Amcha (The “New American Haggadah” and Liberal Folk Judaism)

From what I hear, the New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander is selling like hotcakes. Who knows? It might very well knock the Maxwell Haggadah off its perch to become the new American Haggadah of the twenty-first century. And why not? It’s a much more visually sophisticated, neo-traditional text. I think it might end up saying a lot about the liberal milieu of American Judaism and American Jews, and its seriousness.

I’m not sure when the term “amcha” (literally: “your people”) began to circui;late as a mark of an expansive concept of Jewish people. Under a single ethno-national rubric, the term would embrace all Jews together — secular and religious, unlearned and learned, non-committed and committed. It carries a “yellow badge” feel, which would locate the term’s origin sometime after WWII. The concept and its sentiment of solidarity are particularly pronounced in the post-Holocaust theological writings of Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits, and Yitz Greenberg.

Amcha is a term that has been left as a monopoly of rightwing Judaism, discarded by the liberal and progressive left for its clannish connotations. This makes it easy to ignore that American amcha is overwhelming liberal.

Amcha would represent the mass of American Jews whom cultural critics tend to look down upon. For culture-conservatives, amcha is judged for the lax and superficial form of American folk Judaism (we saw this in Wielstier’s critique of the New American Haggadah). Leftwing culture-critics dismiss amcha for its wobbly commitments to this or that social agenda, either in the U.S. or in Israel. For scholars of Jewish Studies, amcha would represent the worst of our students  –lazy, ignorant, and uninterested, the dumb young women who chatter during class and the callow young men who slouch in the back watching Youtube.

I’m not one to join the schrei about popular American Jewish culture. I’m not so undisposed towards cheerful vulgarity. Maybe because I spend a lot of time around ex-anthropologists. I would love to read an ethnographically nuanced analytical approach to the American amcha by a modern day Ansky who would explore the suburban hinterland, the peculiar habits and outlandish tastes and obnoxious manners of this much maligned culture, including especially their commitments and non-commitments to more or less loose forms of American Jewish religion-culture.

There’s an equivalent to this in American political culture. It’s too often the case that people like me or whom I like (liberals, progressives, intellectuals) tend to look down on “ordinary people.” You know what I mean –people who live in red-states, suburbs, and the terra incognita of exurb America. And these people know it. That’s why people in “Kansas” hate us.  Sure, “they” hate “us” in part because “they” hate “our” values and what “we” stand for. But they also hate us because they know that we think they’re stupid, and they’re right, which makes them not at all stupid.

My own feeling is that, in general, so-called “ordinary people” are not dumb, not dumb at all. This includes American amcha and their liberal folk Judaism.

No doubt, the state of popular American Jewish culture is dire indeed, as dire as the state of the general American culture which it reflects and promotes. But this doesn’t bother me, the putative problems with amcha, with American Judaism, with state of Jewish learnring, or with American Jewish support for the State of Israel, or whatever. Not because I don’t see problems but because I think it’s too easy to overstate them. I look at the cup as half full, not half empty. And if it’s only twenty percent or ten percent full, well, that’s not bad either.

I am not qualified to assess the conflicting data that would support, refute, or qualify the melancholic prognosis predicting the decline of American Judaism. From my perch, all I know is that the religion and culture of liberal American amcha today in 2012 is far more robust, far more interesting, and far more inclusive than the American Judaism in which I grew up in Baltimore in the 1970s. I don’t really care if this fluorescence reflects a genuine renaissance of Jewish life, is just a passing fad, or is a symptom of something clinically degenerate and moribund. One way or the other, if American Judaism is in fact on its deathbed, there’s not much that one can do about it.

Perhaps a better way to get a handle on the all the overstatements about American amcha made by ideological agonists is to put a personal face on American amcha. I think about my grandparents, my father and uncles (z”l), and about my mother, my brothers and their partners, my own partner and our children, as well as aunts and cousins, and our friends, and people at shul, and neighbors who don’t go to shul and aren’t interested in religion, organized or not. I think a lot about my students at Syracuse University. They hail from New Jersey, Long Island, Scarsdale, but they also come from Baltimore, and Wilkes Barre, and Los Angeles.

About my students, I make get frustrated and make jokes. Truth be told, though, I actually like a great many, perhaps the vast many of them. I actually think they come from interesting places and have interesting things to say, most of the time. And that it’s my job as a teacher to help them articulate analytic arguments about Jewish culture and religion at a critical remove from their own life history, life-interests, and life-pursuits. They may know more or less about Judaism, or they may not know anything at all. But dumb they are not, “even if they don’t have doctorates.”  I just can’t see why anyone should be so sour about them. Except for the clothes, what’s not to like?

This is not to say that there is not a lot of unreflective dumbness and dullness out there. It’s my job as a university to check clichés. Shouldn’t this include our own clichés about American Judaism and American popular culture? I really don’t think that “native intelligence” or “group intelligence” is the monopoly of this or that class of educated people. I’d rather think it is a diffuse quality more evenly, albeit imperfectly distributed across a broad field of social actors and groups. This, by the way, was Foucault’s point about power.

The liberal Judaism of American amcha, I don’t think is as flat as its critics suspect. People get to make their own commitments as they see fit. They tend to do so in broad social patterns. There’s a live wire to liberal Judaism and liberal Jewish culture. There’s something relaxred, decent and thoughtful about it that is genuinely attractive. It might not be to my taste or to your taste, but I think the New American Haggadah is evidence to support the view that amcha is not going to throw Judaism under the bus.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Amcha (The “New American Haggadah” and Liberal Folk Judaism)

  1. libraues says:

    Reblogged this on Lev Janashvili and commented:
    Excellent essay on the state of American Judaism, a healthy counterbalance to the hypochondriacal anxiety about the decline of Jewish identity.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    I think that there are a few distinctions to be made here. I was recently reading kierkegaard’s “two ages” and found that his analysis of the “present age” and its possibilities very much aligned with intuitions which arose for me while working in jewish day schools for a few years. basically, what he argues is that following the “age of revolution” there is a cultural flattening and leveling in which people and all they do are relativized and trivialized to the extreme.

    he ends up arguing, however, that while from an external judgment the revolutionary age is of a higher order than “the present”, it is actually the present – precisely b/c of its triviality – which serves as the stage for the ultimate and the highest, for the reaction against it (a reaction which ultimately applies even to the revolutionary age) is the most passionate.

    we live in very flattened times and the paradoxical result is that there is a lot of powerful creative output as well.

    I saw this in my students. the overall sentiment was a fairly nihilistic relativism. however, there were several for whom this state of affairs set them on a profound and creative path.

    I, however, would not equate the positive result of flattening with flattening. one is the condition, the other the result. this is not to say that anyone cannot make similarly profound creative moves, they can, this is precisely the value of the times in which we live. it is not to say that they dont already have the makings for such a move. but the move must actually be done and, if it is not, the fact that it could be does not redeem the flatness that actually obtains.

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