40 percent of Jewish millennials are unaffiliated. That doesn't mean they're giving up on Judaism.
Inside my journey to The New Jerusalem
Every year, just before Rosh Hashanah, my Crown Heights apartment becomes a war zone.
I don't mean that a few tears are shed during a volley of invective over dinner. When the Sholklappers fight, we go to the mattresses. Heads roll.
It's the lamb's head or yours.
My husband's maternal family is Persian, and just as I've learned to crunch chelo and spice gondi, I now painstakingly prepare the massive Mizrahi Seder for Rosh Hashanah, severed heads and all. Like almost everything in Judaism, the lamb's head — a graduation from the whole fish head I've used for the past two years — is a symbol. Of something. I'm 90 percent sure.
The lamb's head says our faith is not fucking around. This is some Old World Benya Krik shit here, some Kabbalistic kung fu. I am a spiritual gangster, and this head on the table is my message job.
It's a ripoff, says Tal. No lamb's head. End of.
It's been like this since he and I got married three and a half years ago. Most couples we know fight about sex or money or how to keep house — look, all right, it's not like we've never argued over who should bleach the toilet, but those are street skirmishes compared to the wars we wage over God. Each year, we prepare for the High Holidays with military exercises and a test missile launch. We've yet to use lethal force, but the leaflets have been dropped.
It starts with the guest list, how we are absolutely not having 30 people again this year. (Undoubtedly this year we'll have more.) Soon we are arguing about how late we can reasonably turn up to shul, whether he really has to make all those blessings, and if we'll serve the non-kosher wine half our guests bring or regift it later. As the date draws near, we fight over which ceremonial foods might be omitted and how we can possibly cook them all, how many of the round challahs to roll with raisins, how many to leave plain, whether the pumpkin can be curried or the rubia canned, and if the dutch oven should stay parve. As soon as I say the soup bowls can be paper he insists we need plastic; the debate about how far to push back the bed becomes a diatribe over having no space to stash the rugs and why after three years in the same place we still don't own real chairs.
For 363 days of the year, we could both give a fuck about plastic furniture. But we're not really fighting about the chairs, or the wine or the dutch oven or any of the other things we've already forgotten by Simchas Torah. Because it's not about divine law. This is who we are in the world.
Which is odd, actually, because if there's one thing we definitely are, it's Jewish. Small with black hair and big noses, we are Jews on first sight, and often before: It's a rare day indeed when Dr. & Mrs. Sholklapper of Eastern Parkway are mistaken for anything but tribal.
This is as it should be. We married each other (far younger than our generation's national average, and almost shockingly so for two highly educated New Yorkers) in large part because we're both serious Jews. We keep a kosher home, belong to a local shul, and host holiday meals that leave both our friends and our one-bedroom apartment stuffed to the gills. Though he runs a tech startup and I'm a news reporter, we spend the 25 hours of Shabbat off the clock.
And yet, Tal and I number among the worrying subset of American Jewry — about 40 percent of Jewish millennials, according to last year's apoplexy-inducing Pew Study — who have no apparent place in the wider Jewish world. We are the infuriatingly unaffiliated, not by choice but because institutional Judaism has no place for us.
In our case, we both attend and are technically members of our local shul, while at the same time not identifying with its denomination (Modern Orthodox) or with any denomination, for that matter. The fact that we are members and pay dues in spite of our feeling that the label doesn't fit us to me belies everything the detractors are saying. We want to belong, to the point of schizophrenia, but as soon as we try to stake a piece of ground it shifts from under our feet.
Meanwhile, the study and its arbiters tend to suggest that it's not institutions but Jews like us who are disconnected, unconcerned with the fate of our faith, or our culture, or is it our ethnicity? We're too distracted, they insist, too demanding, too ADHD. We're too unsettled for membership and too selfish for dues … in a word, we're not serious enough for American Judaism.
Let's suppose for a moment that's true. Where, then, does it leave us, the ungrateful, anti-establishment 40-percenters?
There's a new popular moniker, the cultural Jew. But how can we be culturally Jewish when our Judaism is not one culture but many, both secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, Israeli and American, and all the other things our tribe of friends and family also are: Polish-Persian, Yekke-Jamaican, Yemenite-Moroccan, Russian-Cambodian, Uzbek, Ethiopian, Argentine, South African, French and Brazilian, gay and straight, atheist and believer, ex-Hasidic and baal teshuva? Oh, and the 10 percent of us whose Judaism was stripped away by the Soviet Union?
Let them eat bagels.
Let's say we repent, rejoin, to do teshuva. What then awaits us inside those air-conditioned halls?
What divine mysteries can Reform Judaism reveal to an 8-year-old girl in the throes of a deathbed religious epiphany? What does Conservative's showy Yom Ha'Shoah memorials and AIPAC boosterism have to say to a bar mitzvah boy whose grandparents survived Auschwitz to see their only son sent to the front during the Yom Kippur War? How can the unhappy product of either take sides in an Orthodox debate over intricacies of halachah they neither care for nor comprehend? What, precisely, do you expect us to cleave to?
The truth is, being asked to choose between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox is like being asked whether you want Pepsi, Coke, or black coffee from the 40-cup urn.
What we want are cold brew and single origin pour-over — better yet, a chemistry set and a Soda Stream, the ingredients to concoct something new, something ours, something real.
Real is a niggun that draws up from a single voice in the congregation and spins like wool into yarn, knitting 70 people into a single, spontaneous melody as the Torah is replaced in the ark. Real is dropping everything to toast a l'chaim at a friend's engagement, or show up for a stranger's funeral. It's Havdalah on YouTube and Purim on Instagram, tehillim for iPhone, Mikvah.org. Real means there's Crown Royal in the instant coffee Shabbat morning, and hair in the matzoh-ball soup.
By the time we moved to Crown Heights just after our wedding in 2011, both Tal and I wanted desperately to get real. We'd been close with our local Chabad in California but felt like they were holding their breath until we became baale teshuva. The Conservative and Modern Orthodox synagogues we'd tried felt old, like so old, and the youthful alternative minyan was overrun with what my husband refers to disdainfully as "camp people." (The sort who, while my ex-Hasid friend is having a deep moment with the scroll she was never allowed to hold as a girl, shoves past drunkenly shrieking, "I totally love the Torah!")
It was here in New York that we stumbled into Jews like us, and not only hipsters and young professionals who'd been raised in the liberal denominations but Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who appeared, on the surface at least, to be chasing the same phantom.
Forty percent cannot be an outlier. Forty percent means something is lost, something is missing, and nearly half of us are searching for it.
A few months ago, I confessed to a fellow seeker I thought we might actually have kind of found something here, that if one friend's sale went through and another met the right man, our tribe might actually have somewhere to belong.
Our landsmen called it The New Jerusalem.
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