Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Assimilation sandwich

One of the most challenging things about studying Jewish assimilation in nineteenth century France is the utter refusal of those writing on the topic to agree on the meaning of terms. Depending in part but not entirely on when, where, and from what standpoint with respect to Zionism a book was written, one author's 'integration' is another's 'assimilation', as in, the one's given definitions of one match up for the other's of the other. Reading each book, it becomes clear what an author is getting at, and where one agrees or disagrees with another, but the fact that some understand assimilation as speaking French, others as converting to Christianity, and still others as a word so offensive as not to be used at all... makes me worry that writing about the topic myself, I'll have to precede the substance of whatever I want to say with a book-length analysis of each term. Which I do find interesting, but don't want to be all I cover. Gar! Anyway.

Reading the paper this morning, I found such a bizarre misunderstanding of assimilation that things almost started to become clear to me on the subject. From a story on the fall and rise of the Jewish delicatessen:

"But delis are up against more than a bad economy. 'Jews are largely assimilated and don’t want to eat only Jewish food,' [deli expert] Mr. Sax said."

Interesting. What was this purely Jewish cuisine? What did it consist of? What did Jews eat back when they lived in a bubble? From earlier in the piece:

"When Eastern European Jews began immigrating to New York by the thousands in the late 19th century, they found delicatessens started by gentile German immigrants who had brought their pickled and smoked pork and beef to the United States. 'Jews made the deli their own and carved out a niche for themselves,' Mr. Sax said."

That Eastern European Jewish food by way of New York is not (alas for us Ashkenazim) the same as Moroccan Jewish food might suggest that even in the mystical Old Country, Jews interacted with non-Jews, and that even in the Golden Age of the first generation in America, still more interaction could be found, or else Jews would not have even given thought to German-run delis in the first place. Influence obviously went - and goes - back and forth, so it's not, as some would have it, that what we think of as Jewish food was 'actually', say, Polish. But to divide Jewish history - modern or otherwise - into eras of assimilation and lack thereof creates all kinds of misunderstandings. What sorts of interactions take place between Jews and non-Jews, this much has changed, but the changes a) didn't start from nothing, and b) definitely didn't start with a New Jersey Jew in 1980 choosing cereal over a bagel for breakfast.

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