Sunday, October 29, 2006

Orthodoxy and the Holocaust

In his book called Sliding to the Right, Samuel Heilman provides a summary of his insights from his previous publications and tries to provide a coherent sociological narrative of how American Orthodoxy became what it is today. One area, and there are many, where I disagree with Heilman’s account of the origins and development of Orthodoxy is the role he attributes to the Holocaust in shaping the attitudes of the community. He uses the Holocaust as a sort of deus- ex- machina to solve the problems that occur in his narrative. Why do charedim have so many children? Answer: the Holocaust. The charedi world was determined not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. Sounds right, except for one thing. Why didn’t all the other Jews that went through the Holocaust have a lot of kids? Even the Orthodox Frankfurt Jews in Washington Heights, who were certainly as familiar as the Hungarians and the American yeshiva people with the Holocaust, did not have large families. Second, each subsequent generation in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish life has more kids than the previous generation. If the grandparents, having lived through the terrible years of the Hitler period, didn’t think the Holocaust were grounds for having ten kids, why did the children need a victory over Nazism? No problem…the parents couldn’t, you see they were 'greener' (new immigrants) , but the children could. Maybe. And why do the grandchildren 60 years later have even more children? Aduh.

Similarly, Heilman uses the Holocaust as a way of giving an account of why charedim were secessionist from American culture and why they work so hard to form a counterculture. He gives scant attention to the fact that charedim were secessionist in Europe. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch used this technique with great success in Frankfurt, the Hungarians picked it up, and it became a dominant idea in Agudah circles. In Eastern Europe, where there wasn’t any reform and the kulturkampf was less severe, there was still a tradition of limited contact with secular Jews and the gentile environment. One doesn’t need a Holocaust to explain why Ultra-Orthodox life is inward looking and xenophobic. If the holocaust was crucial in the self definition of charedim, Reb Moshe Feinstein would never have said flat out, as he did, that a special Holocaust Remembrance Day is unnecessary.

My main objection to using the idea of the Holocaust as an explanation of any aspect of Orthodoxy is that it goes counter to my own experience. I remember, as if it was yesterday, Orthodox Jews after the war shpatzering (strolling) on Shabbus, speaking to each other in German and a mixture of Yiddish Deutsch as if the war had not occurred. Some Oberlander Jews continue to speak a dialect of Judeo- German even today. The Hungarians spoke Ungarish. All these people knew Yiddish. I assume they spoke German and Hungarian because they liked speaking the languages. They knew who the Germans were and what they did. They knew the Hungarian and Romanian fascists were not much better.

Let’s focus on shpatzering, Every attempt was made to carry on life just the way it was before the war. The women were farputzed, the men paid attention to how they looked. Nobody was rich, certainly not by today’s standards. But there was this European tradition of caring about and taking care of clothes. They pulled it off. A little fur trim here, a piece of jewelry there, the ensembles somehow came together. All this took effort and shopping and planning; and pretty much everyone did some of it. How many times did I hear that Budapest was the Paris of the East? (I remember thinking at one point why don’t they call Paris the Budapest of the West.) The idea was to be elegaant. And they were. Very much so. The acting out of this entire fantasy would have been impossible in a population that was traumatized by the Holocaust.

The primary way of dealing with the Holocaust was not denial, but an intense attempt to recreate what they had before the war. They wanted the same clothes, the same language, the same style shuls. They clustered according to regions, gubernias and towns. A favorite conversation piece began ‘’Where are you from? Oh, from Diniv , that’s near Bluzhov, west of Ropschitz ...Yes... I know, I know, I just said its close. Don’t tell me, I’ll remember. You go right just outside Diniv and then after maybe 10 kilometers you turn right again. Yes, yes I know where it is.’’ By the time I was ten I had heard the names of so many European towns and cities I used to play East European geography. Everyone knew what had happened to Diniv and Bluzhov. Everyone knew there was no going back. It was still reassuring to talk about it.

