As some readers may know, I am a Jewish-American who has been observing my peers since mid-20th century. It is said that one should write about what one knows best. Although I’ve devoted years to other pursuits, mainly in the arts, i.e. painting and poetry, what I really do know best is my own people, American Jews.
Much can be said for us! This is not the place to list the accomplishments of our people in and for our beloved country, that would fill volumes. The American experience has not been more fully realized by any people more completely than our own. To a remarkable extent American Jews have lived the American dream.
But along with the full participation in American life, we Jews, typically those of us in the economic middle class, have lived our own lives, too, our “Jewish” lives. Some aspects of that living has taken place in reaction to the larger ‘American” scene. Since childhood I have been aware of this phenomenon: “fitting in,” to the larger culture.
Here I cite a common example. In public school, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, each autumn the curriculum included celebrations of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. We never heard the word “Hanukah” at Linden Elementary School, the public school in our Jewish/Gentile mixed neighborhood. Nor did we have any days off for the Jewish New Year. I don’t recall that missing school on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur was considered to be an “excused” absence. All the hoopla went into celebrations of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and most particularly, Christmas. Jewish parents often faced the dilemma of what to do about Santa Claus. Such was the prevailing culture.
There was no question about the fact that our parents, and perhaps even more vividly, our grandparents, suffered plenty of discrimination. My childhood was colored by that, too. Here’s a poem on the subject:
Father’s Day Poem
My father smoked Camels, two packs a day.
He wore a fedora, worked like crazy,
and believed he was lucky,
that his life was better than his father’s.
They’re not as hard on the Jews now—
I heard him tell my Uncle Dave, many times.
Actually, they discussed how good or bad things
were for the Jews for forty years.
And who the enemies were, which
ones were worse than the others,
and the Pirates, the poor Pirates,
always in the cellar, year after year. –JRR
My father was referring to something he knew about: the regular beatings of Jews by non-Jews over neighborhoods and territories, tough kids versus much less tough kids, that had been the very overt expression of something that by my day had morphed into more subtle confrontations.
I was aware that among the people in my community there was a range of reaction to the unending discrimination. To describe all the ways in which the adults I knew dealt with their Jewishness in the Christian-dominated culture in those days would require a book-long sociological/psychological treatment. Here I will only mention two of the most obvious strategies: changing of names and bobbing of noses. Yes, Weisenthal’s became Whitehill’s, Nesvitsky’s became Nevins, etc, etc. And many Jewish girls got nose jobs for their Sweet Sixteen Birthday presents.
Not all of us, however. Yet plenty enough to note here. And not without sympathy and understanding. Need I mention Father Coughlin, the John Birch Society, the shame of the Rosenbergs, the McCarthy witch hunt? This was very, very tough going, and even as children, we all pretty much knew it.
Then something changed. Not immediately, but over the course of my impressionable years, the early 1960’s–through the 1970’s.
Although there were always differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews, we all seemed to gather strength. Why? Again, excuse the brevity here, as there were minor as well as the two major factors I wish to highlight.
First, Israel. The success of Israel in spite of every challenge instilled a tremendous sense of pride in American Jews. It is difficult to measure, let alone fully explain the extent of this. We all know the background, Zionism, the Holocaust, the Arab Wars. The unbelievable achievement of turning a desert into the agricultural, economic and technological miracle that is Israel put the whole matter of Jewishness in a new light. During this time, the 60’s and 70’s, it was not uncommon to hear the words “miracle,” “courage,” along with the names “Begin,” “Dayan,” “Meir.”
Although it might seem of much less importance by comparison, another fact of life for Jews in America during these years was Sandy Koufax.
According to Wikipedia, Sanford Koufax (born December 30, 1935) is an American former professional baseball left-handed pitcher. He pitched 12 seasons for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers of Major League Baseball (MLB) from 1955 to 1966. Koufax, at age 36 in 1972, became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has been hailed as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.
