Monday, May 25, 2009

The Problem with Small Tight-knit Communities

Ultra-orthodox Judaism has been enduring "spiritual persecution" for 250 years now. Ironically, America --traditionally the most free country in the world-- is also the country in which spiritual persecution of Orthodox Judaism has been most pronounced. Unlike Eastern European countries of the 19th cent. and the former half of the 20th cent., America just wasn't a suitable environment for Orthodoxy. For the record (for those who don't know), Eastern European Jews flocked in the millions to America in the late 19th and early 20th cent. (1880-1924). Those Jews were very traditional --the equivalent of what we call orthodox. (They didn't identify themselves as "orthodox" since in most cases there was no teilung in their Russian communities). Yet, to everyone's surprise, the second generation so lovingly adopted their new culture that there was practically nothing left of their former religion. They went to public schools, mingled with the Italians and the Irish and graduated as goyyim gemurim (utter gentiles). No Yiddish, no dress code, no kosher, no family purity, no intra-faith marriages, no nothing! Only after the second world war, with the new Holocaust-survivor immigrants, did the Orthodox movement take root in this country.

And so, the question arises: why? How come Jews in Eastern Europe had no problem holding on to their traditions by the millions despite centuries of physical oppression and how come American Jews couldn't pass their traditions on to even one generation, despite the tremendous religious-practice liberty that greeted them here? What a paradox!

The answer is very profound and teaches us an extraordinary lesson in our evolutionary quest for survival.

The Jews of Europe had for many centuries been a minority, persecuted, beleaguered ethnic group. They had learned to survive by employing what I call the "huddle effect". They huddled together in their synagogues, leaned on each other's shoulder, looked out for each other in times of physical need and comforted each other in times of emotional trauma. These behaviors are typical of ongoing, small, persecuted minorities throughout the world and throughout all ages. This kind of community bestows an immense survival edge --it seems-- upon its members through its social services and commitment not to let any of its members fail. There's a caveat, though. The Jews of Eastern Europe NEVER had a chance to break out of the mundane, depressing, dreary Eastern-European peasant and lower-class lifestyle. They were guaranteed survival through mutual protection services but the stakes of the game were also low; they couldn't win much. Their life was as boring as watching paint dry. From the beginning to the end it was almost as predictable as the sunrise and sunset.

The Jews who decided to make the journey to America had one thing in common in addition to their "failure to communicate" their religion to the next generation. They all stepped up to the plate and swung the bat. It was a very difficult pitch; they knew that if they swung and missed or fouled, they were out! BUT, they also knew that if they came through all the way with a home run, then the reward was infinitely huge! Horatio Algiers stories (rags-to-riches) was what this country was associated with and rightfully so. In the pure capitalist spirit, in America a Jew who worked really hard, was able to rise above the rest and reach new, hitherto-unheard-of heights of social and economic success for Jews. They also knew that --just like the rest of the folks-- if they failed to make it, they would starve homelessly to death without anyone blinking an eye at them. What distinguished the Jews who made the immigration from those who didn't was that the immigrants were not afraid of the challenge; they welcomed the risk; they voluntarily discarded the "huddling" services provided by their existing communities and bravely declared, individually: I prefer to risk my life and take the precarious journey on my own, rather than live a safe but limited life in the comfort of the huddled Jewish communities.

How does all this relate to religion? Well, one of the major impetuses for the continuance of the Jewish religion through the middle ages, it seems to me, was the very Christian persecution that was meant to coax them into converting to Christianity. Persecution prompted the huddle effect, which in turn dictated that regardless of whether there was merit in the Christian religion, Jews should protect and shore themselves up against persecution by turning inwards and rejecting foreign influence. Those Jews who came to America had a completely different attitude. They said: enough with all these mutual-protection assurances. Let's be chivalrous and fight for survival like we're supposed to. Let's go out there and meet the enemy head-on. Jewish immigrants didn't justify their religious status-quo through a desire for the huddle-effect. As a result, once their religion was stripped of "immunity", laid bare and forced to compete against the Christian-inspired Capitalism of the USA, it invariably lost battle after battle to the tone of nearly a 100% casualty rate among the 1880-1924 second-generation immigrants.

American social and religious freedom is precisely the component of its culture that turned out to be the most lethal weapon against orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism cannot compete in the open-capitalist market. Rather, Orthodox Judaism thrives on its assurances of a safety net to all its members in exchange of unquestioning adherence to its now archaic, irrational teachings.

What stirred me to discover and elaborate this profound insight into the American Jewry OTD (off the derech) phenomenon of the 19th century?

It was a curious encounter that I had today with a 36-year-old man named Joseph. I met him early in the morning at Times Square in Manhattan. We were both seated at the red chairs and tables in one of the Square's traffic islands. He looked just like any other Manhattanite, well-groomed, fashionable and happy. Once we struck up a conversation I realized something was amiss. He was just too glib for a New-yorker, too accessible! Okay, I discover, he's not from NY, he's from PA. He's not married, he's divorced, he's not employed, he's jobless. Oh, and he's also a writer, so maybe that explains his willingness to pour his heart out to a stranger --also a writer-- he just met.

