This American Jewish Life
I am a religious listener to NPR’s This American Life, a weekly radio show that brings unique “slice of life” stories centered loosely around a theme each week. Religious, that is, in both senses: I am a religious Jew and I listen to the program without fail each week. The stories are often compelling, thought-provoking, and educational. Sometimes they are even profound and moving.
Recently, my ears perked up at the intro to the show, as a friend of mine was featured. David Rudis–a Wexner Heritage Alumnus–was introduced by This American Life host Ira Glass as “a guy I know” (actually, Rudis was the chairman of the board of the NPR station in Chicago where TAL is produced). David was trying to convince Ira to get involved with a Jewish organization. The context, as would eventually become clear, was a show with the theme of “Tribes”—how and why people connect to groups of like-minded people. Ira’s personal reflection on his relationship to his own Jewish “tribe” was the hook for the introduction to this show, as reflected in the conversation where David was asking him to get involved with a Jewish organization.
Ira’s response to David was telling. He justified rejecting David’s request because he doesn’t believe in God, is married to someone who is not Jewish, doesn’t keep kosher, and has “plenty of interesting Jews in my life already.” The “obligatory conversation about the Holocaust” was likewise sneered at by Ira as failing to awaken any interest on his part. When David suggested that there is something profoundly Jewish about This American Life’s recipe of weaving together narratives in surprising, telling, morally impactful ways, Ira professed shock—the thought that his show is a “Jewish “cultural product had never occurred to him.
The exchange saddened me on a few levels. First, for a show which always goes deeply into its subjects, this was a superficial response. Glass has succeeded in carving out a compelling niche in the outmoded medium of radio precisely by being reflective, thoughtful, always asking the extra thought-provoking question. It’s ironic that when it came to a component of his own identity, that probing curiosity was absent.
Second–if I can put aside my personal disappointment in Ira Glass for a moment– the list of reasons why Glass professed to have no interest in organized Jewish life reflect exactly what is wrong with our community today. Here is a highly intelligent, well-educated Jew with a relatively rich Jewish upbringing in Baltimore, and he believes that the Jewish community is (still) a place where only kosher-keeping, theistic, Holocaust-guilt-bearing, in-married Jews would bother to set foot.
And Ira Glass is a high-profile media personality in a major city (insert NPR and Chicago joke here!). It’s not like he is under a rock with no access to the remarkable intellectual and creative energy that is generated in the Jewish community on a daily basis. But somehow we have been unable to convey the message that Jewish life today can be enriching, meaningful, and relevant, regardless of your theological doubts or degree of ritual observance, even if you have baggage” from your Jewish upbringing.
People like Ira are able to operate in the highest levels of our society, with many Jewish friends and associates, and remain unaware of (or unmoved by) Jewish social justice efforts which support the dignity of all people; Jewish film, music, literature and theater which perpetuates deep discourse across cultural lines; and spiritual communities that provide meaning, connection, and support to people regardless of their belief or personal ritual practice. All of this and more is produced by the same Jewish organizational structure that Ira still associates with a tribalistic, narrow-minded, exclusionary mindset.
It should be noted that exploring our doubts and notions about God and spirituality, discovering layers of meaning in the laws of kashrut, celebrating the continuity of our age-old traditions and covenant, and mourning the losses inflicted upon our extended Jewish family are still all powerful elements of Jewish life. Just because they make some Jews uncomfortable is no reason to dismiss or jettison them. But when our own people, including cultural creatives and meaning-makers like Ira Glass, can persist in the notion that organized Jewish life is irrelevant to them, there is clearly a message that is not getting communicated. Some of the responsibility for that belongs to Ira and his peers: they are distracted by the blaring white noise of American commercial culture, and they have not always dealt with their baggage about Judaism. [Editor’s note: in the end, Ira agreed to meet with David’s Jewish organization and they enjoyed a stimulating conversation discussing the future of the Jewish media]. But we in the organized Jewish community bear responsibility too: our radio signal is too weak. We preach to the choir too much and broadcast too little. It’s time to proclaim the power of This American Jewish Life.
Rabbi Jay Henry Moses has served as the Director of the Wexner Heritage Program since 2003. Jay graduated from the University of Michigan magna cum laude, with a B.A. in English literature and went on to Rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and was awarded a Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 5). Ordained in 1997, Jay served for five years as Associate Rabbi at Temple Sholom of Chicago. In this capacity, he oversaw one of the leading congregational Adult Education programs in North America, and together with an Orthodox rabbi, he published a monthly column in the Chicago Jewish News. Jay sits on the board of Hazon and Kavod, a non-profit tzedakah collective and serves on the steering committee of the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, under the auspices of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. He lives in Columbus with his wife, Cantor Bat-Ami Moses, who serves as the Hazzan at Temple Israel, and their sons, Caleb and Ezekiel and can be reached at email@example.com.