I was looking at the funnies this morning. That is to say scrolling the endless loop that make up the social media subscriptions I maintain. I found a post by an editor called yidquotes, a site typically devoted to literary quotes from Jewish sources, but today it was a picture.
It was a clip art graphic from some book on how tallis might be worn, and tallis katan and tefillin.
So I thought, great, this is some stuff that we take for granted that people, and especially Jewish people might not understand. As American Jewish practice formed and liberal movements (I'm looking at your Reform) started to coalesce they often softened the stances on the ritual items surrounding Jewish prayer. In some cases they were outright stripped from the community, in others they shrank to a token of what they were.
In my small city there were loads of Jews, and several synagogues. A lot of this was owing to mid 19th century immigration to America. Here the east side of town was even called Germantown as that was the prevailing dialect. That seems funny as the South Side wasn't little Italy or the Heights Mother Russia despite the significant Slavic influence. To this day however the east side is one of struggle and economic disparity. The rents are low and that is why it attracted the new population, which included Jews from the Baltic region.
By the time this wave landed on American shores the native Jewish population had advanced to a place where they were more prosperous. They were speaking English not Yiddish, they were part of the merchant class of the downtown, they believed they were accepted by the non Jewish of the city's leadership, they fit in.
The new Jews arriving in town didn't speak English and still kept the traditions of the old world. In our modern eyes it would be the differences between Orthodox practice and reform practice. Long talliot, yarmulke, men and women separate, mikvah, tefillin in the morning. As they were Yiddish speakers they davened in a shul.
Here's the twist. It's been more than one-hundred and fifty years and the Yiddish speaking Orthodox of old were ground into American Jews too. The theological separations in ideology remained, we had both Reform, and in its final form, Conservative congregations that did not mix. If you were here 30 years ago though, you would have probably noticed that they had more in common with each other than either had in common with the Orthodox of the old world they had come from. In one building called the temple, the yarmulke and tallis was optional. Hebrew was minimal in prayer. In the other, called the synagogue heads were still covered, and the tallis had shortened into more of a ceremonial item. Hebrew was more prevalent, but it wasn't anymore of a functional language beyond prayer. Prayer was the focus in both buildings, and Jewish life went on.
Today the congregations are merged into one building. It's a remnant of both former congregations that together made for enough people to keep our community alive. This is a region where children grow up and leave and do not return. It is quiet, and economically marginal, and so the Jewish population just kept aging and back filling with new folks. Young voices in our community are often from elsewhere. Jews who moved into the area for work and have settled here. Whether from far flung shores, different regions of America or even New York, our native membership is again seeing the influx of the outside Jewish world. We have a rabbi from Israel and so it's not uncommon to hear spoken Hebrew, in conversation. Many of our younger folks, and some of the older have taken to referring to the place as shul again. Our younger voices pronounce Hebrew as modern and the Ashkenazic tsav presents across the community but, only in echo of the chazan's hard tav. Our younger folks are speaking of davening rather than prayer, and long talliot are showing up again, although in a myriad of colors instead of strictly black and white. Tefillin are being worn by some when we have a weekday morning service.
A sort of immigration is happening again and the wheel of time is turning. Customs that were shunned for being "too Jewish," are re-emerging. It's not because our young folks are coming from the Orthodox world, but they have less of the pressures that our parents and grandparents generation did to just fit in. It's a generation striving to reach our Jewish potential. A generation that appears foreign to the native older folks who sometimes don't understand why their version of a Jewish expression isn't enough.
There are people who think that some of the 6 million lost in the shoah are being reincarnated in the generations that followed. That these Jewish souls were robbed of expressing themselves in their time and so come back to live out life. It's pointed to when we see the spiritual seekers in the Jewish world. The ones returning to traditional Jewish lives, or forms of worship.
Less often I'm seeing a recognition of the elders of our community who might have yielded so much of what we think of, and take for, the trappings of Judaism that it needs explaining. Elder generations that understood that some degree of fitting-in might be necessary to preserve us here in America. Like when science fiction sets out to reach a new star, away from our solar system and it will take generations. They reduced to a corp in order to maintain while time passed until a destination is reached when the full expression might be afforded again.
We have the luxury of the armchair when looking back, and the terror of the captains chair when looking forward. This is always the burden of the now. I don't think past generations were thinking of us the way I'm looking back now. Some of them expected pipe organs, and choirs, and some of them expected black hats and a Friday night tish. I have the luxury of contemplation though because they all expected there to be Jewish life in the future and that the constant turning and turning of Torah would always carry us ahead in a meaningful way like the wheel of a cart.