Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The end of the secular American Jew?

It seems self-evident to me that secular/cultural American Jews - the ones who really get Allen-Roth-Seinfeld (even if we, too, cringe from time to time), whose speech evokes Zabars or Flatbush, and whose level of observance is slim-to-none - are on their (our) way out. Ours is an entity that has always required two factors to persist: on the one hand, an active interest on the part of some members to keep the group going, and on the other, a social border of sorts keeping Jews and non-Jews apart. This border existed in part but not entirely because of anti-Jewish feeling from the outside, but at any rate it's the two combined - the positive interest of some Jews in keeping the culture going, paired with the fact that all Jews were defined externally and incapable of escape even if they wanted out (converts still being referred to as Jews and all that) - that in the US and in Western Europe kept that thing going. Today, one part of that equation is just about gone.

Which leads me to the WWPD Grand Theory of Intermarriage in the Contemporary US: The social border here today exists less than it did at any point in modern Jewish history I can think of.* What this means, among other things, is that while in past generations, the default was to marry another Jew, today, not so much. Rather than congratulating previous generations of secular-but-in-marrying for really caring about what it means to be Jewish and chastising our own for apathy, as is the typical Jewish-communal (and, often, Jewish-individual) response, we might consider that back in the Golden Age, non-Jewish marriage partners were much, much less of an option, in terms of Jewish family disapproval, sure, but also in terms of who non-Jews were willing to date, and of how socially integrated even acculturated Jews were in the first place. Jews had all kinds of will towards assimilation way back when - not all, of course, and not even most, perhaps, but there's enough evidence that those who tried so often failed that it helps to look not only at what some Jews wanted, but what, broadly speaking, was possible.

Because here's how it goes today. Let's say you're a secular Jew who really cares about Jewishness, who's involved in all those great activities aimed at keeping the legacy alive (Heeb, J Street, you name it) and who's all principled and opposed to intermarriage. You'll meet more Jews than those who really couldn't care less, but since you're secular, you live in a mixed world, your college, even if "disproportionately Jewish," is still majority non-. Possible Jewish partners for you are reduced because you're not looking for someone observant, but also because you'd rather not be with someone Jewish and, for lack of a better phrase, self-hating, because that gets tedious, and because such people are not usually looking to date other Jews to begin with. Of the two or three remaining Jewish possibilities, there's a good chance there won't be sufficient mutual romantic interest to get anything going. At which point, non-Jews or cryptic singledom start to seem like the only options.

Or let's say one of the two or three acceptable Jewish possibilities does work out. You can rest assured that you, at least, did not contribute to the problem. Then what of your children? They'll be Jews sure enough, but then... You can tell them to marry in, but "in" what? If it's not about religion, then what? Blood? That's racist! they'll exclaim, and you'll have a tough time with counterarguments. And it's back to square one.

While intergroup marriage doesn't mean the end to any kind of secular Jewish identity (consider, for instance, that the two young actors most associated with Jewish roles were born to such unions), it means the eventual end of an ethnicity independent of either religion or the state of Israel (as in, actually inhabiting it, not just approving from afar).

As much as I find this unsettling, I'd find the only practical alternative even more so. To resurrect, so to speak, the social boundary might do wonders for the Jews, but would be a disaster for actual Jews, who are now accustomed to deciding how much we want to opt in or out of various aspects of Judaism and Jewishness alike. Asking secular Jews to resist assimilation sounds noble enough when we're picturing a bold stand against blond WASP hegemony. But what assimilation really means isn't, these days, joining up with some generically white-country-club version of America. It frequently means pairing off with someone even less assimilated to this upper-crust version of white America. It's easy enough for a liberal American Jew to roll his eyes at cousin Larry from Long Island marrying a bubbly former Miss Kentucky. But what if the "shiksa" is not The Oppressor, but a black or Mexican woman? Or what if the partner's WASPy as all get-out but same-sex? Once "assimilation" means full participation in liberal America, rather than simply a form of social climbing with a twist of self-hatred, it's near-impossible for liberal American Jews to oppose it except through... big-time religious observance or Zionism, neither of which are real possibilities for that set.

