Josh Glancy

Keeping Jewish culture alive is about more than fighting hatred

The fact that 3/4 Jews believe that fighting antisemitism comprises the core of their identity is a depressing sign


Saturday Sabbath Havdala ceremony at the end of Jewish Saturday

March 31, 2022 15:00

A few years ago, I attended a Jewish Book Week talk by the Canadian novelist David Bezmozgis. A misanthropic but insightful speaker, Bezmozgis made a statement that has stayed with me: If you aren’t frum and if you aren’t going to move to Israel and fulfil the promise of Zionism, then your Judaism is doomed. It’s not strong enough and in time will die out. 

I was reminded of this challenge recently while reading a fascinating new report on Jewish identity by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Written by two leading demographers, Daniel Staetsky and Sergio Della Pergola, the report investigates many aspects of Jewish life in Europe, such as the continued rise of the Charedim, and the pre-eminence of Seder night over Yom Kippur as the most widely observed Jewish holiday. 

But the report’s standout graph is one that asks its surveyees what aspect of their Jewish identity they consider “very important”. Top, by some distance, comes “remembering the Holocaust” with 78 per cent, followed by “combating antisemitism” with 73 per cent. “Jewish culture” on the other hand, comes much lower, with a measly 41 per cent calling it a very important part of their identity. This rather depressed me and brought back the words of Bezmozgis, the Canadian Cassandra. 

For while remembering the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism are of course central to any European Jewish identity, including mine, they are also a one-dimensional and frankly pretty miserable basis on which to build a Jewish life. Without a love of Jewish culture and ritual, it’s all a bit thin. And a bit dark. If your Jewish identity is a negative one, defined primarily by being despised and “othered”, why would you want to pass that on to your children? Why would they welcome such a legacy? We survived the Holocaust and do the hard, draining work of fending off the antisemites, for what exactly? 

Perhaps Bezmozgis was right. Perhaps without Israel or Torah, there simply isn’t a strong enough foundation on which to build a Jewish future, particularly on a continent that throws up so many threats to Jewish life, from murderous Islamists in France to murderous Putinists in Ukraine. Perhaps this is why Della Pergola and Staetsky’s 2020 report showed that the Jewish population of Europe is now just 1.3 million, out of 14.8 million worldwide. This is a drop of 59 per cent in the previous 50 years, with the only real growth coming among the strictly Orthodox.  

At the height of the Labour antisemitism scandal, it was encouraging to see something of an awakening among previously disengaged British Jews. “My dad tried to make me Jewish and failed,” said Margaret Hodge back in 2019. “The local rabbi tried to make me Jewish and failed. It took the leader of the Labour Party to do that.”

But to what end? Other than as a kind of bloody minded defiance, what’s the point in being Jewish just to be a victim of prejudice? Why bother? And what happens once the threat recedes, as it does now and then? The danger is that you go looking for prejudice to validate your identity. One can always find Jew haters if one pokes about under the right rocks. Another hazard is that your Judaism is so attenuated that it simply dissolves over time. “I’ve not had to learn anything about the Jews,” the Countdown ace Rachel Riley told Tablet in 2019, reflecting on her role as a battle-scarred veteran of the Corbyn wars. “Because it’s not about them. It’s about the antisemites.”

By not learning anything about the Jews, I think Riley was missing out. And despite the evidence stacking up in his favour, I still think Bezmozgis is wrong about Judaism dying without Israel or Torah. As an irreligious Jew with no intention of making aliyah, I have to believe there is another way. But it requires a shift away from hate and prejudice, towards love and joy. It needs a thick Jewish culture that provides warmth, community, tradition and meaning beyond just being someone’s enemy or victim. 

It means building and maintaining a positive and rounded Jewish identity that takes in literature, history, humour, music, charity, food, art and probably a bit of Israel too. But I think it also requires finding some kind of meaning in Jewish ritual and religion, even in the absence of faith. 

An enjoyment of the Sabbath for its own sake perhaps, or finding peace and purpose in the act of praying. For me it’s a sense of hallowed tradition, the very essence of a family life that connects me to my wife, parents, sisters and cousins, but also those who came before us, and those who will follow. 

Jewishness is about so much more than fighting hatred. Done right, it is a whole way of being in the world. In 2015, the scholar Leon Wieseltier gave a speech lamenting how modern Jewry had lost its sense of the sheer scope and depth of Jewish culture. “What is missing is a sense of the whole - a robust and natural awareness of our inherited abundance,” he said. “We lack the consciousness that we are nothing less than a civilisation.” 

A civilisation, to borrow an old line from Benjamin Franklin, if you can keep it. Our challenge is to do just that. 

March 31, 2022 15:00

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