Saturday, April 28, 2007


As an secular American Jew and aspiring scholar* of Jews of the Gallic persuasion, the word "assimilation" comes up all the time. 19th century French Jews were encouraged to assimilate. German Jews in the 1930s, as well as French Jews at that time, were too obsessed with assimilation and thus couldn't defend themselves when it mattered most. Algerian Jews did not assimilate as much as French Jews would have liked, but a lot of good it did them and all that. American Jews today are too assimilated. We must fight assimilation! No, we must encourage assimilation! Bah!

That about summarizes the Jewish-assimilation debates. But it seems to me that the word "assimilation" gets misused. It is used to refer to two separate phenomena that should not both be termed "assimilation." One is the process by which individual Jews or Jewish communities go from insular/traditional/observant to blending in with whichever predominantly non-Jewish society they live in. That, I would argue, is assimilation. The second thing called assimilation is the existence of Jews today who are not sufficiently (to some) insular/traditional/observant. As in, a Jew who does not care about Shabbat is an "assimilated Jew." No matter how many generations secular, a Jew today who eats bacon is "assimilated." This is where "assimilation" gets misused. In this usage, it implies some sort of base state of Judaism, from which all divergences must be measured. It implies that all people who are Jews begin at a 100%-Jewish point of origin, from which they stray, at will, to such and such extent. It implicates people in a process to which they are personally unrelated, and in which they had no choice. For many Jews in 2007, even in 1907, a "return" to Judaism would have been the active choice, and assimilation the default.

So why, if these individuals are not to be referred to as "assimilated," but are instead boring old Americans, French people, or cosmopolitan types, do I insist on calling them Jews? I would call a Jew anyone who a) is in any way affected, positively, negatively, or neutrally, by the outside world believing him to be Jewish, and b) either actively affirms or fails to reject this assessment of his identity. This is a (close) variant of my former professor Menachem Brinker's definition of a Jew as one who is seen as a Jew and sees himself as one, the only difference being it puts a bit more of an emphasis on those who have good reason to stop thinking of themselves as Jews, do not care about things Jewish, yet persist in identifying as such.

*If Arden Wohl gets "aspiring filmmaker," I want "aspiring scholar"--it's simultaneously more glamorous and more tragic than "graduate student." And, speaking of marginal socialites who are also artists, is the fact that Ahn Duong is the celebrity I see around the city the most frequently in itself proof of the Sartrian existentialist concept of absurdity? This also ties in with the argument put forth in the "Jon Voight's car" episode of "Seinfeld," in which it's pointed out that someone would be more likely to say that a car they're trying to sell used to belong to a minor celebrity than a major one, since that's somehow more believable. Oh yes.

1 comment:

David Schraub said...

I'm curious: Would "Jews for Jesus" meet your definition?