Generation J?
June 16, 2003 9:23 PM   Subscribe

Red, White and Jew --an examination of 6 issues facing the American Jews of today and tomorrow, religious and non, from the holocaust as history to Israel fatigue to Jewish conservatives.
...We can finally be Jewish and American, but somewhere along the line nobody bothered to figure out entirely what that meant. So it falls to us, the next Jewish generation, to balance the scales. Will we be more Jewish, more American, or a fusion of the two? More importantly, how will we do it?
posted by amberglow (23 comments total)
WRT #3: Is it still common for intermarriaged couples to take on the religion of the woman, at least as far as raising the kids? I've always heard that a Jewish man will assimilate to a Christian church, but a non-Jewish man will convert for a Jewish woman. Is that tradition strictly or still common practice?
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:50 PM on June 16, 2003

Great article, fairly presented and well argued. Thanks for that, amberglow.

On the one hand, more Jews are getting back in touch with their klezmer roots and Yiddish rhymes, but this is being dwarfed by the intermixing of Jewish themes with pop culture. Think of it as interfaith culture. Jon Stewart is king of Comedy Central. Seinfeld has an effect named after him, and Jewish hip-hop and spoken-word poetry is all the rave.

It's about American Ashkenazi Jews, of course - not really about us southern Sephardis. My "yiddish" for instance is Portuguese and Spanish ladino. Jews may be few and far between, but they span the world and are just as diverse, proportionally, as Christians.

The big difference - and to an important extent unifying force - is indeed Seinfeld and Stewart. A very good thing. We need everyone to know us Jews better. In Southern Europe, it's much, much easier.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:50 PM on June 16, 2003

Good post btw, amber. Let's hope it doesn't devolve into a shitstorm about #2.
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:57 PM on June 16, 2003

Ufez, judging by the people i know who have "married out," it's been either bringing up the kids with a mixture of both religions, or the spouse who had the most deeply-held religious beliefs deciding....the recent NY Times article on the declining Jewish population here in the city had me thinking about that as well....

and also, many of us do have conflicting feelings about Israel, so if this thread becomes a shitstorm, then that's ok too.

and Miguel, sorry about the Ashkenazi focus, but that's what almost all of us American Jews are. and i think i first found jewsweek from an earlier post of yours : >
posted by amberglow at 10:12 PM on June 16, 2003

Re: conservative Jews (#6).

Sigh. Am I the only one who's been feeling more and more nostalgic for the popular leftwing Jewish movements of the '50s and '60s? Seriously, outside of academia we seem to be abandoning this.
posted by slipperywhenwet at 11:11 PM on June 16, 2003

sliperrywhenwet: I think it might have a lot to do with the left's open hostility towards Israel (and the perceived undercurrents of anti-Semitism) these days.

And besides why are conservative Jews an issue in the first place? Or are Jews not allowed to hold conservative views?
posted by PenDevil at 12:29 AM on June 17, 2003

Oddly enough, I think more folks speak Ladino in the US than anywhere else (except maybe Canada.) Just there aren't as many using the language since Sephardic education was in French throughout most of the Mediterranean. I doubt many children are now being raised in it - I just met with Aron Saltiel in Graz, Austria, who at 50 is probably the youngest ladino speaker from the Sephardic community of Bursa, Turkey.

Point is, the US still maintains a healthy diversity of Jewish cultures. Possibly more so than in Israel, which stresses assimilation into a "Jewish" melting pot ideal. And succeeds too well, overwhelming the localized tradition, languages, and identities of the immigrants.

