Bronfman Big Idea Series: “Minhag America” (Anita Diamant: FINALIST)

AnitaDiamant
Photo by Allen-Unwin.com

This is the 9th entry in the Bronfman Big Idea Series. Finalist proposals from Yehuda Kurtzer and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach will be joining the series next week, along with other creative and interesting proposals. Please keep them coming. I love to hear these great ideas!

About the Author

Anita Diamant is the author of 10 books, including the bestselling The Red Tent, Good Harbor, and The Last Days of Dogtown (all fiction), as well as 7 handbooks on Jewish living: Choosing a Jewish Life, How to Be a Jewish Parent, Living a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Baby Book, The New Jewish Wedding, Pitching My Tent, and Saying Kaddish, How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead and Mourn as a Jew.

She is also the co-founder of a Boston area mikveh called Mayyim Hayyim: Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center. (I’ve been and it’s great. If you live in the Boston area or plan on a visit, it’s worth your while to look it up.)

You can read more about Anita Diamant on her website or blog.

I am honored to be able to include Ms. Diamant in The New Jew’s Bronfman Big Idea Series.

Proposal Synopsis

If you ever wanted an enticing teaser, this synopsis is it. The premise is here. We’ll have to stay tuned to the February 24th symposium to learn more.

By Anita Diamant

“Enough with the wagon-circling and the hand-wringing.

There has never been a better time to be Jewish. I believe that we are at the beginning of an entirely new iteration of Judaism, bursting with ideas and possibilities, music and art, wisdom and laughter, scholarship and movies and holiness.
I like to call this unfolding chapter of Jewish history Minhag America.

The title comes from a famous prayer book published in 1856 by Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, who dreamed of uniting all of American Jewry with a single siddur (prayer book.) Clearly, that was doomed to fail and fail it did.

I borrow Rabbi Wise’s title — not to unite or paper over the differences and variations in American Jewish practice — but as an umbrella to describe our Judaism, which is so undeniably, itchily alive.

There are various ways to parse Jewish history. From Biblical to Rabbinic. From Haskalah/Hasidism to Modern to Post-modern. And now after a little more than 350 years on the North American continent, we have embarked upon a thrilling, not to say risk-free leap into the next. We are living through changes as profound and unpredictable as those presented by Rabbinic Judaism when it first emerged. The end of the Temple cult must have seemed like the end of the Jewish world. But our ancestors did not sit in the dust; they chose life, which means choosing change.

Minhag America is in excellent health, nurtured by the notion of life-long universal Jewish learning, strengthened by the full participation of women, challenged and enriched by the arts, trumpeted and shaped by ever-expanding forms of communication and culture. American Judaism is self-confident and unapologetic and growing in unpredictable directions. My project is to describe, elucidate, celebrate, and sell this idea to the Jews.”

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12 Responses to Bronfman Big Idea Series: “Minhag America” (Anita Diamant: FINALIST)

  1. Robin says:

    This is certainly a teaser. I really have no clue what the proposal is about. I hope this is not the only thing submitted to the contest. If it was, then the other people who did detailed proposals did too much work, and it is clear that the authors were more important than the idea.

  2. Shai says:

    Welcome aboard. I’ll have to wait until Feb. 24 to get answers apparently, but when you do give the presentation, I’d like to know why if Judaism is experiencing a tipping point similar to the time of the Tannaim (a point I made, too, in my proposal), that your solution is “American” rather than “global”, as the Tannaim’s solution was? Or, does it feel no need to answer to that, it being “self-confident and unapologetic”?

    I don’t think you’re proposing all of us Jews become Americans, so is this a move to “New Jerusalem” in the sense the German Reform Jews meant it, and if not, how is it different and if it’s not different, why expect better results than they achieved? Or, do you think their results, which perhaps would have flowered as you desired had the Holocaust not intervened, are worth emulating? How do you compare Minhag America with the objectives of the Tannaim, which seemed to put a priority on the continuation of a People? Is this your objective and if so, how is it so? And the Tannaiim were accepted leaders of the entire Jewish People at the time. They didn’t have to “sell” their ideas the way you have to sell yours. Why do you believe that “describing, elucidating and celebrating” the idea will be enough to achieve its spread and success?

