Chapter One: Camp Kinderwelt, New York, 1963
On those last stifling nights of June 1963, Sharon Levine found herself wakeful in a familiar way. She left her bedroom in the Newark house shared by several branches of her extended family and repaired to the glider on the back porch, a Howard Fast novel in hand. The temperature had hung in the nineties all week, prompting kids all over the city to pry open hydrants, stirring Sharon's father Jack to install the window fans. Sharon herself thought the heat almost comfortable. Heat meant summer. Summer meant Camp Kinderwelt. And the prospect of two months at Camp Kinderwelt, as always, made her sleepless with anticipation.
She was seventeen now, a week out of Weequahic High School, skinny and dreamy and often ill at ease as the daughter of Old World parents, immigrants with accents they weren't about to lose in middle age. Even in a Jewish enclave, her friends were the children of salesmen and doctors, people who played Perry Como records and served Twinkies for dessert. Her boyfriend, Richie, was a detective in his early twenties. It was Kinderwelt that reconciled Sharon to her parents' world its Yiddish, its Zionism, its sense of Jewishness without religion and instilled in her something like direction. "The summer was my life," she would put it later. "The rest of the year was the time between summers."
On the last morning of June, Jack packed his used Chevy for the trip to camp. He angled Sharon's footlocker into the trunk, tying down the hood with twine. In the back seat, his wife Pauline settled herself and a plaid cooler full of tuna sandwiches. Sharon took the front seat, next to Jack, her favorite place on these drives. She loved when he pushed the speed, making her mother cry over the rushing air, "Slow down, slow down." In such moments, Sharon glimpsed the Jack Levine beyond the struggling wholesaler of candy and cigarettes, beyond the mourning son of a family he could not save from Hitler. She saw the would-be pioneer who subscribed to Yidisher Kemfer, the Jewish Fighter.
The trip to Kinderwelt, though, was usually a fitful affair, sixty miles that could take four hours. First Jack stopped by his warehouse in Down Neck, across the city. Then he tried out the back roads through North Jersey, anything to avoid the crawl toward the mountains on Route 17. Eventually there was no choice but to join it, stopping halfway for ice cream and the bathroom at the Red Apple Rest, then climbing along narrow twisting roads into the Catskill foothills, past dairy farms and through hamlets like Central Valley and Highland Mills. Amid such unlikely environs sprawled 250 acres owned by the Farband, the Labor Zionist Order, with the land split between Kinderwelt and the adults' Unser Camp. Scattered along the fringes of Unser Camp, in turn, were bungalow colonies named Tel Aviv and Ra'anannah in solidarity with Israel.
When the Levines' car pulled between the stone pillars and up the long driveway beneath arching trees, Sharon looked for the landmarks. The green shingled building that was the Casino, Unser Camp's stage for Yiddish theater stars like Ben Bonus and Mina Bern. A couple hundred yards later, the old stone water tower came into sight, marking the entrance to Kinderwelt. From there, in a hillside meadow, Sharon spotted the social hall called Beth Sholom, the arts-and-crafts building with a map of Israel painted on the roof, the bunkhouses whitewashed and perched on cinder blocks, and the asphalt path separating the boys' side from the girls' that was called "the Mason-Dixon Line."
Five, six, seven buses idled back in the Unser Camp parking lot, disgorging forty or fifty campers apiece. As a junior counselor, Sharon waded into the mob, helping to sort the kids by bunk, finding her own contingent of nine-year-old girls, then trying to march the ragged line off to its quarters. There the scrambling began for the trunks piled on the porch, for the cot with the softest pillow, for the movable cubbie instead of the nailed-in kind. By three o'clock, the entire camp, nearly four hundred strong, was thronging to the chestnut tree for afternoon milk and then racing to the lake for general swim. Gazing on the joyful chaos, the grown-ups shrugged and muttered Hefker-pefker, anything goes.
In the hubbub, Sharon sought her cherished friends, her bunkmates from the last six summers. Tami Heringman had come again, all the way from Terre Haute, Indiana, and Myra Graubard from the West Bronx and Gloria Freed from Sheepshead Bay and Merry Levy from Kew Gardens and Judi Schulman from Merrick, Long Island. They had been the core, these five girls and Sharon, leading the volleyball team and setting their hair in curlers and harmonizing on "In the Still of the Night." They had learned the facts of life together as twelve-year-olds, getting a whispered lesson after lights-out from their daring counselor Zena. They all remembered the time Judi's mother had caught them smoking the summer they were fourteen and Judi calmly offered, "Have a Kent?"
Much more than the usual teenage rites tied them. "The same values, the same ethos, the same upbringing," Sharon would later say. All their families had been Labor Zionists for generations. Tami's grandfather Hyman had helped found Kinderwelt in the twenties; he still summered in a bungalow nearby with his petite wife Minnie, whom everyone called "Rocky." Myra's parents had met as Kinderwelt campers. Sharon's older sister Lorelei and her future husband, Milt, began courting as camp waiters. And Judi's father, a longshoreman before he went into labor law, had raised money for Palestine among his companions along the docks.
They were being raised for the cause, these girls, for the Zionist enterprise. Each summer at Kinderwelt followed a theme; two summers ago, on the thirteenth anniversary of Jewish statehood, it had been "Israel's bar mitzvah." Sharon learned the folk dances of the kibbutzim, all about tilling the soil and wringing water from the desert. Ahlay uvnay, went one chant, arise and build. In the Makelah chorus, she sang not only the Yiddish lullabies like "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" ("Almonds and Raisins") but the Israeli army anthem, "Shir Hapalmach," with its vow in reborn Hebrew:
Mimetula ad hanegev
Min hayam ad hamidbar:
Kol bachur vetov laneshek
Kol bachur al hamishmar
From Metula to the Negev
From the sea to the desert:
Every boy is good with a gun,
Every boy on his guard duty.
For now, Sharon would not see any guard duty beyond her occasional stint of vacht, night patrol against curfew violations and panty raids. Still, the idea of making aliyah informed the very atmosphere of Kinderwelt, and if not actually emigrating then of serving as some kind of American partner. So many of the leaders of Israel David Ben-Gurion, Itzhak Ben-Tzvi, Golda Meir had emerged from the same cluster of Labor Zionist groups as had the Kinderwelt community. Parents of Jack Levine's age had heard Israel's founders speak at the camp. And now, with Israel a secure state and America a country of proven tolerance, what stood in the way of the triumph of a new Jewish culture, secular and liberal and enlightened?
Just a few weeks before taking Sharon to Kinderwelt, Jack had attended a vast rally in Newark to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Israeli statehood. Six thousand people filled the Sussex Avenue Armory, and many weren't even Jewish. There were Marines, black civil rights leaders, a Catholic church's drum and bugle corps. The mayor, both senators, and the governor attended. And they all heard the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations declare, "Nobody's going to put us out of business."
The actors once limited to the Yiddish theater were breaking into the mainstream, being discovered by an audience far beyond Second Avenue's. The summer of 1963 found Morris Carnovsky essaying King Lear at the American Shakespeare Festival, Zero Mostel winning a Tony for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Menasha Skulnik mugging his way through Come Blow Your Horn in Westchester, Wasp Westchester of all places. Seventeen magazine, that bible of pop culture for teenage girls, had even recommended a record of Yiddish folk songs.
