You can’t tell what to do You’re no my grandkids shirt, tank top, hoodie
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As I finish the year-long mourning period for my mother, Elaine Gerson Troy, I’m trying to integrate all the anecdotes, images and one-liners we have shared into a coherent story and viewpoint. When she died, it was unnerving to see this three-dimensional person reduced to tidbits, fleeting memories. This has been a year of reconstruction, trying to understand what her life meant and can mean for her children, her grandchildren and her yet-to-be-born great-grandchildren.
Philosophically, history vindicated her passionate Zionism but repudiated her pick-and-choose Judaism. My two brothers and I represent a vast historical experiment that mostly flopped: mid-twentieth-century Conservative Judaism.
We were raised in the Conservative Movement, America’s dominant Jewish denomination, with more than 40% of American Jews identifying with “the movement” for decades. We studied in Solomon Schechter Day School and “davened” in a Conservative shul — knowing that only fancy-pants goyishe Jews called it “Temple.” Our father earned a Masters’ from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Both our parents taught at Conservative Hebrew Schools. These were remarkable institutions, filled with loving, thoughtful, proud, passionate, literate Jews — and I honor the rabbis and teachers and lay leaders who shaped us.
But for all that institutional richness, something misfired. As we got older, my mother obsessed about this one who never married, the many who intermarried and that one who no longer spoke to the family. I realize now these stories were blasts of anxiety — and “don’t you dare” flares. My parents had bought into the Conservative bargain: they thought they could create an American shtetl, raising their kids to fulfill the American dream while maintaining some nice Jewish traditions that fit modern life. But life kept showing them their model was not sustainable from generation to generation. The lightweight Judaism most Conservative Jews chose to absorb lacked enough gravity to anchor kids and grandkids increasingly distanced from an immigrant’s foreignness.
Conservative Judaism Americanized the Enlightenment teachings of Moses Mendelssohn and Y.L. Gordon — be a person on the street and a Jew in your home — essentially saying: Be an American on the street and a Jew in your home. The attempt to be a “European on the street” had ended in Zyklon B, but America was different. American Jew-hatred is milder than the European or Muslim strains. Most American Jews could fit in. Our collective attempt to be “American on the Streets” succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, but it mass-produced a Jewish nightmare.
In fairness, we tried outrunning powerful historical forces. Back in the nineteenth-century, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville described Americans’ zeal for the new, their passion for individualism “which disposes each citizen to isolate himself” and the surprising conformity such seeming autonomy produces. Public opinion, the American Way of Life — capital AWOL — dominated.
Especially for immigrants, America’s great promise — to escape from Old World miseries to New World freedoms and luxuries — aimed a wrecking ball at the ancient ways and preservationist sensibilities Judaism cherishes. In 1938, the historian Marcus Lee Hansen claimed that third-generation immigrants returned to tradition, explaining: “what the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember.” In fact, what the children wished to forget, the great-grandchildren can barely remember — and much of what the children didn’t even know they knew, the great-grandchildren will never know.rue, the civil rights movement, Israel’s Six-Day War and the Soviet Jewry movement stirred Jewish pride and brought some Jews “back” — as American Jews like to say in the community’s obsessive accounting of who stuck and who folded. However, the sixties’ cultural revolutions ultimately accelerated change and annihilated tradition. All that liberating iconoclasm opened up pathways for more traditional Jews to be visibly Jewish and for less traditional Jews to engineer creative Jewish offshoots, even as most Jews rushed into Americanization’s smothering identity embrace.Amid this cursed blessing, liberal Judaism, including Conservative Judaism, neutered the most powerful forces that historically kept Jews Jewish. Worshipping their new promised land, lay Conservative Jews turned binding Jewish law into pick-and-choose Jewish folk-law. Judaism’s systematic way of life suddenly offered a smorgasbord, not a predetermined menu. God became a pen pal at best, never a police officer nor a higher authority.
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