A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today
For at least a century, Jews in America have worried about three main issues: their success in establishing themselves in American society; their continuity as a community; and their legitimacy, that is, their justification to themselves of the value of being Jews. Their concerns about worldly success were always connected with the fear of anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews did not have economic effects until the mass immigration of the 1880s. The German Jews who arrived before then had often been subjected to social discrimination, but this didn’t prevent them from doing well in business. Roughly half of the German Jewish immigrants settled in the rapidly expanding cities of the West and South, where their skills as middlemen were welcome.
The situation was quite different for the approximately two million Eastern European Jews who arrived between 1880 and 1914. Their children had great difficulty entering the professions and getting good jobs in many established businesses. These barriers began to break down during and after the Second World War, and by now the economic exclusion of Jews has become rare. It is, therefore, possible to imagine that the clock will now stop, that this success will not undergo any further change, and that the large and seemingly untroubled status of Jews in the American economy can thus be celebrated as the end of a process, an unprecedented achievement in the history of the Jewish diaspora.
The question of the continuity of the Jewish community has been equally troubling, at least to the majority that has continued to prefer being Jewish. Here, too, fear predominated for several generations. Among the intellectuals in the immigrant generation some of the most influential were antireligious universalists of one kind or another. In the next generation, socialism of several kinds, and not Judaism in any form, was the faith of many Jewish writers and political activists. Almost without exception, those who were seriously concerned about the survival of Judaism in America wrote and spoke, during the first half of the twentieth century, as if they were fighting a rear-guard action against inevitable attrition. They were not cheered by the attention that the immigrant generation and its children were paying to bar mitzvah celebrations and Jewish cooking. This was widely regarded as vulgar folk-Jewishness, which might last a while or even for a long time, but could not be regarded as a substitute for the knowledge of sacred texts and adherence to Jewish practices. Even in the heyday of the Catskill resorts, those who enjoyed vacationing at Grossinger’s knew that such a place was neither the heir of the European synagogue nor a substitute for it.
Now, in the third and fourth generations of the descendants of East European immigrants, the popular Jewish culture seems to continue. Far fewer Jews today observe the High Holy Days than their parents did, but many pay dues to synagogues, turn up for the Passover Seder, light candles for Hanukkah, and are overwhelmingly pro-Israel, willing to give and raise money in its behalf. Some assume that “American Jewry”—the Americans who identify themselves as Jews—has become a stable community, one firmly based on the new Judaism. If one believes this, one may even dare to predict that this consolidated community will eventually even acquire a deeper sense of Jewish values. It follows that Jews no longer have cause to feel guilty of deserting their heritage, or to feel somehow inferior to their forebears, who knew the Torah and practiced it.
Taken together, these arguments have a deeper purpose. If American Jews have now achieved lasting, unprecedented success in preserving Judaism in the open society, and if America is now the secure place in which the Jews can be as rich as anyone else—and be widely praised for it—then the deepest question of American Jewish life from its very beginnings, the issue of legitimacy, is solved. American Jewry today can accept itself as it is.
More than that, it can, through its organizational activities, make its wealth legitimate through good deeds. This too has happened before. The German Jews, “our crowd,” had some conscience about their success. The more radical among them, such as Felix Adler and Lillian Wald, insisted on the moral obligation to help the needy whether they were Jewish or not. The more conservative German Jewish leaders worried about poor Jews, especially among the newest immigrants. Similarly, today, the organized efforts of the Jewish community are largely devoted to raising money for Israel. Wealth finds justification because some of it is used to serve ethnic purposes. Those who take the lead in these activities are rewarded with honors in the organized community, as pious Jews used to be honored in the synagogue in recognition of their learning and their high dedication to the love and fear of God. The “giver” and the “activist” are seen as heirs of the scholars and pietists of old.
In summary, this is the argument of Charles Silberman’s A Certain People. He leaves us in no doubt about his intentions. He calls the first section of his book “An American Success Story,” the second “A Jewish Success Story.” Whatever successes and disasters might have happened elsewhere are for him irrelevant. Only in America could a Jew have become president of Dupont and only in America is there a fourth generation of Jews who still attend a Seder. The United States has provided the setting for the climactic moment of the Jewish diaspora—America is, therefore, the best of all possible Jewish worlds.