Sharon Levine had surprised herself by convincing three of her girlfriends from Newark, all Jewish but none of Farband lineage, to pass up the traditional Weequahic summer at Bradley Beach for the quirkier charms of Kinderwelt. So if Sharon felt there was no reason to choose between Israel and America, between Jewish identity and American birthright, between "Runaround Sue" and "Mayim, Mayim," between the fantasies of marrying Richie the cop or that handsome Rishon Bialer, her Kinderwelt boyfriend last summer, who always played Theodore Herzl in the camp's historical pageants then she was just understanding the world around her. On the morning after arriving at Kinderwelt, after all, she had lined up with the rest of the camp to pledge allegiance to two flags, first the Stars and Stripes and then, hanging ever so imperceptibly lower, the Israeli blue and white.
All through Sharon's childhood, her father insisted on little. If anything, Jack struck her as compliant to a fault living in his in-laws' house, working for their wealthy relatives, dismissing any hint of vanity by remarking, "Why do I need two pairs of shoes for one pair of feet?" He reminded Sharon of the character in the Y. L. Peretz story "Bontsche Shvayg," the humble man summoned to heaven to sit at God's side and offered by the Almighty any wish. He asks only for a hot roll every morning, and God and the angels hang their heads in sorrow at what life had done to him.
On the subjects of Zionism and Yiddishkeit, though, Jack Levine suffered no hesitation. Each time Sharon entered the kitchen, she reached into her pocket for coins, and dropped them in the slot of the blue-and-white tin of the Jewish National Fund. Five afternoons a week, she attended a folkshul called Bet Yeled, the House of Children, where she learned Jewish culture, conversational Hebrew, and Zionist ideology. She resisted the place, a rickety frame house with crooked stairs, and she resisted the classes, so different from the conventional Hebrew schools her friends attended in preparation for splashy bar or bat mitzvahs. Yet, she would say later, some learning stayed with her by a function of osmosis, or perhaps by the force of a will Jack otherwise kept well hidden.
He had embraced Zionism soon after emigrating from the Polish shtetl of Butka at the age of fifteen in 1920, leaving behind the Orthodox ways he had learned both at home and in the one-room religious school called a cheder. He returned to his family once in the thirties, pleading with them to join him in America. Too irreligious, they replied. Their deaths in the Holocaust deepened Jack's belief in the necessity of a Jewish homeland. And Pauline's family, inclined toward the Communist party, brought into his life a fierce critique of religion. After the Nazi genocide, Jack didn't have to be Marx to wonder what had happened to God.
The Levines believed in art and ideas. Jack quoted from Maimonides in Hebrew, and on the Saturdays when observant Jews went to synagogue, he set the family radio to the Metropolitan Opera. Pauline educated herself about vitamins and health foods, sneaking pureed green beans into her children's orange juice. Her brother David prepared for aliyah by training in agriculture at the hachsharah, the preparation camp in South Jersey. Molly Gen, matriarch of the extended family, was no bubbe in a babushka but a modern woman who flourished a cigarette holder and presided over a monthly salon in the living room. The Levines may have strained to pay the rent, needing money both from Jack's candy orders and Pauline's cottage industry peddling pajamas at flea markets, but they held themselves above the proster menschen, the common boors.
In Newark, the Levines had company in their passions, particularly Jack's Labor Zionism. Known as the "Workshop of the Nation," Newark was a union town, populated by smelters and fur cutters, electricians and garment workers and leather tanners. And Newark was a Jewish town, home in 1948 to 56,000 Jews, the seventh-largest such community in America. Newark's Jews supported institutions ranging from two Yiddish weeklies to a rabbinical college to Tabatchnik the Herring King. At Weequahic High, the alumnus and novelist Philip Roth recalled, the football backfield consisted of Weissman, Weiss, Gold, and Rosenberg.
"All the ingredients were there," the historian William Helmreich has written about Newark's concentration of leftist Jewish groups, which included active branches of the Bund and the Workmen's Circle as well as Labor Zionists. "Poverty, conflict between labor and management, Jewish intellectualism, and the well-known Jewish passion for social justice."
Four generations enlisted in the Labor Zionist cause: the children in the Habonim youth movement, the young adults in the Dorot Zion, and the parents and grandparents in the Poale Zion. Wives and daughters joined their own chapters of the Pioneer Women. The Farband functioned as a communal parallel to the politicized Poale Zion, providing members with insurance and burial plans and, of course, the chance to vacation at Unser Camp and Kinderwelt. It did what the mutual-aid societies called landsmanschaften had long done for Jewish immigrants, but in this case what bound the constituents together was not a common birthplace in Europe but a common cause in Palestine.
Jack Levine served as secretary for the Habonim in New Jersey, a board member of the Bet Yeled school, a regular in a Yiddish literature discussion group, and a mainstay of the Farband, Sholom Aleichem Chapter 59. His contemporaries counted themselves among the Labor Zionist elite, the men who proudly called one another chaver, comrade. Ralph Wechsler was an intimate of Ben-Gurion's. Ralph Goldman assisted the Israeli prime minister on his visits to the United States. When Israel mounted a trade exhibition in America in 1963, it held the exposition at the Chancellor Avenue YMHA, a block from the Levines' house.
For a dollar a year, Jack absorbed the Labor Zionist creed from the pages of Jewish Frontier, the movement's English-language magazine. He read essays on Zionism by Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, and even Albert Einstein. Poems rhapsodized about "The Blooming Desert," and photos celebrated the chalutzim, the pioneers, erecting tent cities and taking spades to the earth. Jewish Frontier went beyond Palestine and purely Jewish issues, too, publishing Mahatma Gandhi on apartheid, Claude McKay on civil rights, Reinhold Niebuhr on anti-Communist liberalism. On paper at least, the parochial and universal aspects of Jewish radicalism coexisted under the banner of the working class.
Once Israeli nationhood and American pluralism had been achieved in the wake of World War II, however, the tone of Jewish Frontier turned oddly cautionary. An article in the March 1953 issue, by a mother abashed enough to hide behind the byline "Anonymous," bemoaned her son's impending interfaith marriage, one of ten in her extended family. The following year, Ben-Gurion dismissed Zionism without aliyah as merely a fund-raising operation, unworthy of "the name of a Movement of Redemption." Jewish Frontier itself filled column inches with advertisements for Israel Bonds, imprecations to "Convert Commitments Into Cash."
A decade later, as Sharon was nearing her summer as a junior counselor at Kinderwelt, Jewish Frontier chronicled a movement indeed, a way of life in the midst of an identity crisis. The magazine, once a beacon of secularism, began writing approvingly of religious practice. It reported that Yiddish, earlier in the century the language of two-thirds of the world's Jews, was now spoken by only one-tenth of Jewish students. Immigration to Israel had failed to replace that lost culture, at least for American Jews. These days, Labor Zionists organized not settlers' brigades but tours on El Al. "The builders of the Land and the State are only those who dwell and live within it," Ben-Gurion insisted in a letter marking his seventy-fifth birthday. "In the Diaspora, Jews as Jews are human dust, whose particles try to cling to each other."
But as a writer named Yaacov Morris put it, "Middle-class Americans are not likely to become farmers and miners in the Negev." And the advertisements in Jewish Frontier in the summer of 1963 showed just how middle-class American Jews, even the Farband sort, were becoming. The fancy Catskills resorts touted "Free Golf," "New Elevator," "Catalina Pool and Health Club," "Solarium," "Supervised Children's Day Camp." Newark's own Jerry Lewis declared Brown's "my favorite hotel." While Labor Zionists understood the word aliyah to mean immigration to Israel, it literally translated as "ascent." And ascending they were, toward the good life in the Golden Land.
From that first morning in July 1963 when Sharon joined all of Kinderwelt in singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and then "Hatikvah," "The Hope," camp slid into its predictable, comforting rhythms. From reveille at seven to taps at nine, from mail call to milk time, tradition guided her days. The first week of summer was dominated as always by swimming tests to see which children merited their deep-water badge. The fourth would end in visiting weekend, with all its parental kibitzing. And in the last weeks of August would come Color War, with the camp divided into Kachol and Lavan, blue and white, like the Israeli flag.
