The Forward’s Issues with Secular Jews

I sometimes feel as though I could keep the blog filled with articles playing media critic to The Forward.

My latest thing? This article, a kind of interview cum review cum puff piece on David Brooks and his latest book. (And while we’re at it, I’m not over the moon about The Forward’s new logo and on-computer site design–lots of wasted white space and hidden navigation–but whatever.)

Jane Eisner, The Forward’s editor, interviewed David Brooks about his latest book, which is a series of personality profiles on different aspects of building good character. Eisner appears genuinely puzzled that the “liberals’ conservative” of the New York Times, who is Jewish and has a child in the IDF, didn’t remember that it was Passover and that Eisner might not be eating bagels. Brooks reacted with genuine embarrassment when Eisner pointed out why she would not eat a bagel.

In her article, Eisner appears genuinely perplexed that there are no Jewish persons profiled in Brooks’s book, and wonders at why Brooks’s work often reflects no apparent Jewishness at all. Brooks, she notes, is purposefully private about his own faith.

All the while, Eisner tells us that she and Brooks talked about the new book within a strongly Jewish frame of reference: Adam 1 and Adam 2, concepts set forth by none other than “the Rav,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his book (initially an article in Tradition), The Lonely Man of Faith.

So, what gives?

I wonder whether Eisner may have lost sight of the broad notion of secular Jews. (Note that The Forward often edits out Secular Humanistic Judaism and other similar options from its pages.) And Brooks appears to me, in his public persona, to be a secular Jew. He’s not someone who’s run in the opposite direction from a Jewish identity. And he’s not a left-leaning Secular Jew in the image Mitchell Silver sets forth in his Respecting the Wicked Child. He’s not a Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations-style, Yiddishist, or Humanistic Jew, either.

He appears simply to be a secular Jew. He frames his work on secular subjects with respect to Jewish sources (setting to the side whether his take on The Lonely Man of Faith is entirely correct, that is a strongly Jewish frame of reference).

What may be confusing is that he’s a right-leaning secular Jew, which makes him less commonly seen in the United States. Such people exist, but they don’t fit “the image” we have developed of a secular Jew, because the mainstream-y image of “secular Jew” or “cultural Jew” in the United States and elsewhere is that of someone whose Jewishness manifests solely through the bagel and some notion of Democratic Party-oriented political liberalism.

Yet that’s clearly not the case with Brooks. I’d submit to you that it’s clearly not the case for many–maybe even most–secular and cultural Jews in the United States (even the ones who do lean politically to the left).

Note that being a secular or cultural Jew does not necessarily mean being an atheist. It may simply mean that your dominant frame of reference for living in the world is your broader society’s frame of reference, rather than your Jewish one. There’s that saying from the maskil (Haskalah thinker) Judah Leib Gordon, “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it.” That may actually state well where Brooks is on his Jewish identity, or at least it seems to reflect his public persona.

And we should be clear that there’s no one way of being a secular Jew.

The worry–the reason I write–is that Eisner’s writing makes it seem as though secular Jewish identity is a puzzling thing. That’s part-and-parcel with much of what appears in The Forward. More and more, it seems, The Forward and other Jewish news outlets want to put Jews in boxes, all the while bemoaning through gritted teeth that we won’t stay in those boxes and … keep leaving The Tribe. (And once again, let’s appreciate the irony of The Forward publishing stuff that forgets Abraham Cahan’s legacy of reporting on Jewish and secular topics without rejecting either world.)

Enough is enough, already. If you shove people in boxes–and so many of the responses to questions posed in The Forward’s “Seesaw” feature and elsewhere in Jewish publication seem intent to do exactly that–they’ll get out of the boxes and leave.

Secular Jews come in all varieties. And when Jewish media outlets tell secular Jews they’re not welcome to be who they are, they’ll understand the disinvitation from Jewish life for what it is.