Other segments from the episode on August 23, 2000
DATE August 23, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Professor Sam Freedman discusses his new book "Jew vs.
Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Sam Freedman, has written a new book called "Jew vs. Jew: The
Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry." It relates to a couple of important
issues in the news: the nomination of the first Jewish vice presidential
candidate, Joe Lieberman, and a new proposal by Israel's prime minister that
would take some of the power away from the ultra Orthodox.
Freedman says that among American Jews, he's witnessing a struggle that pits
secularist against believer, denomination against denomination, traditionalist
against modernist. The struggle is being waged on issues ranging from who can
convert to Judaism to the Israeli peace process and the role of women in
worship. The fundamental questions are: What is the definition of Jewish
identity, and who decides what is authentic and legitimate Judaism? Freedman
is a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a
former reporter for The New York Times.
Let's start with reactions in the Jewish community to the nomination of Joe
Professor SAM FREEDMAN (Author, "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of
American Jewry"): There are two really different reactions that you hear in
the Jewish community. One is this incredible swelling of communal pride that
reminds me, always, of the stories my mother told me about being a teen-ager
in the Bronx when Bess Myerson was selected the first Jewish Miss America.
Obviously, this is on a much grander, more profound level, but it's that same
kind of sense of shared joy.
On the other hand, something I've heard pretty commonly, which I find very
disconcerting, is a sort of an expectation that there's some hidden reservoir
of anti-Semitism out there that's going to make itself felt in the privacy of
the voting booth, and that somehow Joe Lieberman and the Jews will be blamed
if the ticket loses or there'll be this unexpected difference in what polling
shows the Gore-Lieberman ticket will get vs. how it actually draws on
Election Day. And that has really given me a lot of despair because I think
that it shows such a misreading of what the Jewish experience in America has
been, both politically and socially.
And then, there's the third element to the reaction, which is that some of the
aspects of Joe Lieberman's identity, his Orthodox observance, that make him
very appealing, ironically, to Christians and I think to Catholics and
certainly, I can say out of my own experience--I've written about a black
church--give him a sense of identity in connection to blacks who are very
active in their churches are disconcerting to Jews of a more secular or a
non-Orthodox bent. It really is like that Jackie Mason riff about things that
are too Jewish, that--I think that in a quiet way that a lot of Jews wouldn't
reveal outside the tribe. There's this worry that, `Why does he have to talk
about God? Why does he have to mention the Almighty? Why does he have to
quote from the Torah or--not from the Torah, from the Old Testament, the
Hebrew Bible, in his first speech in Nashville?' Because that kind of open
embrace of religion really, in some ways, runs at odds to what, for most of
the Jewish experience in America, has been the dominant mode of being an
American, which was, really, an erosion of religious identity and a richness
of ethnic or cultural identity and a desire to move into the mainstream.
What Joe Lieberman, by his example, shows is this interesting, countervailing
trend which we've particularly seen since World War II, which is that
Orthodoxy, instead of falling away as people expected, has resurged and has
come to be more and more influential. But is also continues to be, in some
ways within the Jewish world, quite a controversial proposition.
GROSS: Now your book "Jew vs. Jew" is examining splits within the Jewish
community between different branches of the faith. Joe Lieberman is part of
the group known as modern Orthodox. What does that mean?
Prof. FREEDMAN: Modern Orthodox is a movement that began in Germany during
the Enlightenment, but really reached fruition in America in--beginning in the
1920s and growing steadily since then. The idea of modern Orthodoxy is that
to be Orthodox isn't to be an isolationist. It isn't to be cut off from the
modern world. It isn't to fear the modern world. There is an idea in a lot
of European Orthodoxy that was summed up by an aphorism from rabbi--that
translated as `What's new is forbidden by the Torah.'
And what the founders and the developers of modern Orthodox felt was the
opposite, was that you should engage with the modern world. Their motto,
which later became the motto of Yeshiva University, is (Hebrew spoken), which
literally means something along the lines of `Torah study and the study of
worldly secular subjects.' But it has a deeper meaning, too. And the deeper
meaning is that an observant Orthodox Jew should get out and collide and rub
up against and immerse oneself in the larger world, that there's a dynamic
encounter that's healthy. And even to the degree your faith gets challenged
by certain things you're thrown into, your faith is enhanced by that, but also
the society is enhanced by who you are as an Orthodox Jew. And that was
really the rising side of Orthodoxy in this country from about the '20s to
about the '50s or '60s.