I know of some amazing intermarriages that have succeeded in maintaining Jewish identity - Sioux/Jew, Ojibwa/Jew, Sotho/Jew... - while at the same time not a single rabbi in New York would perform a marriage for a friend who was marrying a woman - one of the few "real" Berlin Jews in Berlin - because she was 1/64th non Jewish... out of fear of growing ultra-ortho power.
posted by zaelic at 2:45 AM on June 17, 2003

zaelic, Reform rabbis in NY will marry me to my lover, if i desire...i'm sure one of those would have married your friend to the person he loved as well....
posted by amberglow at 5:41 AM on June 17, 2003

I'm gonna get flamed to shit about this - but what's the big deal? In the UK, my friend never says he's "Anglo-Sri Lankan"; he speaks English, has a British passport and says he's british. If the question of "ethnicity" comes up (eg, if someone assumes he's Indian) he'll say that his parents are from Sri Lanka, but he's British - and gets grumpy if anyone assumes he isn't

My wife never says she's Anglo-Thai. I could get all precious about my grandparents' ethnicities and say I'm Anglo-Scottish-Jewish-Italian, but why would I want to?

Yet every American I've met who isn't WASP always defines themselves as American-Jewish/ - Irish/ -Italian/ -whatever, although in many cases they've never been to the "homeland", and in many cases look at it with an absurdly romantic slant.

Why is that?
posted by Pericles at 6:22 AM on June 17, 2003

We can finally be Jewish and American

Actually, you could be that all along. Since this nation guarantees freedom of religion. It amazes me how many people do not understand that being Jewish refers to a persons religious preference.
I asked my nephews, "who lives in Israel?" They said Jewish people. I told them that was incorrect. Israelis live in Israel. They just happen to be predominantly Jewish.
I would think it safe to say that 100% of the Israeli population is not Jewish either.
So, you can be Jewish and American, as you can be Catholic and American, as you can be Protestant and American...etc

Pericles: I agree with your sentiments. I don't walk around pronouncing myself to be a German-Italian- American.
posted by a3matrix at 6:50 AM on June 17, 2003

The biggest reason that people called themselves Italian- or Irish- or Jewish-American as recently as one generation ago is that the rest of the country wouldn't let them forget it. My mother remembers not being allowed to go to certain beaches because she was Jewish.

Ironically, discrimination maintains a strong identity of different-ness in those discriminated against. Jews were much less likely to intermarry, to identify strongly with Judaism, and to observe religious rituals when society as a whole didn't want them.

And PenDevil, the reason that Jews becoming conservative is so troubling is that Jews used to be an oppressed group, and conservatives are usually doing the oppressing. Compassion (not "conservative compassion") was a big part of Judaism, until Jews started getting more secure and wealthy. It's the same reaction that people have towards members of other historically (or continually) oppressed minorities who become conservative: e.g. blacks, latinos, and gay people.
posted by callmejay at 7:45 AM on June 17, 2003

Miguel: I'll bet you'd be as fascinated as I am by this book by Ammiel Alcalay, which describes entire areas of Sephardic literature and culture that I never knew existed. I posted a quote, with links, here. Enjoy.

zaelic: "Sioux/Jew"? I love it! So, Joe, you and Sue are Sioux/Jews?
posted by languagehat at 9:12 AM on June 17, 2003

So, I grew up in backwoods America, and I got my full dose of racist propaganda, but anti-semitism just kind of leaves me puzzled in the same way that anti-Lutheranism would, because growing up that's just what Judaism was presented to me as: different church, that's all.

How much of American Jewry's identity crisis has to do with being less persecuted? I don't mean at all to diminish the discrimination that Jews have had, and still have, to face; it just seems to me that at least to a certain extent that it's eased up.
posted by hob at 9:22 AM on June 17, 2003

And PenDevil, the reason that Jews becoming conservative is so troubling is that Jews used to be an oppressed group, and conservatives are usually doing the oppressing.

Pffft. Tell it to the Jews living in Communist countries--or Nazi Germany, for that matter. Neither bunch of oppressors were conservative; both were strongly socialist and their respective ideologies were strongly liberal, the "wave of the future" (though Nazism also justificed itself with historical crapola, which is often a conservative tactic).

Compassion (not "conservative compassion") was a big part of Judaism, until Jews started getting more secure and wealthy.

Oh, ew. "Compassion" is non-partisan. It does not necessarily mean socialist domestic policies. You could just as easily make an argument that compassion dictates that we help people help themselves (welfare reform? smaller government?) or that tikkun olam (the injunction to "heal the world") means we should go topple some more dictators. And a religion that places so much emphasis on continuity (l'dor v'dor - "from generation to generation...") and tradition [resists urge to sing the song from "Fiddler on the Roof"] definitely has conservative roots.

