Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice (March KOL article)

Before the pandemic, did you visit Jewish historic sites when you traveled?  Have you dabbled in your Jewish genealogy?  Have you purchased or received Jewish books or toys for your children or grandchildren? Have you sought out Jewish foods?  Have you made the effort to learn your Jewish family story or been captivated by someone else’s that has become your own? Have you read or enjoyed a Jewish themed book or sought out Jewish music or art for your home?  Have you traveled to Israel or hope to do so? Do you stay current on Jewish life around the world?  Are there precious Jewish objects displayed in your home?

In her recently published book, Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice (NYU Press 2021), UVA graduate, Dr. Rachel B. Gross, Asst. Professor of Jewish history at San Francisco State University, puts forth a most revolutionary idea.  She makes a case that Jewish demographers and sociologists have erred in their assessment of Jewish religious life.  Dr. Gross believes that these scholars have been looking in the wrong place for their data as they seek to paint a picture of Jewish religious decline in recent decades.  Dr. Gross says that a decline in affiliation with synagogues, JCC’s, Jewish Federations and Jewish organizations is not the benchmark of Jewish vitality anymore, nor is it the attendance at Holocaust commemorations or publicly articulated support of Israel.

Gross postulates a new metric for assessing Jewish religious vitality as she prioritizes her study on “lived religion” as manifest in ‘ordinary’ activities by ‘ordinary’ Jews.  Her focus on what she calls Jewish nostalgia prompts the reader to think in broader terms of how Jews today engage our Judaism.  Her contribution to the current dialogue on Jewish survival and the Jewish future cannot be discounted.  By virtue of her work, we are presented with a new way to redefine religious practice.   Gross offers us a more hopeful, if controversial, view on how Jews are engaging “religiously” in today’s America.

The tension between Jewish religious practice and affiliation versus Jewish cultural engagement and assimilation has existed for the 39 years since my ordination, and a lot longer than that.  Gross highlights what all scholars know: that Judaism was never really constituted as a “religion.”  We modeled American Jewish life after American Protestant life, and so the metric of service attendance and the congregational aspects of our Jewish communal affiliation transformed what was once a shtetl or traditional approach to Jewish engagement.  It is that later kind of Jewish connection, very personal, that seems to be surfacing again as Jewish religious practice in a more unconventional world, where Jews are making decisions about how and why they are Jewish.

As a “Jew in the pew” in retirement, who can’t be in the pew in the pandemic, I have had to look at how I live my deeply Jewish life when not in the synagogue seven days a week.  And much of my research these days, as a rabbi and a member of HUC’s Board of Governors, is focused on determining how today’s modes of Jewish engagement and self-identity impact clergy formation for the 21st century.   What this book provides to both of these endeavors is a refocusing of my lens to see Jewish vitality and engagement in new places.  The challenge ahead is whether I can let go of my old metrics of what constitutes a vibrant and surviving Jewish life, and whether doing so will actually lead to a Jewish future worthy of our heritage.

As I prepare my dough for hamantaschen, I pass around my recipe to my children and grandchildren, and Dr. Gross is correct in stating that this is a religious task for me.  As I start imagining what another Zoom seder will look like and remember how hard it was to secure all we needed to keep kosher for Passover last year, I realize that even in retirement, my clock is still Jewish and so is my shopping list.  Knowing that holding on to traditions makes meaning for us at this critical time of isolation matters. Nostalgia matters as we are encouraged to look beyond the Jewish walls of yesterday to find the Jewish engagement of today and tomorrow that not only will keep us alive and sustain us but will enable us to thrive.