April 10, 2011

A Passover Message

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The holiday of Passover begins next week, recalling the Jewish people’s redemption from Egyptian bondage and their acceptance of the Torah. Jews throughout the world will retell the story of how they became a independent people and received the capacity to create their own culture and community. Aside from creating space for making meaning out of the past, the holiday provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the state of the Jewish people thousands of years later. We need not look any further than Cornell’s campus, which is anywhere from 20-22 percent Jewish.

We’ve seen better days. Though Jews were once reviled as scheming, brainy know-it-alls, the reigning stereotype today at Cornell, and, I’d wager, at most institutions of a similar caliber, is unfortunately that of the JAP (Jewish American Prince/ss): materialistic and not terribly curious, yet generally ambitious, hard working and successful.

This contemporary perception of Jewish students goes well with the oft-heard statement that “Jews are the new WASPs.” Seen in a positive light, this statement connotes dominance of the intellectual, social and political scene on campus, which rings true when one looks at many of the prominent student leaders here. In a more negative vein, though, it suggests that the culture we’ve established is bland and shallow.

An outside observer, however, struggles to understand what exactly constitutes Jewish identity. This speaks to a broader trend of uncertainty. Many, if not most of the Jews on this campus believe themselves to be “culturally Jewish” — that is, though they many not adhere to traditional ritual and forms of observance, they exhibit certain mannerisms and associate with particular objects that, within the American frame, are somehow considered “Jewish.” Their Judaism serves as an important link to the past, but has vague implications for their daily routine.

This is clear when one looks at Hillel, arguably the most prominent student group on campus. Though it serves as an umbrella group to a whole host of religious, educational and social organizations, many of its largest events — most notably, Jews on Ice and Jewish speed-dating — often incorporate little to no Jewish content beyond “culturally Jewish” foods. Of course, part of the problem is that it’s impossible to attract hordes of people to substantive programs. However, one gets the sense that many students attend simply because they belong to the Jewish people and not because they’re particularly interested in Jewish ideas.

It seems that the unstated purpose of these events is to get Jews to meet other Jews and hence perpetuate the Jewish people. But one is left wondering: What exactly are they perpetuating? It’s not clear that anyone really knows. There exists a notion of Jewish peoplehood but little mention of what distinct message this people has to offer. Therefore, like the WASPs who stood for tradition but not much more, many of today’s Jews do not — and, sadly, cannot — articulate what they contribute beyond ethnic identification.

Of course, it’s unfair to pick on the Jews, because most ethnic groups face this challenge. Indeed, it’s an unfortunate but consistent fact of American history that moving up the socioeconomic ladder eclipses commitment to community and the spiritual fulfillment it provides. Historically, it was assimilatory pressure that made these goals mutually exclusive. Nowadays, we can credit the persistence of this attitude to the identity politics employed by radical groups in the 1960s — which emphasized strict ethnic affiliation above the actual ideas cultures can provide — and to a belief held by many contemporary elites — who assert that religion should play as minimal role as possible in one’s life, especially in the political sphere.

This disconnect has had major spillover effects into our broader society, as our elite culture is, for the most part, spiritually impoverished. Its institutions — most notably, the university — often take one of two approaches towards the attempt to find meaning in a greater power: confusion (as in, “why would anyone ever believe that?”) and contempt. In this latter view, serious commitment to religious and spiritual messages is thought to be the exclusive province of crazies like Sarah Palin, or, as then-candidate Barack Obama suggested, bitter, xenophobic Midwesterners who “cling” to their Bibles as firmly as they do to their guns.

I think it’s high time we recognize that the pursuit of greater meaning and strong cultural affiliation need not come at the expense of our intellectual and economic success. What this requires, however, is serious reflection on the interplay between the our cultural wisdom and modern sensibilities. Obviously, this is a massive undertaking, one that we probably won’t ever finish. However, the Passover season provides us an excellent opportunity to begin.

Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin