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So, Vhat's Nu ?

JEW VS. JEW The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry; By Samuel G. Freedman; Simon & Schuster: 384 pp., $26

August 20, 2000|IRA STOLL | Ira Stoll, a former managing editor of The Forward, is editor of Smartertimes.com

A congregation in Los Angeles plunging into conflict over whether to add the names of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah to a prayer that traditionally mentions only Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; a group of fervently Orthodox undergraduates at Yale suing the school for the right to live off campus, away from the coed bathrooms and condom distribution in the college's dormitories; a 31-year-old failed kosher butcher placing a bomb in a Florida synagogue in an attempt to stop a former prime minister of Israel from speaking there--these, as Samuel G. Freedman explains in "Jew vs. Jew," are dispatches from "the struggle for the soul of American Jewry," a struggle so deep and intense that Freedman likens it to a civil war.

With American Judaism lacking a Lincolnesque figure, the war may result in permanent schism, Freedman warns. He writes, "[T]he divides between the existing branches of Judaism on both theological and social issues are growing so vast, so irreconcilable, that in time those branches, like Christianity after Martin Luther, will be divergent faiths sharing a common deity and a common ancestry." A provocative thesis but it is not supported by Freedman's anecdotes or borne out by reality.

Freedman, a professor at Columbia University's graduate school of journalism, is a smooth writer with an eye for detail. He structures his book episodically, interspersing case studies with essays on aspects of the disagreements racking American Jewry.

The most dramatic of Freedman's case studies are those of the Florida bombing, the Yale undergraduates and the attempt by a group of Orthodox Jews in Beachwood, Ohio, to win the approval of their non-Orthodox neighbors for the construction of a campus consisting of synagogues, ritual baths and a day school. Freedman uses these tales in an attempt to support his argument that American Jewry is in the midst of a civil war. The pipe bomb, discovered in a Conservative synagogue, is, for Freedman, an example of the way the feuds in Israel over concessions to the Arabs are infecting the American Jewish community. Freedman profiles Harry Shapiro, who pleaded guilty to using an explosive to commit a felony and is serving 10 years in federal prison. Shapiro claimed he wasn't trying to hurt anyone but was simply trying to stop Shimon Peres from speaking at the synagogue.

The "Yale Five," who sued the university for the right to opt out of its supposedly licentious New Haven dorms, have garnered plenty of press attention. Freedman's account considers some of the subtleties, not least of which is that Yale's president, Richard Levin, and its dean of students, Betty Trachtenberg, are both Jewish. The man who emerges as the moving force behind the lawsuit, though, is Rabbi Daniel Greer, father of one of the complaining students and founder of the New Haven yeshiva that educated another. The case is still in court.

Less potentially violent than the bomb in Florida, less publicized than the fight against Yale, the zoning dispute in Ohio, may offer the most interesting view into the conflicts among Jews. In this Cleveland suburb, even the volunteer firefighters are Jewish, but the Orthodox residents of the city struggled to win government or popular approval for their plan to construct new synagogues and a school. At one climactic meeting of the city's planning and zoning commission, all six members, all Jewish, voted against the project. The main character in this episode is a gastroenterologist, David Gottesman, an Orthodox Jew who spearheaded the effort to win approval of the building projects and who ended up dismayed by the communal rifts that are delaying the construction. (Three months ago, a court partially approved the project.)

Fortunately for the Jews--but unfortunately for Freedman's argument--all this amounts to much less than the apocalyptic civil war, permanent schism or even "'struggle for the soul of American Jewry" that the author promises. Freedman interprets each dispute as a monumental battle rooted in the core religious and cultural values of Judaism. In fact, however, the conflicts he describes are mere skirmishes, and it would be more sensible to attribute them to broader trends in general American society than to intrinsically Jewish disagreements.

The question of including the matriarchs in the prayer at the Library Minyan of Temple Beth Am, for instance, echoes dozens of non-Jewish feminist battles in America, from the creation of women's studies departments on college campuses to the inclusion of female images on American specie. Many religious Christians share Greer's opposition to coed bathrooms and condom distribution in freshman dormitories, and many Americans of all faiths have joined Greer in becoming more politically conservative as they grow older. The passions inflamed by the Beachwood zoning dispute seem motivated more by concerns over property values and by not-in-my-backyard sentiments than by struggles over souls or religious doctrine.

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