And the Winner Is: Door Number Three!  

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Thomas E. Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist, who specializes in military matters. I watched a YouTube video of him describing the writing of his book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012). The premise of the book (That modern generals don’t succeed because we don’t punish failure.) doesn’t interest me right now, the premise of his writing does. 

Ricks explained that every book he writes is a really mystery. He goes out exploring the data without foreknowledge of the eventual outcome. Like an Agatha Christie sleuth, he starts the investigation without knowing ‘who done it’. 

I didn’t think that was true of my research. I thought that I knew what the outcome would be. I went into this project assuming that I knew the factors which turned around the Orthodox movement in the America of the 1960’s, and also made me a ba’al teshuva. Clearly: It was a search for truth and meaning, triggered by the social upheavals of the 60’s, blah, blah, blah. 

The I spoke to Prof Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Funny, that it was someone from the ‘competition’ that helped me to understand my abysmal lack of understanding. Like Hertz guiding Avis. But it’s not like that at all. In a sincere search for truth there are no competitors; we’re all allies. 

BTW I’m in awe of Prof. Wertheimer because for his book The New American Judaism (Princeton Press, 2019) he told Gary Rosenblatt of The New York Jewish Week that he interviewed 160 rabbis ‘of all stripes’. He was my 30th interview. I’m just over 40, now. I can’t imagine 120 more. He told me that it was a test to see how many rabbis he could interview before going mad. 

Anyway, here’s what he said: 

In the late 60’s, we saw an expression of Hansen’s Law: The grandchildren wanted to remember what the grandparents wanted to forget. 

Say, wha’? 

I was being schooled by a pro. Now, I know who Marcus Lee Hansen (1892-1938) was. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, who specialized in the immigrant experience. He came up with his ‘law’ sometime in the 1920’s, but only published his hypothesis in the last year of his life. 

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In his own words: 

The sons and the daughters of the immigrants were really in a most uncomfortable position. They were subjected to the criticism and taunts of the native Americans and to the criticism and taunts of their elders as well… in the schoolroom they were too foreign, at home they were too American… The gap between the two generations was widened and family spirit embittered by repeated misunderstanding. How to inhabit two worlds at the same time was the problem of the second generation… He wanted to forget everything: the foreign language that left an unmistakable trace in his English speech, the religion that continually recalled childhood struggles, the family customs that should have been the happiest of all memories. He wanted to be away from all physical reminders of early days, in an environment so different, so American, that all associates naturally assumed that he was as American as they… Nothing was more Yankee than a Yankeeized person of foreign descent… After the second generation comes the third and with the third appears a new force and a new opportunity which, if recognized in time, can not only do a good job of salvaging but probably can accomplish more than either the first or the second could ever have achieved… Then, however, appears the “third generation.” They have no reason to feel any inferiority when they look about them. They are American-born. 

Prof. Hansen did his research using the experience of the Scotch-Irish immigration of the early 1800’s, and he noticed: 

Sixty years later (at the time of the third generation) a renaissance of Scotch-Irish sentiment in the United States was strikingly apparent. Local societies were formed that met in monthly or quarterly conclave to sing the praises of their forebears and to glory in the achievements of the Presbyterian Church. 

A Toronto study of four ethnicities (German, Italian, Ukrainian and Jewish) in the 1990’s showed support for this phenomenon of the return of the third generation to ethnic pride (Wsevolod W. Isajiw, Univ of Toronto, 1993). 

Back to Jack Wertheimer:

If you start with an immigrant family (mother/father) and they migrate to a new country. They raise a child there (the second generation). The second generation typically adopts the culture of their new country and wants to “forget” the past, they rebel and want little to do with their ancestry. When that child has its own children (grandchildren of the original immigrants) you frequently find that they have a greater appreciation for their ancestors. They want to know where they came from and remember their family history. In effect, they rebel against their parents and orient their interests with those who came before them. It’s not so much a law as it is a common trend among immigrant family behavior. 

I think that we can even apply this idea to the Four Sons (I like to say Children) in the Haggadah. The second child seems ‘evil’ because of a desire to turn away from the foreign behavior of immigrant parents. However, the Simple Child is curious about the now ‘romantic’ elements of the bygone times. 

The problem is: how do we keep the fourth generation (The Child Who Doesn’t Even Know to Ask) interested. The answer was also given by Prof. Wertheimer: 

The Orthodox world of the 50’s and 60’s was investing in Day School movement. They were investing in a Jewish education far richer than could be provided by congregational, after school programs. 

That’s right. The answer is Jewish education. And to succeed, it must be intensive. 

All along, I thought that my curiosity about the religion of my forebears was unique to me, but I was a manifestation of Hansen’s Law. 

Next: Who Wants Pizza! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.