Meanwhile, the brilliant July sun of a drought summer browned the campers like the kibbutzniks they emulated. The Kinderwelt Knesset, named after the Israeli parliament, took office to weigh such matters as the relative merits of field trips to West Point and Hyde Park. Each day an imitation newscast over the camp loudspeaker brought Kinderwelt dispatches from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Egypt and Syria forming the United Arab Republic, Israeli farmers being murdered in border ambushes, the army shelling in retaliation.
As for Sharon, she danced to "El Ginot Egoz" in Beth Sholom, the social hall named for Tami Heringman's late uncle. She led her campers to the summit of Schunnemunk Mountain. She anchored the volleyball team in its matches against Kindering, the Workmen's Circle camp, and Habonim always an easy win for Kinderwelt because the kids there were too busy raising crops and livestock in preparation for chalutz life to spend much time practicing a sport.
In the several hours each night between bedtime for her nine-year-olds and the counselors' eleven-thirty curfew, Sharon joined Tami and Gloria and Myra in putting their curlers to use on the flips and bouffants that were the season's vogue. They turned their transistor radios to Murray the K's Swingin' Soiree and turned their a cappella talents to the summer's first hit, "It's My Party." They walked into nearby Woodbury for movies, hitched to Monroe for ice cream at the diner, went to Newburgh on their day off for David and Lisa, a sensitive teenager's kind of romance.
Still, Sharon and her friends could not avoid noticing some disquieting changes at Kinderwelt. There were empty bunks, as many as four or six in a cabin built for twelve, in the younger groups, like the five-year-olds Gloria oversaw. Grass sprouted through cracks in the tennis courts, and the asphalt buckled on the basketball court where Sharon watched the college guys play pick-up games. Kinderwelt's maintenance crew had always been less than fastidious, so now the camp director's wife followed in their wake, scrubbing and sweeping and disinfecting. A ten-year-old camper named Joel occasionally fixed toilets. Sharon and her cheekier companions sang the camp hymn with a twist. Where the words were supposed to be "Kinderwelt iz shayn un sunik," Kinderwelt is nice and sunny, they made it "shayn un schmutzik" nice and dirty.
The satire poked at an uncomfortable truth, one that had much to do with the empty bunks in Myra's cabin. Kinderwelt was starting to lose its clientele, and with it the fees that paid for upkeep. The Farband had split along generational lines in apportioning its budget, and the greatest infusion of money went to Unser Camp, to build a hotel meant to compete with Brown's and Grossinger's. No longer able to fill its beds by word of mouth, Kinderwelt had resorted to shooting a promotional film and sending a recruiter door to door among the families of Holocaust survivors. Whatever their feelings about Zionism and secularism, they at least spoke Yiddish.
For Sharon and her crowd, the city was still home Weequahic, with Wigler's Bakery and Halem's candy store and the Chancellor Avenue Y. But she was the youngest daughter of parents nearing fifty, the urban remnant of a Jewish population climbing, like Neil Klugman in Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, into the once-gentile suburbs. The allrightniks' ambitions exceeded a camp with Second Avenue schmaltz and a lopsided softball field. In any issue of the New York Times Magazine in the spring of 1963, they could have found pages of advertisements for camps named Iroquois, Beaverbrook, and Lincoln Farm, camps with horseback riding, water skiing, indoor basketball courts, scuba diving, French lessons. Every time Sharon played volleyball against Camp Monroe, the one member of Kinderwelt's league not operated by a secular Jewish organization, she saw in its facilities a competitor in more than sporting terms.
Sharon had to admit that some of Kinderwelt struck even her adoring eyes as dated. For years, campers had spent an hour each day in sicha Hebrew for discussion learning about the shtetl or Jewish art or Zionist heroes like Herzl. Sharon found the sessions sheer tedium. Every few weeks, she had to herd her unwilling charges to a shaded grove in Unser Camp to hear some alter kocker, some old-timer, fulminate in Yiddish few of the children understood. In earlier decades, Kinderwelt's youngsters had listened to Abba Eban and Golda Meir orate in the Literarisher Vinkl, the Literary Corner, and been exhilarated by the experience. Sharon and her peers, who could not remember a world without Israel, dismissed the place as the Narrish Vinkl, the Foolish Corner. Ironically, they were using a variation of the same Yiddish term narrishkeit, foolishness that their parents hurled at their taste for Gidget movies and rock and roll.
What exactly was there beyond the confines of Jewish life? Six weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday, Sharon still wasn't sure. "Everything in my family was related to being Jewish," she would say years later. "If Adlai Stevenson was running for president, was it good for the Jews? If there was a murder in Newark, then it shouldn't be a Jew who committed it. You knew you'd marry a Jewish person. You knew you'd have a Jewish life."
But last summer, when she kept company with Rishon Bialer, Sharon had begun to glimpse other possibilities. In some ways, Rishon was consummately Jewish, educated in a yeshiva, now majoring in premed at Brandeis. Yet he and his buddies among the waiters and athletic staff Artie Eisenberg, Hesh Josephson, Vic Fershko possessed a sophistication that impressed Sharon. Instead of the typical camp play like The King and I, in which Sharon had played a secondary role, they put on Edward Albee's Zoo Story. They listened to Tom Lehrer records, watched "That Was the Week That Was," knew enough to call it "TW3" in the Morse code of hip.
This year, with Rishon no longer at Kinderwelt, the intellectual crowd centered around Vic Fershko, Gloria Freed's boyfriend, and his single room in the rafters of the old social hall. Peter, Paul and Mary, whose folk music was already a staple of Kinderwelt campfires, had just covered Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," sending a protest song high enough on the charts to challenge "Surf City." President Kennedy negotiated a test-ban treaty with Khrushchev. Buddhist monks cremated themselves in the streets of Saigon to protest the South Vietnamese regime. The civil rights movement was building toward a rally outside the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, a few days after Kinderwelt's season would end. Myra Graubard and her friend Marty Greenfield planned to be there. Here was a bigger vision, Sharon would later put it, "than the Zionist idea of brotherhood."
As the wider world enticed Sharon in one direction, religion beckoned from another. The call came in the person of the camp director, Eli Gamliel. By almost any measure, he was an outsider to Kinderwelt's culture, which was rooted in the radical movements of Eastern Europe. Gamliel hailed from Yemenite stock, the Sephardic side of Jewry, and had grown up in Israel and America deeply observant. He had attended the Talmudical Academy high school and Yeshiva University, both Orthodox institutions, and had taught in day schools and Hebrew schools affiliated with synagogues. Though he had married into a Labor Zionist family and spent summers emceeing shows at the Unser Camp Casino, he cut a drastically different figure from such predecessors as Zvi Schooler. Gray-haired and thickly bearded, Schooler had acted in Yiddish theater and hosted a Yiddish-language radio show called "Der Graumeister," "The Storyteller." The closest he would ever get to organized religion was playing a rabbi in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof.
Gamliel, in contrast, presented himself as a modern man, clean-shaven, handsome in creased slacks and a white oxford shirt. And he was moving Kinderwelt in the direction Labor Zionism itself was going, however reluctantly toward reconciliation with religion. To any Orthodox Jew, even to many Reform Jews, the practices Gamliel brought to Kinderwelt would have qualified as mere whiffs of observance. Among secular Jews, though, they represented major concessions.
