In his award-winning book, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, Samuel G. Freedman describes two types of Jews: the “I am what I feel” Jew, meaning, my feelings define my Jewish identity; and the “I feel what I am” Jew, meaning, my Judaism defines my identity.
The question is: which one is he?
“I’m probably some kind of a hybrid of the two,” he replied. “I have elements of both. This morning I went with a friend of mine to help make the minyan at a modern Orthodox shul that I used to belong to. I keep a kosher home. My wife is a Jew by choice. So I think all of those are, 'I feel what I am.' But I also grew up in a very anti-religious but culturally Jewish family, and so more cultural elements of being Jewish affect me as well. It made me the right person to write that book because I’d experienced both ways of being Jewish.”
But he is also the right person to explore issues far beyond the Jewish community. His eight acclaimed books focus on such varied topics as black civil rights 20th-century politics, his mother, and, most recently, LGBT issues. Yet all of his books, he insists, share a common thread.
“I’m drawn to the issues that I think matter and that have some staying power, and are not just temporal issues,” he explained. “I’m not motivated to write just about what was the big event of last year, but more to these larger, longer-lasting issues, whether it’s the nature of faith, the immigration experience, inequalities of race or income, or the experience of being gay.”
Freedman, who will be delivering this year’s Belin lecture in American Jewish Affairs on March 22, is a religion columnist for The New York Times and a tenured professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz and How it Transformed the New York Times, which was published this month and will accompany an audio documentary that he co-produced. His upcoming talk, “Pigskin Isn’t Kosher: American Jewry as a Political Football,” will focus on how a polarized American Jewry has been manipulated as a potential swing vote.
“I want to give people some historical perspective on what has turned the Jewish American vote into this perceived swing vote and made Jewish issues into wedge issues in a highly polarized political climate,” he said. He pointed out that divisions in the Jewish community are particularly evident now because of heated disagreement over the Iran deal.
But Freedman noted that polarization in the Jewish community has existed for a long time. He likened the situation to a fissure in the ground that’s been split wider by a railroad spike and a mallet. Today’s wedge issues “didn’t create the chasm,” he said, “but it widened it.”
Today, he said, we see a cynical pandering to get Jewish votes, resulting in having the middle ground “torn in a really profound way between being supportive of Israel’s elected government and simultaneously having very liberal, traditionally democratic opinions on virtually every domestic issue....That creates an excruciating situation.”
Meanwhile, Freedman is by no means finished exploring important issues. He is currently working on two projects: a Young Adult nonfiction book about a Jewish GI during World War II, and a longer narrative book about Hubert Humphrey’s role in the civil rights movement. He acknowledges that he is not quite sure where his ideas come from.
“E. L. Doctorow has a great line about a reporter: ‘His cilia are quivering all the time,’” Freedman said. “The way I get my book and article ideas is that my cilia are quivering. I try to be an alert insect.”
(Frankely Speaking, December 2015)