgarten on ‘‘American Midrash: Urban Jewish Writing and the Reclaiming of Judaism.’’

In his introduction, Kaplan explains his decision to use the term ‘‘American Judaism’’ in the volume’s title. ‘‘In popular usage today, Juda- ism usually implies a broad sociological approach to the subject of Jewish life and culture, while the term Jewish Religion suggests a more specific concern with beliefs and practices that are somehow associated with a supernatural reality,’’ he writes. ‘‘Understanding the subject in such broad terms, one can see that Jewish religion in America means much more than just religious rituals or belief’’ (p. 1).

The choice of ‘‘American Judaism’’ as his subject reflects an important recent trend in American Jewish studies. While the term ‘‘American Judaism’’ was used decades ago by Nathan Glazer as a title in his epony- mous pioneering work of 1957, the term was most recently given popular expression by Jonathan Sarna in his monumental volume published in 2004. In the introduction to American Judaism: A History, Sarna writes: ‘‘The very term ‘American Judaism’ defies meaningful definition, for Jews as a people cannot be disentangled from Judaism as a faith.’’ Sarna explains further in this vein that ‘‘social, economic, political, cultural, and psychological factors affecting religious life must be borne in mind.’’

This effort to frame the discussion of Jewish history in America as including religion as a part of the total Jewish experience represents, to my mind, a coming of age. No longer is the American Jewish experience portrayed such that Jews are merely an assimilated subset of American society. Today, Jews as well as those who study their experience in America feel comfortable structuring the discussion around the very reli- gion that has stood for millennia as the foundation of the Jewish people. This necessarily allows for a broadening of the definition of American Judaism that includes all of the aspects of Jewish life.

Given Kaplan’s decision to enlarge the picture of Jews in America, it is noteworthy that he avoids dividing American Judaism into denomina- tional components. ‘‘Without underestimating the differences between the streams,’’ he writes, ‘‘the scholars writing in this collection look at the totality of American Judaism rather than at its constituent parts’’ (p. 11). While the volume includes the essay ‘‘Jewish Religious Denominations,’’ its author, Lawrence Grossman, coeditor of the American Jewish Year Book, believes that the denominational structure, while important historically, plays a far less significant role today as many Jews explore nondenomina- tional religious settings. It is debatable whether nondenominational Juda- ism, or the more recent trend toward postdenominationalism, actually broadens the discussion, as Kaplan argues, or constricts it. The discus- sion, however, helps set the stage for an evaluation of three additional volumes that examine the broad definition of American Judaism through a careful evaluation of the role of the different denominations in America.

The role of religion and the relationship between the various move- ments in American Jewish life is addressed in a novel fashion by Jeffrey Gurock in Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports. A self-described ‘‘scholar-athlete’’ who has run in twelve New York City Marathons and has written or edited even more books, Gurock brilliantly weaves the story of the Jewish community’s emergence into, and struggles with, American life and culture by examining the Jewish role in American sports. His volume is interspersed with wonderful anecdotes portraying future religious and intellectual leaders of Judaism in unexpected roles as athletes. Who would have imagined that as a young rabbinical student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Joseph Lookstein, the future renowned rabbi of New York’s Congrega- tion Kehilath Jeshurun, pitched in the annual Lag Ba’Omer student-fac- ulty baseball game in 1923? The faculty, with Lookstein on the mound, was ‘‘scalped 13–4 amid enthusiastic cheering and facetious remarks of a large number of spectators’’ (p. 78). An earlier scene describes Solomon Schechter, the European-born and educated president of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, in a conversation with then rabbinical stu- dent Louis Finkelstein, who was later to become the seminary’s president. Gurock reports that sometime shortly after 1910, as they were walking down the street, Dr. Schechter stopped at a newsstand to check out the latest World Series score. He asked Finkelstein whether he played base- ball. When Finkelstein replied that he did not, Schechter purportedly responded, ‘‘Remember this, unless you can play baseball, you will never get to be a rabbi in America’’ (pp. 57–58).

In the mid-1920s Louis Yager, a graduate of Manhattan’s Talmudical Academy (TA),Yeshiva University’s high school, played varsity basket- ball at the so-called Main Branch of the CUNY Evening Session, making many TA students proud that an alumnus had earned a varsity letter. However, Yager soon had to face difficult decisions. Nearly half of the team’s games that season were to be played on Shabbat, including the two most important. Yager decided to forgo his Sabbath observance in favor of basketball. Gurock poignantly presents Yager’s TA yearbook entry from 1925 in which his ambition is listed as ‘‘rabbi.’’

Gurock compares Yager’s experience with that of Tamir Goodman, the Baltimore Orthodox high school basketball star of the 1990s. In addition to receiving widespread media coverage, Goodman managed to convince the University of Maryland to agree that if he played for its nationally ranked team he would not have to play on Shabbat. While, in the end, both the offer and Goodman’s talents turned out to be less than expected, these two events separated by seven decades and a generation of Ameri- can experience point to the increasing acceptance of religious Jews in American life, at least on the East Coast.