But it turns out that his story is far more intricate and puzzling. His dad died when he was 21 and his mom is loony. He never attended college because he decided to spend his time caring for his dad before he died. Yet, somehow, he's quite educated. He's lived in four different states, including Hawaii where he was given a free condo and job by his father-in-law, only to be kicked out after he insulted his wife's stepmom. He's had numerous concussions from playing football and thus developed migraines which went untreated until one nice day a doctor allegedly twisted his neck the wrong way and caused neck injury which he couldn't prove in court since there were no before and after x-rays. As a result, his wife divorced him after having two children and miscarrying four and being caught cheating on him. His ex-wife then filed for welfare benefits even though her parents were filthy-rich and her new boyfriends were buying her luxury cars. The state then billed him 9k for the welfare costs and issued an arrest warrant after he stopped making payments.

About a month ago he decided to move to NYC since he didn't have a car and couldn't work in PA for fear of being arrested. With little money in his pocket he wanders out all alone and finds his way into a $25 per night hostel in the city, living in dormitory-style 12-bed bunks. Finally his money ran out and so he couldn't afford to stay in the hostel any longer. So, I'm up 6:00 in the morning because I can't sleep at night; he's up because he doesn't have where to sleep but he refuses to consider himself "homeless" and so he won't sleep on the street. In addition he had no money for cigarettes and so he was picking up burnt-out cigarettes strewn on the sidewalk and taking 2-3 hits of each before discarding them and picking up more continually as we walked and talked. He has a collection of books in PA which is about to be shipped over to him so that he can sell them on NY streets and make an estimated 3k which will keep him going until he can get his teeth straightened out and get a job as a bartender. At one point he was scratching nickels and dimes from his backpack until he found enough money to buy himself a bottle of water, while regretting the delay of his book-collection delivery due to the memorial weekend Holiday --where his prospective income is tied up.

Towards the end of our conversation, he told the following story: he once responded to a woman acquaintance's request for help moving out of the house of her abusive boyfriend. The woman was petrified of her BF who was reluctant to let her leave. He tried to make sure the door remained open at all times, so that he can keep an eye on her and "protect" her. Suddenly, the BF shut and locked the front door and there was yelling and screaming "he's killing me, help!!". In his 21-year-old naivete he decided to break down the door in order to "save the girl's life". After several tries --hurting his shoulders in the process-- the door finally caved only to be nearly killed by a knife the BF swung towards him as soon as he entered the house. He quickly ran out and got hold of his father's gun. He then forced the BF to cooperate at gunpoint until the woman got her self packed up and moved out. Reminiscing about this event he described his motives for this violent childish behavior: maybe to impress the girl.

Why am I saying all this about this Pennsylvania stranger from Times Square?

Because his story struck me as highly unusual, but very credible. The movies frequently portray both the kind of poverty and precarious existence that he's experiencing and the violent, macho fights over women. I always dismissed such features as hyperbole and relegated them to the realm of movies, not real life. After hearing his story, I suddenly took a second look into myself and the --highly-contrasting-- super-secure family I grew up in. My parents are the kind of folk who would make 10oK per year through employment (as opposed to entrepreneurship, at which my dad failed repeatedly), "save" 80K of the 100 and live off the 20K. There are no vacations, no remodeling the 30-year old house, no new $99 G&G suits for dad unless the old one is threadbare, no 79 cents/pound bananas for mom if she could get 69/pound bananas several blocks further down 13th Ave. The word that comes to mind constantly is: scrimp, scrimp, scrimp, save, save, save, frugal, frugal, frugal. It's an uncanny how they will deny themselves the most basic comforts of life and convince themselves psychologically that they're perfectly happy, all the while accumulating a fortune that they cannot and will not ever consume --they do all this for the sake of security.

While I am aware that my parents' particular behavior in this regard is not necessarily idiosyncratic of Jews as an ethnic group, I do find such an association valid at some level. Their frugality is related to the huddling behavior mentioned earlier. It's all about the need for assurances that nothing will possibly go wrong and the aversion to take a risk and venture into unknown physical and mental (i.e. religious) territories.

Unlike Joseph, in the Ultradox community no Yeshiva boy would EVER think about fighting to impress a woman. The entire concept of men having to fight and "earn" a mate --as it is in nature throughout the Animal Kingdom-- is completely lacking in traditional Jewish culture. The huddle mentality had supplanted all need for individuals to do any fighting on their own behalf.

I would also like to go on a limb here and explain the Jewish-communist relationship in the same vein. THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL difference between communism and capitalism is that in the former the "state" assumes the risk (and reward) for major communal initiatives and in the latter the individual assumes the risk. Jewish fervent historical embrace of communism stems from this very same huddle-prone culture that they had cultivated for over a millennium; the culture that shuns risk-taking regardless of the potential reward.

That's the real definition between a Jew and a gentile: When gentiles talk derisively about the Jewish insatiable craving for money, they're really talking about the Jewish craving for an ultra-secure form of existence, supported by a single-minded, pernicious pursuit of money and the meticulous saving of every penny earned or acquired.