AS on the Midwest (Guestpost)

It seems AS is on winter break and home back East for a while. He has given me lots to think about the Midwest and Orthodoxy. There is much here to discuss. Do I have any Midwest readers (besides Evanston) to collaborate? Any Thoughts?

Here is the Guest Post by AS

Because you asked….since moving west of the mid Atlantic Appalachians for the first time in my life and as a result becoming a bit of an unwitting anthropologist, I offer the following: I quickly noticed that the East Coast elitist narrative (which I have realized surrounds explicit intellectual and tacit economic aspirations) does not resonate in the Midwest on almost any level (just to take one trivial example – East Coast transplants find it crazy that the centrist school curriculum is at least one year behind the east coast schools they went to in Limmudei Kodesh curriculum, the natives don’t notice the difference). And aside from some ardent but not very ideological Zionism there is nothing to take its place.

Centrist communities are very much in decline by most metrics from the rust belt to Chicago and many are and have been trying to import East Coast products to compensate but with limited long-term success thus far. The only Centrist narrative I can detect is still very much the immigrant success story: they came from Europe, they became American, and they remained Orthodox. But that is a given for those who are two generations removed – it is not the story of their lives. There is no master narrative of Centrist Orthodoxy to provide the building blocks for Centrist/MO identity formation.

As a result a lot more people gravitate to the Lith. Yeshivish circles (if they grew up frum) or the BT Aish or Lubavitch circles if they did not – not for ideology, but for a more robust narrative that actually talks about God, and popular religion that more easily provides a large variety of spiritual engagements for different tastes. Challah baking, inspiring talks simulcast around the world, tehilim groups, school plays, quasi hassidic tisches, chavrusas with full time learners, weekly halakha sheets that give easy entree into the world of chumrot, stories about sephardic miracle workers, shiurim about how mitzvot are magical, Torah as a series of simple moral lessons.

So my guess is that Centrist shuls turn to popular culture in an attempt to add more to the religious smorgasbord hoping that given that all the other stuff is pretty much spoken for, this will appeal to the people who want shul to be a continued affirmation of their American identities, the only centrist narrative that is yet discernible. I think that you will find that most of their appropriations of popular culture play on distinctly American themes or react to the ways in which the American identity has become problematic.

The most interesting to me has been the idea of shul as a refuge for men, maleness and the besieged American male ego (this is especially true for members of the decimated Midwestern middle class – East Coasters tend to forget that there were actual Centrist true middle class communities where most of the members lived comfortably on single income blue collar jobs or small businesses, and there were only a handful of professionals). The result is a flourishing of men-only programs, some official some not. Men seem to gravitate toward shiurim for men, some offering cigars or single malts (and of course kiddush clubs), father-son learning, men only leisure activities organized by the shul, and a variety of men’s sports leagues organized by shulgoers. Shul is marketed as a place where you can comfortably seek out a fraternal and masculine identification which you can no longer get at the workplace and which in mass popular culture is almost always presented as sophomoric testosterone-fueled self-parody.

For someone who grew up with an elitist narrative (perhaps a particularity extreme form, where nearly everyone in your shul had semicha and an advanced degree) , and will admit that it is still very constitutive of my religious affiliation, this is pretty bleak. Centrism here provides no compelling story and is now struggling to fill in the gaps left over by streams of Orthodoxy that have done a better job of presenting an appealing popular religion. And if not for its unreflective quasi religious Zionism, it would be even weaker.

In sum my verdict is that Centrist Orthodoxy writ large does not provide a framework for a flourishing of popular religion, and perhaps has not since the early 60s. The result is that there are few building blocks for many second, third and fourth generation Centrist Americans Jews to form the stable religious identities necessary to maintain their communities.

The elitist narrative will still work for some of the people – certainly for many of the kids attracted to some of the old overseas hesder yeshiva programs and some others who have spent a year or two in Israel and now feel that they have got it. They probably do learn better than they ever did in high school. And they will likely be attracted to the shiurim that play on their strengths and ignore their weaknesses – that at least is what I witnessed over the course of 8 or so years in and around YU.