There was no serious talk about the Holocaust for the first fifteen or twenty years after the war. People were actually enjoying life during the Truman and Eisenhower years, not exactly what you expect from a community suffering traumas from the Holocaust. It is true people were hysterical about finding any relatives that might have survived. People searched the HIAS lists to see if anybody they might have known was still alive. They put ads in newspapers, here and in Israel. But the search for relatives was part of the attempt to get on with life. Not the sort of morbid preoccupation we have today with life in the concentration camps and the sadism of the Nazis. Books about the Holocaust didn’t appear in any number until the seventies and eighties. If everyone was so busy with the Holocaust, and if this was the dominating influence in their lives, why were there no publications? If you look at the many Yizkor (Holocaust Remeberance) books of the period, the treatment of the Holocaust is very superficial. Every attempt was to remember life before the Germans came. Everyone knew fully well what happened once they came.

When I was a young child, and the table conversation turned to relatives who perished during the Holocaust, I was told "The Nazis, yimach shemum, came and murdered everybody. Eat your peas."

I think there’s an important difference between Holocaust survivors and their families, and refugees or others who survived Nazism, but not in the camps (e.g. in the forests or behind Soviet lines.) In the case of Holocaust survivors, it is true that some of them, not all, were so traumatized they never fully recovered. Many managed to drive their children ‘crazy.’ There is merit to the idea of treating children of Holocaust survivors as a special psychiatric category when appropriate. The case is totally different with refugees, etc. Their traumas were in the context of the twentieth century not that abnormal, and being the resourceful Jews they were, they were determined to rebuild their lives as quickly as possible. I once heard a psychiatrist say that there’s a special category of children of refugees of the Holocaust. I think the psychiatrist was trying to make a living by inventing new traumas.

The public culture that Orthodox Jews created after the war was not the culture of Holocaust survivors. It was a culture of refugees and religious Jews who came to America before and after the war. Even when Holocaust survivors told their stories, and I remember a few from my youth, they did not linger and repeat the stories endlessly. Public discourse was always about the present and the future, as it should be.

15 Comments:

At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post and point well made. It is a cop out blaming the holocaust for everything. A propos Hungarian, I remeber as a child at my Grandfather's table on shabbos it was forbidden to talk "der treifener lushon fin di reshu'im" Hungarian - though my mother and her sisters could not for the life of them say anything private or intimate other than in Hungarian. The fallout is that I understand hungarian to this day though can hardly utter a word.

 
At 6:12 AM, Anonymous Naftali said...

Your hypothesis is generally consistent with my own experience growing up as the child of survivors. However, I thing it needs some fine tuning, at least on the basis of my own experience. At some point in the 1960s the survivor community to which I belonged began to take on a more haredi tinge. I davened in a chassidishe shteibel in Boro Park organized by survivors in about 1960. In the early 60s all the men came to shul in business suits. If I recall, the women were already wearing sheitels to shul, but for the most part left their hear uncovered otherwise. In the late 60s early 70s many of the men began wearing bekeshers to shul. This was not accompanied by any increased intensity of observance, and I sensed that it was an attempt to recapture some of the flavor of the alter heim. The attitude was far removed from the current haredi attitude of separation and rejection of modernism. It was a nostalgic move. These survivors wanted very much to be Americans, especially as Americanism at that time in Boro Park was not perceived as threatening yiddishkeit. I still remember vividly the genuine grief and shock in the shteibel on the Friday that Kennedy was assassinated; as if their President had fallen. Nonetheless I wonder whether these people's return to traditional garb was a precursor to the ideological haredism that we see today, or if at least the reawakening to some forms of the "old time religion" provided an environment for the growth of ideological haredism.

 
At 12:34 PM, Anonymous shael siegel said...

Interesting. I just finished reading the Heilman book for the second time. The holocaust feature did jump out at me , but not entirely in the same way. The holocaust put into sharper focus the contempt that the haredi community always held for the "goyim". If you will, the holocaust provided them with an excuse, a confirmation of their of their jaundiced view of the world. It is a seige mentality that grows stronger, unfortunately, as they pick up steam and momentum. The irony is while they seek equality before the law they exhibit unprecedented prejudice towards their gentile neighbors.

