The other day a friend, knowing my interest in the history of the Suburban Judaism in which I was raised, sent me some prayers written by the reform rabbi Abraham Soltes. Soltes had a fairly typical successful career of a mid-20th century rabbi, serving in a variety of pulpits and chaplaincies throughout the Northeast, including as chaplain of the military academy at West Point. Later in life he added some credentials at Tel Aviv University, and in a corporation.
His prayers are notable for how completely and comfortably they identify Judaism with the project of American Suburbia. One is a “Prayer for American Enterprise”, which he recited upon the opening of a new department store. He invokes God’s blessing for “this great enterprise, whose open shelves and abundant displays symbolize the fruitage of the noble partnership of freemen working together under God[.]” In another, a prayer for the opening game of a little league baseball season, he praises the “Lord of Limb and Spirit” for “having cast our lot in this wonderful land[.]”
It would be easy, as Jewish radicals, or at least, as Jews attempting radicalism in the year 2020, to mock and deride Rabbi Soltes’ contentment in a post WWII America. Easy, too, to judge his and other Suburban Jews complicitness in White Supremacy and White flight and capitalism, to judge their smug, self-serving liberalism. And certainly I’m not advocating that we, as inheritors of this Judaism and its serious flaws and sins, overlook the work that needs to be done in atonement.
But today I’m thinking about what the emotional content and appeal of Suburbia must have been to people of Rabbi Soltes’ generation, which is to say, my grandfather’s generation. How must it have felt, to go through tenements, and the Depression, and the War, and then to find a new life, outside the City? Your family the first family to live in your new split level house. Your feet the first feet to touch your new, fresh lawn. Leaving your parents back on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, everyone and everything in your life impossibly young and vital, as you bear children, as you speak English, as you get jobs working as an engineer of jet engines, or spaceships. What must it have felt like, to come through hell, to be the future, deep in this green and growing land? It must have felt like the end of the world.