Is there a point in bursting the bubble? Do you put them in a room with an English speaking bochur from Chevron so that they can see what someone their age could achieve in learning if they did almost nothing else? Is it worth pointing out that the spiritual satisfaction they ostensibly get (or are told that they get) from learning a number of hours a day will likely not carry over once they start working the hours necessary to pay for day school tuition?

Centrism needs a narrative that is triumphant yet grounded. For an older generation it really was enough that you became American, helped build a synagogue and day school, and most of your kids remained religious. But centrism today requires a narrative that holds its own against hareidi themes like rebuilding what was lost in Europe, the self-evident authenticity of its fundamentalism, or of everyone, even the little people having a role to play in a larger elitist story. But aside from those three necessary components I cannot flesh out the story. (maybe we need centrist focus group researchers asking questions like: what are you proud about in your Judaism; how do you see yourself as distinct from other Orthodox groups; what would you tell your kid if they asked you… etc?)

As far as economic aspirations: you have to remember that this region has had a massive exodus of young college graduates for richer pastures. For those that stay thee are clearly different economic aspirations. You don’t need to go to a top law school or get a job in finance. The cost of living is much lower resulting in lower tuition. A successful professional can pretty easily be a sole provider. And there are more blue collar workers and tradesmen who are Orthodox than I have seen in any other region (compare to New York where the Orthodox who were not college educated went into small businesses and real estate). There is also a suspicion of East coast elitism – not the Tea Party kind, but more of a “stop telling us how we are screwing up all the time” fatigue. In the Centrist community there is also a wariness of rabbis and educators who come from the East and are perceived as seeing it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

So how will they react to WINGS? On the one hand they are probably desperate to revitalize shuls that may be slowly shrinking. On the other hand they don’t have the cash to blow on certain kinds of programs and they probably feel that people like Steve Weil, despite his Midwest cred, is now thoroughly out of touch with what goes on in flyover territory.

12 responses to “AS on the Midwest (Guestpost)

  1. I can’t take a position regarding Centrism in general, as I live far away from the US, and in the US, only knew the New York area, but definitely, the semi-official motto of Centrism, Torah uMadda, is elitist. Only ivory tower intellectuals and college/yeshiva students have the time and inclination to explore synthesis, knowledge gained through multidisciplinary learning, etc. As long as this elitism isn’t explicitly recognized, and accompanied by alternate, popular spiritual narratives, like the popular Chassidism alongside Lithuanian elitist learning (and nowadays Chassidim have Lithuanian type intellectualism and Litvaks popular “chassidic Yeshivism”), Centrism will suffer. But … in Israel, at least, such a popular, folksy parallel narrative exists, taking its strongest form in the Chabakuk types.

  2. Doniel Ehrenreich

    1. I’m from Cleveland originally, and the M.O. community there seems vital enough to be pulling in plenty of fresh blood at the present moment (unlike in my youth). Maybe check out some of the Midwest success stories. (Though I suppose one could say apparent numerical “success” does not necessarily indicate spiritual vitality.)
    2. Maybe the marketing campaign could be, “Be M.O., and don’t end up like this:
    ‘But now more than 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel do not work’ “.
    Seriously, tell people the truth, M.O. is a balanced approach to religion and life. It’s not Revivalism, just a healthy approach to Hashem and life that avoids turning you into a crazy person and your society into an underclass.

  3. I don’t know that this really answers your questions, but… When I lived in Chicago I did not think in terms of Centrism but I did have several observations:
    1- YU was just not important (at least not among the native Chicagoans, but I didn’t really see it as an institutional force in general).
    2- “Modern Orthodoxy” as an ideology was nonexistent. The non-yeshivish people were distinguishable from the yeshivish primarily via dress, zionism, and attitude towards secular vocations. (most ppl i knew worked, but the “modern” ones were not apologetic about it.)
    3- The modern folk had a strong sense of continuity/authenticity. The older generations remembered the old days when “everyone” was mizrachi, before there was a lakewood kollel, etc. They also remember that their parents and grandparents were upright jews who wore bathing suits and no sheitels.
    4- There were no academically elitist aspirations. most of the h.s. grads i met were living at home, going to community colleges or (the smarter ones) mediocre local universities.

