Friday, May 28, 2010

Clinging to intermediaries

Benjamin Schwarz analyzes the nostalgia many feel for a certain type of lively, diverse urban neighborhood, with its mom-and-pop latte shops and so forth, and points out that such areas are by definition transitional. Those whose complaints about "gentrification" are really about blandification (a Subway replacing an old-time stockings boutique; a pricey café closing, that could well be replaced by - god forbid - a cupcake shop; anything, however posh, being replaced by a Starbucks) are interested, Schwarz explains, not in a sustainable form of urban life, but in a particular stage of the gentrification process, one they romanticize into permanence.

It occurred to me that this is the same thing as is going on with the efforts to keep secular/cultural Judaism alive in the US. It's not so much that what's missed never existed as that its presence was so precarious, dependent on factors whose reinstitution no one sensible, when it comes down to it, would support. In the case of quaint Greenwich Village, poverty and crime kept the Marc Jacobs empire in check. One can respectably wish neighborhoods would remain less wealthy, but more impoverished is a tough case to make. To sustain quirky Allen-Costanza Judaism, you'd need to maintain a level of mutual wariness between Jews and non-Jews that would feel like a great step back. As in, there are Jews who regret the intermarriage rate, and who ask that even secular Jews marry in. But does anyone Jewish, however nostalgic, long for a time when non-Jews shuddered at the thought of marrying one of our kind?


Miss Self-Important said...

Not that I, a devoted patron of Starbucks, disagree with Schwarz on the whole, but I wonder whether this kind of argument really makes more sense than the Lost Golden Age That Never Existed argument. Can't every period of a city's (or people's) history be seen as merely contingent, and a transition to something else? If that's so, and contingent things are of little value, then how is it possible to say that a city (or people) has ever reached a good or desirable state?

If "It's not so much that what's missed never existed as that its presence was so precarious, dependent on factors whose reinstitution no one sensible, when it comes down to it, would support," then can't the same be said of the present? Maybe the present rate of Jewish intermarriage is a transitional event, supported by all kinds of precarious social arrangements which, in 50 years, no one would ever advocate? How can we decide then which is better, intermarriage or not intermarriage, if both are merely precarious outgrowths of contingent social factors over which we have no control?

Phoebe said...

I think you may be right. Every situation - Golden Age or otherwise - is transitional. Still, some situations are more stable than others, so maybe "precarious" better explains what I'm getting at than "intermediary." The perfect Village block and the Woody Allen Jew strike me as both being especially precarious. (There's also the overlap issue - secular Jews in Golden Age NYC - which isn't really relevant here.)

To answer your other question...My point re: intermarriage wasn't that it is or is not desirable as a mass phenomenon. It's that the specific conditions that would be required to get in-marriage rates back to what they were during the Golden Age - when acculturated Jews existed and were technically free to marry out, but rarely did so - would not please even the most fervent advocates of in-marriage today. Focus - academic and Jewish-communal - is nearly always on Jewish "agency," which is to say, on how up for marrying out Jews were at a given time. Meanwhile, a key factor in rates is and was non-Jewish openness to marrying Jews, a factor that's almost universally ignored. Even if we assume acculturated Jews' attitudes to be relatively constant (on average, a Jew would be preferable but the right Gentile will do), it's clear that the rates will be significantly higher if non-Jewish partners are actually available. It's not that everything's contingent, that, in this case, Jews have no control over the rates. It's that Jews' control over these rates is limited - it's not the only factor.

Anyway. I don't think it's something particular to present-day values and contingencies that Jews today who advocate in-marriage would find it unsettling if all of a sudden non-Jews found the prospect of marrying a Jew icky (with all the social boundary-building that would imply had taken place.) Meaning, I don't think Golden Age, in-marrying acculturated Jews were so pleased with social boundary, either. I'd assume they too would have taken the refusal of Miss Gentile to consider a date with Mr. Jew not as a lucky fact of life that helped along Jewish continuity, but rather as an example of anti-Jewish social bigotry. (Same as the Golden Age West Village residents would have pressed the button that eliminated crime.) Obviously, things can have unintended consequences, and we may at some later date wish we'd instituted some as yet unknown policy that would have made the Village safe yet artsy, or that would have allowed secular Jews to remain distinct without the added "help" of societal discrimination. But... I'm starting to lose my train of thought. Did any of this make sense?

Withywindle said...

I think Henry Louis Gates, among other blacks, has written with nostalgia about aspects of the Jim Crow South--communal solidarity, etc. If Gates can have qualified nostalgia for the Jim Crow 1950s, I think Jews can have qualified nostalgia for the not nearly so horrible Jewish 1950s. And by "can," I mean "they do."

Phoebe said...


You're certainly right that various ethnic groups (and gays, for that matter) have some qualified nostalgia for times when their predecessors were more oppressed than is currently the case. But at least in the case of Jewish nostalgia for the Golden Age (is it specifically the 1950s?), past communal solidarity is often remembered as though it had been independent from outside hostility, rather than deeply entangled with it. Part of this, at least in the historiography, comes from a desire not to attribute every last thing to anti-Semitism, to give Jews a voice, etc. But what can end up happening is, today's Jews end up getting accused of apathy, when the changes we see are not necessarily about lessened interest in things Jewish, and are perhaps more about the absence of hostility that used to be taken for granted.

So I guess what I'm saying isn't that Jews shouldn't be nostalgic for a Golden Age (although I'm not keen on nostalgia in general), but that I'm not so sure the nostalgia takes into account the discrimination that contributed significantly to making Golden Age Jews so (relatively) unified. Whereas, with Jim Crow, it's tough to imagine blacks imagining that period independent of discrimination from the outside.