Judaism Beyond Ethnicity, Summer 1997
Two forces are shaping North American Jewry and making it radically different from the Jewish population of Israel. One is assimilation; the other is intermarriage.
In Israel a new Jewish ethnicity is emerging. Despite the initial problems of integration, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Maghrebi, Yemenite, Oriental, and Ethiopian Jews are merging through intermarriage. In fifty to one hundred years a new gene pool defined by this melting pot will be firmly established. You can already see the racial mixture: not as white as European Jewry, not as dark as the Yemenite complexion.
A new culture is also emerging — a mix of Ashkenazic European ambition and the more family-oriented loyalties of the Near Eastern world. Israel will not be a liberal Anglo-Saxon democracy. Nor will it be a patriarchal Oriental despotism. It will be an interesting mixture of the two. The binding force of this combination is the Hebrew language, which serves as its linguistic glue. In time a Hebrew-speaking ethnic group, neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic, will take its place among the family of nations.
For the predominantly Ashkenazic Jews of North America, however, a different future is in store. While Israelis are being re-ethnicized, American Jews are being de-ethnicized. Due to assimilation and intermarriage with the Christian majority, the ethnic profile of North American Jewry is radically changing.
At one time the overwhelming majority of American Jewry came out of the Ashkenazic centers of Eastern Europe. There, Jews were a distinct nation, with a distinct language and national culture of their own. Yiddish vocabulary, Yiddish food, Yiddish humor, Yiddish music, and Yiddish anxiety all combined to produce the self-image we identify as Yiddishkeit. As a national identity, it transcended religion and flavored every aspect of Jewish cultural existence. For many Jews the nostalgia and roots of the Jewish experience lay with chicken soup and gefilte fish as much as with any theological doctrine. In America, Jewish identity hovered somewhere between the nationality-based identities of the Irish and Italians and the religion- based identities of Protestants and Catholics.
But American culture is overwhelming in its power. The American way of life dissolves all competing ethnicities. Only where there is racial distinction, as in the case of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, does ethnic distinction survive. In the world of white America, assimilation and intermarriage have produced a new white gene pool, a union of WASP, Irish, Italian, Polish, German, and dozens of other European contributors. The typical white American is now “one-quarter this” and “one-quarter that.” A new American white ethnicity is emerging, in the same way as a new ethnic blend is emerging in Israel.
American Jews are increasingly becoming part of this new white ethnicity — in language and culture, for sure, In fact, the new white American culture has already incorporated many aspects of Ashkenazic culture, from Yiddish words and the bagel to a fondness for Hanukka and Passover. Hundreds of Christian groups are now celebrating Passover seders all over America.
As for the genetic profile of American Jewry, intermarriage is making it blonder and blonder while Israelis are getting darker and darker. Last names are no longer a clue to Jewish identity. Even in Jewish parochial schools today, the student population is less ethnically identified than the population of public schools in Jewish ghetto neighborhoods fifty years ago. In many respects, then, American Jews are becoming part of the new ethnic reality called American whites.
What all this means is that North American and Israeli strategies for Jewish survival cannot be the same. The Israeli strategy is nationalistic and linguistic, a powerful blending of Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures within a shared territory and shared economy. The North American strategy is religious and cultural, blending Ashkenazic memory with the overwhelming presence of the American milieu. The only way to avoid this experience is to repudiate the blending process and to recreate segregation, as the ultra-Orthodox, like fundamentalist Muslims, have sought to do. Both groups repudiate American culture in their dress and in the roles they assign to women.
For the overwhelming majority of American Jews, though, Judaism no longer exists in the context of Ashkenazic culture. It functions in the context of American white culture, a setting quite different from that of Israel. In such a context, Jewish identity will be less a matter of birth than a matter of choice. It will be less a matter of roots than a matter of a convincing personal philosophy of life. Jews who choose to be active Jews will need more than shtetl nostalgia, Holocaust-inspired alienation, and the Israeli connection. They will have to believe that the historic Jewish experience speaks to the human condition.
It may be that Israel will continue, for a while, to provide some support for Jewish ethnicity in America. But the self-image of American Jews and that of Israeli Jews no longer coincides. As a new “white melting pot” emerges in North America, the divergence will increase.
The Jewish future in North America will be the story of a people physically quite distinct from the immigrant Jewish population of a century ago. This people will create its practices and beliefs in a setting of fierce competition, a free marketplace of appeals to the hearts and minds of the American public.