From its beginnings, Kinderwelt had honored certain rituals, in the same way that even militantly atheistic Jews could not bring themselves to eat ham. The camp separated both its dishes and its meals by meat and milk, an homage to the spirit if not every letter of the dietary laws of kashrut. Each Friday pointed toward sundown and Shabbat, starting with bunk cleanup in the morning and continuing with the procession of campers, all clad in white, into the dining hall for a traditional chicken dinner. Kiddush was spoken over the grape juice, and in Sharon's time Artie Eisenberg always sang "Lecha Dodi," "Welcome Bride," the bride being the Sabbath. But nobody wore a yarmulke, and on Saturday morning instead of davening, Kinderwelt shed its shoes and whirled across the meadow in Israeli dances. "You didn't think of it as holy," Sharon's friend Judi Schulman would recall years later, "but as something clean and special and fun."
Now Gamliel gathered the camp in Beth Sholom every Saturday morning for a distilled service the Shema, Judaism's declaration of faith; excerpts from the parsha, the weekly Torah portion; and the sermon known as a d'var Torah. "Why do we have to do this?" parents occasionally complained. He had his answer: He wouldn't subscribe to any Zionism that denied religion. Besides, the faction of campers from Holocaust survivor households tended to be quite observant. Even some of the American-born kids came from families that had returned to Judaism's rituals, if not exactly fervent faith. Sharon had always sensed that her own father longed in some unspoken way for the synagogue and the connection it offered to his vanquished family in vanished Butka. As it was, he settled for worship on the High Holy Days.
Sharon didn't even know about Tisha b'Av, for instance, until coming to Kinderwelt. There the holiday commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples was becoming yet another measure of religion's renewed claim on Labor Zionism. Well into the fifties, Tisha b'Av had consisted of little more than a handful of Unser Camp adults fasting and the Kinderwelt children forgoing swimming for the day. Then, toward 1960, a ritual emerged. The campers would congregate at dusk along the lake shore and watch as a wooden model of a temple was set aflame and set adrift.
By the time Tisha b'Av was commemorated on July 30, 1963, Gamliel had devised a more elaborate pageant. As the entire camp settled on the hillside between the boys' and girls' cabins, floodlights struck stage flats painted with scenes of the First Temple being destroyed by Babylonian conquerors. Then the assemblage, having rehearsed for weeks, sang "By the Rivers of Babylon" and recited verses from Psalm 137:
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.
Let my tongue stick to my palate, if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in my memory, even at my happiest hour.
More flats appeared the Romans ravaging the Second Temple, the martyrs at Masada choosing death before captivity, and finally the modern pioneers working the land. The camp-ers' voices rose again, this time in "Hatikvah," Israel's anthem.
In one respect, Gamliel was doing exactly what Zionists since Herzl had done, conflating Biblical symbolism with secular politics. Hadn't Ben-Gurion himself called Zionism a "Movement of Redemption"? But Ben-Gurion also was a leader who once issued a press statement announcing that he hadn't fasted on Yom Kippur, who boasted to a convention of American Orthodox rabbis that he'd been married by a justice of the peace. There had long existed a religious Zionist group, the Mizrachi. The Reform and ultra-Orthodox Jews who had opposed Zionism prior to statehood now, for the most part, adopted it. So why did the Farband, which had been right about Zionism all along, have to bend to religion? Never before had Kinderwelt's leftists and laborites sought clerical cover.
Any such concern got lost in the last dizzying weeks of camp. Just after Sharon turned eighteen on August 17, Color War broke out, splitting Kinderwelt into armies of Kachol and Lavan. Over the next four days, the teams competed in events from riflery to water polo to "Name That Tune." Bunk inspection counted for points. So did a ready knowledge of Jewish history. Neither team entered the dining hall without delivering, by way of a chant, proof that this was not any camp's version of Color War:
Out of exile came the Jews,
Back to their land ascending,
Built a state as a Jewish home,
Farmers, man your guns, then return to the soil,
For fighters you must be to preserve Yisrael.
Elijah's spirit is here to incite us.
Rise and conquer those who'd defy us.
Color War always made Sharon feel defiant. Straining till her arms ached in the tug-of-war, swimming the winning leg of a relay race, she exulted in physicality. And Kinderwelt put her physicality in the service of something grander than mere sport; she was part of the Zionist mission to forge a new kind of Jew, the robust rejoinder to the pale, cowering product of Galut, the Exile.
Sharon had been rewarded over the years, not only as a teammate but as an individual. Her most precious keepsakes included five felt patches, given in the awards ceremony Kinderwelt held in its final week. Four of the patches were for achievement in music and sports and for excellence in cooperation. The fifth, larger than the rest, commended her as the outstanding camper in her bunkhouse. Its insignia bore the Yiddish letters mem and kupf, the initials for Machnay Kinderwelt, Camp Kinderwelt. But Sharon's friend Judi Schulman liked to say that the mem stood for "mensch."
Kinderwelt closed the summer of 1963 with an all-camp social, the Victory Dance. For one night, Beth Sholom doubled as a high school gym. Paper lanterns and crepe-paper ribbons dangled from the ceiling. Beneath them couples in crinolines and penny loafers slow-danced to "Theme from A Summer Place," one more siren song from America, one more invitation to leave the tribe and join the nation.
As the dance wound down, Sharon left Beth Sholom and walked back to her cabin in a cool drizzle. There was nothing hefker-pefker about camp's end. She wanted it to linger. At the foot of each bed sat a trunk, ready to be hauled back home. A few campers stopped by the arts-and-crafts building to pick up a Popsicle-stick basket or ceramic bowl that was just drying. Others hunted through the cabins for artifacts a keychain, a necklace, a hairband. Judi Schulman always did that, cupping each find in her palms like a talisman.
Overnight, the wind picked up from the northwest, driving the clouds off the Catskills and dropping the temperature into the forties. The morning of August 24, 1963, Sharon's last at Kinderwelt, dawned with an autumnal chill. The weather told her it was time to go back to Weequahic, to start her freshman year at the Newark campus of Rutgers, to face the prosaic reality of living at home and riding the city bus to a commuter school. All she knew about her longer-term plans was that, based on her experience as a junior counselor, she didn't have enough of a disciplinarian's streak to be a teacher, the job a bright Jewish girl was supposed to take.
By the chestnut tree of Kinderwelt, not the rivers of Babylon, Sharon wept as she prepared for her own exile. "Call me," she heard people saying. "See you in the city." As buses pulled out of the Unser Camp parking lot, hands reached out every window, waving, grasping. Bitter as Sharon's parting was, she expected it to last only ten months, until next summer at Kinderwelt. To Tami and Myra and Merry and Gloria and Judi, Sharon promised, "We've all got to get together." Thirty years would pass before they did.
After a listless freshman year at Rutgers, Sharon spent the summer of 1964 not at Kinderwelt but in Israel itself, with Gloria and Judi on a Labor Zionist program. More even than touring the sights, she loved the demanding life on a kibbutz. Rising at four, riding a tractor to the fields, weeding peanuts by the hour, she craved the compliment that she worked like an Israeli, not a soft American with a checkbook. She contemplated aliyah, filled with an ardor for Israel so strong it made her feel almost disloyal to America. And in Israel, secular Judaism flourished; it was the culture of the land. But Sharon's boyfriend Richie was staying in Newark. She returned and ultimately married him. Rishon Bialer, having graduated from Brandeis with honors and begun Harvard Medical School, died in a car accident.
Tami Heringman, to all appearances the straight girl from Indiana, the one who used no more makeup than pale pink lipstick, prepared to give birth in early 1964. Throughout the previous summer, she had managed to hide her pregnancy, if not the fact that her boyfriend, a marine, was not Jewish. She gave up her baby girl for adoption and ultimately married an Israeli whom she met while living in Tel Aviv in 1968. Frightened by a series of terrorist attacks on Israel over the next several years, she decided against making aliyah and wound up settling with her husband in Texas.