It's the same reaction that people have towards members of other historically (or continually) oppressed minorities who become conservative: e.g. blacks, latinos, and gay people.

Become conservative? Some of us always were. We're just more quiet about it, lest we be condescended to or be labeled as somehow inauthentic. Which would, of course, never happen.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:43 AM on June 17, 2003

Languagehat: Strange as it may seem the only living descendant of the Lakota leader Tashunka Witko ("Crazy Horse") is an orthodox Jew.

It may seem strange to a European that Americans still define themselves via a hyphenated ethnicity, but some do while some don't. My father hates identifying as anything other than "American", yet when I go visit him this week we will speak Yiddish and eat corn meal mamaliga with pscha, a horrible garlicky goo of boiled lambs' feet which my mother (with whom I speak Hungarian) hates simply because it is "too Romanian." The next door neighbors speak Lithuanian yiddish, across the street is a Ladino speaking family, as well as two Cuban families. The longest "American" bloodlines on my street are the African Americans next door. And yes, we are all proudly American on top of it all.

I live in Europe where my "American-ness" is only one of the ethnicities I carry around. If I cover up my Jewishness in Europe I get "outed" fast. Which is a big difference between Europe and the US.

An old Russian Jewish joke: Kruschev and President Kennedy are having dinner. Kruschev says to Kennedy "We have 43 Jews in the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. How many Jews do you have in the New York Philharmonic?" And Kennedy answers "I don't know."
posted by zaelic at 10:05 AM on June 17, 2003

As a (non-observant) Jewish white man married to a woman who is black and (non-observant) Catholic, the question of how we raise our daughter (now still an infant) is a big and difficult one. We don't want to teach her religious beliefs that neither of us feel. But we do want her to be aware of both Jewish and black heritages. How precisely to do this, I am not entirely sure.
posted by Rebis at 10:55 AM on June 17, 2003

But we do want her to be aware of both Jewish and black heritages. How precisely to do this, I am not entirely sure.

  • - FYI, there are traditionally black Jewish synagogues in Harlem, Black Jewish communities (the Lemba, et al) in Africa, so we're not even talking conversion/intermarriage here

  • Soc Culture Jewish Intermarriage and Conversion Reading List: You've Done The Deed. Coping With Life As An Intermarried - Many books on their list look like they were written especially for your situation

  • Interracial marriage - One of the many "Ask A Rabbi" questions gets

  • Three cheers for Google!
    posted by Asparagirl at 11:15 AM on June 17, 2003

    But we do want her to be aware of both Jewish and black heritages.

    But not her Catholic heritage?
    posted by NortonDC at 1:09 PM on June 17, 2003

    This guy Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies, has written an excellent essay on American Jews and how they define themselves and the myth of Israel.

    This story expresses the three beliefs that have become the pillars of American Jewish life. First, Jews have an unbreakable emotional bond with the land of Israel. Second, anti-semitism is a permanent threat to every Jew. And third, Israel is the Jews’ only dependable refuge against that threat.
    posted by euphorb at 1:57 PM on June 17, 2003

    Uh-oh, I only scored one out of three of those pillars. They better not vote me out of the tribe...
    posted by Asparagirl at 2:36 PM on June 17, 2003

    which one asparagirl?...the second and third ring true to me, but not the first

    thanks for that great article euphorb
    posted by amberglow at 2:52 PM on June 17, 2003

    The first and third ring false for me. America is my promised land.
    posted by Asparagirl at 3:11 PM on June 17, 2003

    Oddly, it's the second that seems less than hammered in granite to me. I'm a Jewish Jew (that is, cultural/ethnic identity, not religious) but I have a hard time when anyone says anything negative about Israel. And I've been there, in a better world I would move there, so #3.

    And Asparagirl, last I looked there was no central authority to conduct such a vote plus the religions that do have central authorities don't take kindly to voting (as opposed to command and control from the top).
    posted by billsaysthis at 5:30 PM on June 17, 2003

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