December 4, 2003
Do We Have Anything Left to Give?
Do the Jews have anything left to give to America?
This question was on my mind recently, after I was on a panel at Brandeis-Bardin Institute to discuss the Jewish influence on American culture. The popular view on this subject is invariably, "Just look at all the Jews who run Hollywood and the media; look at the humor, the attitude, the Yiddish terms, etc. Jews are everywhere."
This is true, but when you start to look beneath the surface, you see a more complicated picture, one that suggests the waning influence of Judaism and the need to re-examine the Jews' role in America as we begin the 21st century.
Culture is easy to steal. What was clearly "Jewish" at the turn of the century is now just as likely to be called American. Of course, America didn't just steal it, we gave it away, with the gusto of a grateful people desperate to fit in.
And who can blame us? After 2,000 years of getting beat up everywhere we went, we discover this all-you-can-eat freedom buffet called America, and what do we do? We eat, and we cook and we have lots of people over.
Culture was the perfect Jewish thank-you gift to America. Movies, music, humor and literature are entertaining, relatively harmless and easily appreciated. They're also easy to co-opt. That's why the Gershwins, Bellows, Berles, Spielbergs and Streisands are at least as American as they are Jewish.
That's not to say culture was all we gave; we're not that homogeneous or disciplined. For every Woody Allen directing a film, there was an Abbie Hoffman directing a civil rights march.
But in the explosive areas of morality and politics, there was always a collective care in the Jewish community not to offend our gracious hosts. We may have planted the seeds of Jewish morality, but in the field of culture, we grew a forest.
This 100-year cultural love fest between the Jews and America has been a source of rightful pride, but it has left us with a nagging question that many Jews have difficulty answering: Do we have anything "Jewish" left to give?
We have trouble answering this question, because we've developed an instinct to equate everything Jewish with everything American. In other words, if our cultures are now so intertwined, then everything else -- including our values -- must be as well.
The American values of freedom, tolerance and diversity? They're Jewish. The Jewish values of freedom, tolerance and diversity? They're American.
It's a simple, convenient formula that lets us feel Jewish and American without offending either side (even in our activism to defend Israel against terrorism, we never miss the chance to equate it with America's war).
But there is a catch. In our zeal to equate America and Judaism, we have lost sight of some important differences. If we can learn how to internalize and share these differences without feeling like disloyal or ungrateful Americans, we will deepen both our Jewish identities and our contribution to our adopted country.
There are three areas where Judaism differs with America. As the historian Stephen Whitfield explains in his book, "In Search of American Jewish Culture" (University Press, 1999), America focuses on the individual, the here and now and the pursuit of pleasure, while Judaism focuses on the community, the past and the pursuit of meaning. In a nutshell, America is about freedom, while Judaism is more about what to do with that freedom.
Judaism respects the individual, but it places a higher value on connecting the individual to the community. Judaism is active in the present, but it elevates the lessons of history, the beauty of tradition and the power of considered thought (read one paragraph of Talmud and you'll see that Judaism does not promote a short attention span). And while Judaism certainly doesn't shy away from pleasure, it puts a higher priority on the value of leading a meaningful life.
In a litigious society that reveres the legal loophole, Judaism goes beyond the letter of the law to its spirit. It's not enough to be right, we must also be good. Our Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) picks up where the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights leave off. Judaism is not obsessed with rights; it's obsessed with obligations.
All this to say that yes, Judaism still has plenty to share with America. The good news is that America is ready to hear the Jewish message -- we live in an open, multicultural, emotional country that doesn't mind being moved and challenged. And after being such wonderful guests for so long, we've certainly earned the right to make a bolder contribution.
The not-so-good news is that Jews have become so American that all we're giving back to America, it seems, is more of itself. This is a shame.
If more Jews had the chutzpah to assert and live up to our differences, we might add an exciting new dynamic to our relationship with America (and isn't asserting one's difference part of the American way?). Ironically, the Jews and America are now in the same boat: We both could use a little more Judaism.
For our Jewish leaders worried about "Jewish continuity" and "Jewish pride," they ought to educate and encourage Jews to become the unapologetic messengers of Judaism and its distinctive values. Instead of spending $6 million to count the Jews, they could spend that money to make Jews count.
And they ought to realize that a Jewish identity shaped by a negative, crisis mindset -- against assimilation, against intermarriage, against anti-Semitism -- is not as nourishing and lasting as one driven by the empowering questions: What values am I for and what values can I share?
In the 20th century, we were geniuses at sharing the value of our culture. In the 21st century, we can be geniuses at sharing the culture of our values. That would be good for America, and it certainly would be good for the Jews.
David Suissa is founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising and founder/editor of OLAM magazine. He can be reached at editor@OLAM.org.