Myra Graubard, forbidden by her mother to attend the March on Washington, married a non-Jew, a half-Spanish, half-Finnish Lutheran named Joseph whom she was set up with on a blind date. In the summer of 1972, she brought him to Kinderwelt, to show him what all the ballyhoo was about. The camp, she discovered, had closed the previous summer. Now Unser Camp was limping through its own final weeks. She took Joseph to the Casino, where they heard a comic tell jokes with Yiddish punchlines.
Later that day, as Myra was getting ready to leave, a waiter vanished while swimming. He was twenty years old, a former Kinderwelt kid. Eli Gamliel called the police, who fruitlessly dragged the lake. The next morning, the body floated to the surface. In the dining hall, three-quarters empty, the campers compared memories. No, nobody could recall any other death here, not in all forty-six years, not unless, of course, one counted Kinderwelt's own.
One afternoon in 1984, Myra Graubard, now a teacher and mother living about ten minutes from the abandoned site of Kinderwelt, went searching for plastic bags. She had an oddly shaped garbage can, and standard-size bags didn't fit the rim. Her husband had spotted an ad in the local paper, though, from a wholesaler open to the public. Myra checked the address and nodded with a certain recognition.
"Where are we going?" asked her daughter as they climbed into the family car.
"To the Middle Ages," Myra replied.
A few miles later, she pulled into Kiryas Joel, a village entirely populated by Satmar Hasidim. Myra had never actually been there before, but she knew well enough that the sect's members had been moving into the area by the thousands. She remembered a particular Friday at the eye doctor's, hearing a Satmarer mother who'd shown up without an appointment demanding that her son be seen before Shabbos. Whenever a gentile mocked the Hasidim, Myra reflexively defended them. Privately, however, she blamed the Satmarers and their clannish ways for giving anti-Semites ammunition.
Now, waiting in the car while her husband bought the garbage bags, she shuddered with self-consciousness. On both sides of the street, apartments clung to hillsides, packed tightly as pueblos carved into a cliff. Mothers in cuffed blouses and wigs nudged boys trailing peyes and tzitzis. The men, each a study in black, stepped toward synagogue. And here sat Myra, married to a gentile man, a shaygetz, wearing a sleeveless dress, thinking back to 1968 in Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem, and the black-hats shoving her aside for wearing a mini-skirt. "I feel I don't belong," she told herself now. "I know I don't belong."
Most incredible of all, and most maddening, Kiryas Joel stood just two miles from Kinderwelt. As a camper, Myra had hitched to Monroe along Forest Road, which now ran right through Kiryas Joel. And while Kinderwelt lay empty, a paradise overgrown and rotted, Kiryas Joel flaunted its continuity with strollers and swing sets and station wagons. Yiddish, once the language of secular strongholds like Kinderwelt, was the lingua franca here, the characters on every billboard, the type in every newspaper, the sound in every chat. Kiryas Joel was doing the very thing at which Kinderwelt had finally failed transmitting its culture from one generation to the next. That culture centered on religion and deemed Zionism blasphemy. Kiryas Joel embodied everything Kinderwelt was and everything it wasn't.
The village had its origins in 1972, the year after Kinderwelt closed, when a Canadian importer wearing a business suit and a baseball cap appeared in Monroe to buy land. Though not Hasidic himself, he was the brother-in-law of a Brooklyn man named Leibush Lefkowitz, who was a close aide to Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, rebbe of the Satmar Hasidim. And though the Canadian spoke of wanting to purchase real estate for investment purposes, he was acting in fact on behalf of the rebbe's wish to build a shtetl far from the immoral city, to create a place, as a Satmar leader later put it, "where you can live in the way you lived in Europe a hundred years ago."
The need for subterfuge was understandable, at least to the Satmarers. A decade earlier, they had spent nearly a million dollars on 250 acres of land in New Jersey, all aboveboard. The community had fought them on every last permit and regulation, and the Satmarers filed suit before finally giving up. So when they saw an appealing 170 acres near Monroe, they sent a trusted outsider willing for the day to wear a baseball cap instead of his usual yarmulke.
Over the next two years, other intermediaries bought more land fifty-seven acres, then forty-four, then fourteen. Plans were drawn for eighty garden apartments and twenty-five single-family homes. A particular design feature distinguished the units; each would have dual sinks and stoves to allow for strict separation of meat and milk. Various basements would house a yeshiva and a mikvah, and the garage of Rabbi Teitelbaum's home would serve as a shtibel, an intimate synagogue. A construction company run by Leibush Lefkowitz broke ground early in 1974, and by Sukkot that fall, the first dozen families moved into Kiryas Joel, Joel's Town.
Those early arrivals included Abraham Wieder, a contemporary of Sharon Levine and Myra Graubard from the far side of the Jewish universe. Wieder's parents had lived near the Satmar capital of Satu-Mare, Romania, until the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators decimated the region. Like Rabbi Teitelbaum, the Wieders were among the handful of Satmarers to survive the Holocaust and try to reconstitute shtetl life in the alien cities of North America. As the rebbe settled in Brooklyn, they immigrated to Montreal, and when Abraham was fourteen they sent him to Williamsburg to study in the rebbe's yeshiva.
There Abraham steeped himself in Talmud and Torah and halakhah and the Hasidic literature and philosophy known as Hasidut. He basked in the wisdom of his rebbe. Rabbi Teitelbaum received the faithful each afternoon as they presented him with the petitions called kvitlech, and he married them beneath a chuppah outside his own home. So when Rabbi Teitelbaum sought pioneers for Kiryas Joel, Abraham Weider, by then a father of three and the director of a job-training program, considered it zachir, good fortune, to fulfill the rebbe's wish. On the Shabbos mornings of that first autumn, he wound through the reddening trees to the shtibel, first to daven and then to enjoy shalashidis, the afternoon meal, a feast of fish and challah and song. "It was," he later recalled, "heavenlike."
The residents of Monroe, whose boundaries included Kiryas Joel, recoiled at the Hasidim in their midst. The town government charged that the Satmarers had flouted zoning laws by converting houses for religious uses and dividing one-family homes into apartments. But the most severe reactions, by all accounts, came from the local Jews. The owner of the Tel Aviv bungalow colony, unofficially part of the Farband compound, refused to sell property to the Satmarers. "I drive a car on Saturday, I smoke on Saturday," one man told a local newspaper. "What will they do to me?" A woman whose bungalow bordered Kiryas Joel announced, "They are the most horrible people that God put breath in."
Kiryas Joel solved at least its legal problems by incorporating as a village in 1977. The next year, the central synagogue opened. The year after that, the rebbe's new residence was completed. And when Rabbi Teitelbaum died the following year, he was interred in the village cemetery, and his home was turned into a maternity center for a booming community. Families moved into Kiryas Joel at the rate of a hundred a year, pushing the population from 525 in 1977 to 5,500 in 1986 and 12,000 in 1998. Households had nearly seven children apiece on average, and the village's median age of 13.8 years was the youngest in New York state.
The more populous Kiryas Joel grew, the more isolated it became, the more protected from ausgegrunt literally, "the green wearing off"; colloquially, acculturation. Kiryas Joel forbade television, radio, home videos, and English-language newspapers. It supported its own florist, pizza parlor, shoe store, matzoh factory, slivovitz distillery, and sewage treatment plant. Its men commuted to jobs in Manhattan's diamond district on buses fitted with mechitzah to allow for davening the morning service of Shacharit inbound and the evening liturgy of Maariv on the drive home. More than anything, Kiryas Joel poured its resources into inculcating the next generation with the Satmarer way, creating a system of thirteen schools overseen by four hundred teachers and administrators and teaching five thousand children. "There is not a generation gap," one Satmar spokesman boasted. "The only generation we are missing is the one that was lost in the concentration camps, in the gas chambers, and the suffering of the post-Holocaust period. Our youth is more intensely Hasidic than their elders."