    And, for those who are “on the other side of the divide” and not part of the Minhag America picture (either geographically or from the perspective of observance or unaffiliated), how will we and our future generations be interacting with you and your future generations? Do we have a future together? How do you envision it? Would we each have our own version like Minhag Israel, or Minhag Francaise? What does “Minhag” mean in this context? Usually it represents a practice passed down to us that we take upon ourselves as an obligation, but I sense that you see the matter as more fluid – that the minhag is fluidity itself, and the ability to innovate on the level of individuals or families rather than for larger types of community.

    Lastly, why would somebody who is not part of a stream and already “in to” Judaism be drawn into “Minhag America”, and what do you envision the phrase would mean in our day to day life? Does it represent a continuation of one of many fragmented identities we have as individuals, Judaism being only one? And if this is so, is what we have in common with other Jews that we share a fragmented identity, or are you looking for Minhag America to provide a primary or overlay identity that forms the context for the other identities?

    It is easier to imagine this on the level of the “individual”, but how does Minhag America manifest itself on the level of community? Who’s in, who’s out, who decides, what are its standards and view on the purpose of life, such that Minhag America distills for those who follow it a sense of “meaning” that is palpable and passable on to coming generations? Is Minhag America meant to supplement something or supplant something, and if so, what?

    That’s it. Looking forward to hearing more.

  3. Maya Norton says:

    Dear Robin,

    No, of course it’s not the whole proposal, it’s just a synopsis and what Ms. Diamant felt comfortable sharing at present. I’m glad to be able to include her either way. At least now we have a few more clues about what she might be thinking about.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Maya

  4. Maya Norton says:

    Shai,

    We may just have to wait and see.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Maya

  5. Gary Kulwin says:

    While I greatly respect Ms. Diamant’s work as a writer and activist, of the five finalist proposals that I read about, this is the one that I struggle with the most. At the same time, I agree with many (maybe most) of Ms. Diamant’s individual assertions. Yes, this really is a wonderful time to be Jewish (and maybe the best time in Jewish history, although this is tough to assess without access to a time machine!). I would also agree that we are at an exciting cross-roads, where all sorts of “ideas and possibilities” are beginning to surface. I might even support (though the verdict is still out in my head) the assertion that “Minhag America is in excellent health”. The real question, IMHO, is what we ultimately mean by the term “Minhag America”.

    Are we talking about Jewish infrastructure (the “organized Jewish community”) or Jewish demography (the “identified Jewish population”)? As those of you who have read my rants (in my comments here and on my own blog) know, I have no beef with the Federation system or any of the denominational movements. They all seem to do a great job, attracting millions of dollars in donations that address vital needs (in the case of the large philanthropies) or keeping broad networks of congregations up and running (the religious streams). Our problem is a demographic problem – a big chunk of the U.S. Jewish population (especially the younger cohort) is just not interested in affiliating with these existing models for living Jewishly.

    This often leads us to the big “Outreach Question”: how do we get these unaffiliated people “back into” those existing institutions? There always seem to be underlying assumptions behind the question: the unaffiliated must be Jewishly “uneducated”, apathetic, or simply too young to be interested in the “grown-up” institutions of Diaspora Jewish life. The unspoken notion here is that if we work hard enough, and think cleverly enough, we can find a way to get the unaffiliated to participate in our existing institutions in more or less familiar ways. While I sincerely wish the people pursuing this goal well, I just can’t buy into it myself. I don’t think that “Minhag America” as I see it (i.e. the organized Jewish community) is failing and needs reform, nor do I think that it needs better marketing and promotion. Let the people who love what exists, who want to celebrate it and participate in it, do so. Let’s just make more room for new forms of Jewish life, forms that may challenge how many inside of “Minhag America” might define Jewish life and community.

    Look, let’s move a way from “big ideas” for a second and get somewhat personal. I am very Jewishly conscious and committed (although there could be serious disagreement as to whether I’m sufficiently “Jewishly educated”, since I received a public school education in childhood and little religious education in college). I am certainly not apathetic about the Jewish future (I wouldn’t be writing all of this stuff here if I were). I am no longer ‘young’ (below 40) in the demographic sense (altough my wife and I are still pretty youthful in spirit, I think). Despite all of this, I would not consider myself to be a member (or, at least, not a satisfied member) of “Minhag America”.