Usual suspects I suspect may respond to this, and all others, comment away.

*And thinking of it I have been. Countdown to all-about-the-diss post begins.


David Schraub said...

I always found the 614th Commandment argument to be personally compelling and meaningful (my girlfriend is going to convert), but I believe you disagree with me on that one.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I had to Google this "commandment," but if what you're saying is that I don't think it gives Hitler a "victory" for a Jew to marry out, you're 100% correct. I find it kind of horrifying, actually, to equate someone who happens to have been born Jewish finding other parts of their identity more important with will to genocide. Hitler didn't want to see Jews marrying Jews. Or non-Jews. (What "Jewish blood" would do to the "Aryan race" and all that.) Or existing, period. If you're Jewish and you want to stick it to Hitler, you pretty much just have to refuse to jump off a bridge. (And, I suppose, to refrain from being a token Jew in the anti-Semitic movement of your day.) Now, to intermarry is to give Napoleon a retroactive victory, but that's another story, namely my dissertation!

But I don't see how individual conversions make much of a difference in the long run. As in my example above, this covers you, but not any children you may have, who will themselves readily find potential partners outside the Jewish community, unless you either live in a very closed Orthodox community or move to Israel, where Jewish is the default. You can do everything right - raise you children with Jewish values, Hebrew school, and in a place where you're not the only Jewish family - and, if my heaps of anecdotal evidence are anything, it may not go as planned.

Also re: conversion. I fully believe conversion to Judaism is all kinds of fabulous, and that Israel ought to recognize more liberal forms of it already, etc., etc. But the form of Judaism up for debate here is secular/cultural. I don't think it's fair or even possible to ask those who didn't grow up in a particular culture to adopt and pass down only that culture. Conversion is to a new faith, not a total rewriting of one's personal cultural history. I've certainly met converts to Judaism who for whatever reason go in for the culture 110% to the exclusion of whatever culture they were brought up in, but this is just something that happens when it hapens, and that I don't think, again, it would be possible or right to ask of converts generally.

Matt said...

It might be interesting for someone to compare this dynamic with the one for Armenians, another group that has some similar issues. (Obviously there are big differences, too, but if there were not, a comparison wouldn't be that interesting.)

More importantly, though, I'm glad to see people born in 1970 and 1965 listed as "young", as I'm to the point now where usually if anyone implies that I'm "young" it's a polite way of saying "unestablished and/or unaccomplished".

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I know next to nothing about Armenians. What do you think this comparison would tell us?

As for "young," I just meant, they still play "the love interest," and they're not, say, Woody Allen or Jerry Stiller. If there's an older set from which they must be distinguished, they're young.

Matt said...

I'm no expert on Armenians, either, but my understanding (mostly from talking with Armenians in various place and reading a few semi-scholarly things) is that they are a small, religiously and ethnically distinct group that's now fairly wide-spread but that has put a lot of emphasis on in-marrying to prevent assimilation, and that has tried, with some luck, to use political identification as a way to keep in-group solidarity going when ethnic and religious bounds didn't work as well. Obviously, the religious differences are not as great between main-line Christians and Armenians as between Christians and Jews (the Armenian Orthodox church is a fair amount different from main-line protestant churches, but still clearly christian), but Armenians also sit at an uneasy place on the "white/not white" ethnic border, too. I don't know that we'd learn anything deep in the comparison, but it might be of interest.

You make me feel sad by implying that Stiller and Goldberg are not actually young, just not aged. Sigh.

Miss Self-Important said...

What if Jews and Armenians conclude a policy of marrying each other, doubling each other's worldwide numbers, and breed a super-race of ambiguously racist cultural-religious confusion?

Their offspring would also be very hairy.

Ned said...

Did you see this? Your post made me think of it.

(Haven't seen the movie referenced, although it sounds good, but The Ask is a fantastic book.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I hadn't seen it, but will have to read it...

And yes, The Ask is fabulous.