    So I guess this mostly conforms to AS’s impressions, but I had perhaps a different reaction. It seemed to me that there would continue to be a community of people who lived approximately the “centrist” way, which they do feel is “authentic,” in a non-ideological fashion. I thought the irrelevance of YU was a good thing, mostly because I am a fan of local flavor and not a big fan of YU-myopia. (The question, i guess, is whether that flavor can survive the lakewood onslaught.)
    I should add that what I am describing may be unique to chicago (vs other midwestern places where i think the non-yeshivish element is weaker).

  4. As a native of Columbus OH, I do wish to put in a good word for us Midwesterners. See my response to this post at

    I agree with MBG as to the lack of labels when I was growing up.

  5. I live in St. Louis, MO and would agree that many of his points hold true here. After growing up here I attended YU and stayed in NYC for several years and decided to move back for personal reasons. As I work from home I thought it would offer me the best bang for the buck and a simpler, more wholesome life that is simply impossible in NY. All that has been true, but I certainly underestimated the spiritual void of not being in a robust Centrist Orthodox community. Among my peers from childhood, almost nobody else has moved back home – after experiencing the East Coast (Ivy Leagues, YU, shul choices, kosher options, good jobs in finance) it is simply untenable to come back here. So the centrist ortho community is declining. Because of the strong medical community and university presence there is constant influx of young intellectuals and professionals from the East Coast, and many admit to liking it here for many reasons, but it is transient. Few stay beyond the fellowships, residencies and degree completions. I sometimes regret making the move myself. As AS mentions, I am able to compensate with shiurim and chavrutot, mostly among the more haredi group (there are actually some very accomplished and interesting talmidei chachamim here, even if they are mostly chumra sympathizers), and to make the most of online resources such as this forum and regularly engaging with friends back East via email, phone and even regular trips back to NYC.

    Unlike AS describes, the centrist ortho crowd here is rather accomplished professionally, a large majority with higher degrees, and most of the youth go on to hesder yeshivot, YU and Ivy Leagues; however, spirtual dialogue at shabbat tables is mostly saddening. Most have no idea what goes on back East (of course there are some exceptions), or even that there is a religious intellectual elite. Mostly they pride themselves on not being rude and obnoxious New Yorkers who wouldn’t even asnwer shabbat shalom to a fellow Jew on the way to shul.

    CJF recognizes the waning Centrist Orthodoxy in smaller towns and supposedly has made some attempt to be mechazek them by offering to help defray the cost of starting a YU Kollel (we still can’t afford one and probably won’t happen anytime soon) and trying to send scholars in residence etc…I have heard CJF had plans to take on one or two communities as pet projects and St. Louis was in the running, but that was a few years ago and I don’t know which cities were chosen, if any.

    There is a strong sense of Zionistic pride (G-d Forbid you talk during the prayer for Israel and the gov’t you can make some enemies), but like AS says, there isn’t much ideological narrative. We do have a Kollel Mitzion comprised of very nice hard working young Israeli families, but their work is mostly focused on school children.

    One thing I will say that is quite refreshing here is the ability to engage in many camps – I have chavrutot with haredi kollel members, the Rabbi of the left leaning modern ortho shul, a strange hasid who is extremely well versed in Lurianic Kabbalah and can have them all over for a shabbat meal together. I’m the exception rather than rule in this regard, but I’m certainly not looked at as strange. Living in Teaneck or Riverdale this would not be possible. I can afford a nice lifestyle and school tuitions without working till 11pm. It’s also refreshing that many people have no clue or care what I do for a living, as work is rarely a topic of social conversation, whereas on the East coast I found it to be the majority of conversation among the masses. And everyone says shabbat shalom.

  6. Without speaking directly about the Midwestern experience, I want to echo Arie’s comments that Centrism is an elitist ideology. However, so is Conservative Judaism. Practitioners of centrist positions are rarely ideologues of centrism, they are people who live pragmatic lives of compromise.

