Measuring acculturation isn’t easy. Some look to language, others to economic behavior and still others to the maintenance of religious ritual as an index of a group’s integration and modernization.
On the strength of a recent story in the New York Times, I recommend that we add etiquette to the list. American Jewish youngsters, it now seems, have no sense of how to behave at synagogue services: they slouch when they ought to stand, text when they ought to sing, talk when they ought to be silent, and on and on goes the roster of faux pas.Breaches of synagogue etiquette now come so fast and furious that a number of dismayed Jewish educators have gone so far as to organize classes on how to behave while in the sanctuary. They’re not alone. The Times reports that in Detroit, dance classes for preteens routinely add a few pointers on “bar and bat mitzvah etiquette” to the curriculum.
Years ago, learning the fine points of etiquette had little to do with the protocols of the synagogue — who would even have imagined it?! — and everything to do with the rituals of daily life: how to doff one’s hat, talk on the phone and polish off a bowl of soup.
Jewish immigrants, eager to fit in and do right by America, learned the ABCs of proper behavior from Etikete, a text published in Yiddish in 1912. The functional equivalent of Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, this hefty compendium of dos and donts put the mannerly life within reach.
It’s a measure of how far American Jews have come that the great-grandchildren of those who might have consulted Etikete on occasion now need formal lessons in what to do when at shul. Now that’s what I’d call ‘acculturation!’