Latest update: April 23rd, 2012
Once upon a time, there were Orthodox Jews who wore blue hats. Blue hats! Some wore brown, or shades of gray. In the summer, they wore white, or amber hats of straw.
Those hats are gone now. No big deal; they were only cheap, colored cloth. But the Jews who wore those hats are disappearing as well. And the death of the Blue-Hat Jew is a very big deal indeed.
What are Blue-Hat Jews, and why should we care about them?
One of my favorite childhood memories is of Thanksgiving Day at Grandmother’s house. Dozens of cousins and uncles and aunts would crowd into a small, Brooklyn walk-up, the rooms musty with the steam of old-fashioned radiators.
The women crowded the kitchen, catching up on a year’s worth of news as they mashed the potatoes and mixed the stuffing. Some of the men pried open windows and gathered around the old Magnavox, rooting for Detroit to beat Dallas as the game faded in and out on the black-and-white TV. When the game was over, and Dallas had won, the boys and girls warred over what to watch next; the girls won, and so a generation of boys was introduced to “The Waltons” and “Little House on the Prairie.”
Back in those days of a more culturally conservative America, most Orthodox Jews were Blue-Hat Jews. These were Jews who identified themselves as both religiously Orthodox and as culturally American – Shabbos today, Dodgers tomorrow.
Some of these Jews may have called themselves “modern.” Others may have rejected the label. But mostly, they didn’t know or care about labels. They were the accountants and ad executives, the rabbis and businessmen at my Thanksgiving dinner, and they hailed from Yeshiva University and Torah Vodaath and Lubavitch and points in between. They were Americans; they were frum; and that was it.
It was an era in which that type of dual identity was a natural fit. America had always been a nation that honored religion, and in recent decades had taken to celebrating a common “Judeo-Christian” heritage. (As President Eisenhower famously said, “[O]ur form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”)
This national religion stood in sharp contrast to the ideology our mortal enemies, the Godless communists. So Americans of different faiths joined together and celebrated Thanksgiving and pledged allegiance to the flag.
But even as we watched and ate, the world was shifting beneath our feet.
The liberal revolution of the Sixties had already reshaped America. Society’s focus was now on the individual – his rights and interests, rather than those of the wider community, became paramount.
American culture and Orthodox Judaism were no longer two sides of the same coin as the counterculture increasingly took over mainstream culture. The very platform on which the Blue-Hat Jews had rested was splintering.
At the same time, the Jewish world was changing too. The Six-Day had unleashed powerful feelings of Jewish pride and ushered in an almost messianic fervor. The Western Wall was ours! Kever Rachel! Hebron!
Armed with newfound pride, many Orthodox Jews subtly changed their views about the State of Israel. These Jews had felt that after the Holocaust, Jews needed a state of their own – and they hoped it might somehow lead to the Final Redemption. But that hope did not necessarily become part of their religion. The State of Israel was a political necessity, but it was still a religious unknown.
But with the sound of the shofar ringing out from the Kotel, with Jews finally tougher and braver than their enemies, this wait-and-see approach was replaced over time with a robust religious Zionism. Many Jews now believed, as a matter of Jewish faith, that the State of Israel was the precursor to Mashiach. For a new generation, life as a religious soldier for God – tefillin in one hand, M-16 in the other – became an ideal worth aspiring to.
Meanwhile, in direct counterpoint, a vigorous haredi movement was beginning to blossom. Haredim offered an absolute commitment to Torah observance, to the exclusion of modernity. No sacrifice was too great, no religious demand too harsh. With their absolute commitment to Torah learning, haredim created for many an appealing spiritual alternative to what they disapprovingly viewed as religious Zionism’s unseemly worldliness and emphasis on temporal armed might.
The battle was joined, front and back.
From the front, Blue-Hat Jews were confronted with the charge that they were missing out on these great religious movements of the time. Haredim were fostering a depth and breadth of Torah knowledge and commitment that, from Dan to Beersheba and Los Angeles to New York, was unparalleled in recent Jewish history. Religious Zionists were settling in Judea and Samaria, assuming leadership roles in the Israeli army, and fighting ferociously in the political arena to preserve every square inch of Eretz Yisrael under Jewish control.
And when they turned to their rear, looking for the support and meaning that once existed in a culturally sympathetic America, Blue-Hat Jews discovered that society had changed and that religious values were no longer in the center of American culture.
Blue-Hat Jews were left in a defensive crouch, unable to respond to the challenges posed by the other, more fervent approaches.
Some offered a vague argument that these movements seemed somehow to ask for too much – “You don’t have to be ‘too’ frum” or “You don’t have to be ‘too’ Zionistic.” But in the face of their more passionate contemporaries, their protests rang hollow, sounding weak and uncommitted, as if Blue-Hat Jews could only define themselves by their lack of fervor and passion.
The rout was on. And across a major portion of Orthodox Jewish America, Thanksgiving Day was canceled.
* * * * *
All this raises the question: Is any justification for Blue-Hat Jews? Shouldn’t we in fact rejoice in the death of the Blue-Hat Jew? After all, both religious Zionists and haredim would argue that these Jews play a secondary, inauthentic role in Jewish life – and that their inevitable disappearance is cause not for disappointment but for celebration.