Scornful as it was of American culture, Kiryas Joel embraced American politics. In 1986, after six hundred yeshiva boys refused to board buses provided by the Monroe school district because they had women drivers, Kiryas Joel sued the local school board. It lost, started its own bus service, and set about creating its own school district altogether, primarily to allow handicapped boys and girls to be educated separately. In recognition of the village's voting bloc, New York governors and legislators of both major parties passed laws allowing Kiryas Joel to form the district. Court after court struck down the various laws, and each time Kiryas Joel appealed, driving a wedge between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish groups.
Abraham Wieder, meanwhile, was elected mayor. He also learned how to manufacture wire and cable and bought a factory in Monroe. By Kiryas Joel standards, he was a worldly man. He posed for photographs in the company of governors and congressmen, received letters from them extolling the village. His business won contracts from the navy, and he traveled as deep into the Bible Belt as Alabama to meet customers. For many years, though, he never knew that a Labor Zionist summer colony had once thrived just up the road from Kiryas Joel. Once he learned of it, he was not surprised to hear that it had failed. "Secular Judaism," he said, "is failure."
Sharon Levine stepped into a Manhattan apartment one evening in October 1998, carrying her past in a stationery box. It contained her mem kupf award, a 1962 staff roster, the Color War schedule from 1957, a sign-out sheet for visiting day in 1963, snapshots of her bunkmates in matching tennis sweaters and Bermuda shorts. On the box top she had written simply, "Kinderwelt."
She placed the carton delicately on a coffee table beside a tray of mixed nuts and an array of yellowed, curling photographs formal portraits of particular bunks, casual shots of shirtless boys rolling their eyes and puffing their cheeks. Already a crowd had gathered around the exhibit, reminiscing about the camp laundry and necking sessions under the Beth Sholom stage.
"See her?" one woman said, tapping a photo. "That's Zvi Schooler's daughter."
"Was Vinny your counselor?"
"You know Phyllis? This is her brother."
"Hannah Weingarten went to Israel?"
There were thirteen guests in all, representing four decades of Kinderwelt. In a room of bifocals, iron supplements, and tinted hair, Sharon was the youngest by nearly a decade, tanned and fit. Still, she was fifty-three, the mother of a son in high school and a daughter in college, a middle-aged graduate student in social work after a career in fashion design, and twenty-three years into her second marriage, to a real estate developer named Tom Elghanayan whom she'd met at Club Med.
Manny Azenberg, a theater producer, hosted the reunion. He had spent every summer from 1941 through 1954 at Kinderwelt as a camper and counselor. His father Charles had managed both Kinderwelt and Unser Camp before retiring to a bungalow on the camp's fringes in Ra'anannah. Azenberg wore a ring with the Farband insignia that his father had received in recognition of his work as a driver for the Second Zionist Congress.
Something more complex than sentimentality had spurred the gathering. A few months earlier, Azenberg had visited the former Kinderwelt with his camp buddy Yudi Rosen. It was depressing enough to find the whole place razed, replaced by a housing development called Highland Lake Estates. But then, driving to the Monroe Diner, retracing the route they had taken decades earlier as counselors on their days off, Azenberg and Rosen stumbled into Kiryas Joel. "Theirs is blossoming," Azenberg had muttered in shock that August afternoon, "and ours is dead."
Indeed there was an aspect of shiva to the reunion, jovial as it was. Sharon, her sister Lorelei, her brother-in-law Milt, and all the rest seated themselves in a living room overseen by a Ben Shahn drawing of Gandhi. They helped themselves to a buffet of chicken cacciatore and pasta with cheese, casually nonkosher. They talked about their children and their choices.
"I sent my daughter to Kinderwelt and it didn't work," Milt Kaplan said.
"I sent my son and it didn't work," Rosen added. "I think it was Israel. The two-thousand-year dream came true. And we lost our reason to be."
Overhearing the exchange, Azenberg joined in.
"It was American camps," he said. "We wanted our children to be Americans. They lived in a more mixed environment than us."
Sharon perched on the edge of the conversation. How many hours and days had she spent trying to find the equivalent of Kinderwelt for her kids? Jessica wound up at a religious camp with children from Conservative and Orthodox day schools. Jacob tried a Reform camp and pulled out after two weeks, bored with singing Jewish songs. From then on, he spent summers at a sports camp with friends from his private school, Dalton.
"We wanted them to have good tennis instruction," Sharon told Azenberg and the others. "We wanted them to have water skiing. We wanted them to be able to compete." She paused. "We tried to pass along something. But it was inexplicable."
Just then the front door opened and Azenberg's wife Loni and their two daughters arrived, the girls' hair still in tight buns from ballet class. Loni, a former dancer, was Azenberg's second wife. She accompanied him on the annual trips he led to Israel for theater people and had learned enough Hebrew to converse there. Still she, unlike the first Mrs. Azenberg, the one Manny had met at Kinderwelt, was not Jewish. And Azenberg, proudly secular, had not insisted she convert.
"Everything I got, I got from Kinderwelt," he said now. "And the trips I take to Israel I make people into Zionists. But my wife isn't Jewish and, halakhically, my children aren't Jewish. And I have to take that from some rabbi with a beard down to his pupik? You know what my answer is?" He bent his arm ninety degrees, fist aiming upward.
Across the room stood the only parent at the reunion with reason to be sanguine about the next generation's Jewish identity. Judy Polisar had grown up Labor Zionist and raised her son Daniel in the Reform movement. When he attended Princeton, though, he adopted Orthodoxy. And after spending a year at yeshiva in Israel, he moved permanently to a settlement in the occupied West Bank. As far as such settlers were concerned, they, with their right-wing politics and Orthodox theology, were the true carriers of the Zionist creed. The Labor crowd had gone soft in north Tel Aviv, jetting to Paris for shopping weekends, raising children the West Bank pioneers ridiculed as "Hebrew-speaking gentiles."
Toward nine o'clock, dessert was served with decaffeinated coffee. Two cousins, David Diness and Josh Weiss, mentioned that they had recently visited the Kinderwelt site and come upon Kiryas Joel. Comparing dates with Azenberg and Rosen, the men realized that they had been there the same week.
"Just think of what our parents would've thought of the Satmarers," Azenberg mused.
Judy Polisar let out a rueful laugh.
"Farshmolstene Yiddin," Diness said. Greasy Jews.
"Shmecht vie a cholerye," Azenberg added. They smell like cholera.
"Why am I bitter?" Rosen asked everyone and no one. "I'm not a bitter person. Because they're the kind of people who are against everything I stand for."
"It's like we lost our land," Azenberg said wistfully. "We had so many people there, so much life. How could it be empty?"
Azenberg's housekeeper began clearing the dessert plates, the cups and saucers. The clock showed nine-thirty, late enough on a weeknight. Sharon packed her Kinderwelt papers back in the box. Her own trip home would be a short one, to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Judi Schulman from Kinderwelt, now Judi Lederer, lived across the street. Lorelei and Milt Kaplan had an apartment a few blocks away. With this reunion over, the perimeter of Kinderwelt in Sharon's life would shrink back to those borders.
"Remember the song?" Rosen asked as the guests reached for their coats. They all knew which one he meant. The last time Sharon had heard it was on the final night of camp, back in August 1963.
Friends, friends, friends
We will always be.
Whether in fair or in dark stormy weather,
Kinderwelt will keep us together.
