Forward Reviews Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal

Contemporary American Judaism, Dana KaplanForward magazine recently reviewed Dana Evan Kaplan’s forthcoming Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal.

In his book Kaplan notes the many ways in American Judaism has changed even in the span of the post-war era as the conventional denominational structure and ethnic identification gave way to a multiplicity of practices and meanings association with Judaism. From the review:

Kaplan shows how Jewish ethnic feeling, preserved temporarily through Holocaust remembrance and pride in the State of Israel, has eroded among younger American Jews. The traditional taboo on intermarriage — the ultimate tool for maintaining individuals within group boundaries — is today hardly encountered outside Orthodox circles. Jews, whether intermarried or not, tend to relate to things Jewish on their own terms: A Jewish practice or Jewish involvement will be taken on only if it has personal meaning for the individual, and, conversely, a cause or avocation with no Jewish roots will be portrayed as Jewish if Jews develop an enthusiasm for it.

Kaplan, who has seen much as a pulpit rabbi in several communities, skillfully portrays the wide variety of untraditional, often idiosyncratic, ways of “doing Jewish.” In his book, we encounter not only the expected Jewish feminists and gay rights activists, but also the Eco-Kosher Project, which reinterprets the Jewish dietary laws as ways to defend the environment; Hebrew tattooers, who identify Jewishly by tattooing themselves (a sin, according to biblical law) with Hebrew letters; bar/bat mitzvahs where the Torah scroll is taken out of the ark and, rather than read, simply handed, to parents and grandchild from grandparents and then returned to the ark; the celebration of Chrismukkah, an amalgam of Christmas and Hanukkah for intermarried families; a “Bring Your Pets” Sabbath prayer session, and Yom Kippur services featuring yoga, “a disco breakfast” and “creative dance.”

Moreover, twenty-first-century Jews are increasingly emphasizing their own individual spiritual journeys—a trend that worries Kaplan:

Kaplan is especially fascinated by the contemporary interest in “spirituality,” a vague (to some, vacuous) term for seeing life as a “journey” or “quest” in search of transcendence. That he is correct in emphasizing its growing importance is clear from a recently released study, “How Spiritual Are America’s Jews?” sponsored by Synagogue 3000 and reported on in the Forward (April 17).

But Kaplan is perplexed by his own findings, and wonders — as will many of his readers — whether a Judaism that sanctifies the individual journey toward self-actualization at the expense of collective Jewish consciousness has anything in common with historical Judaism or is capable of being passed on to future generations. In his final paragraph, Kaplan cautions us with the words of Martin Buber, who wrote that for a Jew, “the past of his people is his personal memory, the future of his people his personal task.”

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