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Jewish Days of Wine and Roses

by Tom Tugend

January 6, 2000 | 7:00 pm

In Berlin, it is fashionable for young Germans to wear yarmulkes and yellow stars.

In Prague some years ago, the leading rock band called itself Shalom and throughout central Europe there is a fascination with Jewish icons.

In the United States, Ivy League colleges that wouldn't hire Jewish professors in the 1940s are now headed by Jewish presidents. A recent study shows that Jews suffer less discrimination in the workplace than any other religious group -- even Christians.

Do these phenomena mean that the Western world is experiencing a wave of philo-Semitism and loves all Jews?

Not exactly, says professor David N. Myers, a young historian and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

The kippah-wearing Germans, he believes, are looking in part for a relatively painless way to acknowledge their grandparents' guilt and to undergo a fairly easy national catharsis.

Young Czechs are in search of an authentic national culture preceding Communism, in which Jews in general, and writer Franz Kafka in particular, represented the kind of cosmopolitanism eagerly sought by Prague intellectuals.

In the United States, the story is different and of greater historical interest, says Myers.

In the short run, the country's sustained economic well-being makes for greater general tolerance and social harmony, he says, noting that "the state of peaceful co-existence is greased by the current economic juggernaut."

The downside is that many of those Americans left behind feel even more marginalized than before and are often attracted to the radical extremism of burgeoning hate groups.

But from a historical perspective, Myers believes that the present status of American Jewry represents the culmination of a long process of Jewish emancipation, the likes of which the world has not seen before.

"At no other time, not in Alexandria during the Second Temple period, not in 11th century Spain, not during the Weimar Republic in Germany, has Jewish emancipation and social integration reached the present stage in America," Myers asserts.

What we are seeing, he adds, is not a unique period of philo-Semitism, but part of a long historical process in Jewish life in the Diaspora.

In this process, Jews have become part of the cultural mainstream of America and have infused it with their own humor and sensibility, from Seinfeld on TV to bagels at McDonald's.

The price for the integration has been the dilution of Jewish particularism and distinctiveness. And, warns Myers, if America is ever wracked by economic turmoil in the future, hostility toward Jews will rise again.


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