I think to the contrary. The death of the Blue-Hat Jew would be a tragedy indeed. Blue-Hat Jews are not inauthentic. Instead, they can and should wake up each morning and proclaim, “Just for me was the entire world created.” To justify that proclamation, though, requires a broader perspective on the crucial role Blue-Hat Jews play in our trip through galus, exile.
In this perspective, galus is not (just) a punishment. It is not (just) a means by which we, as Jews, can teach our best lessons to the world. It is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity for those of us who live in galus to learn and absorb the lessons God has ordained for us, even as we live a life committed to Torah and its laws.
Galus is our opportunity to experience in real life the by-the-book lessons of the Torah, to live its fundamental truths filtered through daily life in the different countries and communities in which we live. Galus is our chance to gather the holy sparks of creation that are spread among mankind.
This context reframes entirely the role of the Blue-Hat Jew. The Blue Hat Jew lives in America, in galus. He is uncompromising in his religious devotion, but at the same time he trusts there is meaning in his living a Jewish life in the world into which God has thrust him – the world of 21st century America.
The Blue-Hat Jew may love Torah, feel inspired by its values, and live by its truths. But he is not haredi. He reads novels; he goes to movies; he watches TV. He doesn’t seek out “Daas Torah” or learn in kollel. He is not, as someone from the earlier generation alluded to above might have put it, “too frum.”
The Blue-Hat Jew loves the State of Israel, and his eyes may even moisten with tears as he stands to attention at the opening mournful notes of Hatikvah. Butpolitical Zionism is not crucial to his religious faith. He does not declare “not one inch;” he does not live in Hebron. He is not “too Zionistic.”
He chooses notto identify as haredi or religious Zionist not because he lacks conviction but actually out of a deeply-held conviction – the conviction that living a Jewish life in galus is exactly what is required of him. Nothing less – but also nothing more.
This perspective reverses entirely the perceived relationships among different groups in our community. In the current paradigm, Blue-Hat Jews are important only for the aid they provide others. They support learning, playing Zevulun to their brother Yissachar. They support Israel politically and financially, playing the stagehand to the star actors on stage.
But what if “galus America” is the whole point (or at least an important part of the whole point)? What if Jews are destined to live in America to learn the lessons of its leg of truth? If so, then Blue-Hat Jews are more than merely a supporting cast to the other, more passionate movements.
The beauty of Blue-Hat Jews lies in their simplicity and trust – their trust that living a Jewish life is enough, and that cosmic plans are best left to God.
What is the purpose of galus America? What is so unique and valuable in its culture that can justify a lifestyle as an American Orthodox Jew, even in the face of the powerful tilts toward the haredi and religious Zionist camps?
The most salient feature of American culture is its unique emphasis on the individual. At its best, America stands for the idea that each person is born with his own unique character; that each person has a need to express that character in a way uniquely his own; and that expressing that character is essential to personal fulfillment and happiness.
America’s educational system teaches that every person needs to think for himself. Its economic system allows everyone to find the best expression for his own talents and often rewards those who put time and effort into their endeavors. Its culture celebrates the individual and his freedoms.
Beyond healthy boundaries, of course, this individualism can cross into destructive hedonism and self-involvement. It must always be joined to Torah values of community and family, law and tradition.
Yet individualism is undoubtedly a leg of truth. It is a value perhaps best described by Reb Zusha of Anipoli: In Heaven they will not ask me why I was not like Moshe Rabbeinu; they will ask me why I was not be like Zusha.
Indeed, it is impossible to read Sefer Bereishis without appreciating the individualism of the avos. How different was Avraham’s chesed from Yitzchak’s gevurah. And how different were they both from Yaakov’s emes. Bereishis is one great story of unique characters with special and personal relationships with those around them and with God. Individualism is a Jewish leg of truth.
The idea that we must commit ourselves to encouraging the unique characters, talents, and views of every individual may sound unexceptional. We all hold that value, you might say, and need not look to American society to find it.
But you can hold a value without ever acting on it. You can, for example, believe family is important, but if you work too hard and spend too much time away from home, you’ll never fulfill that value.
And so while we may believe in the value of each individual, the fact is that the powerful, important frum movements of the past few decades have been primarily homogenizing; they encourage conformity in support of a common mission.
Uniformity may be crucial to the success of these movements, but American Jews have the opportunity to participate in a unique galus society that values each individual in a way that is historically unprecedented. When Blue-Hat Jews reject their natural role of living in galus America, they not only lose their identity, they also begin to fail in their historic mission – the mission of synthesizing the leg of truth of the galus in which we live with the eternal Truth of Torah.
But there is reason to hope. Blue hats may be gone. Look closely, however, and you will see, in various Orthodox communities, the ubiquitous leather (or suede) yarmulke and its cousin, the black knitted one designed to look like it, signaling independence from both the haredi and the religious Zionist world.
So let a new day dawn. Let those who are haredim, and believe in haredi ideals, pursue their historic mission. And let those who are religious Zionists, and believe in religious Zionist ideals, pursue their historic mission. But let those who believe in a uniquely American Orthodoxy, and all that it represents, pursue their historic mission as well.
By acting on the great Jewish ideal of treating every person as a unique expression of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and fulfilling more completely our roles as Jews in galus, we will help usher in the period when galus will truly be at an end.
Mordecai (Marty) Bienstock is a partner at the law firm of Wilson Elser in Albany, New York, where he lives with his wife, Karen, and their three children.
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