And what's happened since then is that there's been this countervailing trend
of ultra Orthodoxy, the so-called Haredi(ph) Orthodox. `Haredi' means `those
who tremble--those who tremble with awe at God.' And that's more of, I think,
the stereotype a lot of listeners will have of Orthodox. People who will
either be Hasidic in black hats--in black coats and forelocks, or certainly
will dress in sober suits all the time and may have their fringes, their
tzitzis hanging out on their garments, and will have a very wary kind of
relationship with the larger world. And they've really been--their boom has
actually, in many ways, trumped the modern Orthodox boom over the last 20 or
30 years. And they've pulled much of American Orthodoxy to the right,
politically and theologically.
GROSS: How large would you say each of those Orthodox branches are, the
modern Orthodox and the ultra Orthodox?
Prof. FREEDMAN: I'm trying to think of the demographics on that. I know
that Orthodoxy, as a whole, is figured at anywhere from 7 percent and 10
percent of the Jewish population, which is 5.5 million. So let's say if you
assume that there are roughly 400,000 to 500,000 Orthodox Jews in America, I
think the split, numerically, is pretty close to equal right now between those
who would identify as modern and those who would identify as (Foreign language
spoken). But the (Foreign language spoken) have a much higher birth rate.
The modern Orthodox have a birth rate twice as half as the rest of American
Jewry, but ultra Orthodox have a birth rate twice as high as modern Orthodox.
And ironically, because the modern Orthodox go out into the world to be
lawyers, to be surgeons, to be professors, to be financial consultants,
they've ended up creating a vacuum in their own institutions, so that even in
many modern Orthodox day schools--that is to say parochial schools--and even
at Yeshiva University, which is the, really, intellectual capital of modern
Orthodoxy, a lot of the teaching is done by ultra Orthodox educators. Because
in the ultra Orthodox rule, where there is more of an ambivalent sense about
going out into a profession that's going to really take you into secular
America, to be an educator has an esteem that it doesn't have, frankly, in the
modern Orthodox world. And so, modern Orthodox kids go to day schools and get
taught by ultra Orthodox educators. And it's created a really interesting
tension, and a kind of generational phenomenon that's sometimes called
`flipping,' where the kids of modern Orthodox families come to doubt and even
ultimately reject their own parents' version of Orthodoxy and go to something
that they perceive as being purer, which is in the ultra Orthodox world.
GROSS: Would it be fair to say that the modern Orthodox consider themselves
very observant, whereas the ultra Orthodox could, perhaps, be compared to
Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, I think you're basically right there. I think what's
even more of the cutting edge is that the modern Orthodox consider themselves
observant to all the Orthodox laws, and the ultra Orthodox cast doubt on that.
Something that just happened recently which is a sign of this kind of
insecurity that's gripped a lot of modern Orthodoxy is that Joe Lieberman in
this article in The Times calls himself observant rather than Orthodox, as if
even the term `Orthodox' is something even this modern Orthodox hero doesn't
want to lay claim to. And already, there's been this kind of concession that
a lot of modern Orthodox people have made of the term `modern Orthodox,' that
some of them now prefer to call themselves centrist Orthodox, as if modern has
become a purgative, like saying you're a liberal in political matters. It has
some weird taint to it.
Theologically, the modern Orthodox would say that they're no different from
the ultra Orthodox because what they all believe, what's the linchpin of
Orthodoxy in any guise, is that both the Torah--that the Torah was the
revealed Word of God, that--to use a term that Christians use, it has
inerrancy of text. The difference, though, is that then you have this body of
commentary that develops later on the oral law, which is the Talmud. And the
Talmud is filled with disputations and different opinions by different rabbis
in antiquity about what it means. And a lot of the division between modern
Orthodoxy and ultra Orthodoxy really comes down to what commentaries you
choose to follow. And this process of commenting on it and analyzing it and
interpreting consists to the current day--or persists, rather, to the current
So if Joe Lieberman, like a number of modern-Orthodox people I know, is in
favor of abortion rights, there would be a line of Talmudic interpretation
that would give sanction to that, and they would see that as theologically
legitimate. The ultra Orthodox would cite a different line of interpretation
and different biblical passages to say, no, that the text and the rabbis are
clearly against abortion. And that's where you get this tension on a lot of
what would otherwise look like civil, political issues rather than overtly
GROSS: My guest is Sam Freedman, author of the new book "Jew vs. Jew." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Sam Freedman, author of the new book "Jew vs. Jew: The
Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry."
