As a kid in the 1960s and ‘70s, I somehow internalized a common unspoken message of the time: “Be proud of being a Jew, but don’t tell anyone.” At that time, ethnicity was still a strong driver of Jewish identity. We were not fully assimilated Americans, although we were chipping away at the remaining barriers. The memory of the Holocaust was fresh, with many survivors bearing witness in our midst. Anti-Semitism was a dark specter, lurking around the corner, and we needed to be careful to fit in.
Sound familiar? My childhood experience speaks to what scholars identify as one of the two defining drives for contemporary American Jewish identity: survival. The “survival” drive is primarily motivated by fear.
Its catchphrase is “hold the line or the Jewish people will cease to exist.”
The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim highlighted the power and primacy of survivalist identity when he dared to pen a 614th Commandment (there are 613 in the Torah): “Do not give Hitler posthumous victory.” Fackenheim was worried that we would assimilate ourselves out of existence, finishing Hitler’s attempt to make the world judenrein. Jewish survival was at the heart of the outcry against intermarriage in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The 2013 Pew study fed the fears of survivalists who noted that affiliation rates were declining, and intermarriage rates were up to 70 percent outside of the Orthodox community.
According to Rabbi Shaul Magid, the survivalist current in Jewish identity is a purely modern phenomenon. While Zionism contained a seed of survival identity, it was only after the Holocaust that it became a primary motivator for American Jewish identity. Before then, Jewish identity was about the survival of Torah. God would take care of the Jewish people, but only we could take responsibility for transmitting Torah from generation to generation.
After the Shoah, we found little consolation in the thought that God will ensure some remnant of our people will always survive, and our personal security shifted more to the center. As an American Jew born in the 1960s, I struggle to imagine what my identity would have been like had there been no Holocaust.
Although I have been deeply influenced by the survivalist view, I chafe against it. I do not want my Jewish identity to be an act of defiance against Hitler. I don’t want him, or anti-Semitism, anywhere near my Jewish soul. It is not enough for me to stay true to Judaism out of guilt, because so many have suffered and endured to continue the Jewish people that my failure to adhere would render their sacrifices meaningless.
Their deaths were horrific, and we need to remember, mourn and honor them. However, we cannot define ourselves solely as post-Holocaust Jews — as a traumatized people.
Instead, I seek a positive impetus, a Judaism which inspires and challenges and frames meaning in my life. As it turns out, this is the second driving force in contemporary American Jewish identity, which Magid calls “renewal.” If survival is about the Jewish people, renewal is about Judaism. If survival is motivated by fear, renewal is motivated by faith. Rabbi David Hartman summed up the contrast best, writing: “One need not visit Yad Vashem in order to understand our love of Jerusalem. It is dangerous to our growth as a healthy people if the memory of Auschwitz becomes a substitute for Sinai.”
Jewish thought leaders from the renewal perspective note that intermarriage has not destroyed our people, but on the contrary, has brought many new people, and with them a new vibrancy into our congregational families. They observe that while affiliation rates in 2013 were in decline, interest in meaningful Jewish living actually grew. They posit that the decline in affiliation is a critique of the survival identity which permeates most of the organized Jewish world.
“Never forget” is a warning which we must continue to carry with us, for the world remains a dangerous place. However, from a historical perspective, despite Pittsburgh and the alarming statistics emerging about anti-Semitism here and abroad, we have never been more secure as a people in America. American anti-Semites and their anti-Semitism never went away, they just burrowed below the surface.
In the meanwhile, we have fully assimilated the American dream as a people and live far more openly now as American Jews than we ever have in the past. While anti-Semites have attempted to reenter the public arena and legitimize their racism in the mainstream, they have been met with strong resistance and pushback from virtually every corner of American society. Our country has not only accepted us, it has embraced us. This does not mean that we should not take our security seriously, we do. Nor does it mean we should not confront the newly emerging anti-Semitism, we must. However, we should be careful to stand for something more. It is not enough for us to be against anti-Semitism. We must be for something bigger.
“Never forget” is a poor substitute for “Love your neighbor” [Leviticus.19:18] and “You shall be Holy” [Leviticus. 19:2].
Rabbi Gary Pokras leads Temple Beth Ami in Rockville. A version of this article appeared on the congregation’s website in February.