IN THE MAIL:
“Secular Jewishness for Our Time” (The Forward Association, 2006) -- a three-part 346-page compilation of essays and articles on American secular Jewishness, co-edited by Dr. Barnett Zumoff (president of The Forward Association) and Karl D. Zukerman (former executive VP of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).
The release from Religion News Service notes that the book is split into three sections: 1938-40, 1968-69, and 1998-2000. The first two sections originally appeared in Kultur un Dertsiung -- the Workmen’s Circle monthly journal -- while the essays in the third section were solicited for the book and are being published for the first time.
When the first group of essays was written in 1938-40, it appeared that secular Jewishness was the wave of the future, and observant Judaism was thought to be on the decline. The essays from 1968-69 note a significant comeback in religious observance, and the 1998-2000 essays try to strike a balance, ending with Barnett Zumoff’s hope that:
All Jews will coalesce around a central core of peoplehood and the elements of secular Jewishness: history, literature, traditions, the struggle for social and economic justice (tikkun olam), music, theater, languages, etc. It is to be hoped that this will lead to a sharp decrease in the heat and virulence of present-day internecine battles between various groups of Jews. There is a warm, comfortable, homey tent that is big enough to accommodate us all.
Most of the essays champion secular Jewishness, but an essay by the Yiddish poet and teacher Mates Olitsky captures the some of its existential loneliness:
When my grandmother used to hear people talk about getting something that was hard to get, she used to say: “That’s not something you find in the street.” That meant: “You’ll have to work hard before you can get it.” . . . .
One does not find a lifestyle in the street. It takes hundreds of years to develop. Our ancient Jewish lifestyle, thousands of years old, was built on religion. . . .
Recall the poem by Izzy Kharik, “With Body and Soul.” A Jewish woman teacher feels lonely on the eve of Kol Nidre:
In the gray houses the white candles burn,
and white Jews go to Kol Nidre.
The teacher unexpectedly feels
so alone. Jews are still celebrating.
Soon their synagogues will grow bright,
and the streets will be peaceful and empty.
In the synagogue it is a holiday, but the secular Jews are not in the synagogue, they are out in the street. And the street is empty.