Who Is the Wicked Son?

Allison Benedikt's essay on the loss of her Zionist innocence continues to excite and enrage readers of this blog. The mail has been astonishing, in volume, and intensity, and I will post more of it later. But what I can say is this: There is an extraordinary push-back against some of Benedikt's assumptions about Israel, and Judaism. Much of the mail has centered a single idea Benedikt expressed in her rebuttal to my original critique of her Awl piece. It was this: "John (her husband) and I lead a seder every year and I've taken to making my own Haggadah because I'm not comfortable with many of the traditional stories and blessings. The wicked child bit is something I've deleted."

This came in response to my suggestion that she was behaving as the wicked child behaves, asking what does any of this (meaning, in the current context, the travails of Israel) have to do with me? The first response out of the gate to the announcement of the Benedikt Haggadah came from Yaacov Lozowick, the historian of the Holocaust, who tweeted, in Benedikt's direction:

The cyber-argument that is taking place at Goldblog, between Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (and soon Tablet) and Village Voice editor Allison Benedikt, presents two classic symptoms of the current problem about American Jews talking about Israel.

Allison's original piece, "Life After Zionist Summer Camp," appeared in Awl and you can read it here. Jeffrey responded to the piece with his own take, calling it "Giving Up on the Zionist Dream."  You can read it here.

From what I could tell, there was then a nasty Twitter post, followed by I believe what is called a Re-Tweet, our own era's manifestation of scrawling messages on bathroom stalls, and that seems to be where things stand.

In the world of electronic media ubiquity, anything and everything someone says about Israel, Zionism and Jewishness sticks around forever.  When it's said by someone who writes from a well-known, New York City-based publication like the Village Voice, it carries a "weight" of credibility, even though the author is a film critic, not an expert on Middle Eastern policy and politics.

To complicate matters, both writers are, in relative terms, young.  They are representative examples of a generational debate about Jewishness and Zionism that is very much at the core of an American Jewish identity dilemma with regard to Israel.  It may best be summed up by the rabbinic dictum, "All of Israel (read, "the Jewish people") are responsible for one another."  How you respond to that idea from the Sages places you on one side or the other of the debate.

Allison Benedikt's piece, written in the voice of lost innocence, where post-camp reality and the sometimes dirty business of building an actual state in a hostile region, was certainly what raised my eyebrows when I read it.  Her internal travelogue of disillusionment, exacerbated by the painfully public recollection of her family's rejection of her non-Jewish spouse--who also happens to have strong anti-Israel feelings--made this a public fight waiting to happen.  Too many live wires there.

Everyone has the right to write what they please.  The question is:  to what degree are we responsible for what it is we say?

This strikes at the heart of Jeffrey Goldberg's response.  His reaction, like mine, I'll admit, was to be offended and almost insulted by the ruse.  In this day and age, can one really talk about "lost innocence?"  I always felt it was a stretch for Hemingway a hundred years ago.  Today?  American Jews for two generations at least have been phenomenally educated--naivete about Israel's realities cannot really be an excuse for anything, except an invitation to grow up and struggle with life's intrusive difficulties which are made manifest everywhere we turn when we leave childhood:  poverty and hatred; politics and war; hunger and homelessness.  This list goes on and on.  Bursting the bubble on the idealized world of Jewish summer camp is, arguably, what we're supposed to do when we leave that bubble.

"A Jew is an outsider with a critical mind," George L. Mosse used to tell his students in Madison.  This exemplar of Bildung, a towering figure of German Jewish secularism, whose own family's publishing house in Berlin eschewed Zionism, was a committed Zionist himself because he grew up in a different time and realized that the Jewish people needed a national home.  That doesn't mean one is not critical or blindly obedient.  But it means that one engages from a place of identification with your own--despite the pain of betrayal and virulent disagreement. 

I don't deny that Allison Benedikt knows this.  I am sure she feels it in her bones.  What alarms me about this whole debate occurred in the back and forth between Goldberg and Benedikt when Benedikt wrote the following:  "This is not meant to be snide, but John and I lead a seder every year and I've taken to making my own Haggadah because I'm not comfortable with many of the traditional stories and blessings. The wicked child bit is something I've deleted. But anyway, to you, aren't I the one who doesn't know how to ask?"

I was blown away by this.  The structure of the Seder is built on the number 4 (4 questions, 4 cups, 4 children) There is a long intellectual tradition of writing creative Haggadahs but to delete a core element, to delete a *child* seems to be severing a connection to the people that cuts to the heart of the Jewish peoplehood debate today.  A Seder without a Wicked Child is not a Seder.  A Jewish people without all its voices is not a people.  It's an American denominationalist religion where land, history and language gather dust.  That may work for some people; but it obviously doesn't work for others. 

As some American Jews throw up their arms and wash their hands of the Zionist project (some braggart named Kung-Fu Jew writes about this idea in the same messianic terms as fin-de-siecle Jews clamoring toward acculturation as the solution to the Jewish question):  " I salute her and hope so many others will also tell their elders to shut up, sit down and listen for once. Their control of the Jewish community is waning and they can listen now, or they can listen when we're in charge."  That is, until some other Kung-Fu Jew comes along and kicks you off your pedestal, dude.

I will add one other thought.  On a number of occasions, I have counseled couples who struggle mightily with the sinful rejections they experience from families who cannot embrace a non-Jewish spouse.  It is deeply painful and can tear families apart.  Time, distance from the original hurt and the continued integrity of engagement, however, can bring families to a new place.  This is true for families and I believe it is true for the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

The family is in a crisis.  No hiding that.  But if all 4 children aren't at the table, the family falls apart.

The Sages have another teaching on the number 4 that is worth remembering.  At Sukkot, the holiday that commemorates our Exodus from Egypt and journey to Freedom in the Land of Israel, we are commanded to hold in our hands 4 species--a lulav (which produces sweet dates), myrtle (a sweet fragrance), an etrog (fragrance and taste) and willow (which has neither taste nor fragrance.)  One represents the Jew who learns; another is the Jew who does good deeds; a third is one who learns and does good deeds.  And the 4th -- the willow -- does neither.  But we hold all 4 together because we are diverse and most strong when we are united.

I teach that text every year at Sukkot.  Kids love it; and so do adults, especially those adults who have experienced the pain of disillusionment with how things turned out in life.  The notion of finding unity in diversity can be a quiet and fulfilling redemptive act.

You can't tweet that.