Tuesday, September 05, 2006

New Traditions

Among the items auctioned off at the NHC Summer Institute's annual auction were several issues of New Traditions, a now-defunct journal published by the National Havurah Committee in the mid-1980s. I came home with issue #2, from Spring 1985. The cover price is $5 (that's $9.46 in 2006 dollars). "Note: New Traditions will appear on an occasional basis until we are in a position to publish it as a quarterly." Does anyone know whether it ever became a quarterly, or how long it lasted? There is also an opportunity to sign up for a four-issue subscription for $18, or to become a member of the NHC (which includes a subscription to New Traditions) for $35. The latter has gotten much cheaper in real dollars -- $35 in 1985 is equivalent to $66.19 in 2006, and an NHC membership costs only $40 these days.

The NHC's mailing address at the time was 270 W 89th St, New York NY, before the office had moved to Philadelphia, of course. This building is now the Heschel School, and is connected to the back of B'nai Jeshurun. Can anyone fill in the history of how this came to be the NHC office and how it ceased to be?

Would it make sense to resurrect a dead-tree journal like this today? Probably not -- that's what the Internet is for. But it's always amazing to see the ingenious ways that people communicated even before there was an Internet.

The introduction by editor William Novak says, in part:

The purpose of New Traditions is to provide an intelligent and personal discussion of contemporary Judaism. By "Judaism" we do not mean Jewish history, politics, nostalgia, literature or scholarship, although these concerns will certainly be discussed in our pages. What we have in mind, simply, is the theory and practice of Judaism as a religion. Our hope is that New Traditions will be a forum for teaching, interpretation, and imagination -- in short, as our subtitle puts it, for explorations in Judaism.

Listen up, those who would lump the recent explosion of independent minyan/havurot together with Heeb into an undifferentiated, substanceless "hipster Judaism" -- you are wrong. The media narrative is "This new generation of Jews is Jewishly engaged, but they don't belong to synagogues! Therefore, they must be creating a new cultural Jewish identity that rejects religion, and possibly rejects any content." Nope. It's actually the opposite. Like our predecessors who ran the NHC in 1985 and produced New Traditions, we are building independent Jewish communities because we want to see Judaism as a religion fully actualized, without the baggage that comes along with the synagogue-industrial complex.

The household names (defined as "people I've heard of") among the contributors to New Traditions #2 include Danny Siegel, Arnold Eisen, Julius Lester, Richard Israel, and Aryeh Kaplan.

I'll post more highlights after I read the whole thing. In the meantime, a few fun tidbits:

In an interview with Jacob Neusner, he says that "Commentary is the most destructive Jewish institution around."

"How to Give a D'var Torah", by Richard J. Israel, has been excerpted online, but these excerpts leave out a section on "Some Resources That Are Available To You", which reviews various Torah commentaries from Rashi and Ramban to Hertz and Plaut. A highlight:

In my view, many of the ArtScroll publications currently on the market are hopelessly pious and of no interest at all. I have yet to find anything they want to teach me that I want to know. They are so noble, high minded and earnest that it is hard to believe that they are written for real people. Because the series is such a good idea and in such a splendid format, it is a double shame that the product is so bad.


  1. A fuller excerpt (brackets in original):

    Take Commentary, for example. They're pathetic, bitter enemies of Judaism. They stopped pretending to be Jewish in 1960, when Norman [Podhoretz] took over. By removing the Cedars of Lebanon column and other things, he took the mezuzzahs off the doors.

    A few years later he did his political shift, which I happen to respect and share, but he never did a shift on anything Jewish. The magazine doesn't even pretend that Judaism is a living religion, that Jewish intellectual life has substance and discipline and method and important issues to debate. It in no way takes seriously that the Jews are Jewish in their minds That's why Commentary is the most destructive Jewish institution around. It tells people every month that there's nothing important about the Jewish intellect.

    That doesn't mean they don't sometimes publish a good article on a Jewish theme. Robert Alter and Jacob Katz are consistently very good. But this is clearly pro forma. And by treating it as such with so little else of a Jewish intellectual character of such high quality, they underline the message, which is that the action is somewhere else. And yet they are Jewish. And yet it's the American Jewish Committee. And yet they want a Jewish audience. It's enormously destructive.

    Since this is from before my time, I don't entirely understand the context.

  2. I can't believe you wrote "synagogue-industrial complex".

    That's awesome. That critique of Artscroll is still true, sadly.

  3. I'm the abba of smel, another noted blogger. I loved new traditions. The Julius Lester article became the heart of "love song" his story of his conversion to Judaism and still remains (in the new tradition form) one of the best midrashim on pharoah's daughter I've ever read.

    of course, maybe I've not read anything since then. It's always possible.

    A disagreement on artscroll: I think there translation of the gemorra is wonderful. My haver from the seminary days and I finished brachot--the whole masechet: couldn't have done it without art scroll. It makes the gemorra really accessible to me AND, in its commentary, brings other rishonum and acharonim that aren't found on the standard page of the gemorra (aside from being in English, which for me is a big advantage: I'm not writing in Hebrew, am I?)

    anyway, nice to see your blog. smel turned me onto it. I'm glad to see you have nostalgia for the good old days AND you are totally right about Heeb is not the same as a minyan. One person I know in the synagogue-industrial complex thinks that Heeb does not contribute to the totality of kedusha in the world, whereas your blog and the minyanim do. the distinction between "activities which enhance kedusha and activities which don't" is not a distinction noticed by the press.

    on the other hand, the ads in Heeb are so funny! I love them and wish I had thought of them and I would buy a t-shirt with the fake elie wiesel palm pilot ad if I could.


  4. ps from abba:
    you might (or might not) know that Bill Novak (in addition to being a great ghost writer) founded Response a great journal that preceeded New Traditions adn also had a paperback book out called: New Traditions, co-edited with James Sleeper. They were heady days.

    Question from an old, pre-e-mail person:
    do you think founding a journal or being published in a journal is more (insert an adjective here) than a blog? Where is the "blog of record" for these issues (shout out to the people at Jewschool: I loved the article about rap and schorsch.) You can't put a blog on a shelf.

    finally, rabbi neal gilman said, when Response was first produced (this is quotation remembered, not written: I was there) and Response's circulation rivaled Commentary's: "well, every generation creates its own magazine."

    He was right.


  5. that may be the best description of artscroll I've ever come across

  6. Would it make sense to resurrect a dead-tree journal like this today? Probably not -- that's what the Internet is for. But it's always amazing to see the ingenious ways that people communicated even before there was an Internet.

    Oh, c'mon BZ. Lots of folks your (our) age love the paper format, including me. It's measurably more difficult to read a blog in bed (or in the bathroom, for that matter) or waiting in line or sitting on the bus or eating alone at a restaurant. And you can't really make notes in the margins in any kind of useful way, unless you want the whole world to see them. So, yuck to the "dead tree" frame.

  7. New Traditions -- like classic Response before it -- was wonderful.
    I'm starting to think it's time for a new journal... probably in a combo PDF/Print format.

    If you're interested in joining an editorial board, drop me a line @BenYehudaPress.com