In the 1950s, when Rabbi Gedalia Schorr, head of the Torah Vodaath Mesivta in Brooklyn, learned not only that his students were participat- ing in the Yeshiva High School Basketball League but that ‘‘a coed school came down with cheerleaders, he became very angry and stopped it immediately’’ (p. 138). By the 1990s even the Modern Orthodox schools had eliminated female cheerleaders but other issues continued to divide the schools. In the 1970s some conservative Solomon Schechter schools applied for admission into the yeshiva league but were rejected on the grounds that their acceptance would be seen as legitimizing the Conser- vative movement. The issue was revisited in 1996 when another Solomon Schechter school applied for membership. At that point, some Orthodox school principals opposed this exclusion following the lead of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, headmaster of Manhattan’s Ramaz School, who said, ‘‘We have enough things that divide us ideologically without being divided athletically’’ (p. 177). The issue was finally resolved in 2001 when it was decided to admit Solomon Schechter schools with the essential proviso that ‘‘status quo would apply on matters of halacha’’ (p. 180).

The portrait of American Judaism is further enhanced through Shuly Rubin Schwartz’s book, The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life. Schwartz—whose father and late husband were rabbis and who teaches American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary— combines anecdotes, studies of individual rebbetzins, and comparisons with the wives of Christian clergy to create an exciting portrait of Jewish life in America and an insightful analysis of the American rabbinic family.

As Schwartz takes the reader through the twentieth century, she shows the similarity of the rebbetzin’s experience in America’s different denomi- nations. Ruth Wolf Levi contributed an essay to a 1942 volume compar- ing the experiences of wives of clergy in different religions. In ‘‘I Married a Rabbi,’’ Levi candidly describes the contradictions faced by the rebbet- zin: ‘‘If she is brilliant or militant or persuaded of her ability to be a leader, she is likely to be considered forward, aggressive; if she is timid, hesitant . . . she will be called stupid or lacking in initiative’’ (p. 131). Yet Schwartz describes how rabbis’ wives have balanced the disadvantages with the desire to be the ‘‘unpaid partner’’ in creating vibrant synagogues and religious communities. Mathilde Schechter opened her home to stu- dents and helped to enrich Jewish life through organizational work, pub- lic speaking, editing, and even organizing the Jewish Theological Seminary’s first sukkah. Rebecca Goldstein, wife of the Orthodox rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein and daughter of the philanthropist Harry Fischel, was a partner in the creation of the Institutional Synagogue on Manhat- tan’s West Side in 1917. Her partnership was reflected both in her will- ingness to help her husband formulate his vision and in her hostess abilities. She even addressed envelopes to prospective congregants in Harlem.

Schwartz argues that the primary event that changed the nature of the rebbetzin was the decision of first the Reform and later the Conservative movements to ordain women. No longer did women who wanted a lead- ership role in the synagogue have to ‘‘marry what they wanted to be.’’ Predictably, this change led to a renewed defense of the rebbetzin’s tradi- tional role among the Orthodox. Many Orthodox writers have high- lighted the accomplishments of modern-day rebbetzins but within Judaism’s more liberal branches women today feel more distant from the traditional rebbetzin role. One husband of a female Reform rabbi has coined a term to describe his role, ‘‘rebbitz,’’ displayed proudly on his license plate.

A survey of the history of American Judaism would be incomplete without mention of theological matters. While recently Judaism has tended to emphasize practice over ideology, through his edited collection of essays Jewish Belief and Practice in Nineteenth Century America Elliot Ger- tel reminds us that theological questions were indeed a topic of concern for nineteenth-century rabbis. Gertel, the rabbi of Chicago’s Rodfei Zedek Congregation, has collected eighteen essays from thinkers such as Isaac Mayer Wise (1819–1900) and Max Lilienthal (1815–82) on a wide range of topics such as ‘‘The Spirit of God in Man’’ and ‘‘Evolution and Judaism.’’

The volume’s introduction contains an excellent short biography of each of the rabbis, emphasizing not only their life stories but the impor- tance of each to nineteenth-century Jewish life in America. As with all anthologies, the question of which essays to include is a difficult one, and I believe that the essays are weighted too heavily in the direction of liberal rabbis. If the reason for the omission of the Orthodox relates to the fact that Orthodox rabbis were too occupied addressing questions of religious ritual in the nineteenth century, Gertel should have noted this factor. Nevertheless, these essays are useful in helping scholars balance the theo- logical aspects of American Judaism with the practical, sociological, and historical elements.

Each of these four texts struggles to define and to describe American Judaism. The volumes highlight both the relative infancy of this field and the considerable progress that has been made in it. Sarna concludes his essay ‘‘The Study of American Judaism: A Look Ahead’’ in Kaplan’s anthology with this prediction: ‘‘Looking ahead to the 21st century, a new and exciting era of creative scholarship awaits, taking its cue from the variable, vital, frequently chaotic, and always kaleidoscope configurations of American Judaism itself’’ (p. 420).

DANA EVAN KAPLAN, ED. The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xxvi 462.

JEFFREY S. GUROCK. Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports. Modern Jewish Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Pp. x 234.

SHULY RUBIN SCHWARTZ. The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jew- ish Life. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii 312.

ELLIOT B. GERTEL, ED. Jewish Belief and Practice in Nineteenth Century America: Seminal Essays by Outstanding Pulpit Rabbis of the Era. Jefferson, N. C.: McFarland & Company, 2006. Pp. viii 210.

Rabbi Mintz is the rabbi of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, a Modern Orthodox community he founded on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2004. In 2022, he co-founded Project Ruth that educates potential conversion candidates and facilitates a thorough yet accessible Orthodox conversion to Judaism. He is also the Director of 929 English, a web-based project that promotes the daily study of a chapter of Tanakh. In addition, Rabbi Mintz is a member of the Talmud faculty at Yeshivat Maharat and has taught as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at City College, New York for six years.

He lives in Manhattan with his wife Sharon and has three children, Noam (and Lily), Ariel (and Ashley) and Shoshana and three grandchildren.