    The larger issue with the disappearance of centrism is that institutional leadership has encouraged a cloistered Orthodoxy that is less tolerant of deviation from halachic and cultural norms, and that does not welcome (and barely tolerates) cross-denominational communication at the institutional or personal levels. In areas of high concentration, like NYC, that means lots of kosher restaurants, shiurim, etc. Anywhere else, where there is not that critical mass of population to allow for a self-sustaining Orthodox bubble, adherents can’t live an Orthodox life true to the norms and values of its teachers and institutional heads.

    What’s interesting about all this is that while YU rabbinical graduates rarely go to smaller and newer communities in the midwest or the southwest, YCT grads are jumping in to fill the void with a progressive Orthodoxy that is much closer to the politics of Jews generally, that is more open to religious diversity, and that is much less based in Zionism as a validating component of Diaspora Judaism.

  7. The post by AS reflects my own experiences when I first came to Chicago. Since I’ve been here many years, the other comments also ring true. I have a more general problem with this idea that Centrism needs a narrative. A convincing intellectual story is not so easy to come by, and I don’t feel the YU or charedi story is so obviously compelling, so as to say that is what’s missing with Centrists.
    We know charedim like to strut their stuff, there is a buzz, sometimes even an edge attached to being a member of one of the different charedi groups. Why? I think because charedim are more stylish than MO, especially those MO in the provinces. Charedim don’t get to choose their outfits, so much attention goes into the minutiae, especially with the women. The Budapest wannabe Parisian look has come to dominate, and women are thinking more of Chanel than TJMaxx. Centrists can choose from a variety of styles but entropy seems to pull these communities away from high style to a less upscale look. Many women end up in denim skirts, sneakers and a snood on the frum side, and GAP and maybe Ann Taylor on the more liberal side.
    As we move away from Orthodoxy people recognize that what they are going to be depends on their own choices. At the Wilde-Nietzsche extreme each of us becomes our own art project. I know this may sound odd, but when there is a life of on the one hand following the shulchan aruch, and on the other autonomy in an American setting, a boring quality sets in that is perceived as such. The reason centrists run down over time is because there is a laxity in their cultivation of style and in the presentation of the self.
    There is something sad to my ear when a person defines themselves as Modern- Orthodox- but…”I’m MO but fully participate in the world. I go to movies, ski etc.” It always sounds like catch up, and it frequently is. The solution to the boredom of Centrism is not to accept it as normal, but for each member to live a more stylish, more exciting life, whether intellectual, social or decorative. No ideology needed.

  8. “so much attention goes into the minutiae, especially with the women.” I agree with the general point that boredom need not be counteracted with an overarching narrative, but I am struggling with the focus on style. I mean, the obsession with how women dress in the yeshivish world is intimately bound up with treating women as, dare i say, means rather than ends. (Also, my knee-jerk reaction as supremely unfashionable person is that if saving MO involves even more chitzoniyus than what exactly are we saving?)

    A different point: How much of the “bordeom” of centrism in the heartland relates to the success of zionism in those communities? (did everyone engaged and itnerested in “narratives” move to israel?)

  9. MBG…I am not so sure I know how to separate pnimiyus from chitzoniyus. Maybe it’s like this. Clothes, furniture, personality, eloquence, empathy, social virtues ultimately depend for their value on being appreciated by others. Not so Torah; there is value created in an individual internalizing the ideas of Torah, even when never recognized by others. You can have a scholar a lamed vovnik, but a lamid vovnik dandy, a Robinson Crusoe orator would be kind of stupid. Like for whom?
    The standard religious model for Orthodoxy is that of a solitary individual standing in some proper relationship to God. The ideal might be prayer & internalizing or downloading torah, both of which are open ended and endless tasks, plus the fulfillment of a finite set of duties to others. The MO we are discussing are not yeshivish endless learners nor are they endless daveners and tehilim sayers. Against such a background does it make sense to modify the standard religious model by substituting a little learning, a little davening and a lot of free time?

    I am suggesting a different picture. A good part of our morality, our language and our ability to function in the world comes from our socialization into our family and larger community. We are not born as existential man quivering before God. We quickly become and are first and foremost actors in a social theater, and both the quality and success of our life depends on our performance in a social space. We mostly are, and in general ought to be, striving for excellence in our social world. How we decide to present ourselves, how we choose to look, how we put together an appealing and satisfying performance, are all part of our life task. MO however understood is one more ingredient amongst many that is important in the shaping and presentation of our self.

