Friday, June 23, 2006

I used to think of growing up as flunking out of childhood. The ideals of youth are compromised as we get older for many reasons, some better than others. We despair of changing the world. We are forced to acknowledge that most of the flawed institutions we’ve been railing against actually serve some useful purpose and that these institutions need to be maintained by somebody and ultimately it dawns on us that that somebody might be us. We get fat and lazy.

For the lucky ones among us, the failure of nerve called adulthood comes with its own built-in punishment: teenage children. Teenagers have the damnedest ability to seize upon just one particular aspect of their parents’ ideals and to take it to its logical extreme. It is their way of cruelly flaunting their parents’ weakness, as if to say: you’re a bunch of wusses who lack the courage of your convictions.

Of course, they get to choose what little corner of our characters they want to caricature. Frumkeit, political radicalism, bourgeois self-satisfaction, assimilationist adaptation – there is no aspect of our lives too obscure to be played out in the family drama.

I’ve been taken lately with some of the differences between my older kids’ gang here in the Yiddishe Medinah and my friends’ kids back in the Goldene Medinah. I refer specifically to two groups that parallel each other in some ways, but are very different from each other in other ways.

The American group is somehow more familiar to most people than the Israeli group. Kids from affluent Modern Orthodox homes who stay in Israel for a second year, buy into the whole frumkeit thing in a big way, fall into the thrall of some charismatic magid shiur, start wearing black and white, and generally do everything they can to make their parents feel like bourgeois slackers.

The Israeli group is harder to get a finger on because it is in some ways sui generis, but in other ways it is entirely parallel to the American phenomenon. Kids from not-necessarily-affluent Modern Orthodox homes who stay in Israel for a nineteenth year, buy into the whole frumkeit thing in a big way, fall into the thrall of some charismatic magid shiur, start wearing peyos and techeiles, and generally do everything they can to make their parents feel like bourgeouis slackers.

Both types are prone to grating self-righteousness. And both types are essentially doing what they were supposed to, just perhaps with a bit too much youthful enthusiasm. (So it has always been with teenagers. I mean, my parents taught me to value Zionism and education, but they didn’t really imagine that I’d actually move to Israel armed with a doctorate in something useless but no wife.)

Here the parallels end. The Israeli kids are politically hyperactive and mostly aiming for very serious military service. Which makes it quite jarring to members of my generation that they are, to a large extent, also something else that we don’t customarily associate with right-wing politics and military ambitions: children of the counter-culture.

Yes, it’s true. A lot of these kids remind me of nothing more than Arlo Guthrie in Alice’s Restaurant. It’s perfectly common here to see the peyos crowd and the ponytail crowd hanging together or heading off to some natural spring somebody’s found out in the forest somewhere. They’ll set up a little maachaz on a hilltop, which is in fact just a short-lived commune, and sit around strumming Carlebach.

My grandmother had it right all along. I have two cousins, one of whom was a flower child and the other of whom was – and still is – a Gerrer chassid. My grandmother used to say that they were two sides of the same coin: they’re both into non-standard hair and they both don’t want to work.

Ever since the nevi’im, in societies ruled by anti-religious fat cats, religion has been part of the counter-culture. In recent times, this trend had its high point when the Beatles went to Rishikesh (and descended from there to Madonna’s roit bendel). It is enjoying a moment of glory now in Israel, especially out here in the Wild West. I don't know if what's happening in the States is related to this phenomenon. (Perhaps someone could enlighten me.)

Yes, both here and in the States, a few of these kids are going off the deep end and may do harm to themselves and others. But most of them are living a blessed moment of authenticity. So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

4 Comments:

Blogger Tzemach Atlas said...

A masterpiece!

1:34 AM  
Blogger treppenwitz said...

I can forgive almost anything in a post that ends with a quote from CSN&Y... almost anything.

In your last paragraph, added almost as an afterthought, was the chilling line, "...a few of these kids are going off the deep end and may do harm to themselves and others". I look at these kids and think this very thought all the time.

It really only takes one or two to act under the mistaken assumption that the 'Eretz Yisrael HaSHlaimah' stuff that "charismatic magid shiur" is telling them should be taken quite literally.

Oh, and I disagree with your assertion that these jam-band hangers-on are "politically hyperactive and mostly aiming for very serious military service". Most of them are dropping and opting out of the public debate on politics... and many are not even going into the army, much less into the elite units.

The real scary part for me is that the scruffy peyos and techeles crowd are becoming a visual icon of the religious right whether you and I want them as representatives or not. When one of them does something unspeakable (i.e. "going off the deep end... [and/or doing] harm to themselves and others" you and I are going to be handed the check.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

David,
I see my son's friends. Some of the wind has been taken out of their sails with regard to the army but they are all planning to serve. The kids who've gone nuts are a small minority. Perhaps in Yitzhar and the like the proportions are different.

10:08 PM  
Blogger treppenwitz said...

That's all fine and good that your son has a better class of friends. But when (G-d forbid) some kid wearing tie dye and sporting long peyos starts shooting from a tower somewhere the Israeli (and world) press won't make that distinction.

9:06 AM  

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