America’s Unorthodox Orthodox Jews: A Conversation With Professor Jeffrey Gurock
Source: The Jewish Press, 5-20-09
He put on tefillin every day. He was rarely absent from shul. He ate only kosher. But during the busy season in the garment industry, this Bronx Jew who grew up in the first half of the 20th century worked on Shabbat. Can such a person be considered an Orthodox Jew? Today many Jews would answer “no.” However, this gentleman and many others like him appear in a new book, Orthodox Jews in America, which examines the many shades of American Orthodoxy over the past 350 years. The book’s author, Jeffrey Gurock, has written and edited 14 other works, is a former associate editor of American Jewish History, and currently is Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. The Jewish Press recently interviewed him about his book.
The Jewish Press: Your book, devoted to American Jewish Orthodoxy, includes Jews who work on Shabbat. In what sense is someone who works on Shabbat Orthodox? Gurock: He’s Orthodox in the sense that he understands what the requirements of halacha are. This individual is very guilty about his inability to observe Shabbat, but there are certain basic economic exigencies that force him to work to support his family.
Some would argue that working on Shabbat makes a person, a priori, not Orthodox. Obviously people are entitled to their opinion, but no one observes all the mitzvot. What makes someone Orthodox is his understanding that one is required to observe the mitzvot. Someone could be a Reform Jew and observe many of the mitzvot, but he’s not Orthodox because this is a personal decision he makes not based upon a belief in a halachic tradition.
People growing up today don’t realize how prevalent this type of Orthodoxy was, especially pre-World War II and while the Blue Laws were still in effect. Fortunately today American Jews are more affluent and they’re in an America that’s far more accepting of them. When I teach undergraduates and talk about this phenomenon [of Orthodox Jews being less than fully observant] they look at me like this is a strange world. And then I say, “Go home and if you’re privileged to have grandparents who are living, ask them about this Orthodox life.” And they come back and [their grandparents] all have stories – either about themselves or about the person who sat next to them in shul who had this type of difficulty.
Can you talk about America’s first rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Rice? He comes from Bavaria in 1840, arrives in Baltimore, and discovers a community where many of the members are not particularly observant. It’s a very big problem for him. As a European rabbi, his first approach is to take a highly resistant, exclusionary approach toward his congregants. So he says he will not let anyone have an aliyah if he is mechalel Shabbos b’farhesya [publicly desecrating Shabbat]. But then he changes the rule and says you can get an aliyah, but the congregation shouldn’t say amen to the brachah. And eventually he just gives up. He ends up leaving the rabbinate because he’s just uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable with the state of religious observance in America. Yes, it’s a very different environment than Europe. But Europe is also changing. There’s a stereotype that all our ancestors in Eastern Europe were frum, and then they came to America and they threw it all overboard. My point is, number one, people don’t throw everything overboard; they maintain plenty. And two, Eastern Europe during that time period is far from 100 percent observant. You have radicals [who become ritually unobservant] and then you have [ordinary] people who are beginning to observe less than they did in the past.
You have some interesting information in the book about kosher and non-kosher methods of shaving. Can you share? There is a graphic in the book of an advertisement in 1932 for the first electric razor that reads, “A new invention to prevent a transgression.” So here’s an example of how the ability to be shomer mitzvot is enhanced by modern technology. My grandfather, who I’m named after, used a stinking depilatory. But when the electric razor comes along you can look like other Americans without either stinking up your apartment or violating the tradition. But just to show you the nuances involved, at the same time that [people are using depilatories and the new electric shaver], the Jewish Forum, an Orthodox newspaper closely connected to the OU, has ads for regular Schick razors. Now that doesn’t mean the OU endorsed it, but advertisers are obviously serving a constituency. If no one was buying those shavers, they wouldn’t be advertising.
What happens to American Orthodoxy after World War II? A decline numerically in the numbers of people who identify with Orthodoxy, but those who have remained become more observant than any prior generation before them. Also the influx into America of Jews who for a variety of reasons did not come here until after the Shoah adds a great deal of vitality and strictness to Orthodox behavior.
In one of your previous books, Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports, you examine this new, stricter American Orthodoxy through the controversy surrounding yeshivas – such as Torah Vodaath and Chaim Berlin – playing in Orthodox basketball leagues that allowed girls to attend games and sometimes featured cheerleading squads and post-game dances. Can you elaborate?
[These yeshivas were concerned with] elevating the athletes to a status in the yeshiva that they didn’t want. They wanted the star of the yeshiva to be the scholar or rebbe, not the coach or athlete. Another problem for the yeshivas was that the whole environment of sports was a very secular one. So Chaim Berlin had a team and it dropped out. Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem had a team and then it dropped out. Torah Vodaath had a surreptitious team and then [Rabbi Gedalia Schorr] squelched it. And yet in the early ’60s [these yeshivas formed] a league called the Mesifta High School Athletic Association. [The administrations of these yeshivas basically said] that you can have a league but you’re not going to have dances after the games and you’re not going to have girls at the games. In its own right, this was a degree of accommodation.
What happened to this league? In the mid ’60s it just died. There wasn’t a moment in time when someone said, “Don’t play.” It just drifted away.
Looking forward, what trends do you see taking place in the Orthodox community? I’m going to duck that question. I have enough trouble understanding the past. I don’t want to predict the future.