Ph.D. Octopus

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Birthright Versus Yiddishkeit?

with 3 comments

by David

Me and my dad at the desecrated Jewish cemetery in Budaniv, formerly Budzanow, where his father (my grandfather) grew up

There’s a new player in the Jewish continuity game, with a new plan for bringing American Jewish youth back to their roots. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the idea, called the Helix Project, is to bring Jewish young adults, ages 18-23, on an all-expense paid trip to eastern Europe: Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, to learn about their rich Jewish heritage and ancestry that existed before the Holocaust. The trip, sponsored by Yiddishkayt (literally “Jewishness”), an LA based Jewish cultural organization, has only six participants this summer (three students from UCLA and three more from UC-Berkeley), but its founder, Rob Adler Peckerar, envisions the program becoming an alternative to Birthright Israel.

Regular readers of this blog know my thoughts on Birthright Israel, the all-expense-paid 10-day trip to Israel. I’ll summarize briefly: Birthright Israel is about birthing Jewish babies, not Zionism. Despite all the Zionist propaganda present on the trips, the program was designed to counter rising rates of intermarriage in the United States, not to strengthen the state of Israel (or at least, any benefits to Israel were tangential, or products of the former goal). Thus Birthright serves as a sort of Jewish meat market, where young Jews hook up with Israeli soldiers or with each other, in the hopes of finding a spouse, all for the greater good of the Jewish people.

This raises the question: would the Helix Project be any different?

On the surface, it seems that the answer is yes. The content of the trip, focusing on pre-WW2 eastern Europe, is critical to the Helix Project. As the LA Times reports, “it is, in more than one way, a deeply subversive idea.” And Adler Peckerar doesn’t mince words:

You know, you do a quick survey of college classes and you see that more is being taught about the destruction of Jewish culture than about the culture…. We have a whole postwar generation that has grown up knowing far more [about] Nazis and concentration camps than knowing Jewish writers and major Jewish centers of culture in Europe. And that’s terrible. To me, that is — I don’t want to be extreme about it, but it is a continuation of the Holocaust.

Um, that sounds a little extreme, kind of like the whole “intermarrying is like finishing Hitler’s work” slogan. Still, Adler Peckerar’s idea is an interesting one. As the late Tony Judt wrote: “Many American Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz, and that suffices.” It’s true that much of American, or even global Diaspora Jewish identity, centers on the Holocaust and the State of Israel. Heck, that’s exactly what the (subsidized but not free) March of the Living trip for 16 and 17 year old high school students is all about. It takes you to pre-war Poland, shows you something of the lives that Jews led there, but then focuses on the death camps, the gas chambers, the crematoria, all the other horrors of the Holocaust. The “highlight” of the trip is the reenactment of the “March of the Dead,” a brief silent march from the concentration camp Auschwitz to the death camp Birkenau.

And then, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, rises the State of Israel. The second half of the 16-day trip takes place in the Holy Land, contains a health dose of that Zionist propaganda, and basically shows you how wonderful Israel is, with the highlight being the awesome celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

I went on the March of the Living. I’m glad I went, but in retrospect, I was way too young. At not yet 17 years of age, I barely knew anything. When I visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, after two years of junior college studying a good deal of European history, I found the experience much more moving. And as blog readers know, this past September I traveled to eastern Europe with my father. We went to Poland and Ukraine, and then I visited a friend in Lithuania. With all the history I had learned in college and graduate school, and because of the personal connection, that trip was even more meaningful.

It’s that knowledge of history that leaves me a bit wary of the Helix Project. In principle, of course I support any major exploration of Jewish history with the aim of reconnecting Jewish youth to their heritage. But the program has a bizarre emphasis on secular Jewish culture, even though the majority  of eastern European Jews were not secular in any meaningful way. And thus the project is not without its critics:

“It’s just stupid,” said Allan Nadler, director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University in New Jersey and a former director of research for YIVO, a widely respected Yiddish research institution.

Before the 19th century, Nadler said, “everything one did was governed by the religion.”

Even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Nadler argued, most Jews remained religiously observant. “There’s something really sick about the attempt to rewrite Jewish history and establish that this secular Yiddishkayt was ever a normative form of Jewish identity,” he said.

This conflict reminds me a bit of the NYU brouhaha over the Posen Foundation (full disclosure: I’m about to be employed with funding partly provided by Posen). The Posen Foundation funds courses and teaching positions in secular Jewish history at various top universities. In short, the NYU department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies (the department which, along with history, is providing my degree) rejected a $50,000 grant from Posen Foundation because it found Posen’s course directives too rigid, violating the department’s academic freedom. Other schools, though, like Harvard, Brandeis, Brown, UCLA, Michigan, and University of Toronto were okay taking the money, as were Israeli universities like Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and Haifa University (more disclosure: my father, professor at McGill, worked on a project funded by the Posen Foundation).

I support the Posen Foundation because they are attempting to supplement and complement the other courses already offered, not to replace them. Secular Jewish culture is worth studying for its own sake, as are religious culture and religious texts. The two need not cancel each other out.

Thus if the Helix Project served to supplement and complement Birthright and the March of the Living, I’d wholeheartedly approve. If it serves to distort history, however, to paint eastern European Jewish culture as more secular than it actually was, then as a historian, I have a problem with that. Even the historically distorted, kitsch musical Fiddler on the Roof, in placing “tradition” (if not exactly religion) at the center of shtetl life, seems authentic by comparison, particularly as it deals with the challenges of modernity.

There are other problems with the trip, for example, it leaves out Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews entirely. Someone should design a comparable trip that goes to Spain, Morocco, and Turkey (Iraq and Iran would be nice, too, but problematic). Again, I have no problem with a trip that takes Jewish youth to explore secular yiddishkeit in eastern Europe. But if it is to be an academically-oriented trip, rather than one simply aimed at secular Jewish continuity, then it should make an effort not to distort the historical record.

Update: In the comments below, the people of Yiddishkeit have noted that the Helix Project does not focus exclusively on secular Jewish culture, but includes significant Jewish religious content as well. In that case, I wholeheartedly support the endeavour.

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Written by David Weinfeld

April 29, 2012 at 16:35

3 Responses

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  1. A really interesting post! The Helix Project, it should be noted, doesn’t have an emphasis on secular Jewish culture, rather the LA Times article seems to have focused the organization’s leaders as being profoundly secular in order to stir up a little controversy and in the process distilled the more complex ideas about Jewish cultural history in order to provoke a rather ridiculous response.

    Helix students actually spend a great deal of time learning about religious culture—visit the Volozhin yeshiva, learn about the Vilna Gaon and Talmudic culture in Europe, for example.

    And you’re absolutely right, this trip at the small scale it starts at, does concentrate on Central and Eastern Europe, but mainly because of the sheer size of the American Jewish population that stems from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, but plans are to create an expansive model that celebrates Jewish cultural history throughout the diaspora (recent discussions have talked about possibilities in the former Ottoman Empire/Balkans).

    —Yiddishkayt

    Yiddishkayt — Helix Project

    April 29, 2012 at 19:19

    • Thanks for the comment. I have reflected this new information with an update in the original blog post. Now that you have clarified that the project is not entirely focused on secular Jewish culture, I wholeheartedly endorse it, and wish you the best of luck.

      David Weinfeld

      April 30, 2012 at 10:51

  2. Why do we keep looking elsewhere for our Jewish identity? There’s a 350-year old story of Jews in America. Why aren’t we teaching that narrative first?

    Isaac Shalev

    May 11, 2012 at 10:34


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