Thursday, December 30, 2010

Midwest Orthodoxy

There is a post up over at Dr. Alan Brill's blog about Orthodox communities in the Midwest. The author sets up a model of Orthodox life in these communities, contrasting it to the East coast, and makes the case for why Centrist Orthodoxy may no longer be viable for such communities when faced with competition from Haredi Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox movements. According to the author, Midwest Centrists operate on an immigrant narrative: "they came from Europe, they became American, and they remained Orthodox." This is in contrast to the "elitist" narrative that dominates on the East Coast. The author is not clear what he means by East coast elites. I assume he is referring to the ideals of being able to engage in advanced Talmud while going to the Ivies as exemplified by schools such as Maimonides in Boston. It is certainly the case that there are specific Orthodox congregations in cities like Boston, New York, and Washington DC that are packed with professionals with advanced degrees in a way that is just mind-boggling. Whatever the potential long term weaknesses of the elitist model, the immigrant narrative is of little use for people who are already several generations removed from Europe. What is left of this narrative is a vague Americanized cultural Orthodoxy as exemplified by shul clubs. This leaves Midwestern Centrist Orthodoxy without a firm ideology with which to stand against those from either side of the ideological spectrum.

I am a Midwesterner, the product of Columbus OH and McKeesport PA. There is a lot of truth in this model of Midwest cultural Orthodoxy and its origins in the immigrant experience. McKeesport, even in my time, was quite literally an immigrant community. (The joke was that everyone in McKeesport was Hungarian even the gentiles.) That being said, in this knocking of the Midwest, there is something missing. My religious experience growing up was very non-partisan. There was no sense of us versus them; we were Jews. There were some Jews who were more observant and there were some who were less observant. I think there is something very healthy about growing up like that. The fact that fewer Orthodox Jews growing up today, particularly those "elites" on the East coast, have this experience is unfortunate and a source of many of the problems today. Ideologies like biology are also subject to the laws of Darwinian evolution. The ideologies that survive to reproduce a next generation are not necessarily "better," just better at indoctrinating the next generation under the given circumstances. Honestly tolerant non-partisan ideologies, lacking a strong sense of us versus them, are almost always the losers in this struggle.

The Orthodox community in McKeesport has almost completely died out and Columbus shows little sign of being able to expand. Above and beyond ideology, there are pragmatic reasons for this. As a single person in his late 20s, the most obvious one is the dating pool. Dating requires a baseline pool of other available singles. No Orthodox community in the Midwest has that baseline. What happened in McKeesport, where you had just a few families and the children just married each other until everyone was related somehow, is not an option today. If you are Orthodox and single you essentially have to move to New York. This has led to communities like Washington Heights, full of Orthodox singles from Midwest communities, including Columbus. Several years ago, oblivious to these dynamics, I moved from Washington Heights back to Columbus. I did this right at the time in my life when I wanted to start seriously dating. In good consciousness, I could never recommend someone in a similar situation to do what I did and move away from my dating pool. Of course, this dooms a community like Columbus far more so than any lack of a coherent ideology.


Clarissa said...

In my area in the Midwest, many of the students have never heard the word "Jew." At my department we are still debating whether that's good or not.

AS said...

A few clarifications and comments:

1) I wasn't trying to knock the Midwest - just exploring the differences.

2) I think that there is a huge difference between a full blown ideology and a narrative. Ideologies are about cultural reproduction, narratives are about sustaining identities.

3) Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit would have enough of a MO population for dating - save for the exit of MO young adults to the East Coast who never return.

4) McKeesport was the birthplace of a number of people who went on to become Elites. So there is hope. ;)