These new realities present a fundamental challenge to secular Jews. It is important to remember that the first powerful expression of a secular Judaism in the nineteenth and twentieth century was nationalism. Nationalism was built around the powerful bonds of Ashkenazic culture, Yiddish language and literature, and racial anti-Semitism. The Zionist movement substituted Hebrew for Yiddish, but it maintained with great fervor that Jewish identity was a national identity. Nationalism was a convincing and strong alternative to religious identity. In many respects it was stronger. Language and patriotism are even more time-consuming than religious ritual. Segregation and inmarriage were as natural to a community that was linguistically segregated as to one that was culturally isolated.
But while in Eastern Europe and Palestine a full-scale nationalism could be maintained, in assimilated Western Europe and North America nationalism degenerated into mere ethnicity. Initially, immigrant groups such as Ashkenazic Jews maintained linguistic segregation in ethnic ghettos, but public schools and linguistic conformity to the majority culture in a free society based on personal opportunity undermined linguistic uniqueness. Ethnicity came to mean a sense of common descent, with such cultural artifacts as ethnic food, ethnic music, and ethnic anxiety providing additional flavor. But ethnicity is not nationalism, and Yiddish culture in English is not exactly Yiddish culture. It is a variation on Anglo- Saxon American culture.
Ethnicity was a pale imitation of the original secular Jewish program. In an assimilationist environment with a dominant linguistic culture, ethnic uniqueness could not last. Like the smile of the vanishing Cheshire cat, it had very little substance. With the arrival of intermarriage it had very little future. Without racial distinction, ethnicity was hard to hang on to.
To base a secular Judaism on ethnic awareness is to set it up on a flimsy foundation. For fourth-generation assimilated American Jews, Yiddish culture is, at most, something to be studied and valued. But in the absence of Yiddish neighborhoods where Yiddish is spoken, it can no longer be experienced. Jewish separation can no longer be maintained by ethnicity; it can be maintained only by religion. The revival of a militant Orthodoxy is a response to this reality. Indeed, some ethnically minded Jews have chosen religion for themselves and their children, even though they do not believe in its theological premises, because they see religion as the only way to preserve a Jewish presence in an assimilationist society.
The challenge is clear. If a secular Judaism is to be viable in North America it can no longer rely on the national or ethnic strategy.
Humanistic Judaism, in contrast to the secular Judaism that preceded it, did not start out with the ethnic model. It started out with communities that were primarily philosophic in orientation and that connected a humanistic approach to life with the history and experience of the Jewish people. The humanistic message was not uniquely Jewish, but it was powerfully tied to the skepticism, humor, and ambition that flow from the Jewish experience.
The project of Humanistic Judaism for the twenty-first century is to develop a secular Judaism without nationalism or ethnicity as its primary foundation. In order to do this, we need to develop two vital parts of our message.
We need to emphasize that our movement is more than an indulgence in ethnic nostalgia. We have a message about human power, human dignity, and human responsibility that can help to transform daily living in a positive and significant way, and this message, for both adults and children, can best be experienced and integrated within the framework of community.
We also need to become “historical” Jews. An identification with Jewish history is different from an identification with Ashkenazic ethnicity. Jewish history features many ethnicities, from Ashkenazic and Sephardic to Oriental and Falasha. Jewish history also carries a clear humanistic message: in the face of overwhelming odds, survival and dignity can be achieved only through human effort. This modern, humanistic interpretation more accurately describes the meaning of Jewish history than did the establishment rabbis of earlier times.
Jewish history is attached to an international culture that unites its many ethnicities in the same way that a Christian culture unites the many nations that embraced Christianity. This international Jewish culture includes the Hebrew language, seasonal holidays, literature and music from several ethnic sources, and an attachment to the national homeland from which this international culture sprang.
Humanistic Judaism cannot provide the intense group identity that the isolation of ultra-Orthodox Judaism provides. Nor does it want to. In an open and free society, such segregation undermines human potential. What Humanistic Judaism does provide is a “cultural religion” with a powerful philosophy of life and a powerful aesthetics drawn from the intense struggle for survival of an extraordinary people.
For many Jews with Ashkenazic nostalgia, as well as for many Jews with no ethnic sentiment, this combination in an attractive community setting can enhance the meaning of life.