The lost world of American Jews

October 29, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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Irving Howe, in 1976, wrote the “World of Our Fathers.” It pays tribute to the American Jewish world of the nineteenth and twentieth century which was re-shaped by the massive immigration from Eastern Europe.

Jeremy Rosen

The core themes are how Eastern European Jews came to find a new, free life in America and spread out across the country in search of opportunities.

They faced poverty, overcrowding, and the conflicting demands of survival and religious continuity. Jews had three options: total commitment, abandonment, and finding compromises between religion and livelihood.Many of them brought and fought for their socialist ideals. Howe describes the dynamic secular Yiddish culture they created. At the same time, they contributed massively to American life in almost every sphere. But assimilation took its toll and marriage-out numbers have reached almost 70%.

My father visited America only once in his short life in the 1950s. He came back shocked that all the Jewish philanthropists, community professionals, and educators he met there, were so far removed from any Jewish religious values. They kept no rituals. Except for perhaps token visits to a synagogue on the Day of Atonement. Their Judaism was a social phenomenon, relying more on the stomach than the soul. Material success had ripped the traditional core out of Jewish life everywhere.

Looking back with hindsight, we can now see the total failure of the golden age Howe describes. The generations of Jews who saw the Democratic Party as their home and refuge are now seeing sections of it animated by antipathy if not antagonism. Secular Yiddish is withering and now only flourishes as the Mama Loshen, of the Ultra-Orthodox, who reject secular Yiddish culture and everything it stood for.

As serious religion became unattractive to so many, what were the alternatives to the centrifuge of Jewish identity? Many were tried, from Zionism to the  Holocaust, to Anti-Semitism, even Jewish cookery. But younger generations have not experienced insecurity, war, or being ejected from their homes and countries of birth. They did not witness the holocaust. Until recently anti-Semitism was so marginal as not to be a problem. The alternatives to religion as positive reasons to justify Jewish identity were all negative.

What has saved American Jewry have been the more recent waves of immigrants such as the Chassidic, Sephardi, and Mizrahi communities, who have done much better in retaining and expanding, by living and sticking together, and emphasizing Jewish practice and education. Even they face the challenge of attrition, but to everyone’s surprise, the Jewish religious community in the USA and indeed around the world, particularly in Israel, is showing remarkable signs of recovery and vibrancy, even if many still fall by the wayside.

This cycle of attrition, alienation, and then resurgence has been the story of Jews for millennia. We have always shrunk, been made unwelcome, and moved on. Only to be reconstituted somewhere else. We have always gone through a cycle of comfort and confidence that was challenged and lost. We have always been a rolling stone, the wandering Jew. Yet it has served us well because it made us more adaptable and there was always a small hardcore determined not to let go and fight to survive. In every sphere, only a few have had the will, the stomach, and the commitment to stand firm and fight. All revolutionary movements start and follow through with a small core of dedicated followers prepared to make the cause their priority.  It takes commitment to struggle.

But so much Jewish apathy is painful. And I wonder why. I have just watched the latest Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. It is redolent with Jewish reference. All of it is negative. In conversation, they talk about Matzo balls, drop a reference to Confused Jews, throw in a mention of anti-Semitism, and scatter Yiddish words. John Hamm arrives at a mock funeral with something torn because he was told that was the custom. He confuses Shiva and Shavuot and misuses Tsores and adds Bashert and a Shanda. All nods in the direction of the passe secular Yiddish influence on American speech. The Jewish wife is loud, aggressive, overbearing, and the husband is browbeaten. All the cliches that portray Jews comically and derisively.

We Jews have always been good at humor. Humor and self-deprecation, were an escape, a way of ingratiating ourselves. But now in Hollywood, we are being portrayed as weak, nerdy, and derisory shlemiels. Rarely is there anything positive. Program after program, film after film is about the narrow, claustrophobic world of religious life and Orthodox women having to escape hell for social and sexual freedom and excess. These are the images that attract millions of views. Whereas serious documentaries pick up a few thousand.  Only Israel comes across as strong ( sometimes too much so) confident and culturally creative with heroines as well as heroes. Yet even then, more time is given on-air and social media to religious and nationalist extremists and bullies.  Would you judge the USA by the KKK, Antifa, or BLM?

When I try to understand why so much of American Jewry no longer supports Israel, it seems to me that the heroes of secular Jewry are almost all neurotic wimps. The novelists, comedians, actors even tech billionaires can be laughed at for being either harmless, amusing wonks or evil manipulators. Think of Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Albert Brooks, Gene Wilder, Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Larry David, Gerry Seinfeld, Seth Rogen, and Adam Sandler to mention the obvious ones. They are likable Jews, tolerated, so long as they are weak and nerdy. But the moment a Jew stands up for himself, he is an arrogant, violent, oppressive colonialist, or whining about anti-Semitism.

No wonder the uneducated ignorant Jew, Jew in name only, can’t identify either with the passionate Jewish religion or with passionate Jewish nationalism. How should we, the committed ones, respond?

Think of Shakespeare’s Henry V’s famous speech in Act 3.1

“In peace, there is nothing as becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility.

But when the blast of war blows in our ears

Then imitate the action of the tiger

Stiffen the Sinews, summon up the blood

Disguise fair nature with hard favoured rage.”

Howe’s book should have been called “The World of the Lost Jews.”

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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