12 August 2010

I Am a Bagel

2 Elul 5770

 I am a Bagel.

This was my conclusion after walking around the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Montreal this morning, an utterly relaxing and always humbling experience when visiting a town.  Go see its dead and you'll have a better sense of your own living.

The Baron de Hirsch Cemetery, I learned from the terrific history which was sold to me upon my inquiries in the Cemetery Office at 8 am by a kind gentleman with a creased leather yarmulke and a Russian administrator ($19.95 and well worth it), is not Montreal's oldest Jewish cemetery but it's largest, and came to be as a result of a series of fraught negotiations which reveal the rich and fascinating history of Montreal's Jewish community.

Named for the noted 19th century titan of industry who gave away much of his fortune to the cause of resettling and educating Jewish communities which were obviously living under enormous duress and persecution, de Hirsch was petitioned to help build schools and burial grounds for Montreal's Jewish community which was burgeoning under the weight of America's restrictive immigration policies.  He had died by the time the cemetery was opened but a charitable institute in his name had already been opened, leading the way for his fortune to continue to aid this community's efforts to settle and then, of course permanently settle, it's Jewish citizens.

The grounds are meticulously cared for, logically arrayed, and shockingly well-marked (which, sadly, one can't quite say about the older Jewish cemeteries around New York.)  The writer A.M. Klein, a Titanic victim, a kabbalist rabbi, communists, socialists, builders, movers and shakers and just plain folk are all there. 

As I walked its rows and read the inscriptions on the gates of the burial societies that I had passed through, I was struck--overwhelming so--by the incredible generosity of prior generations who had invested some amount of their own personal fortunes in memorializing the dead.  It takes money, after all, to build a beautiful cemetery; and it takes money to maintain it, and the names of the burial society leaders, etched in stone, along with the names of photographs of cemetery past presidents upon the wood-paneled walls in the cemetery meeting space/shul/office, stood as eternal testimony that community leaders with money are usually the ones that make things happen.

That was certainly the case in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when waves of immigrants were attempting to escape their Jewishness, to a degree, and saw their practice of Judaism as an honorable expression of their identity but not as the sole purpose of their existence.  The New World offered a different communal model, one not centered on religious leadership but communal leadership, and its necessary conclusion, one could argue, may be found in the increasing secularization of North American Jewry.  And nowhere is this more obvious than in patterns of communal giving among secular Jews--as studies have indicated that wealthy, secular Jews support non-Jewish causes at a far greater rate than Jewish causes, relegating the Jewish communities to rely upon a shrinking number of philanthropists who truly care about the regeneration of Jewish life on one hand, while dancing on the head of a pin to encourage a new, younger generation to eventually invest its own dollars in a new Jewish life on the other. 

Except in the Orthodox community, one would never find a new generational initiative aimed at the support of Torah study, burial societies, or education and it would be really interesting to follow patterns of giving at the newer initiatives to compare the degree to which they are supported by older and younger people.  The Jewish connections among the young are so tenuous; we are so excited that they identify at all; but the support for building and maintaining those connections does not yet fundamentally come from the grassroots. 

This is the logical conclusion of the praiseworthy work of earlier generations that sought to create a foothold of safety and prosperity here in North America, that gathered its philanthropic forces to maintain its living and bury its dead, and leave for future generations the choice of what kind of Jews they want to be.

I walk the rows of a cemetery and I dream of inspiring a younger generation to wake up, to care, and to embrace history and meaning.  But the dream is often clouded by the mighty, inexorable force of a popular culture which overwhelms the particular Jewish choices of those earlier generations, who, at their time, were no less young--they just knew more and did more about the Jewish questions of their day.  And they did it in Yiddish and Hebrew; with an ability to think in the ethical language of faith and peoplehood; with a proximity to the exigencies of mobility and crisis that necessitated taking action--now! now! now!

What we've been left with, I sometimes fear, is a bagel with a hole.

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