Part I 1908 The Melting Pot
Just before my own teaching session on Shavuot that ended in the very early hours on Sunday (12 June), I went to hear Dr. David Weinfeld talk about the above topic as it is portrayed in popular American culture. Unfortunately, I could not follow the last one-third of the lecture, except in general outline, because the references were all to TV shows, none of which I had followed. But the first part on the past plays, movies, novels and musicals was very informative and insightful.
Before I get into the talk, a discussion of Liel Leibowitz’s very recent essay in Tablet is relevant. The piece is entitled, “No Matter Who Wins in November, the Jews have already lost.”
Clinton or Trump, stinging defeat or close call, divided house or clean partisan sweep—politics will change in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend but it will spell, in nontrivial ways, the end of a more than half-a-century-long American Jewish bloom… Steven Spielberg…was wrong to believe anti-Semitism was fading…The end of Jewish America is everywhere you look. Look rightward, and you’ll see the Republican leadership trying to rationalize away what, for Jews, ought to be the non-negotiable fact that bigotry must never be tolerated, no matter its targets and no matter the circumstances…With Trump at its helm, the GOP will no longer be the Party of Lincoln or of Reagan. It will be the party of those who think that keeping the Muslims out is fine, of those who cheer on calls to disqualify a judge because of his Mexican heritage, of those who gleefully tweet illustrations of gas chambers and quips about ovens. It will be a party of Huns led by a hardhead. No decent person should join such a party, but Jews have particularly resonant reasons for staying the hell away. Look leftward, and things are hardly better. There it’s the Rise of the Planet of the Progressives…Younger Americans… are slouching toward a more perfect progressive dogma, and the political constellations they’re likely to form will almost certainly not be hospitable to Jews.
Why that depiction of the left?
Progressivism…is powered by the twin, and seemingly contradictory, engines of consolidation on the one hand and diffusion on the other: Economically, its supporters champion the regulatory powers of the federal government, while culturally they advocate increased deference to the sensitivities of marginalized individuals. For at least six decades, if not longer, American Jews have traveled more or less in the opposite direction, championing a culture of consolidation that is a necessary backdrop for blending in while supporting moderately liberal economic policies that focused on individuals, not collectives…. This instinct, this genius for assimilation, this affirmation of an all-American identity that trumps the rougher, tribal one is precisely what progressivism now heatedly rejects. (my italics)
To repeat, since WWII, American Jews have traveled in the opposite direction compared to two major trends on the liberal-left. The liberal-left has moved towards deference to and recognition of the marginalized each as specialized categories of victimhood requiring state support versus the direction of the Jews towards consolidation (what was once called assimilation). Secondly, to most observers’ surprise, the liberal left has moved towards socialism and collectivism while Jews have increasingly made an economy based on individual effort, initiative and reward their touchstone. What is the challenge then for Jews? “Clowns to the left of us, and racists to the right, we American Jews may finally awaken from our 30-year nap and learn again how to be a community that grapples fiercely with big ideas.” (Leibowitz)
It is against this large social, political and economic backdrop that I want to discuss Jewish-Gentile intermarriage and “the genius for assimilation” as expressed in critical examples drawn from pop culture.
Weinfeld began his talk with an excursion into sociology before he made his foray into popular culture. He asked the audience what they believed to be the current rate of intermarriage. He was not clear at that point, at least as I heard and understood him (not the most reliable indicator), whether he meant the U.S. or/and Canada, and whether he meant the overall rate of Jewish marriages that involved intermarried parties in which one partner was a Jew or whether he was referring to the percentage of Jews who were currently intermarrying. It turned out he was referring to both, but his exclusive references in pop culture were American creations.
The official sociological definition of the intermarriage rate is the number of Jews who marry non-Jews in any one year in relation to the number of Jews who marry Jews. It also turned out that the guesses from the audience fell into a reasonable range of error. The numbers fell on either side of the figures cited and were not far-fetched. This indicated that those in the audience, at least those bold enough to shout out an answer, had some idea of the rate of intermarriage.
I thought in my head that this opening question was intended to demonstrate that the audience lacked any detail knowledge of statistics on the high rate of Jewish-Gentile intermarriage, particularly in the United States. If that was the intention, it was misguided, and, whatever the intentions of the question, my speculation about the results was misguided. As I said, the guesses were not far off. The key reference is an American one which he cited. A 2013 Pew survey showed the current rate of intermarriage to be 58% among all Jews and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews. The overall rate of intermarriage is about 44% and rising fast.
The changes have been dramatic. In the nineteenth century exogenous marriages outside the faith were very rare. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, in the United States the intermarriage rate had risen to 5%. It was at this point that Weinfeld first dived into pop culture by referencing a 1908 play by Israel Zangwill. (He was a colleague as well as a Zionist competitor of Herzl since he was a leading voice for the Uganda option for Jewish resettlement.) The title of the play, The Melting Pot, indicated to Weinfeld that it was an American Jew that forged the most famous phrase summarizing the concept of and metaphor for assimilation in the United States, but other scholarly authorities claim he merely made the phrase popular. The play made its debut in a year when Jewish immigration to the United States had reached the outstanding figure of 150,000 to join an American population that was just over 100 million.
As Weinfeld depicted it, the play was about David Quixano, a name deliberately chosen by Zangwill to connote both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic background, even though he supposedly fled Russia and its anti-Jewish pogroms (the 1903 Kishnev pogrom more specifically in which his whole family were killed). David immigrated to the United States. He fell in love with another Russian immigrant, Vera, non-Jewish, who, it turns out, has a father who instigated the Kishinev pogrom and led the Russians in the slaughter. As Weinfeld said, the rivalry of the Capulets and the Montagues was nothing compared to the familial tensions in The Melting Pot.
