Monday, January 21, 2013
William B. Helmreich writes: In 1964 the eminent sociologist Marshall Sklare declared Orthodoxy to be irrelevant. His view was that Conservative Judaism was the wave of the future in America. How wrong he was. Orthodoxy has become a powerful force in American Jewish life. And its power center is New York City, where, according to the latest census figures, the Orthodox comprise 40 percent of the Jewish population. At the same time, 60 percent of Jews living in the city are either nominally affiliated or have no religious identification with Judaism. A few months ago I chanced upon a remarkable book by Philip Fishman, A Sukkah Is Burning: Remembering Williamsburg’s Hasidic Community. It is a rich and detailed account of life in that Brooklyn neighborhood during the 1950s. The chassidim who came during this post-Holocaust period found an entrenched Modern Orthodox community with a different approach to Orthodoxy and, predictably, tensions ensued. Fishman, who is Modern Orthodox, was part of that community and attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, a school that became a flagship institution for a third community – strictly Orthodox or, if you will, yeshivish Jews. During this period the Orthodox community was weak. The Modern Orthodox were a small group and the survivors who made up much of the immigrant Orthodox were burdened with rebuilding their own lives. In that sense it’s not surprising that no one could foresee the movement’s future. How did it happen? How did a community seemingly marked for oblivion revive and thrive? The answers lie in an understanding of the internal dynamics of Orthodoxy and a comprehension of developments in the larger society.