One of the points of your book is that there's really a growing tension now
between secular Jews and the ultra Orthodox Jews. And secular Jews are Jewish
people for whom Judaism may be an important part of their identity, but going
to synagogue isn't at the center of their lives. They might not even go to
synagogue or might only go on the high holy days. So Judaism is for secular
Jews more of a culture than it is of a religion, per se. Is that an accurate
Prof. FREEDMAN: That's exactly right. And the split isn't just between
secular and ultra Orthodox. It's very much between secular and modern
Orthodox as well. And they're divides even within each denomination, the
Conservative and Reform denominations as well, between a small number,
relatively speaking, of followers who tend to be quite observant in Reform or
Conservative modes and a majority who might belong to a synagogue or a temple,
but really live most of their lives away from it excerpt for attending on the
high holy days.
GROSS: Now you tell a story in your book about a couple in Long Island who
wanted to move from their neighborhood because the neighborhood was becoming
more Orthodox and they found it very confusing and very alienating. What were
some of the problems they had with their neighborhood that was becoming
increasing ultra Orthodox?
Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, the problems they had were similar to ones that have
come up, really, in scores of other communities. This was in Great Neck, but
it also could just as easily been in Beachwood, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb that
I write about at length or in the five towns on Long Island or Teaneck, New
Jersey, a variety of places.
It had largely to do with the public face of Orthodox observance, that their
Orthodox neighbors would have lots of people over for Sabbath lunch, which is
an Orthodox tradition. And so, in a sense, `Well, there's always noise and
crowds in the back yard.' They would build a Sukkah--that's an outdoor
booth for the holiday of Sukkot--and that was seen by the secular neighbors
as kind of putting their religion up in the secularists' face.
And kind of the thing that you keep hearing again as you go from Jewish
community to Jewish community--and the perfect example of reverse reality, of
the same events being perceived in irreconcilable ways--is the secular, or
less-observant, family driving in their car on Saturday morning and finding in
the street in front of them a couple of Orthodox mothers pushing strollers.
Now what does that mean? From the Orthodox standpoint, what it means it that
sidewalks are narrow. And if you're walking to synagogue with a baby carriage
and you want to be able to talk to your friend who has her baby carriage, you
need to get out into the street to have enough room to walk two abreast. To
the non-Orthodox, what it means is, `They're censuring me. This is their way.
By getting in the way of my car, they're saying, "You're desecrating our
Sabbath. We're going to make life hard for you. And we're now setting the
tone of what Jewish life is around here."' And that's why these battles are
so intense and why they're more than just spats between neighbors because what
they're really about is sort of the ownership of Jewish identity.
GROSS: And I think that there are members of the ultra Orthodox who have
become very activist in trying to convert other Jews to ultra Orthodoxy.
There are people from the Lubavitcher denomination, who will almost, like,
chase after other Jewish people and try to get them to become more Orthodox.
They try to get men to use some of the garments of the ultra Orthodox, and
Prof. FREEDMAN: Right.
GROSS: And I think it's fair to say that a lot of Jewish people find that
really baffling and alienating.
Prof. FREEDMAN: Right. Well, partly it's because the Jewish experience is
not to evangelize outside the faith. There's no Jewish equivalent--and there
never has been since the very, very early centuries of Jewish life--of going
out to try to make converts out of non-Jews, as opposed to, say, the Christian
tradition, where going out and converting the world is very much at the center
of Christian purpose.
And so for Jews to find their own ultra Orthodox evangelizing them is
baffling, is disconcerting, sometimes is taken as insulting. The Lubavitcher
of Hasidim are famous for this for their so-called mitzvah tanks, which are
these minivans that go around to neighborhoods. And they'll go up to people
and ask, `Are you Jewish?' and get them to come in and put on the tefillin,
which are the leather straps, the phylacteries, that you wear around your arm
and on your forehead when you pray.
