It is tragic yet emblematic that Bernie Madoff, the billion-dollar Ponzi schemer, is this last decade’s most influential American Jew. In fairness, if this great economic recession recedes, thanks to Time’s 2009 Person of the Year, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, historians will remember Bernanke more than Madoff. But it is premature to assess Bernanke’s success, while the damage Madoff caused was clear.
Madoff epitomizes American Jewry’s decade of decadence, a time of excess spending, perverted priorities, lapsed morals and staggering selfishness. True, Madoff was extreme — and unique. But Madoff succeeded so spectacularly, ruining so many lives, because too many of us internalized the greed-is-good ethos, believing that he who makes the most and spends the most must know the most and be thebest — especially if, like Madoff, he tempered his materialism with a patina of piety and charity.
While too many Jewish communities historically had to struggle amid the curse of anti-Semitism, American Jewry is flummoxed by its blessings. American Jews, the writer Leon Wieseltier has warned, are “the spoiled brats of Jewish history,” among the luckiest, wealthiest, freest, strongest, most literate Jews ever. Yet for the most part we are communally adrift, Jewishly ignorant, apathetic and self-absorbed. Too many of us have turned away from our ancestors’ generosity, self-restraint, modesty, godliness, and neighborliness. We are more defined today by Seth Rogen’s vulgarity, Rahm Emanuel’s ferocity, Calvin Klein’s libertinism, Jon Stewart’s cynicism, Barbara Walters’ celebrity worship and Alan Greenspan’s irrational exuberance, than by Rashi’s subtlety, Maimonides’ morality, the Baal Shem Tov’s spirituality, David Ben-Gurion’s asceticism, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s humanism and Betty Friedan’s visionary idealism.
In response, and lured by the siren song of modernity, American Jews are voting with their feet. Scott Shay notes in his book, “Getting Our Groove Back,” that businesses that lose as many customers as say, Conservative synagogues have over the last decade, close.
Our collective self-absorption was apparent during the first half of the decade, when we felt the menace of terrorism more intensely, and the second half, when the shop-till-you-drop mentality took over — until the market dropped so much many could not afford to shop. In September 2000, when Yasir Arafat (mis)led the Palestinians away from negotiations and back toward terror, many American Jews responded slowly. It was hard to get people to focus on the Israeli lives being destroyed and the world’s cruel betrayal, blaming Israel for Palestinian violence while chiding Israel for defending itself.
Only after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001 brought terror to America did most American Jews start taking the threat of terrorism seriously. And even with so many dramatic reminders these last 10 years of America’s and Israel’s shared fates, we end the decade with many American Jews drifting away from Israel, internalizing the world critique that Israeli settlements — not Palestinian rejectionism — remain the greatest obstacle to Middle East peace. Bad enough that the new big lies tagging Zionism as racism and Israel as being like South Africa outlasted their Soviet and Nazi originators. Even worse is how many American Jews embrace those lies, and how many more are too ignorant, cowardly, or distracted to refute them.
Yet despite these communal failures, we are also experiencing a Golden Age of American Jewry. During this decade we have seen observant Jews working in the White House, competing for Nobel Prizes, improving lives through miraculous innovations. We have also seen pockets of American Jewish resurgence, from the proliferation of egalitarian, non-hierarchical, peer-led and vibrant minyanim with intense, soulful praying to the mainstreaming of Chabad as a powerful, effective source of Jewish renewal. Educationally, the Jewish day school movement has flourished, becoming a more popular alternative to public or prep school for non-Orthodox Jews by creating exciting Jewish environments breeding great students and good values. Organizationally, an entrepreneurial spirit has energized many Jewish institutions, with guerilla philanthropists, passionate volunteers and creative professionals often compensating for the shrinking rank and file. Ideologically, the commitment to tikkun olam, fixing the world, and to more openness has inspired many. We should be proud of American Jewry’s efforts in sensitizing all Americans to the Darfur tragedy.
The brightest spot in this often dark decade has emanated from the dazzling smiles of the more than 220,000 young Jews, aged 18 to 26, who have spent 10 days in Israel thanks to Birthright Israel. I don’t write these words because I am involved on a volunteer basis with Birthright, chairing its international education committee; I became involved — after initial skepticism — because I believe these words. Birthright offers the formula American Jewry needs for its revival — passion, purpose, peers, pep and pride — celebrating Israel and Judaism, engaging our past, embracing our present, building a future — and, hopefully, leading the way to a decade of enlightenment and engagement after 10 years of too much decadence, drift and despair.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.” His latest book “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,” was recently published by Oxford University Press.