 
At 1:25 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

naftali…interesting comment. So I am clear, you do agree with my distinction between refugees and survivors? Second your description raises an interesting problem I am thinking about…viz. how good will and nostalgia turned and became an ideological prison. At least half the charedi world of the 50’s is walking around scratching itself how they/everyone have become so very frum. I think a similar development happened to the Mizrachi world in Israel. One minute it’s Bnei Akiva and kum sitz and before they knew what hit them they get Kahane and Effi Eitam. All the moderates wanted to do is support their hesder boys out of a sense of identification with their world. I am not clear, though how or why the door shuts so that people can’t undo an identification.

 
At 6:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with your thesis is that whatever the difference between Holocaust survivors and refugees - and of course there is difference - the Holocaust survivors acted the same way! For ex:


"Let’s focus on shpotzering, Every attempt was made to carry on life just the way it was before the war. The women were farputzed, the men paid attention to how they looked. Nobody was rich, certainly not by today’s standards. But there was this European tradition of caring about and taking care of clothes. They pulled it off. A little fur trim here, a piece of jewelry there, the ensembles somehow came together. All this took effort and shopping and planning; and pretty much everyone did some of it. How many times did I hear that Budapest was the Paris of the East? (I remember thinking at one point why don’t they call Paris the Budapest of the West.) The idea was to be elegaant. And they were. Very much so. The acting out of this entire fantasy would have been impossible in a population that was traumatized by the Holocaust."

The Holocaust survivors also dressed up and went shapiziring! At least as much if not more than the others. And they certainly dressed their kids - as a group, they were probably more motivated to give their kids the good life than anyone else.

"I assume they spoke German and Hungarian because they liked speaking the languages. They knew who the Germans were and what they did. They knew the Hungarian and Romanian fascists were not much better."

And the holocaust survivors also went on speaking their native languages. People probably do that because it's hard to adopt a new native language midlife, don't you think?

"The primary way of dealing with the Holocaust was not denial, but an intense attempt to recreate what they had before the war. They wanted the same clothes, the same language, the same style shuls. "

All true for the survivors also.

The talk about the Holocaust comes in small part from some survivors writing memoirs, but more from a generation that didn't have as much direct information looking for it. Refugees, and children of survivors and of refugees living in community of survivors, didn't need as much explicit talk - it was in the atmosphere and everyone knew about it. Most shuls had at least some survivors. The next generation wanted more explicit information, the first generation or two didn't need it. The lack of overt discussion doesn't mean the community wasn't reacting to the Holocaust. It means that the information was part of the subtext of experience, taken for granted. "Traumatized" is not quite the right word, because people were resourceful - but I disagree with your thesis 100%. Virtually everything that was done in the 50s and 60s was informed by reaction to the Holocaust, and the walking ghosts populated the collective unconscious. There were dozens of peopel who dressed up and went for walks on shabbat who either never fully recovered or had relatives who never fully recovered, and everyone was motivated by rebuilding - it just was so taken for granted there was no need to talk about it.

 
At 6:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that Heilman overuses the Holocaust, and that it's his deus ex machina, but that's just because b'mechilas kvodo, he doesn't understand much of what he sees, and has no other explanations on tap. I agree, for ex, that the separatism has nothing to do with the Holocaust; in fact, IME the Holocaust survivors were probably less separatist than others, depending on where they originally came from.

But to go back to some of your points:

"Even the Orthodox Frankfurt Jews in Washington Heights, who were certainly as familiar as the Hungarians and the American yeshiva people with the Holocaust, did not have large families"

The Frankfort Jews knew less about the Holocaust than others and I believe they mostly came here before the war, as a group. Refugees from Poland and Hungary experienced more and/or knew what happened to their immediate families. They also were more familiar with antisemitism before the war.


"If the grandparents, having lived through the terrible years of the Hitler period, didn’t think the Holocaust were grounds for having ten kids, why did the children need a victory over Nazism? No problem…the parents couldn’t, you see they were 'greener' (new immigrants) , but the children could. Maybe."

