Opinion | In Praise of Tribalism

Thoughts on two eight-year-old converts—and Michael Chabon.
By | Jul 09, 2018

This is a column about Jewish belonging—which some call tribalism. It’s about group identification: the question of whether to count oneself into “the Jewish people” with its proud achievements and miraculous survival or, because of our internal divisiveness and the wrongs occasionally committed in our name, to count oneself out. More precisely, it’s about the raw emotions this topic can unleash in us when we least expect it.

On a recent spring morning, a Jewish colleague and I met at a Manhattan tea shop known for its pastries and its closely packed tables. To one side of us sat a brown-skinned couple speaking Arabic—the man bearded, the woman wearing a headscarf. On the other side of us was a young white family—mom, dad and boy-girl twins who appeared to be about eight years old. Noting the children’s damp hair, the boy’s blond helmet neatly parted and combed, the girl’s wet tendrils clinging to her neck beneath a beribboned ponytail, I pegged them as Middle American tourists, fresh from their morning showers at a nearby B&B.

Cliché or not, our comfortably contiguous breakfast parties struck me as a living rebuttal to Trumpian nativism. No need to “make America great again,” I thought. Let’s just reclaim the old motto, E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one.”

Just then, a server arrived and placed a three-tiered caddy containing a luscious array of tea sandwiches, tarts, cookies and petit fours before the wide-eyed twins. The seemingly WASPy mom and dad raised their teacups for a toast, grinned at their adorable children and, to my astonishment, bellowed, “Mazel tov!”

Upper West Siders are nothing if not nosy, so I asked the twins, “Are you celebrating your birthdays?”

“Not their birthdays,” the dad replied, brightly. “Their conversions! We’ve come straight from the mikvah!” He touched his daughter’s wet hair and further volunteered that the children were adopted and he and his wife had been raising them in Judaism, but they and the twins had decided to make it official. “You’re looking at two brand-new Jews!”

With no warning whatsoever, I burst into tears, not a mist of kumbaya but an unbidden flood of raw emotion. Visceral. Atavistic. Tribal.

I managed not to speak my first thought, the knee-jerk reaction some of us can’t seem to outgrow: “Take that, Hitler: two more!” But when I tried to say something coherent about the legacy, history and heritage that now belonged to those sweet little children, all I could do was whisper, “We’re Jewish, too,” before my voice turned to sobs.

The mother, observing my meltdown, explained to the children that I was crying happy tears for them because they’d become official members of the Jewish people. It showed that their conversions weren’t only important to their family but important to all Jews because we’re responsible for each other.

“Amen,” I breathed, at last. “Mazel tov! Welcome to the tribe!”

My next emotional spasm occurred some weeks later. I was reading the May 14 commencement speech given by the celebrated author Michael Chabon at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, during which he gored two of the American Jewish community’s most sacred cows: uncritical support for Israel and promotion of endogamous marriage (Jews marrying Jews).

While some defended it, many others have excoriated his one-two punch, delivered from the podium of Reform Judaism’s preeminent rabbinic institution, as a double-whammy betrayal of the Jewish people.

Since I agree with most of Chabon’s views on Israel/Palestine, I felt neither distressed nor betrayed. What inflamed me so unexpectedly was his fevered condemnation of in-group marriage. Although he’d married a Jew, fellow author Ayelet Waldman, and described how they’d raised four Jewishly well-educated children, he demanded that the rest of us avoid doing likewise. He didn’t just defend Jews who marry out; he rebuked Jews who marry in. Jewish couples are “a ghetto of two,” he said. Jewish endogamy is comparable to “a gated community, a restricted country club or a clutch of 800 zealots lodged in illusory safety behind a wall” in segregated Hebron.

Going even further, he conflated Israel’s right-wing government and ultra-Orthodox fanatics with any Jews—including rational, mainstream and progressive Jews—who prefer their children to marry within the tribe. He described how he had erased “the comforting line” he used to draw between “the nice kind of religion and the nasty”—between the ethical Judaism of “peace and justice and lovingkindness” and the extremist Judaism of mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, or the militant fundamentalists who throw rocks at little Jewish girls “for the sin of daring to learn.”

Like my involuntary tears in the tea shop, the intensity of my reaction to Chabon’s speech took me by surprise. I wanted to grab him by the neck and beg him not to give up on us; not to opt out of the “nice kind” of Judaism; not to indict in-marriage as ghettoizing. I wanted to persuade him to value and build on the positive aspects of tribalism—the power of solidarity in service of activism, the simple pleasure of belonging to and identifying with a particular group, whether it’s “Jews,” “fathers” or “writers”—to advance not just the group’s self-interest but its broader life-enhancing goals.

I wanted to plead the case for in-marriages, citing his own as Exhibit A. He and Waldman together have doubled down on their resistance to extremism, including racism and xenophobia perpetrated by Israeli or American Jews. Surely he could endorse unions of two questioning, conscience-bound Jewish partners who refuse to cede the Judaism of justice and lovingkindness to those who preach the Judaism of exclusion and hate.

Finally, I wished I could introduce him to two little brand-new Jews and the family who chose to opt into the Jewish people because, on balance, we’re a group worth belonging to. Unfortunately, I was so touched by them, I forgot I was a journalist and never asked their names.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is working on her twelfth book, a personal exploration of shame and secrecy.

One thought on “Opinion | In Praise of Tribalism

  1. Rick Richman says:

    Natan Sharansky in his 2008 book, “Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy:” “the best defense of the free world will come from those who cherish a unique way of life, for they will always have a life truly worth defending.”

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