The blue and white
Is our guiding light.
The camp that unites us, the camp that delights us,
We're friends, friends, friends.
A few nights later, Sharon sang again in a different sort of reunion. Every Tuesday she rehearsed with the Workmen's Circle Chorus, a Yiddish ensemble affiliated with what was left of the Socialist group. She had first heard the chorus perform at a Reform temple eight or nine years earlier, and it had taken her two full years to work up the nerve to ask if she could join. Not that the chorus had the luxury of holding auditions. It was glad to have new blood, and, then in her mid-forties, Sharon qualified as new blood by thirty or forty years.
Which was part of the appeal for her. Ever since her father Jack had died in 1980, Sharon had felt hollowed out, less by sorrow than regret. She thought of the whole world of Yiddishkeit he had tried to give her, through Bet Yeled and Kinderwelt and the Farband and the Jewish National Fund collection box on the kitchen table, and she excoriated herself for not having devoured every bit of it. Why had she been so damned embarrassed about a father who spoke Yiddish, a father who had an accent?
When Sharon cast her gaze across the chorus, though, she saw Jack reincarnated in the collection of Yiddish teachers and garment workers, retired now, age-spotted and poor, making the gloriously guttural sound of shtetl songs. "Maybe this," she said at one point, "is an atonement."
There was only one problem. Each time the chorus added a song to its repertoire, a member needed to explain it to Sharon. She knew how the words sounded. But she didn't know what they meant.
Who Is a Jew?
When Camp Kinderwelt shuttered its bunkhouses for the final time, closing after nearly a half-century, it conceded something larger than one corner of the Catskills to observant Jewry. The more that secular Judaism declined as a force in American Jewish life, the more it abdicated the task of defining Jewish identity to religious authorities. And once the debate became a religious debate, it was conducted on Orthodox Jewry's ground. The Reform and Conservative movements might hold the allegiance of the vast majority of affiliated American Jews, but the Orthodox by their refusal to compromise halakhah with modernism seemed to embody authenticity, and they were not timid about dictating the terms of it to every other branch. With their common foe, secularism, now spent, the Jewish denominations turned against one another.
"Judaism the religion had existed in tandem with this other thing we might call Jewishness as ethnicity, Jewishness as peoplehood," says the historian Hasia Diner. "If you asked someone in 1910 what made them Jewish, it might be going to the Yiddish theater, belonging to a Jewish union. They didn't sit around asking what it meant to be Jewish. They lived in a Jewish world. But when that life disappeared or evolved into nostalgia, the religious core that was always there was revealed. And as it was revealed, the religious struggle was exposed."
Nowhere was that struggle more divisive than in the so-called "Who is a Jew?" issue. The phrase actually covered several related elements of Jewish status intermarriage, conversion, the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox rabbinate. While none of these conflicts was unprecedented in Jewish history, rarely if ever had they imperiled communal unity. Jewish tradition had long held that any prospective convert be turned away three times from the synagogue door. Halakhah rejected intermarriage so completely that when such unions failed, the Jewish spouse was not even required to obtain the rabbinical divorce decree known as a get. Only in modern America did disputes over status reach a critical apogee. For when it came to whom a Jew loved and married and had children with, the interest of America in a common national culture and the interest of Judaism in tribal continuity were diametrically opposed.
During the Jewish emancipation in Europe, the poet Heinrich Heine had described baptism as "an entrance ticket" to the larger society, but even those like him who chose it remained ineffably alien to their host country. In the United States, a nation without a state religion, a pioneer land that allowed every citizen to reinvent himself, the ultimate act of belonging took place at the wedding altar. When Jews intermarry, as the historian Jack Wertheimer has written, "they are embracing the American way."
During the heyday of secular Judaism, the rate of intermarriage between Jews and gentiles barely exceeded that between whites and blacks. From the early twenties through the late fifties, the share of such marriages crept up only from 1.7 to 6.6 percent; such shame attached to "marrying out" that Jewish parents often observed the mourning ritual of shiva for a child who did so. Then, with the opening of suburbia and private colleges to Jews and the retrenchment of anti-Semitism, the percentage of interfaith marriages nearly doubled in the early sixties and almost tripled during the late sixties and early seventies, reaching about one-third. The kind of Jewish-gentile union that had qualified as a novelty early in the century with the hit play Abie's Irish Rose looked more like documentary realism in the television sitcom "Bridget Loves Bernie."
The alarms about Jewish survival rang at several junctures. In 1964, the mass-circulation magazine Look published a major article on "The Vanishing American Jew," which gravely discussed the intermarriage rate. In the early seventies, the first National Jewish Population survey showed the intermarriage number at its highest level yet, 31 percent. Twenty years later, the next such survey put the figure at 52 percent. Strictly speaking, a Jew marrying another Jew was now the exception rather than the rule in America. Even those scholars and journalists who disputed the 1990 survey's accuracy placed the intermarriage rate at around 40 percent.
And marriage connoted children, most of whom were adrift from Jewish identity. Only 28 percent of intermarried couples were raising their children solely as Jews; only 13 percent of intermarried couples were affiliated with any branch of Judaism. One in six households that called itself Jewish in the 1990 survey had no member who was a Jew by birth or formal conversion; for those families, evidently, Jewish identity was not something to be earned or inherited but merely declared. Some 664,000 children under eighteen were not uniformly recognized as Jewish.
One hopeful line of reasoning saw in conversion the solution to Jewish continuity. The demographer Egon Mayer found that parents in a "conversionary" marriage were far more likely than those in a mixed marriage to provide their children with Jewish education and observance. Leaders of Reform Jewry in the late seventies began promoting the search for converts as a fulfillment of God's injunction that Jews be "a light unto nations." In an evolving corpus of memoirs Paul Cowan's An Orphan in History, Stephen Dubner's Turbulent Souls, and Gabrielle Glaser's Strangers to the Tribe writers who had been reared as gentiles rediscovered their Jewish heritage.
At the same time, however, conversion only deepened the schisms over Jewish identity. Each branch of Judaism maintained separate standards for conversion and no branch accepted the converts of a less observant branch. In the decades of mass immigration, when Orthodoxy dominated American Judaism, these disparities mattered little. In the postwar suburban era, though, the Reform and Conservative movements boomed, representing eighty percent of all affiliated American Jews by 1990, and conducting an even greater share of all conversions. The Reform and Reconstructionist branches both departed from the traditional standard of matrilineal descent. Under their new definition, it didn't matter which of a child's parents was Jewish as long as the child was being brought up exclusively as a Jew. And more than one-third of Reform rabbis by the late nineties were performing interfaith weddings.
The distress in Orthodox circles was profound. "A Holocaust of our own making," Sol Roth, a philosophy professor at Yeshiva University, termed intermarriage in 1980. Over time, his phrase was shortened and coarsened to "Silent Holocaust," and that term enjoyed widespread use among both Modern Orthodox and haredim. Whether or not Jewish intermarriage constituted autogenocide, it contributed, along with low birth rates and a sharp decline in Jewish immigration, to the shrinking of American Jewry. While the raw number of American Jews rose slightly from decade to decade after World War II, their proportion of the American population fell from 3.6 percent in 1940 to 2.3 percent in 1990. And even if all 180,000 converts were instantly, magically accepted by Orthodox authorities, these self-proclaimed "Jews by choice" comprised less than 5 percent of the American Jewish population, hardly a foundation for continuity.
The love story of Jews and gentiles in America, though, supplied only part of the combustibility of the "Who is a Jew?" issue. The rest resulted from the tangle of religion, politics, and law in Israel. In both real and symbolic ways, American Jews looked to Israel for their cues, and Israel exacerbated American frictions more often than it ameliorated them. Ironically, as the Israeli legal scholar Asher Maoz has pointed out, much of the discord arose from the very law meant to enshrine Jewish unity.