You omit health. The children of survivors and refugees were as a group probably not as healthy, some were born in Europe and had lived through difficult years in childhood. American kids are more fertile. In addition, children of Holocaust survivors were anxious to rebuild, but also worried about it. The grandchildren think they are triumphing in a way the parents never thought and have much more cultural self-confidence. They don't worry as much about supporting the kids, about educating them, and all that. It's also true that it's harder and harder to justify role division in Orthodoxy without having large families, as families w/ two or three kids are only going to have a few years when it makes sense to argue for the mother being more involved with child care. The more these roles come under attack, the more emphasis on childbearing.


"If the holocaust was crucial in the self definition of charedim, Reb Moshe Feinstein would never have said flat out, as he did, that a special Holocaust Remembrance Day is unnecessary"

Disagree. His point is about how the Holocaust is understood by Orthodox Jews (or haredim) not about its importance.

 
At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If the holocaust was crucial in the self definition of charedim, Reb Moshe Feinstein would never have said flat out, as he did, that a special Holocaust Remembrance Day is unnecessary"

Think for a moment about the Chazon Ish. Much of what he did was explicitly in response to the Holocaust. Yet he thought Holocaust Rememberance unnecessary. So did many Holocaust survivors! To this group, the idea that you need a special day to remember the Holocaust trivialized the Holocaust - both as events and its religious significance. It also, to them, trivialized the loss of the religious infrastructure. Many of them thought that given the leading lights who'd died out in the Holocaust, it was not for them to create a communal day of mourning. The CI pretty much writes this - that anyone who understands the loss of the Holocaust is not about to come in the place of the great people who died and make a communal mourning day as though the community genuinely has leadership capable of so doing. This attitude, btw, goes further to explaining the inertia, communal social and intellectual, in haredi circles than anything else, and it's 100% in reaction to the Holocaust.

 
At 7:10 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

shael siegel…almost every active Jewish group has some xenophobia. As for the special post war charedi contempt for the goyim… I would say any charedi refugee or survivor of that period who felt there was something deeply wrong with the morality and culture of Europe during the Nazi period, with the exception of England and a few other decent places, was thinking rationally and not expressing a jaundiced view of the world. There were so many people in their countries of origin that would have been happy to see them dead. I am sure you are familiar with the books of Jan T. Gross on postwar Poland.

 
At 9:09 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Anonymous #1 …I agree both groups shpatzeered and spoke languages they had learnt in Europe. I also agree many survivors paid special attention to their kids, in some instances as I understand it, overbearingly so. I agree everyone knew about the Holocaust. I would not say that for non-survivors it was ’part of the subtext of experience.' Survivors walked around with their experience daily. Not so everyone else. We agree there were ’walking ghosts', the survivors. I wouldn’t say these walking ghosts ’populated the collective unconscious.’ I agree that besides the survivors who never fully recovered family and friends were aware that people were suffering. Except for spouses and children, I think this latter group is similar to friends, relatives of someone who is very ill.

Anonymous #2.Your last reason, interesting as it is, supports a non- Holocaust explanation. I offered an inflation theory of signaling explanation in my post of 8 /27 .I was thinking how to test the various ideas and the following occurred to me. Does anyone know if successive generations of the old yishuv in Jerusalem have more kids? Do edah hacaredis people today have more children than in the time of Reb Y.C. Sonnenfeld and Rav Y.L. Diskin? If yes, there goes the holocaust theory.

Anonymous # 3…I am working from memory, but wasn’t Reb Moshe’s reason that we already had Tisha B’av ? I may be wrong on my whole point, and in the end I can’t really prove my conjecture. I concede the point. I fail to understand your last words that the inertia is a 100% in reaction to the Holocaust. Isn’t the feeling of ‘Who are we in comparison to earlier generations?’ true of every generation? I point out, as you must know from the kidush cup incident that the CI wasn’t exactly shy of issuing rulings that were novel, or at least that is my impression.

