Why not the third?
I felt a disconnect in my younger years between Lubavitch and the Holocaust experience. To most other chassidic groups, like Satmar, Bobov, and Ger, the Holocaust was the main – to use Zalman Schechter’s phrase – “Sinai event” of the 20th century. Everything happening in the United States is, in a certain sense, a reaction to it.
In Lubavitch, I never found that. I went through the Lubavitcher school system for nine years, and I can honestly say the Holocaust was never mentioned.
Do you think the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe perhaps intentionally avoided stressing the Holocaust because he felt the topic too depressing or paralyzing?
I think so. I think the Rebbe had an upbeat message for American Jewry that things would be good, and I think getting stuck in the Holocaust was not the message he wanted to give.
Why then are you so focused on the Holocaust?
Because both my parents went through it. My father was in German imprisonment and concentration camps from November 1939 to April 1945, and my mother was in German camps from September 1941 until the end of the war. To me, the Holocaust was the formative event in my life.
Over the years, you have written on American Jewish history in a variety of publications. How do you explain a phenomenon that intrigues many people, namely American Orthodoxy’s turn to the right in recent decades?
I think a lot of it had to do with the Holocaust survivors. Not all of them were Orthodox, but the small group who were included many chassidim, as well as Lithuanian yeshiva students who became roshei yeshiva and teachers. Plus, there were Holocaust survivors who weren’t necessarily haredim but were committed to preserving Judaism, even if only to fulfill Emil Fackenheim’s eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.”
But the children of these survivors are even frummer, at least outwardly, than their parents. How did that happen?
That’s the reaction. People overdo it and try to become more Catholic than the pope. It happened in every segment of Jewish society – in the Modern Orthodox world, in the yeshiva world, even among chassidim.
Until the 1970s, Bobov, for example, was fairly modern. Most Bobover chassidim did not dress in the complete chassidic outfit. In the 1950s, they didn’t wear the kapote, and even in the ‘60s, when many adopted it, they certainly didn’t wear the white socks or the half shoes. Many of them also didn’t wear shtreimlach, and many had trimmed beards. But then things changed.
Do you see this rightward trend continuing in the future?
That’s a good question. To a certain extent, I think the world is a spinning wheel, a galgal hachozer. At YU, for example, there are many students who are a lot frummer than anyone in the 1960s and ‘70s, but there are also some who are a lot less frum than anyone back then.
I think it was Rabbi Bernard Poupko of Pittsburgh who said: “Today, more Jews in America eat shmurah matzah, but fewer Jews eat matzah.” I think that’s a very valid point. Take New Haven, for example. When I was growing up, there were 10-12 Orthodox synagogues, which were packed on major Jewish holidays. Until the mid-1960s there were also 20 kosher butchers, so most non-Reform Jews kept a kosher home. Today, Orthodoxy in New Haven is limited to probably 200 families out of a population of 25,000.
Some people credit the black power movement in the late 1960s with giving Jews the strength and pride to assert their Jewishness. Do you agree?
Before the black power movement, there was only one legitimate cultural path in the United States, which was basically “the man in the gray flannel suit” – middle-class America. The black power movement gave the idea of being different legitimacy, and it had a tremendous impact on young Jews.
They were no longer embarrassed about their Judaism. They started using Jewish first names, for example. When I was growing up, almost no one used their Jewish name. Everyone was Brian or Phillip. Today, I see little Modern Orthodox kids, and they’re all Eitan, Avi, or Noam. Or take another example: when I was growing up, no one wore a yarmulke in the street; today it’s an accepted norm.