The theme of the play is about how America differs from the “old country.” America is the place to end all ethnic tensions, not exacerbate them. David was a composer and wrote a successful symphony, “The Crucible,” which memorialized this aspiration for a cosmopolitan nation in which ethnic rivalries were all dissolved. As the symphony ends, David forgives Vera’s father when the latter confesses his role. Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of European immigration to the U.S., sat in the audience when the play first opened in Washington D.C. and David proclaimed in Zangwill’s overwrought prose:
DAVID: There she lies, the great Melting Pot–listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [_He points east_]–the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian–black and yellow- [Theodore Roosevelt may have winced at this last phrase, but, in the end, he shouted, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.”]
VERA: Jew and Gentile.
DAVID: Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross–how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem [my italics] where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!
Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers ended up dead. Zangwill’s couple end up leaving the stage at the end to intermarry and live happily ever after. Israel Zangwill himself was intermarried.
The beginning of the shift in attitude to Jewish-Gentile intermarriage when the rate was only 5% is marked by a popular, even if very schmaltzy, play. The statistics indicate that fiction was not a reflection of reality, but a significant factor in helping develop that shift from a primarily tribal culture to a broad acceptance of assimilation and intermarriage by the end of the century. But that shift was not simply a reflection, for the popular cultural underpinning of this new assimilationist ideology was current among Jewish thinkers and teachers.
In Arthur Goren’s 1999 study, The Politics and Public Culture of American Jews (Indiana University Press), he began with a 1907 quote from Israel Friedlaender, a scholar who had only arrived in the US from Europe four years earlier. He became a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In the talk the professor gave entitled, “The Problem of Judaism in America,” he challenged the prevailing conventional wisdom that American Jewry was fragmented and intellectually impoverished. In dealing with the challenge and attractions of equality and assimilation, with the achievement of civil and political rights, he prophesied the emergence of American Jewry’s leadership in the world and an example within America. “In the great palace of American civilization we (Jews) shall occupy our own corner, which we will decorate and beautify to the best of our taste and ability, and make it not only a center of attraction for the members of our family, but also an object of admiration for all dwellers of the palace…We see a community…blending the best it possesses with the best it encounters…adding a new note to the richness of American life.”
Zangwill’s play suggests that the cultural leaders, as distinct from the community intellectual leadership, were willing to emerge from that corner and broadcast to the wider American public this contemporary Jewish ideology of assimilation, of Jewish community preservation, but a community that was not separate and apart but inclusive and pluralistic. The twentieth century would witness the victorious success of this new ideology over against the doctrine of a community that is separate, distinctive and unique. Further, as Goren wrote, “The material and cultural achievements of American Jews, and the dramatic success of some, gave credence to the American promise of reward, recognition and accepting of the deserving individual.” (p. 13)
Seven years after Zangwill’s play, Horace Kallen advanced the doctrine of a democracy of nationalities,” what later Prime Minister Joe Clark of Canada would call a “community of communities.” In his 1915 essay, “Democracy versus Melting Pot,” Kallen argued for a Canadian version of multiculturalism, not assimilation but integration, the preservation of differences because of “ethnicity.” Religious continuity was but one aspect of that ethnic desire to preserve the tribe, but through a largely secular preservation (and cultivation) of unique Jewish cultural and ethnic traits, including the Hebrew language, while participating in the overall goal of advancing the American values of tolerance and respect from others’ differences. In 1910, Hebraism, this ethnic cultural mix was what, “Israel has stood for in history, the life of the Jews, their unique achievement – not as isolated individuals, but as a well defined group.” These two options to religious separatism would compete for supremacy throughout the twentieth century, total assimilation versus group ethnic continuity. Intermarriage was an integral part in determining the result. In 1909, Judah Leon Magnes would launch the New York Kehillah as an instantiation of the idea of a “Republic of Nationalities.” His effort to create a comprehensive congress of Jews based on democratic principles failed.
All this was taking place against a background of rapid and radical social, economic and political changes. When various type of socialists – Bundists, Marxists, Social democrats, Zionists – were major communal movements vying for victory, William Zamertkin in 1907 wrote in Yiddish that self-isolation was a sickness that can and must be cured. Samuel Peskin carried that message to its logical conclusion – “amalgamation in the cosmopolitan American nation.” The American Jewish Committee, a secular rather than religious creation to represent Jews, remained conflicted in determining the outcome of these battles as it tried to play the role of mediator and cultural expressions offered a leading edge in the debate.
With the help of Alex Zisman
Enjoying your blogs…most of them, when I have some time. Helpful to learn what people are thinking and therefore what is happening and why. Having been a commodities trader there are reasons to what people do and it is the very information passed around that people make decisions on…others like you perhaps are more in the think of it and has a grasp on history.
Politics is not my stronger suit…health is. Any where I see assimilation, I question. The Inuit peoples were driven to not live their ways because of the arrogance of thinking assimilation. Now small bands of people have left the towns to live in their original ways and the seal hunt is going to come back so they can have some of their own money to create a better future.
If you have watched any Star Trek in your days, it depicts how the collective doesn’t leave room for free thinking, critical thinking.
I know, such a small number of words that cannot begin to describe my thoughts but it will do.
Dr. Steven Greer shares it quite nicely. I am all for full disclosure, free energy and no more man provoked wars for power and greed.
Differences and further separation blown to the wind…time will heal and needed laws and rules to keep it on track.
Have a good day!