 
At 11:25 PM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

I agree with your distinction between survivors and refugees. On one granfather's side 6 out or 9 siblings survived. 3 were in death camps, one was in a Soviet labor camp behind the lines and 2 were refugees (partisans, forests, passing as gentiles - that sort of stuff). I agree with your distinction insofar as building families and relations with children. I DISAGREE insofar as trying to retain elements of "elegance" etc. Both groups did this. Also, the refugees were affected by many of the same things - being pulled away from spouses/parents/children. Many "refugees" fled right before roundups, etc. and were permanently separated from loved ones. They went through many of the same experiences. It's not a simple distinction

 
At 12:56 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

ben bayit...you are right is saying not only refugees were 'elegaant'(see my response to anon. #1). Everybody participated, though one can speculate what would have happened if the ratio of survivors to refugees was very different.Had there been a predominantly survivor culture, had the public space been run by survivors spatzeering would have had a different face. Many/some survivors were heavy with grief.You needed a lighter heart to play that game enthusiastically.

Your case of refugees right before a roundups is significant and indeed is an intermediate case. I was using the term refugee the way Hannah Arendt used it in a brilliant essay on what it is to be a refugee and how it differs from an immigrant, namely for Jews who ran away from Hitler in the 30's.

 
At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Naftali said...

I would agree that some survivors/refugees were so rocked by the experience that they became crazy, and so your survivors/refugees distinction makes sense. But I grew up with an eye to the future: get an education, get a profession (preferably in math or the sciences that spoke a universal language so I could relocate easily if there was another war and we had to leave the US).

The point you are making became apparent to me when I married a 4th generation American girl (now a woman). She had been raised on the Elie Wiesel/Fackenheim version of the Holocaust, and initially had trouble accepting my mother's unheroic, matter of fact attitude to what she went through. To the extent I heard stories, it was the Maus-like version of events. My wife quickly realized that you take your victims as you find them, and we are living happily ever after.

As for how nostalgia becomes an ideological prison-- excellent question -- I can't track the progression. Perhaps a beginning of understanding may be with Haym Solovetchik's article in Tradition (1994)--Rupture & Reconstruction.

 
At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a mistake to assume that because people still speak German or Hungarian or Polish they somehow have not been affected by Holocaust survival. They spoke those languages and perhaps tried to act in ways that were natural to them after the Holocaust in an effort to try to overcome the trauma, to deny it perhaps, or simply to reach some normalcy. That certainly was the case with my parents.
As for the argument in Heilman's Sliding to the Right, I would suggest that his argument talks not about the actual haredi holocaust survivors but about the community as a whole. As a community, the haredim have allowed the Holocaust to play a key role in much of their self-consciousness and ideology. They see themselves as rebuilding what was lost -- with a far greater passion then they did before the war (hence the increasing haredism).Their argument that "we don't need a holocaust remembrance day" comes from the fact that in a sense they believe that EVERY DAY IS FOR US HOLOCAUST REMBERANCE DAY. They did not think one day alone did it -- especially one created by the Zionists. They saw churban as a recurrent element. Moreover, as this consciousness became a subtext of rebuilding and religious reconstruction, it became part of the entire haredi worldview. Mixing with that were the structural and cultural norms of large families. Younger haredim have more children than their survivor parents in part because that has become normative in their world and because it allows them to distingusih themselves from that generation and even outdo it. If I read Heilman right, he does not make the simple case of Holocaust survival leads to children. He argues that there is a syndrome of expectations and norms that begin with a view of what best insures survival and then matters get increasingly layered and complex

 
At 10:10 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous…you repeat the claim but I fail to see any additional evidence other than an attribution as to what they were really thinking. Even you own account is layered with notions like “outdoing the previous generation,” and “matters that get increasingly layered and complex.” Reconstructing a community is not exactly Holocaust consciousness, since I never said that people were unaware of what existed prior to the war vs. what existed after the war.

 
At 5:26 PM, Blogger Michael Metrinick's Bloc said...

For those that might be interested there is a great new Online Holocaust Resource.

Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team

maintains a website at:
http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/

 

Post a Comment

|

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home