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EYELESS IN GAZA—AGAIN!
In the biblical story of Samson and in John Milton’s famous poem, Samson Agonistes, the Jewish hero of great strength is captured and blinded by the pagan Philistines and forced to toil long hours at hard labor in Gaza, which the invading Philistines controlled at that time. Ultimately, in his blind wrath he feels his way to the key structural columns of the pagan temple he is prisoner in, and with his great strength pushes and topples the the whole edifice, killing himself and all those trapped within. In essence this is what we seem to be doing with our abandoning the large scale multi decade National Jewish Population Study (NJPR). Perhaps this is really because of the actual financial outlay involved, making in depth telephone calls by many skilled demographers, or their aides, or the rather disturbing facts or trends revealed. Decennial surveys were performed, starting in l980 as the baseline starting effort.
The most disturbing, in my recollection, was after the ten year period ending in 2000. Among prime painful discoveries then was the very high rate of intermarriage----almost 50% and the most disturbing of all, that only about 30% were raising their children Jewishly! At that time, much more so than now, I was very active in the Reform Jewish sphere, having once been a very determined president of our then local Bay Shore Jewish Reform temple. And forceful proponent of “social action”. Neglecting, perhaps, the Torah and Moses and making too much of a fuss of the ethical prophets Amos, Hosea, and Micah ---deserving, noteworthy, splendid though they certainly were! Subliminal shock waves seemed to manifest themselves and soon it became not uncommon to see our previously bare male heads adorned by the traditional yarmulke or kipot coverings and also not infrequently the prayer wrap around shawl, the tallis. the upper body covering. (And some venture some women, too!) Still basic, however, to our basic reform post halachic doctrines of non kosher diet and also patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent. And some determined leaders in pressing for female rabbinic ascent in the crucial pulpit domain. Conservative Judaism also soon joined this path, after some reluctant soul searching. The Conservative movement also followed the Reform movements’ epochal new commentary on the Torah---the five books of Moses. While the Conservative commentary is important for their outlook, the Gunther Plaut\David Bamberger Reform Torah commentary is like the brilliant sun outside compared to the reflected dim moonlight of a cave in the new, subsequent Conservative commentary a few years later. While this latter work was still of great value for the devoted, steadfast, loyal flock.
But bountiful and ineluctable life has led me past the grief of the death of my first wife, to the secure Jewish haven I now enjoy with my current wife in their secure and firm Conservative outlook, still a most firm and secure Jewish base in this rather rapid change of outlook and religious perspective era. I might add that I am also greatly blessed by other children who are staunch Jewish chassidim, leading to my happy dilemma of many great grandchildren, whose names and birthdays present a rather delightful quandary! And is even pushing me further along a path that I have now started on only with some hesitation. It is called Reconservadoxy. A path that allows an “I’m all right and you are all right, too”. Tolerance, respect, forbearance. Words that connote the true beginnings of love. But still a path that the rigidly righteous can end up denouncing as “a whoring after strange gods”. Judaism, the first modern religion to propound and propagate Ethical Monotheism—the one living and caring and nurturing Deity---has required many such enriching variations that ennoble one’s soul, and allow us to aspire to the higher and most pure elements of holiness—as if “in God’s image”. In my mortal existence, retrospectively, seemingly aggravated at first, I have patiently and prayerfully sought patience and tolerance. And as if in a great cultural storm the tree bends almost to the breaking point but is ultimately invigorated and upright again, enriched by the new earnest energy from these somewhat different but also true sources. Our searching, striving but valiant sources---our progeny, whom we have also influenced positively.
Reconservadoxy may only be a modish, semi humorous name for our current plight---still a severe drought of adherents. Only about fifteen million Jews worldwide among six or seven billion people on Planet Earth. We are literally imploding. In one macabre sense, in the United States, where we have had literally all our dreams of freedom come true as Jews and loyal American citizens, many have instead given Hitler, Judaism’s worst scourge, by our indifference and/or disaffection, quietly but firmly given Hitler and his Nazi henchman the dreadful possibility of a posthumous victory of making the world Judenrein—free of Jews. Most historic demographers agree that at the beginning of the Christian era, over two thousand years ago there were about six million Jews, about as many as the modern, Hitler driven Holocaust has succeeded in killing. And now the last sardonic historic laugh echo from the grave site where Hitler committed suicide. In ancient Alexandria the diaspora’s largest accumulation of Jews occurred, at the beginning of the Christian era. In a sense Alexandria was the cosmopolitan New York of the ancient Near East at that time, but it gradually became a nonentity as Rome became the rising power in the near east and then the worlds’ dynamic super power. There were few Jews by then left in Alexandria and their almost endless eternal wandering became rather commonplace. Evidently assimilation, acculturation and intermarriage and some latent, pre-christian pogroms occurred. These evidently fomented by Egyptian cultic priests incensed about the foreign Jew and his kosher separatist ways. With fairly benign intervals in medieval Spain and parts of South America, and in our own country an almost glorious acceptance with beneficial rewards for both the immigrant Jew and the positive work ethic in the United States he was free to display. Deeply grateful no longer to be the “wandering Jew”, but a happy and productive American citizen free to practice his own religion. Indeed most people would be astonished to be told that Jews make up only about 3percent of America’s population and about two tenths of one percent of world population!
Indeed, certainly no time to be Eyeless in Gaza again! Our numerous branches still have a glorious heritage in common to nurture and protect. Hopefully transcending what seem such apparent insuperable differences between even Chasid and secular atheist Jew. At least biennial attempts at conclave or convention to discuss common survival aims. And resurrecting some new form of NJPS census to reestablish some realistic current base of Jewish reality now. And as we go forth, prayerfully and hopefully, our aim is still, somehow, as in Exodus 19 .. “and the Lord said ‘you have seen what I did to the Egyptians…..Indeed all the earth is mine, but if you obey me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.
Still a very tall order but many of us are still trying.