Sukkot In London

10.10.12

Finding Members Of The Tribe

During a Sukkot week excursion to London, my family and I were repeatedly Bageled—American Jewish slang for when a fellow Jew who has figured out you are Jewish, makes the Jewish connection, usually using insider language—a shanah tovah here, a shabbat shalom there. We also, inevitably, crossed paths with many Israelis and therefore coined another expression. To Crembo is to start speaking Hebrew to an Israeli whom you have overheard using the Jewish people’s old-new mother tongue. (Crembos are a distinctive Israeli treat, only served in the autumn and winter, offering mini-mountains of vanilla crème sitting on a cookie base encased in a thin layer of chocolate).

Bageling and Cremboing are particularist peoplehood moments, moments when we break through the usual armor of anonymity we carry around with us in public and click with another human being. But while we can affirm our common humanity with just about anybody—and when traveling do that too—Bageling and Cremboing capture the particular joy we share when we discover what we called an “MoT” when growing up in New York—a member of the tribe.

A central tenet of Zionism is that Judaism is not just a religion; Jews are a people, a nation, with ties to a particular homeland. Especially in elite progressive circles, the validity of Jewish nationalism is often challenged. At a recent brainstorming session about how to revitalize Zionism, I recommended inviting Jews to take Zionism personally, meaning to create a nationalist vision that works for them. One progressive deemed my words “nationalistic” and therefore “right wing.” The attack prompted me to quote Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and other leading progressives about the joys of patriotism—joys which politically effective liberals know they cannot renounce.

But my progressive colleague was reflecting the trendiest of thoughts which are an obstacle in discussing Zionism.  Many elite American Jews, in particular, are enthralled by a faux cosmopolitanism, a belief that universalism is good; nationalism is bad, with Jewish nationalism somehow getting the brunt of the critique. If we are to nurture a new, revitalized Zionist discourse for the 21st century—an Open Zion if you will—we must confront this distaste for Jewish particularism and this false god of universalism, which has been luring Jews for over two centuries now.

Fortunately, leading thinkers are tackling both these tigers. In his massive new volume, "From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel," Professor Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University shows how the negation of Jewish nationalism—singled out among all nationalisms—and this Jewish craving for universalism have been building blocks of the left, and of leftist anti-Semitism (not just anti-Zionism). My friend Daniel Gordis’s new book, "The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength" celebrates Israel as a model of particularism, a beacon for the 21st century, showing how having a deep, multidimensional, vital national identity leads to personal satisfaction, communal cohesion, and good deeds individually and collectively. Gordis argues, convincingly, that the Arab Spring and the Palestinian national movement will succeed best if Arabs try mastering and mimicking the Israel model, combining a democracy tolerant of diversity with a proud particularist national-religious culture, rather than trying to recreate the American “tower of babel,” which Gordis, the sociologist Robert Bellah and others show often leads to individual rootlessness, loneliness, and alienation. And the legendary Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Sir Jonathan Sacks, has declared that he will dedicate the rest of his career to bridging the gap between Jewish particularists and universalists—challenging Orthodox Jews to emerge from their intellectual bubbles and embrace what Western thought offers while challenging universalist Jews to emerge from their own constrained virtual reality and appreciate what having a rich, traditional Jewish identity can offer as well.

Gordis, Sacks and others are standing on the works of other great modern thinkers, especially Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel, and Charles Taylor, who teach that nationalism is a neutral tool, able to help or hurt, and that human beings crave community and most often thrive as anchored communitarians not alienated individualists.

On a more basic level, my family’s British experience was enhanced because all our Bageling and Cremboing paid off.  Stumbling in as wandering Jews, we were hosted magnificently at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue, welcomed and honored at the services, invited to meals in the synagogue’s sukkah and in a private home, and made to feel absolutely special. As two of my children and I spontaneously became the 17th, 18th and 19th guests at an Israeli’s table at the end of the holiday, I went up quietly, apologetically, to our hostess, offering to drink a quick l’chaim and run. “Of course not,” she said, “it’s Simchat Torah—and you are welcome.” And, of course, she and her family would be welcome in our home too, with bagels, crembos—and even the kind of four course meal we were lucky enough to enjoy with them, our fellow MoTs.