The Jewish Counterculture in the Michael Strassfeld papers

The Michael Strassfeld papers, 1901-2015 (bulk: 1968-2015), which came to Penn in 2015, are now processed and open for research. Michael Strassfeld (b. February 8, 1950) is an American Reconstructionist Rabbi. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, Strassfeld was profoundly influenced by the burgeoning Jewish anti-establishment movement in the Boston area in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Michael Strassfeld papers contain the records of the his education and life’s work. Represented are elements of his Orthodox upbringing, traditional Jewish education, influence of the Jewish anti-establishment and countercultural movements, and his training and practice as a Reconstructionist Rabbi.

Researchers will find much within the collection to be fascinating and useful. Of particular interest may be the Jewish countercultural materials from the 1960s and 1970s. The Jewish Counterculture grew alongside the country’s general countercultural movement and responded to some of the same concerns and frictions as its wider cultural cousin. The Jewish Counterculture traces many of its roots to the New Left and the Civil Rights Movement, but also has distinctively Jewish origins as well. This blog post will present examples which highlight some of the movement’s themes. It’s by no means a thorough treatment of the period* and presents examples in large part for their visual appeal. Still, I think it will give a good sense of some of the outstanding materials that may be found in this collection.

Student concerns about war, poverty, and education

Many of those involved in the development of a Jewish Counterculture were, not surprisingly, young people. Some found themselves rebelling against the strictures of their parent’s brand of Judaism, whether that be Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform branches of the faith. Others, particularly those raised as secular Jews, sought a greater connection to the faith of their forebears. The son of an Orthodox Rabbi, Michael Strassfeld attended an Orthodox Jewish day school in Brookline, Massachusetts, followed by a year at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City, and completed his undergraduate and graduate education at Brandeis University where he majored in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (he was later ordained as a Rabbi from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1991). In Boston, Strassfeld found himself involved in student organizations such as Concerned Jewish Students (CJS), which sought to highlight the disparity between economic classes and called on Jewish philanthropic organizations to use their influence more responsibly.

Persecution of Soviet Jews

Another cause of many countercultural Jewish student groups was the end to oppression of Soviet Jews. Once the largest population of Jews in the world, Soviet Jews have lived through many incidents of persecution. Following the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, many Soviet Jews wished to emigrate but were systematically refused permission, and suffered from increased anti-Semitism. The organization Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), which is represented in the Strassfeld papers, was the primary American grassroots organization seeking to raise awareness of the plights of Soviet Jews and improve their situations.

The Havurah Movement

The first countercultural Havurah (or fellowship community) was Havurat Shalom, founded outside of Boston in 1968 by a group of young men and women that included Michael Strassfeld. Members of the Havurah lived, ate, played and studied together in a house in Somerville, Massachusetts, and sought to bring new and more personal meaning to Jewish texts and traditions. Like Strassfeld, many of those who belonged to the Havurah in its early days have gone on to become influential figures in American Jewish life.

Women’s liberation within Judaism

The Jewish feminist movement can be traced back in part to the Havurah movement, where communal and egalitarian principles were advanced, and it also parallelled and grew out of American second wave feminism. Issues among Jewish feminists and the men who supported them included equality of Jewish laws and rituals, access to Jewish sacred texts and the egalitarian reshaping of those texts, and a greater emphasis on the value of the family in Jewish life. The country’s first female rabbis were ordained in the Reform movement in 1972 and the Reconstructionist branch in 1974. Important Jewish women’s publications may be traced to this time period as well and examples may be found throughout the collection.

Do-it-yourself Judaism

As the Havurah movement sought to personalize and deepen the individual’s relationship to God, many in the movement found that they yearned for access to rituals and practices either traditionally withheld from lay people, or forgotten by their secularized ancestors. The most important book to address these needs was The Jewish Catalog, a sort of do-it-yourself manual on how to be Jewish. Written and edited by Michael Strassfeld, his first wife Sharon Strassfeld, and Richard Siegel, a school mate of theirs, the publication was called the most successful book to come out of the Jewish Counterculture and was followed by second and third catalogs.

Neo-Hasidism

Among the traditions tapped by many members of the Jewish counterculture were selected aspects of Hasidic Judaism. While the innovative and liberal theology of the young counterculturalists was far from the conservative beliefs and laws of Orthodox Hasidim, many Hasidic cultural practices and religious rituals were quite attractive. The rise of this Neo-Hasidism brought about an emphasis on a personal relationship with God, mystical storytelling practices, Eastern European foodways, and a renewed interest in the Yiddish language. Of particular note is the embracing of the sacred vocal music called Niggunim and its secular cousin, Klezmer instrumental music. Strassfeld has amassed a particularly rich collection of Niggunim on record, cassette, and compact disc. That part of the collection has yet to be fully described but will be added to the finding aid once it is completed.

Specialized religious services

Many of these and other Jewish countercultural strands have come together over the years to spur the creation and publication of specialized religious services. Haggadah for the Passover Seder, Midrash texts explicating passages of the Torah, Machzor prayer books for the High Holy Days—all have come to be produced in a variety of styles and themes, reflecting the specific needs of individual communities, or incorporating diverse traditions.

These are just a few of the Countercultural themes one may find within the Strassfeld papers. Pinpointing in time the conclusion of the Jewish Counterculture would be a difficult task, but many of the movement’s central figures went into the world to work on issues held dear to them, and quite a few became Rabbis who led or lead Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues. Egalitarian ideals continued in further work on women’s issues, and the acceptance of gay and lesbian Rabbis and same-sex marriage. Eco-Kosherism and a concern for the environment are other issues that have grown from the Jewish Counterculture. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld has been an active part of all of this, and his collection of papers is a rich source for exploring this history.

*A good overview of the Jewish Counterculture and its influences may be found in “counterculture, Jewish” in the Encyclopedia of Modern Jewish Culture (London: Routledge, 2005).

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