And then other very sophisticated groups, like a group called Asa Torah, which
has the backing of some big, non-Orthodox people in the media, paradoxically,
like Larry King and Kirk Douglas, which very aggressively go out and, again,
try to evangelize non-Orthodox Jews. And Asa brags on the fact that if you
give them a non-observant Jew, in three months they can turn that person
GROSS: The split between the ultra Orthodox and the rest of the Jewish
population is even, I think, more extreme in Israel than it is in the United
States. In Israel, it's kind of a battle for what the laws will be. The
ultra Orthodox would like to see the laws of the state be the same as Jewish
law. And the rest of the population wants to see civil law rule, and not
religious law. They want to be able to do what they want to do on the Sabbath
and not be ruled by the Jewish law. And there's a new development in that
debate that I'd like you to talk about.
Prof. FREEDMAN: Prime Minister Barak has now brought back up his initiative
to take away the draft deferment from yeshivah students, and has also talked
about instituting civil marriage. And these are ways of really
reasserting--or asserting in some ways for the first time--the primacy of the
state of Israel over the religious establishment.
What's very complicated in Israel is that even though most Americans think of
Zionism as having been this very secular and socialistic and, in some ways,
both particularistic, but also universalistic political movement. And we
think of Israel as the kibbutzes and all these secular, again, socialistic
trappings. The early Zionists knew that they needed for political reasons,
for coalition reasons, the involvement and the support of some of the
religious establishment. So back even before there was a Jewish state, you
had Theodore Hurzl and other Zionist leaders promising the Orthodox rabbinate
dominion over certain areas of civil life, just the way the rabbinate used to
have dominion over these things in the shtetls and in the ghettos of eastern
So from the very beginning of Israeli statehood, there's been this ambiguous
relationship between synagogue and state in which the Orthodox have had all
the power over performing marriages; over performing burials. The religious
sites in the country like the Western Wall are dealt with as if they were
Orthodox synagogues, specifically. In other words, you can't have men and
women worshipping together. You have these draft deferments for the yeshivah
students. That has become more and more controversial in Israel; less and
less tenable, politically, and is part of what is very destabilizing in
The interesting thing is that when Barak was trying to make his peace treaty
with the Palestinians, he had some Orthodox parties in his coalition. They
deserted him, deserted the coalition because they perceived the compromise
that he was willing to make as too great. Now that they're out of his
coalition, he's now gone to this new package of laws that really go right at
the powers, the perks, if you will, that the ultra Orthodox--or that the
Orthodox, period--have had in Israel from '48, when the country was founded.
And that's a really, really volatile package of legislation.
GROSS: Sam Freedman is the author of the new book "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle
for the Soul of American Jewry." He's a professor at Columbia University's
Graduate School of Journalism. We'll talk more in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Sam Freedman, author of
the new book, "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle For The Soul of American Jewry."
It's about the conflicts between secularist and believers, traditionalists and
You went to Israel and went to the Wall in Jerusalem to watch a rabbi from
the conservative wing of Judaism lead members of his congregation in prayer.
Prof. FREEDMAN: This was the holiday of Shavuot in 1999, and it's traditional
to go, to stay up all night studying from the Torah and then at daybreak to go
to the Western Wall. And you have an amazing rapture scene of people flooding
down the narrow lanes of the Old City and going to the plaza of the Kotel in
front of the Wailing Wall. Tens of thousands of them are there worshipping
the traditional way, men and women separated by a barrier that's called a
(foreign language spoken). Then there is this small several-hundred person
congregation led by a conservative rabbi from Philadelphia. Most of the
people in the congregation were Americans who wanted to worship as
conservative and reform Jews worship, which is with men and women together,
with women being able to read from the Torah.
And over the course of the morning, from about 4 AM when we got there up to
about 7, the tension pretty much built and built and built. There would be
hecklers along the barricades that had been set up around us to protect us.
And it starts out with a couple of teen-agers heckling and, you know, making
nasty jokes and talking about, `Do your rabbis, you know, perform homosexual
weddings?' to, you know, your comparing people to gorillas, you know, singing
songs about, you know, the Goyem, the gentiles. And then it was this truly
frightening experience in seeing mob psychology because it lapsed for a while,
and then when the women started to read from the Torah, it built again.
