November 20, 2019

Jewish Angst

Lieberman’s Presence

Recently, a Chinese-American doctor was monitoring my heart as the speed and incline were increased on the treadmill during a stress test. Perhaps he wanted me to relax; perhaps he was bored and was trying to make conversation. Apropos of nothing but my presence on the treadmill, he casually tossed the question at me: “What do you think of Lieberman as the vice presidential candidate? Were you surprised?”I gave a perfunctory answer, yes and no, and then heard myself say, “When I was a boy, his nomination would have been astonishing. Jews were outsiders then. But now we’re part of the U.S., just like any other white American.”

I realized what I was saying, or rather to whom I was speaking, just as the words tumbled out of my mouth. I thought: Why am I feeling so aggressive towards this doctor? And so I set about redressing the situation.

You know, I said, it’s probably the same for Asian-American professionals like yourself. “This last decade you’ve all moved from being outsiders to part of the white mainstream. Physicists and mathematicians, doctors and computer experts; you’re all insiders now.”

It was the best I could do.

But I realized that, unlike most Jews, mainstream Americans seemed to take Joe Lieberman’s candidacy with equanimity. It was nothing special or unusual. To be sure, marginal citizens who were anti-Semitic crowded the Internet with hostile messages. Most were anonymous and, more to the point, it was they who were now the outsiders. Not us.

In fact, it was primarily the Jews in America who were concerned about Lieberman’s nomination. Pride on the one hand, anxiety on the other, accompanied by a series of critical comments about the candidate. He was too pro-business; too conservative. He had the wrong stand on vouchers and on affirmative action (meaning not the Jewish majority’s position).

And then of course there was his religious stance. Too much and too outspoken about it. There was, after all, a separation of church and state in this nation, as ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, commented when he criticized one of Lieberman’s speeches. Foxman was upset because Lieberman in a speech had urged his listeners to “renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.”

This was the Christian right’s position. It called up images of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, and it posed a future challenge to our Bill of Rights. As Foxman wrote, “…there is a point at which an emphasis on religion becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.”

From There to Here

A great deal has been written about how we proceeded from there (the first half of this century) to here in America. The explanations include so many markers along the way: education and adaptation; the Second World War and the Holocaust; American culture and the mass media; Israel and the Cold War. They all contributed to our journey.

Perhaps because so much of my professional life has been concentrated in the mass media, I tend to give considerable weight to the influence of culture on the shaping of an American sensi-bility. Part of the story is that Jews have become central consumers of culture. We are the mainstay of theater in most American cities, and the same can be said of art, music and book buying. In a sense, we are the key audience … and, not surprisingly, the benefactors and supporters of culture, as well.

That by itself would explain some of the Jewish impact on American culture. But only some of it. The Jewish imprint on the American sensibility owes much more to the makers of our culture. Jewish authors, musicians and artists helped develop our “high culture” just as writers and producers shaped our popular culture (i.e. tele-vision and films and radio and, in an earlier day, vaudeville). In the process they have imparted to the rest of the nation a way of perceiving and feeling that is Jewish – in essence, a Jewish imprint. In this sense it is not too much to say that America has become in part a Jewish nation, just as it is in part a Black one.

It seems to me that this, along with the presence of a large number of Jews in colleges and universities, has helped lead to the breakdown of barriers that separated us from earlier generations of American gentiles. This breakdown of barriers has in turn helped generate the large numbers of Jews who have married outside their faith.

No one ever said that success and change did not carry in its wake a new set of problems.

What’s Next?

The irony should not be lost on us. Now that the barriers have largely come down, now that we are included in American society (with Joe Lieberman a candidate for vice president), we are frantically looking for a new and different set of barriers to erect in their place. To put it another way: Now that we are bona fide Americans, we are desperately searching for ways to remain Jews.

Those who have remained Orthodox or have turned to Orthodoxy have little problem here. Lieberman makes a wonderful example. The same can be said for those of us who have held fast to traditional forms of observance. Much of this is spelled out in a new and interesting book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry” by Samuel Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

Freedman gives us the latest updates on the war between Jewish modernists and the Orthodox as they struggle over political issues – e.g., education, feminism, Israel – that ultimately become battles over identity. It is a bitter war fought for control over the Jewish gates: That is, according to Freedman, the victors may well become the arbiters of just who in America is a Jew. Freedman suggests that in the end, traditional religious belief will triumph and that observance will define Jewish identity.

Nevertheless, the majority of America’s Jews are not traditionally observant; certainly not Orthodox in their practices or beliefs, as Lieberman is. Which accounts, in part, for the somewhat frantic calls from Jewish leaders and organizations: rebuild Jewish education; learn Hebrew; spend time in Israel; combat intermarriage. These are all tactics designed to recast new Jewish barriers, self-made in this case. Can one be a Jew without Judaism? An American, albeit with a Jewish soul?

These are questions that touch all of us, though they are rarely voiced, almost every day of our lives. It is why Joe Lieberman’s candidacy has sparked so much feeling among American Jews. He is an American political leader who is pronouncedly Jewish. An observant Jew who could even be an American presidential candidate somewhere down the road. With considerable effort he has remained connected to Judaism while forging ahead as an American politician.

In the midst of this dialogue, which preoccupies almost all of us, stand the non-Jews of America: unconcerned, faintly puzzled, wondering what we are fussing about. If they only knew.