And I Will Dwell in Their Midst

By Davids, Leo | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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And I Will Dwell in Their Midst


Davids, Leo, Shofar


by Etan Diamond. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. 215 pp. $39.95 (c); $18.95 (p).

This book is a thorough picture of the Orthodox Jewish community in suburban Toronto. In seven well-documented chapters, Diamond deals with the history, geography, and culture of a major North American Jewish community, focusing on its paradoxical combination of modernity/consumerism with tradition/religiosity, as this has developed during the past 60 years or so. Its title is from Sh'mos/Exodus Chap. 25, verse 8.

The author has included a number of interesting demographic tables and maps, making sure that the historical material is not merely impressionistic or anecdotal, but includes concrete data. One additional asset in the book is a four-page glossary, which defines for the less-informed reader many terms originating in Yiddish, Hebrew, or the Talmud's Aramaic (pp. 161-164).

Diamond shows a very good knowledge of the Toronto Jewish community, having resided here for a number of years during the 1990s. He is quite a cosmopolitan Jew, having lived in many communities across the continent. He points out the commonalities, the essential similarity of Orthodox neighborhoods throughout Canada and the United States.

When he considered the available literature on modern Jewish life, Diamond found the term "Orthodox" used in reference to the highly visible East European sort of Orthodox community, but little attention was being paid to the more modern, English-speaking Orthodox sector. This book, therefore, focuses on this much less visible modern or centrist Orthodox community, which has blossomed especially over the past 30 to 40 years.

If one were to identify the book's central theoretical issue, it is that the survival of a committed religious community in the modern world is paradoxical. After all, modernization theorists have long believed that high levels of affluence and schooling tend to be associated with secularism and the abandonment of strict religious practice.

Thus, scholarly observers of the Jewish scene had long predicted the triumph of the Reform movement and the fading away of Jewish Orthodoxy (pp. 5-7). Most people who were not themselves associated with the Orthodox community saw it as rigid, demanding, and unlikely to survive in a society that emphasizes individual freedom and lifestyle choice. So the discovery by social scientists of a flourishing and growing North American Orthodox Jewish community posed a difficult question to be answered in this context of what we usually expect, regarding social and cultural change, under conditions of freedom and prosperity. In short, in this study Diamond sets out to explain not only what "Orthodox" Jewish means today, but why it is not just surviving but growing and prospering!

In regard to what sector of the Jewish community he is describing, Diamond presents a clear and valuable overview of the differences between centrist or modern Orthodoxy and the right wing, highly traditional sector (pp. 11-14). Unlike the ultra-Orthodox Hassidic or "Yeshivish" elements in the Jewish community, the population which Diamond studied is pro-Zionist, favors higher education and professional occupations, and dresses in normal, modern clothes. Thus, many would overlook people belonging to this part of the Orthodox community because they are not especially visible but blend in with the general cultural landscape of the larger society. Diamond argues that this ignores the important dynamic of the suburban Orthodox Jewish community, which has built a viable, even impressive, way of life despite all the predictions of Orthodoxy's inevitable disappearance. He notes that even the right-wing Orthodox families, who apparently reject modern society and what it offers, have long ago decided to make their peace with the suburbs, their nice single-family homes, and an automobile-centered community. However, the focus of this book is not on those elements, whose Toronto location for the past several decades has remained in the Lawrence and Bathurst area.

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