And all of a sudden there are bottles, these plastic juice or soda bottles
come winging in from way out in the crowds, still half filled so they have a
lot of impact. And, you know, I saw this woman get clocked in the head and
collapse right down on the plaza, almost knocked out. And there are kids in
strollers, little infants around. And I was just thinking, `Man, if one of
those had hit one of these children, you'd have had a dead child.' A little
baby could not survive a blow like that. And it continues. And every time
one of these missiles comes in, the policemen who are now ringing us, trying
to protect us, would run into the crowd to try to find the perpetrators. And
then you'd see a bunch of the ultra-Orthodox chasing after the police and
trying to keep them from apprehending. And there would be some
ultra-Orthodox, some yeshiva girls and this one particular rabbi who would
come to the front barricade and plead with the black hats, with the (foreign
language spoken) they are not to attack other Jews, not to do this. And they
were totally ignored. I remember these yeshiva girls leaving in tears because
their advice wasn't being heeded.
And so the whole experience of being at the center of this attack, of this
kind of hatred, made real with bottles was indelible. And this is the
kind--you know, to have to go through a worship service with one eye trying to
follow the liturgy and one ear trying to follow the chanting of the prayers,
and then your other eye and your other ear are trying to figure out if
something's coming in from back in the crowd, another bottle is coming in,
really leaves you rattled. And more than individually rattled--these are the
kinds of events--because they very much involve American Jews either who've
immigrated to Israel or who are there for study or are on visits--that have
created this tremendous sense of alienation on the part of non-Orthodox
American Jews from Israel. They come back and they tell the people and their
neighbors and their congregations about what happened. I think that is part
of why they feel more and more separate from Israel and from the Israeli--the
Zionous Enterprise(ph) now, because there's a sense of, `This isn't a country
I can share in anymore.'
GROSS: Yeah. And as you say in your book, Israel, which used to unite the
American Jewish community, seems to divide it now.
Prof. FREEDMAN: That's right. Israel was this talisman. I certainly
remembered from growing up and during the '67 War and the '73 War, the mass
meetings, the fund-raising, the way--you know, the admiration for the young,
robust Israeli soldiers. And, you know, even going to a Jewish day camp when
I was growing up, they'd send us for an overnight to a kibbutz in central New
Jersey, in Heightstown, that actually was like a practice kibbutz where people
went before going to Israel. And now because of not only the splits on
theological issues and this whole synagogue-state separation, but also because
of divides on the peace process, Israel is one more factor that tends to
polarize American Jews, rather than this kind of talisman on which we all lay
on our hands and we're absolved of all our internal rifts here.
GROSS: Do you think that the extent of the division between Jews of different
denominations in the United States and in Israel is unprecedented, that this
is a very recent phenomenon?
Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, there've been periods of tremendous rancor and rifts in
Jewish history. But the thing that was always different in the past is that
there was an outside force, some kind of oppression or persecution that would
end up containing those rifts, because at the end of the day, as Herzl said,
`Our enemies have made of us one people.' That it didn't matter, and of
course the Holocaust is the ultimate example of this. It didn't matter if you
were a Marxist, it didn't matter if you were some cosmopolitan from the
Weimar(ph) night clubs, it didn't matter if you were an ultra-Orthodox rabbi,
you're going to be named, identified and persecuted as a Jew, nonetheless.
Israel was different because it's a homogeneous country, for the most part. I
mean, it does have a 15-percent Arab population, but compared to America, it's
quite homogeneous. The American situation is so different because of the
acceptance of Jews in America. There's nothing external in this country to
create unity, to create Jewish identity, and so you're in a position where
some people say where every Jew in America is a Jew by choice, because you
have to consciously decide what you are because there's nothing from the
outside that's going to make that choice for you.
GROSS: Why do you think that the number of people who are of the
ultra-Orthodox branch of Judaism has been growing, and, you know, because
it's growing is asserting itself more?
Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, it's growing for one simple reason: Because they take
seriously the commandment to be fruitful and multiple. And that's facetious,
but it's also true. They consider part of their purpose to be--to make big
families, to have lots of children. And it's also--a sociologist, you know,
might put it in terms of normative behavior. The norm is to have five, six,
seven, eight children. If you saw that Israeli movie, "Kadosh" earlier
this year, it's about how tormented this Orthodox couple in the movie were by
the fact that they couldn't have any children because that put them so outside
the pale of normative Orthodox life, whether in Israel or America. Anyway, so
they have a high birthrate to begin with. I don't know what the theology is,
frankly, on using contraceptives. But I don't know if that plays a part or
And they're becoming more assertive because they have a confidence and some
would say a triumphalism and some would say an arrogance about having the
answers and about the fact that they are growing. And the collective
consciousness of the ultra-Orthodox is: Here's a group of people who never
intended to come to America, who, when other European Jews were calling
America the `Goldene Medina,' `the Golden Land,' and striving to get here,
cobbling up the money to come here in steerage, they were staying in Europe
and believing again that what's new is forbidden by the Torah, that America is
not the `Goldene Medina,' it's the `treif Medina,' it's the unkosher
land. So here they are, never intended to be here. So they're there in their
communities when the Holocaust sweeps over Europe. And like the rest of Jewry
in Europe, they're almost totally eradicated. And then you get this handful
of survivors who make it to America, a couple of major rabbis, a couple of
hundred thousand of their followers, this tiny remnant, coming here really as
refugees, rather than immigrants, if you understand the distinction. The
refugee leaves out of necessity, not by choice, and never has a sense of, `I
am choosing to go to America. I want to go to America.' It was a case here
of `I have to go to America. It's either America or Israel. There's nowhere
else to go. There's certainly no going back to Europe after Hitler.'
They come here; everyone expects them to wither away and die. Instead, they
restart their institutions, their yeshivas, their communal groups, their
synagogues, their rabbinical associations. They, you know, be fruitful and
multiply, their population grows. And the tremendous confidence, and again,
this sort of satisfaction, triumphalism, arrogance that comes with, `We
weren't eradicated. Not even Hitler could kill us off. And the reason we
weren't is because we stayed true to the Old Ways, to the Torah, to the
religion,' gives them this kind of feeling of knowing the answer for Jewry
GROSS: My guest is Sam Freedman, author of the new book, "Jew vs. Jew."
We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Sam Freedman, author of the new book, "Jew vs. Jew: The
Struggle For The Soul of American Jewry."
My impression is--and I'd like your opinion of this--that whereas in, like,
the '60s and early '70s, a lot of young people, including a lot of Jewish
people, young Jewish people, looked to the East for an all-encompassing
spirituality that they could become part of. And they became Buddhist or
joined cult groups that had borrowed some of the teachings of Buddhism or
other Eastern religions or some, like, mystical sect.
Prof. FREEDMAN: Right.
GROSS: And I think some of the young people today, or in the past decade or
two who might have at one time turned to the East, are looking to the
ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith for that sense of an all-encompassing spiritual
Prof. FREEDMAN: I think you're so right, Terry. I think of the klezmer
virtuoso, Andy Statman, as someone who went through periods of studying
Eastern religion, studying Native American religions, before finding his way
into the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox world. And there's this wonderful part
in Myla Goldberg's novel, "Bee Season," about a father who, you know, was a
big spiritual explorer in college, LSD, Eastern religions, all these kinds of
mysticism, before finding his way to the cabala, the Jewish mystical
And you're totally on point when you talk about this encompassing way of life.
That's the appeal. And that's--if you want to call it the genius--the genius
of the Lubavitcher Chassidim, who feel like if we expose you to our way of
life, you're going to see it so encompassing--really we have answers for
everything. We have a community that's so tightly enmeshed, that answers all
your feelings of meaninglessness, or waveredness in the rest of the world that
you will want to be one of us, that you will become one of us. That every
frustration, every doubt you have, is going to be in some way meliorated by
being here. And that's, you know, got tremendous appeal, and not just, you
know, to people who you would think of as sort of stereotypical lost souls.
In Liz Paris' book about the Hasidim holy days, her main character is a woman
who is living a pretty conventional, middle-brow life in Cincinnati who just
found kind of her heartbreak after her divorce, and just her desire for a
fuller life answered by becoming a Lubavitcher.
GROSS: Sam, you belong to a conservative synagogue, and I'm wondering how
some of the issues that you address in your book have been manifested in your
Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, the one I want to know--I've just been in for about a
year and a half since I've moved back into New York with my family. But when
I went for seven years--I was member for seven years at Nevachulum(ph) in
Mitachin(ph), the conservative synagogue there, there was this experience
where the rabbi as much of a pluralist as he was, was not able to give a Torah
(unintelligible) to an extended family member who had been converted by a
reform rabbi, that's one example. I know that the outrage that I felt in my
congregation from people who'd been to Israel, and experienced some of the
attacks on worshippers at the Western Wall, was profound. In fact, the attack
that I experienced on the receiving end there, when it was all over and
everyone was kind of, you know, staggering, somewhat dazed and relieved out of
the Western Wall area, who do I run into but the wife of my canter from my
synagogue at home, who said, `Oh, yeah, there are two other people from the
synagogue here.' They left, you know, because it was too terrifying of having
the bottles thrown at us. So those events were talked about.
