Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | September 17, 2012

Longing and Lazarus

There’s a piece I read the other day by a fellow blogger who speaks an oft heard line longing for a truly Orthodox culture in America. He means well and truthfully, I don’t differ much with his perspective. But there’s an equally oft heard refrain in the comments that we’ll have to wait five generations. And yes, that’s five… not four or less… but five or more. I guess that leaves me out? Who counts these things? Do they wave a NASCAR flag or something as each generation passes some sort of booth that all jurisdictions agree is the finish line?

And while I can concede both these positions but really not knowing how to reconcile them… or even that I would try(!), given the day is Rosh Hashanah, I randomly wandered over to the website for my business partner’s synagogue – just to see how they present themselves – our brothers or fore-fathers in the faith and all that. Amazingly , the website is similar in speed, content and all the rest.. yeah… in a nutshell… most American religious websites could use a facelift. Let’s face it…looks like we’re both running these things to inform rather than attract people. Reminiscent of the Wall Street Tombstone ads they run to announce a public offering… but not get themselves in legal trouble or offend anyone.

But what I was fascinated to learn on their Cantor’s page where they posted different voicings for the hymns on the website (soprano, alto, tenor, etc.) was not how but what they were singing. For they included in their hymns both “America the Beautiful” and Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus”… a song you know even without knowing that you know it. “The New Colussus” was written by Lazarus as she became more engaged with her Jewish heritage (read Orthodixie term “revert”), became aware of the plight of Askenazi Jews escaping pogroms that followed the death of Alexander II in Tsarist Russia. Sound like many of “us” are (or ought to be) joined at the hip? Sure. Anyway… the text first appeared as a sonnet as follows:

“The New Colossus”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

And here’s a photographic reading of the poem that gives something of the ideas behind it:

There are musical renditions by Irving Berlin (“I Lift My Lamp”), Alla Bogoslovskay and others, but what struck me in this is not just how different these renditions are (and how bombastic they can become!), but how this synagogue includes a song in its high holidays that celebrates an event of exodus, an American icon welcoming exiles (the Statue of Liberty), and an American heroine (Emma Lazarus) all in one. Add to that the fact that the author’s last name has wonderful Christian allusions to resurrection, and you’ve got an event that takes a perfect Trifecta and raises it by one: You literally can’t lose. Very practical, down-to-earth and at the same time inspiring. Okay… great for Jewish American culture… and great for American culture as well.

Where’s that leave us?Back where we started! See here’s the trick… there weren’t naysayers telling folks like Emma to wait around for a specifically Jewish American culture, nor were they telling her and others like her they had to wait umpty-ump generations. Emma just felt the inspiration and she went for it. She had the talent… and there you are. Others picked it up, and look at what you have. And I’ll bet if a bunch of rabbis and good pious folks in their synagogues sat around wringing their hands, longing for a specifically Jewish culture, but not doing anything about it… ’cause it’s gonna come from someone else… heck…  they’d still be waiting for it.  But what the Jewish people have going for them among so many things is that unlike so many Christians… they weren’t going to wait for someone to “do” for them (more a contemporary than historic problem I think)… but knew that if they wanted something, they were going to have to do it themselves. More than that though, they knew that they had to appeal to a wider audience then just their own little slice… that to do well for themselves, they had to offer something more broadly, something to others. Be a part of them in a little way, offer something of your life, and they might be a part of your own life in a little bit, and offer something of their life in return. And most of all, what we could benefit from lies in recapturing the sense of Joy that they have preserved in their exodus to a new land… and what we should preserve in our sense of Joy in repentance and resurrection… in both cases an exodus from the land of the dead within ourselves, and our restoration as a people of God’s Kingdom. David literally danced with joy! And where do we?

So no, I don’t think the rabbis were aghast and horrified with Emma’s work, nor do I think they even told Emma to buzz off and wait for another day… even that it’s got to be a “guy thing”. Not at all. Tradition breathes, it moves, and yet continues to inform. The thing is… she didn’t ask, and she didn’t write for the synagogue but offered her gifts directly to a wider world, a wider culture, and for America as a result and many Jewish people in particular…. this land became the true Promised Land as a result. And the impact of the Jewish people on American life… what can I say? These wonderful people continue to punch wonderfully way above their weight without for the most part losing sight of who they are as a people of God. Glory to God! We Orthodox Christians… if we really want to make a gift to the land rather than the reverse (and I tend to think we may have more of this latter in mind when we express these longings… we want folks to convert to our church so perhaps we can feel important?… not sure), then we’re going to have to do so without expecting something in return… something like conversion, or status, or whatever. We’re going to have to do something based on our experience, based on our phronema and Orthopraxy that inspires and feeds others. Just an idea. See what you think.


  1. I totally agree, I would like to be something more than the church of the status quo.

  2. One of the most astute posts on “American Orthodoxy” I’ve read in 15 years. I hope it goes viral.

    • SP: Thanks for stopping by! Tucked away as I am… likely not gonna happen.

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