Those who have pored over the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” or the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study have a new volume to peruse.
Tal Keinan’s “God is in the Crowd” is a first person approach to sweeping studies of Jewish life. Specifically, by interspersing his personal story with harrowing figures, Keinan, an American-born, Harvard-educated Israeli entrepreneur and financier who served as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, diagnoses world Jewry’s current plight and proposes a solution.
Part memoir, part pitch, Keinan’s opening pages recall a childhood impacted by his parents’ divorce; stays at boarding schools hundreds of miles from his Miami home; his return to Florida for high school and eventual attendance at Phillips Exeter Academy.
The latter, through its Jewish Student Association and related coursework, largely introduced Keinan to Jewish ritual: “Shabbat represented a weekly milestone for me, providing an important opportunity for reflection during this formative period,” he writes. “On Shabbat, I began to perceive a new relevance for myself as a member of a community, a cell in a bigger organism.”
But as Keinan’s interest grew, so too did his struggle between competing philosophies: “I was beginning to realize that membership in a tribe demands boundaries. As Jews, we were defined by particular codes, values, rules and rituals that we did not share with others. At the same time, I was an individual and a Universalist. I saw sectarian borders as artificial and even dangerous.”
Keinan’s difficulty follows him through enrollment at Georgetown University, his subsequent graduation from Tel Aviv University and his time training to become one of the only new immigrants to be a pilot in the Israel Defense Forces.
In narrating his years at Israel’s academy for air force cadets, Keinan offers readers an intriguing portrait of attempted assimilation — efforts spurred by anonymous peer evaluations, revealed to him as they are to other cadets, during closed door sessions with instructors.
“Typical remarks for me would be ‘Thinks he joined a civilian flying club,’ or ‘Has no understanding that he is going to war after graduation,’ or, most injurious, ‘Is occupying the position of someone who deserves to be here.’ To many of my peers, I was still an outsider,” he writes. “My reaction to this feedback was to try to conform outwardly, to emulate the bearing and demeanor of the Israeli fighter pilot.”
Alongside his trials, Keinan weaves a geographical breakdown of contemporary Jewry.
“Until the first half of the 20th century, the Jewish people was distributed across the world, in hundreds of distinct communities — the Diaspora. The Second World War marked the beginning of the most dramatic physical reorganization of the Jews since the beginning of the Diaspora.”
European, Ethiopian and Latin American Jewish communities disappeared, because of the Holocaust or by subsequent immigration to Israel, he explains. “As of 2016, almost 90 percent of the world’s Jews resided in either North America or Israel, and the world’s Jewish population continues to concentrate in these two geographies.”
Such loss of a globally diverse Jewish body has weakened the whole, he argues before employing game theory and the value of collective opinion, or “the wisdom of the crowd,” to substantiate the statement that unless a “radical evolution” occurs, “it will result in our extinction.”
Keinan’s claims are compelling; yet so too is his antidote to the calamity, a program titled, “The Jewish World Endowment — a sort of Birthright 2.0.”
As he writes, the program requires parents (or presumably guardians) to commit 1.25 percent of pretax income “each year, for each child, to the Endowment, beginning when the child is five years old.” Benefits of the program include: “two years in a Jewish summer program,” “two months’ participation in a Tikkun project,” and “a scholarship covering full undergraduate university tuition.”
Details of the program, as well as other sizeable proposals, are fleshed out in the text’s closing pages — a space where the author returns to first-person narrative.
By floating between autobiography and social strategy, Keinan offers material with lofty aims: Elements of “God is in the Crowd” could satisfy those seeking the story of a notable American-Israeli, while portions of the text may appeal to those interested in Jewish demography.
Collectively, “God is in the Crowd” may soar best within book groups, as conversant study partners could determine whether the fighter pilot’s vision has the merit to climb or merely the weight of a lead balloon. PJC