It was really paradoxical for me because I hadn't been really observant and as
I started to come back into it and was really falling in love with the
synagogue that I belonged to in New Jersey, it felt like joining a community
that was in the middle of tremendous upheaval and rifts right at the same
time. You know, I was used to--from my younger days, going to the High Holy
Days and hearing a kind of a canned sermon about Jewish unity, or a canned
sermon about supporting Israel, all these very rote kind of orations. And
here I was in 1997 going to Nevachulum, and the rabbi is talking about how
maybe people should be donating money not to the UJA Federation, which was
seen as giving too much money to the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, but to groups
on the left wing of American and Israeli Jewry, like the new Israel fund, and
thinking, `Boy, this is really so different from kind of the sense of
anonymity that I remembered from being an eight, nine, 10, or 11-year-old
going to a different synagogue as a boy.
GROSS: You started going to synagogue regularly fairly recently, at a time
when you were a father, and I'm wondering what issues brought you back to the
synagogue, or brought you to--for the first time, whichever it was, and if you
think that that's fairly typical of a lot of Jewish people who have found
themselves going more regularly?
Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, I think my road was typical and atypical. And I grew
up in a family that was wonderfully, and staunchly, secularly Jewish. My
parents both spoke Yiddish, I have an uncle who's in Yiddish theater. My
father and his whole family grew up in an anarchist colony, my parents
conversed in Yiddish when they didn't want the kids to understand. Out of
something ineffable, when as a kid I started going to synagogue, I was drawn
by something, but I had this episode right before my bar mitzvah where the
rabbi decided the reception wasn't kosher enough, and refused to bar mitzvah
me two weeks before the ceremony. And we had to actually run around till the
last minute and find a different rabbi to do it. And that seemed to validate
everything my parents had said about how sectarian and small-minded organized
religion was. So I had a long drift away.
What's unusual, I think, about my coming back is that--my ...(unintelligible)
really went through the black church. When I was working on "Upon This Rock,"
my book about St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn, I was just
immersed in this faith community for several years. And it was impossible not
to be affected by it. And what was wonderful is that maybe because they were
black Christians and I was a white Jew, no one ever gave me conversion
pressure. So I was never getting bothered about, you know, `Is Jesus my Lord
and Savior?' But what I did get was this unbelievably profound experience of
religion in people's lives. And you just couldn't be unaffected by it. You'd
have to be stone inside not to. And that really was the first thing that made
me start--well, one of the first things that made me want to go back is I
thought, `There's something here, there's something about religion, there's
something about being part of a faith community that I'm experiencing here in
black church that I have to find somewhere in my own world.'
And that was even before my wife and I had children, but it certainly was
magnified. And this where my story sort of becomes more typical once we had
our son and daughter, and you start to think, `What is there to pass on, and
how can I impart something valuable about being Jewish to my kids?' Because I
don't speak Yiddish the way my father and mother did. I'm not in a Yiddish
speaking Garment Workers Union like my grandfather and namesake. Was I don't
act in Yiddish theater like my uncle. A lot of the old, really venerable ways
of being a cultural Jew in America seemed to me to be almost completely absent
from the world around me. And yet here was this synagogue half a mile from
where we lived with this rabbi who I really connected with, with people I
could sit next to in services on a Saturday, would help guide me through the
liturgy. And just the sense of--I guess all the years that I was away, I
never lost the sense that on Saturday morning there's somewhere I ought to be,
and if I wasn't there, some inchoate, not cerebral primal part of me was
saying `Why aren't you?'
GROSS: Was it difficult for you to find a synagogue that gave you that sense
of a really just community that you had wanted after spending so much time in
the black church that you wrote about?
Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, I expected it to be really difficult, and we moved out
to New Jersey at that point, and my wife said, `There's a synagogue half a
mile up the block, let's join it.' I said, `I'm not going to join just any
place 'cause it's close enough,' seeing this incredible example of religious
community at Reverend Youngblood's church. I know what my standard is. And
just pure luck or providence, or whatever, we did go up there for a new
members' meeting. We started to get to know the rabbi a little bit, I went to
some early worship services there. And the click was just there, and it was,
again, either pure luck or pure providence that I've had to look further, that
I just kind of fell into it.