It is instructive to list the subjects that Charles Silberman avoids in making this case. He is bold enough to talk about Jewish crime in the immigrant generation, as one of the forms of upward mobility; he does not bring himself to discuss Jewish communism, which was, until the 1950s, one of the major expressions of Jewish idealism. The trial and death of the Rosenbergs, for example, is simply not mentioned. Accused of being only two of a circle of leftist Jews who were loyal to the Soviet Union, they were prosecuted and defended mainly by Jews and were sentenced to death by a Jewish Judge. The controversy over whether they were victims of fears of anti-Semitism or martyrs by choice to the cause of communism has been conducted in large part by Jews. Any serious assessment of contemporary American Jewish life cannot avoid this drama, whatever its meaning. For Silberman to have dealt with it, however, would have involved him in a question that he must avoid if he is to sustain the thesis of his book. He cannot allow his readers to start considering the evidence for the proposition that Jews, at least some significant elements among them, have had other things on their minds than making successful lives for themselves in the American suburbs.
Silberman cites the contribution of Jews for the last several generations to art and literature in America as further proof of the rise of Jews to a place in society, but he mutes the fact that most of the Jewish writers and artists worth mentioning have been critical of conventional bourgeois America and American Jewish values. The dominant tradition of the modern Jewish intelligentsia, since Spinoza, and certainly since Marx and Freud, has been to express its Jewishness by standing apart from society and asking secular, prophetic questions about justice and morality. This is not to be confused with the alien feelings of immigrants who could hardly wait to “make it” in America, or even with some continuing sense of displacement felt by their children in a still anti-Semitic country. The young Jews who were so prominent in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and the 1960s, and those who tried to end the war in Vietnam in the 1970s, are as much a part of the American Jewish culture as the members of Jewish country clubs, but they hardly appear in Silberman’s book.
Silberman disagrees with an essay I wrote in 1963 about assimilation. The rate of intermarriage of Jews in the United States was then one in twelve. I predicted that it would rise, as their grandchildren began to marry, to one in three. I suggested then, and later, that the American Jewish community was in danger of gradually disappearing. Silberman deplores such forebodings. Against them, he cites his impressions from his own talks with American Jews—mainly activists in Jewish organizations, it appears—and he draws on two recent statistical studies of American Jewish life.
Silberman admits that one out of four Jews now marries a partner who was not born Jewish, but he insists that this figure has now stabilized and is perhaps decreasing. To support this view he cites as typical the rate of intermarriage in Boston, where it is estimated at under 20 percent; but he does not find equally or more significant the 39 percent rate of intermarriage in Los Angeles, the second largest Jewish community in the US. But the truth about most statistical estimates of the behavior of American Jews is that they are based on limited samples, are of varying reliability, and are subject, as Silberman himself tells us, to widely different interpretations. The most famous, the Jewish population study of 1971, in which the largest number of American Jews were surveyed, was inconclusive. The two principal authors each arrived at a different estimate of intermarriage from the same statistics. The US Census Bureau does not ask about religious affiliation. In Canada, however, where the government compiles such information, the rate of Jewish intermarriage has already risen to over 20 percent in a community that is more than a generation closer to its European origins than the Jews of the United States. What cannot be doubted about most such marriages is that the children they produce, even if the originally non-Jewish parent converts, have, on the whole, a less secure sense of their Jewishness than the children of marriages in which both partners were born Jews. Silberman’s conviction that intermarriage is probably strengthening the American Jewish community, or, at the very least, that it is a matter of no consequence for group survival, is simply unbelievable.
In recounting his impressions of Jewish attitudes, Silberman has much to say about the young Jews who are returning in some fashion to the established Jewish community, but we hear very little from him about an equally significant number who have turned to teachers such as Ram Dass, himself of Jewish origin, in search of enlightenment. Silberman makes much of the Jewish Studies courses in American colleges and universities. I have taught such courses for twenty-five years, at Columbia and, now, at Dartmouth, and I have not observed that a rebirth of Jewish consciousness has become pervasive. On the campuses I know well, I find that roughly 10 or 15 percent of the Jewish students, many of them children of Holocaust survivors (and thus different from their third-and fourth-generation peers), have become more intensely Jewish. But most Jewish students are less involved in Jewish life than college students were a generation ago. Ask any Hillel director anywhere in the country, as I have asked many of them in recent years, and he will tell you that the number of Jewish students who do not want to be considered as Jews is at least as large as the faithful minority that turns up fairly regularly at the campus Hillel House. The High Holy Days have become everywhere on campus a demonstration of active Jewish identity; thousands come to services, but thousands more go to class.