July 31, 2007
Two nights ago, at my childhood vacation house in Cape Cod, I couldn’t get to sleep, tormented by thoughts about assimilation. This was after a dinner where I told friends and family I’m writing about being an assimilationist, and trying to celebrate my choices as American, rather than feeling guilty about them. Assimilation is too big a word when I’m talking to my nephews, so I say, “intermarriage.” And my wife is here, whom they all like, and a mile or so away is the smart skinny Jewish girl I wanted to marry when I was a kid (and who also married out, even after counseling my sister, then dating a gentile, that she would “miss that Jewish spark”).
At dinner my sister said to me that she thought that Jewish kids married out, out of an illusion that life would be simpler and less intense and neurotic in a gentile home. They were deluded, she said, and driven by animus. The old selfhating thing. As she says it to me, I accept that there is some truth in this, that I did want out of the seething food-oriented talking non-physical-culture familial home. Close knit, and everyone in everyone’s stuff, boundary issues, it was a little too much for me, I wanted a little Protestant crispness and formality, and I got it. And for my wife’s part, she loved Jewishness, liked Freud and Bellow and media and ye olde Jewishe magicke.
An old journalistic friend at the dinner asked me what I was writing about and I told her, and she offered various objections. She hadn’t thought the ideas through, the subject seemed to make her angry at some level. Or she didn’t see my assimilationism as a worthy writing subject. Oh, our great success,which she has personally observed, is something to be talked about between us, but when I say that we are witnessing an important moment in Jewish history, a spiritual crisis, and the phenomenon of Jewish success ought to be covered in the New York Times, she shakes her head. What is the evidence of crisis? she asks. I say, Intermarriage is about acceptance. Intermarriage is about the larger culture saying we want Jewishness, value it in the leadership of our society; and the price America extracts for exalting Jews in prominent places is that they get to marry our children. I think that’s a fair bargain. But it is a spiritual crisis, because who will remain Jewish?
And what does Jewishness mean, when Jews have become so successful, such an integrated part of the Establishment? When the old antiworldly book values of Jewishness, so hallowed in the Eastern Europe of Y.L. Peretz , have given way to the incredibly-worldly book-values of the global meritocracy, which Peretz would hate. At dinner my nephews talk with admiration of Zuckerberg, founder of facebook, worth billions, they think. When I was a kid we worshiped Jewish Freedom Riders (like Patricia Kovner, cousin to neocon mogul Bruce Kovner).
What do you owe your people? And what do your people owe you? Unable to sleep, I put it on a different level: What do I owe the white race, and what does it owe me? Nothing, I think. If it fades, do I care? Not really. Well then what about Jewish us-ness? What does Jewish identity mean when it is based as it seems to be now on prestige-and-money-meritocratic Jewishness, or hollow ritualistic rabbinical Judaism, or Israel-apartheid Judaism, or Iraq-war Let-us-all-hate-Arabs Judaism, then what sort of light is that to the world? Or light to myself? Then it makes complete sense to me I’m assimilating.
Still I am tormented. I love my wife, I see her golden and polite and formal and self contained, with a million brilliant thoughts going thru her head, and still I wonder whether I haven’t betrayed my people. That’s my torment. The feeling that I am helping to extinguish my people. The understanding that that is taking place. I am part of it. I am doing it willfully. No doubt I am. Still I feel guilty.