GROSS: Well, Sam Freedman, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. FREEDMAN: Well, thanks, Terry, it's been a real pleasure to do it.
GROSS: Sam Freedman, is the author of the new book, "Jew vs. Jew: The
Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry." He's a professor at Columbia
University's graduate school of journalism.
Coming up, TV critic David Bianculi, on tonight's conclusion of "Survivor."
This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: Thoughts and predictions for "Survivor"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tonight, CBS presents the two-hour conclusion of "Survivor," providing the
final chapter to this summer's big hit. TV critic David Bianculi, a fan from
the start, doesn't know who wins tonight, and doesn't want to know until he
sees it live, along with everybody else. But he does have some thoughts and
It's been going on for 13 weeks now. Every Wednesday night castaways on a
remote island sit around a tribal council and vote each other off. While
viewers at home, watching TV in their living rooms, watching ever increasing
numbers. "Survivor" has been a major summer hit since it premiered the last
day in May, and for lots of very, very good reasons. One: it has a great
cast. And the more we get to know them, the more interesting they become.
Second: it has a compelling story, made even more dramatic by the way the
competition has been structured and edited. Of the four finalists seen in
tonight's episode, three of them, Rudy, the ex-Navy SEAL, Richard, the
corporate guru, and Sue, the truck driver, figured prominently in the very
first show. Third: there's $1 million at stake, so the tension at this point
is real. Fourth: the finale is structured so that the very things that got
some of the contestants this far--duplicity, deviousness, back stabbing--can
now turn around and stab them in the front. Fifth: the "Survivor" secret of
who won was kept by everyone who knew it, and that's a major modern media
The sixth and seventh reasons, I think "Survivor" caught on so big are reasons
I think network TV needs to pay attention to the most, it was on during the
summer, proving, like last summer's surprise hit, "Who Wants to Be a
Millionaire," that the right TV can draw audiences even during the summer
months. And most important of all perhaps, it was on in the same spot each
week, every week. No preemptions, no repeats. If network TV wants to know
how to get its audience back, that's one giant clue right there.
The next "Survivor," series, set in Australia, and launching after the Super
Bowl, may be the first show in TV history to follow that game and get even
bigger ratings. For CBS, "Survivor" has been a major success, boosting its
schedule across the board, attracting younger viewers, and getting the sort of
invaluable buzz ABC got last year with "Millionaire." Meanwhile, we have
tonight's three-hour "Survivor" bonanza. The two-hour finale, followed by a
reunion of all 16 survivors, who will be interviewed by Bryant Gumbel. Who's
the big winner tonight, besides CBS? I don't know. But I'd love to guess.
So here's my guess. This is an insider's analysis of the show's final end
game for people who already know the players and the rules. Unless Kelly wins
the last two immunity challenges in a row, she's out of there. The rest of
the Tagi alliance intending to vote her out for the last two weeks running,
but immunity saved her each time. Hitting a four-time immunity streak seems
unlikely, so Kelly's gone. If the final three consists of Rudy, Rich and Sue,
Rudy's in trouble. Rich and Sue are the two least likable and most
manipulative contestants on the island. They're also smart enough to know
that if they target each other too early, and the final two consists of either
one of them and Rudy, then the jury round deciding the winner, a jury
consisting of the semi-finalists ousted by Rich and Sue, surely will give Rudy
If Rudy can win immunity and reach the final two, he's the winner. That's one
prediction. If the final two consists of Rich and Sue, which I see as another
probable outcome, then the winner is, I think, Rich. He may have annoyed as
many people as Sue did, but he wasn't caught betraying them like she was. But
at this point, Rudy is the one I'd like to see win, so he's the one I'll go
with. It'll take some luck to get him the rest of the way, but he's had it so
far. Thirteen weeks ago, on the very first show, Sonja was ejected with four
votes cast against her. Rudy, at that same tribal council, got three votes
against him. Luck may be with him again tonight, and even if it's not, tens
of millions of CBS viewers will, watching to see what happens. "Survivor,"
has been one wild roller coaster of a TV ride, and tonight's finale, needless
to say, is not to be missed, not if you want to take part in the office
conversations tomorrow morning.
GROSS: David Bianculi, is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
("Survivor" theme music played)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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