Koufax’s career peaked with a run of six outstanding years from 1961 to 1966, before arthritis in his left elbow ended his career prematurely at age 30. He was an All-Star for six seasons and was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1963. He won three Cy Young Awards in 1963, 1965, and 1966, by unanimous votes, making him the first three-time Cy Young winner in baseball history and the only one to win three times when one overall award was given for all of Major League Baseball instead of one award for each league. Koufax also won the NL Triple Crown for pitchers those same three years by leading the NL in wins, strikeouts, and earned run average.
Koufax was the first major league pitcher to pitch four no-hitters and the eighth pitcher to pitch a perfect game in baseball history. Despite his comparatively short career, Koufax’s 2,396 career strikeouts ranked 7th in history as of his retirement, at the time trailing only Warren Spahn (2,583) among left-handers. Koufax, Trevor Hoffman, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, and Nolan Ryan are the only five pitchers elected to the Hall of Fame who had more strikeouts than innings pitched.
Koufax is also remembered as one of the outstanding Jewish athletes in American sports. His decision not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur garnered national attention as an example of conflict between professional pressures and personal beliefs.
According to my father, my brother, my uncles, my husband, my sons, and every other Jewish man I knew, Sandy Koufax was the number one reason it was just fine, no — better than fine—to be a Jew.
Well, readers, time, as we know, does not just fly, it zooms by. And some things change. There are two generations of Jewish people since my youth– the people of my children’s, and now my grandson’s generation. Lately, my journalist daughter, Heather, shared an observation: many of today’s politically left wing Jews are eager to identify with causes and organizations that are extremely critical of Israel. Moreover, among them there is support for the avowed enemies of Israel, including the Palestinians. There is also “virtue-signalling” going on by Jewish organizations eager to show support for groups who support to BDS and other anti-Zionist principles. In addition, most Jews expressed real antipathy toward and voted against Donald Trump, despite the fact that he has clearly “had Israel’s back.”
He moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem after each president since 1995 promised but failed to do so. That’s Clinton, Bush and Obama. He also secured the Golan Heights for Israel, and broke the decades-long chill between some Arab counties and Israel. Suddenly, after almost 80 years, prospect of real peace in the middle East emerged. But due perhaps to his many personal failings and the very biased media aimed against him, these achievements failed to sway the majority of American Jews at the polls.
Whether President-elect Biden undoes these remarkable moves remains to be seen. Israel, although it is unofficial, has anticipated a possible Biden re-doing of the Iran nuclear deal by taking out the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. A terrible but necessary action, in this writer’s opinion.
On the subject of the rejection of Trump, the virtue-signalling of Jewish organizations toward groups hostile to Israel, the emergence of J Street, bend the arc, etc. many non-Jews have asked me this deeply disturbing question: “Why?”
So here’s an admittedly speculative idea: are today’s American Jews, perhaps without complete understanding of it, mimicking the actions of their for-bearers, those people whose insecurities led them to change their names as well as their appearances? Is the beleaguered minority still subject to the fear of being just that? Is that desperate need to assimilate, to stress the American part of being Jewish-American still exerting its own particular pressure? Well, it is not an entirely new perspective for me, as you can see in this poem:
to my precious elders;
the valuable ones,
I have known,
endured; those who
had the clenched tooth
grit to flee before
the ovens were lit,
those –bergs and –steins
those tailors artists bakers
peddlers scholars music-makers
who did not become the incinerated trash of Europe:
My own people, once stalwart as the stars,
must now weep as we, their stunning progeny,
disappear like shadows into the cracked cement of sweet America
our brainless heads sucked under the white foam,
merging, whistling, forgetting, drowning, dancing,
no lessons learned, refusing to keep anything. –JRR
As many of you might expect, I find myself unable to discuss this point of view with most of my family and friends! People close to me whose opinions have been shaped by the 24 hour news loop: CNN, MSNBC, etc.as well as their own conscious and unconscious fears. They constitute the majority of people I know.
However there are others, national figures: Dennis Prager, Alan Dershowitz, David Mamet, to name a few who share my views, but what is difficult is to find myself part of a disappointed minority within a minority.