  10. “I think because charedim are more stylish than MO, especially those MO in the provinces.”

    I’m not sure if ej’s comment was partly intended as farce.

    There is a notable lack of up to the minute ‘style’ in the Midwest, in general. (recall the 30 Rock episode where Liz travels to Cleveland and keeps getting asked if she is a model). But being attracted to clothing with prominent designer labels is certainly not high style – it’s a gauche form of class ordering.

    (Honestly, if it was style that was attracting people to hareidi lifestyles you would expect BTs as a group to not be consistently identifiable by ill fitting garb.)

    Centrists simply follow prevailing American norms of dressing casually under most circumstances while haredim notably encourage formal dress no matter what the occasion. The wealthiest of the Hampton’s summer congregants probably don’t even wear socks to shul. But this is not being more or less stylish – it’s simply conforming to a cultural norm. Within that norm style and taste is a means of class differentiation, but as you get increasingly upscale it becomes harder for the uninitiated to notice the difference. You can spend a lot of money to look like you didn’t.

    Anyway, the point is that rich centrists tend to dress like rich Americans, middle class centrists in the Midwest like Midwestern Americans. The yeshivish crowds in the Midwest usually dress like frumpier versions of the yeshivish circles they correspond to in the NY region.

    This tells us what? that MO people need a better dress code? Why?

  11. I grew up in a community made up of refugees, and in time survivors. Being refugees, the community was poorer than say the Hamptons, more like Flatbush today . My parents took me every shabbus afternoon for a shpatzir, a stroll, as is the custom in many Jewish neighborhoods. I remember the people we encountered as elegant in a 1940’s way, especially the women. When I see photos of Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner and even Lana Turner I am reminded of the look of the period. In the stores there were no designer labels these women could afford, though if they had the money few would have been adverse to buying such clothes, even if they had known that future generations would describe it as “a gauche form of class ordering.” Like many Europeans they took exceptional care of their clothes, they cared how they look. They knew what they were doing because they had spent many years in European places that were west of Moldavia. Rebuilding what was lost in Europe was for them much more than rebuilding Transylvania or the backwaters of the Ukraine. They certainly weren’t following the style of the poor and prust non Jews who lived in the environs. Making a long story short, ‘everyone’ thought they were somewhere; they felt they were in a cosmopolitan and almost enchanted place. Vienna or Budapest without the Nazis. They weren’t happy they stayed Orthodox, they were Orthodox, as in what else could there possibly be?

    What is required is that MO Jews create a feeling that by being MO one ends up somewhere special, minimally a member in a group that nobody wants to leave even if the transportations costs were zero. As you point out the particular form of elitism that is the Young Israel of Brookline is not easily scalable. But there are many ways to create special places. I am using style to include fashion, but also in the more general sense to include the many different elements that can be shaped in individual ways and that as a group create a culture. Successful examples of creating Jewish special places are the community centers in Latin America, and the ‘Our Crowd’ quality of German Reform Judaism. I don’t know why you accept so uncritically the Americanization of M. Orthodoxy? In doing so you more or less hardwire the MO world into being provincial, whether in New Jersey or Illinois.

    I wrote about these topics many times on my short lived blog, (6/20, 6/21, 8/17, 10/16, 10/29, 11/9, 11/29.) Speaking only to the point that looking great is tied to money and labels, I suggest skimming through a few months of the very popular blog, The Sartorialist.

  12. I’m not unfamiliar with the transplanted culture that you describe- but recall that for many of these people their aspirations for their children was upper class American economic, educational, and cultural success.

    I uncritically accept the Americanization of M. Orthodoxy because that is the description that best fits it – and the one that it self-ascribed during its formative periods. I could wish it to be many other things – but I can’t pretend that it is otherwise. I am looking for the narrative that can take that description and turn it into the “something special” that you describe. But at minimal the narrative has to fit reality. Centrist American Jews are not going to create a subculture that is not distinctly American.

    Without narrative to play a role in identify formation I believe that everything else is tinkering at the margins. A successful community center or wonderful experiences are great, but they need to fit into a larger context of meaning.

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