The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, unanimously adopted the Law of Return in 1950. While guaranteeing all Jews the right to immigrate to Israel and receive immediate citizenship there, it deliberately avoided defining Jewish identity by any religious measure. Secularists dominated both of Israel's major political parties, the rightist Herut as much as the leftist Mapam, and for both, the law fulfilled the Zionist promise of homeland and refuge from a gentile world that had just finished demonstrating its hatred in the Holocaust.
Yet conflicts underlay the law, too, because of the Zionist tradition of conflating religious authority and civil affairs. Decades before Israel achieved statehood, Theodore Herzl drew the religious Mizrachi movement into the Zionist cause by promising autonomy to Orthodox rabbis in a Jewish state. Under both Ottoman and British rule in Palestine, for that matter, Jewish religious leaders had enjoyed similar power. It was no coincidence that Israel, once established, chose a prayer shawl as its flag and the seven-armed candelabra of the Second Temple as its symbol. Arch-secularist though he was, David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister, granted rabbinical courts sole jurisdiction over marriage and burial, provided state support for religious schools, and permitted military exemptions for yeshiva students. In part, Ben-Gurion was practicing smart coalition politics; in part, he was acting on the belief that Orthodoxy would soon wither away.
It did not, of course, and under the pressure of intermarriage and conversion in the Diaspora, the inherent contradictions of the Israeli system exploded. A series of cases forced the Israeli Supreme Court to begin answering the question that the Law of Return had studiously avoided: Who exactly is a Jew? In the so-called Brother Daniel case of 1962, the court sided against a Carmelite monk who had been born Jewish and imbued with Zionism before converting to Catholicism in a concentration camp. As a professed Christian, the court decided, Brother Daniel could not simultaneously claim still to be an ethnic Jew. The next major case, however, involved a gentile woman from Scotland who had married an Israeli man and was raising their children in Israel. Rebuffed by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior when they tried to register the children as Jewish, Ruth and Benjamin Shalit in 1970 won a reversal from the nation's Supreme Court.
The Knesset responded with an awkward, troublesome compromise, amending the Law of Return to be simultaneously more lenient and more strict. For purposes of immigration, anyone with a Jewish grandparent would receive immediate citizenship; but for purposes of national registration, Jewish identity was defined by matrilineal descent or "legitimate" conversion. To add to the confusion, the amendment avoided specifying the criteria for a legitimate conversion. No longer was the question of status simply, "Who is a Jew?" Now it was also "Who is a convert?" and "Who is a rabbi?" In Israel, a homogeneous country with an overwhelmingly Orthodox rabbinate, these fine points of debate mattered little. In America, with its boom in both intermarriage and Reform and Conservative affiliation, they could hardly have mattered more.
Initially at least, American interests prevailed. After the Interior Ministry refused to register as Jewish an immigrant named Susan Miller, who had converted under Reform auspices in Colorado, the Israeli Supreme Court in 1986 ordered the recognition of conversions conducted "in any Jewish community abroad." In a later case, the high court criticized the Interior Ministry for denying Jewish recognition to a Brazilian immigrant who had been converted by Reform authorities in Israel, though it did not order a reversal.
But what looked like the triumph of American-style pluralism instead provoked an unprecedented split between American Jewry and the Jewish state, as well as rifts between American Jewish branches. In the late eighties, the ultra-Orthodox bloc in the Knesset held the balance of power between Labor and Likud. Courting the religious parties' support for his hawkish stance on the peace process, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir promised in May 1987 to introduce an amendment to the Law of Return requiring the Chief Rabbinate to approve all conversions. This meant essentially that only Orthodox conversions would pass muster. In both July 1987 and June 1988, the Knesset debated and defeated the measure. In November 1988, just after the Orthodox bloc had added several seats in the most recent Knesset elections, rumors swirled that Shamir would cut a political deal to ensure passage of the conversion amendment.
Much of American Jewry reacted with fury and panic. "Israel is the battlefield, but the war is in America," said Ismar Schorsch, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution. As the United Jewish Appeal dispatched an elite delegation to lobby Shamir against the conversion bill, the UJA's chairman, Martin Stein, declared, "This issue goes right to the kishke." The American Jewish Congress branded the legislation "a betrayal of Israel's partnership with Diaspora Jewry." Yet American Jews were themselves divided. The Lubavitcher Hasidim had poured millions of dollars from their Brooklyn headquarters into support for the amendment. In a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, an array of American Orthodox groups, from the haredi Agudath Israel of America to the centrist Rabbinical Council of America, blamed the Reform and Conservative movements for breaking with "a clear definition of Jewish identity that was universally accepted among all Jews for thousands of years." Citing the intermarriage rate in America, the ad went on, "The floodgates of disintegration and demise are beating down our very doors."
The crisis over conversion law subsided when Shamir chose to form a national unity government with Labor, depriving the religious parties of their leverage. But the underlying conflict never went away, any more than intermarriage in America ceased or the Reform and Conservative movements disappeared. In 1997, in fact, the "Who is a Jew?" issue returned with a vengeance. The ultra-Orthodox parties, now part of Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition, introduced a bill to give the Chief Rabbinate control over conversion. Like Shamir before him, Netanyahu was torn between his religious constituency and an inflamed American Jewry; unlike Shamir, he also faced the task of integrating into Israel two hundred thousand Russian immigrants who were not Jewish according to halakhah. Israel now had a reason of its own for reconsidering conversion standards.
Netanyahu appointed a commission led by a cabinet minister, Yaakov Ne'eman, to seek a compromise. Its seven members included one apiece from the Reform and Conservative movements just enough for those branches to denounce their seats as tokenism and for the ultra-Orthodox to object to the mere presence of other branches. Twice, first in the summer and then in the fall of 1997, the commission missed its deadline for delivering its recommendations. When word leaked in October that the Ne'eman Commission would propose a conversion institute operated jointly by all three denominations, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party threatened to bolt from Netanyahu's coalition, toppling his government.
Finally, in January 1998, the commission unveiled its plan. Indeed, it called for rabbis from all three major branches to jointly educate the conversion candidates in a powerful symbol of collaboration and mutual respect. The task of officiating at the actual conversion ceremonies, however, would rest with the Chief Rabbinate, and the Chief Rabbinate made it instantly clear it had no intention of doing so. "There can be no cooperation" with those "who try to shake the foundation of the Jewish religion," the rabbinate declared in a formal resolution. The Reform and Conservative movements, it continued, have "brought about disastrous results of assimilation among Diaspora Jewry." In slightly more refined language, then, the Chief Rabbinate was decrying the Silent Holocaust.
The disparagement of non-Orthodox Judaism and the continuing controversy over Jewish identity weighed far more heavily on America than on Israel. When the news magazine Jerusalem Report asked its readers in 1998 to name Israel's most important issue, only 7 percent pointed to conversion standards. Even Tommy Lapid, a politician and commentator known for his flagrant Orthodox-bashing, accused the Reform and Conservative movements of meddling in Israeli affairs. The Ne'eman Commission's institute opened in early 1999 with a mere thirty-seven candidates, all Russian immigrants.
Few of the American Jews who hoped Israel and the Ne'eman Commission could solve their own identity crisis realized that the conversion institute had been modeled on an experiment in the United States. It had taken place in Denver more than twenty years earlier, deliberately hidden from view. And what happened then and there showed just how maddeningly difficult it was for three different strains of Judaism to agree upon a single answer to the question, "Who is a Jew?"
Copyright © 2000 by Samuel G. Freedman