    Even though I have even served as a Jewish professional for five years, my emotional attachment to existing Jewish organizations feels pretty low (even as my commitment to Jewish life and continuity remains very high). Shai touches on the feelings of people like me when he asks, “why would somebody who is not part of a stream and already ‘in to’ Judaism be drawn into ‘Minhag America'”? Of course, somebody could argue that I am one of those self-confident, unapologetic Jews who are “choosing change” in a way that suits them, and thus quintessentially a part of this “Minhag America” core group. While I can accept there might be some validity in this answer – in the sense you have the right to define me however you want, using your own model – it feels like a weak argument, since I see myself fighting an uphill battle to live out and transmit my own brand of Jewish identity in the Diaspora, and thus I feel little desire to celebrate our “collective success” at the moment.

    In other words, I feel like I’m being forced in to the role of grump here, even though I really don’t enjoy being “The Grumpy Jew” (sort of a doppelganger of Tzvi Bisk’s “Optimistic Jew”, I guess). Who knows, maybe I really do enjoy the “wagon-circling and the hand-wringing” too much, and part of me doesn’t want to let go. 🙂

    I just want to live in a Jewish community that had different kinds of institutions available for my and my family to participate in. Although I am interested in one specific niche of Jewish life (Hebrew language and culture), there are others who seem equally alienated and wondering where to go next. A great example, that I have recently read about, are the ‘post-denominational’ minyanim and yeshivot that seem to be springing up in the U.S. and abroad. Of course, their existence is something to celebrate (“glass half full”), but they have to complete for resources with powerful, existing institutions that often see the upstarts as competitors yet are unable or unwilling to compete by adapting to new trends (“glass half empty”).

    We will never be able to get back all of those who really are apathetic and undereducated, who would feel little attachment to Jewish life in whatever form it was packaged in. However, we would almost certainly be better off if there were more options on the table to choose from, rather than trying to re-package the limited options that do exist. Of course, there are plenty of forms of outreach that the mainstream community encourages and promotes; but the organized community seems to do better with outreach vehicles it can feel comfortable with (i.e. programs for intermarried couples, youth initiatives, etc.) than with those that might challenge the beliefs or values of the status quo (i.e. “multi-plex” synagogues, Hebrew language charter schools, etc.).

    Indeed, ultra-Orthodox Jewish movements like Chabad were once conspicuously ignored by the mainstream Jewish community, which saw their customs as belonging to the “Old World” our ancestors left behind. Now they are (more or less grudgingly) accepted as worthy partners in the fight for Jewish continuity. Are they a part of “Minhag America”, or part of its opposition (in fact, is there a recognized opposition to the “Minhag Mainstream”)? Are they upholding an old, conservative tradition, or are they really post-modern dissidents struggling against a new kind of “Institutional Orthodoxy”? I would love to find out where Ms. Diamant would classify the Chabadniks, the post-denominationalists, and people like me.

    Kol Tuv, GK

  6. Shai says:

    Wow, thanks, Gary. You’ve given us a lot of very important thoughts to think about, and for me, your sharing has enabled me to see a bit further on the horizon – more of the variety in Jewish identity than I can grasp on my own.

    Much appreciated.

  7. Tony says:

    http://www.thejewishadvocate.com/this_weeks_issue/news/?content_id=4436

    The 20 semifinalists have been invited to publish their proposals on a Web site that will enable wider dissemination.

  8. Shai says:

    Anybody know of any of the 20 finalists?

  9. texasyid says:

    I bet they are all college profs or other establishment types

  10. Maya Norton says:

    Dear Sally/TexasYid,

    As you can see from this post, that’s not quite right.

    – Ariel Beery is a student earning his masters and the founder of the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism, among many other successful initiatives.

    – Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has a popular television show called “Shalom in the Home,” a take off on the age old value of maintaining a peaceful, quiet home, known as shalom bayit. He is also the author of several bestselling Jewish books.

    – Anita Diamant, as you can see here, is a career writer with over 10 books to her name. Formerly she was a professional journalist.

    – Yehuda Kurtzer is earning his doctorate at Harvard in Jewish Studies and is the founder of Boston’s Washington Street Minyan.

    – Saul Singer is a writer and columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

    > Please note that I have deleted your other comment as it was not relevant to this post or journal, nor was it respectful, and I have continuously asked you not to spam this blog or my e-mail in this manner. The next time I receive a comment or e-mail similar to this one, you will be blocked from contacting me.

    Maya

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