July 1, 1999
Only in America
"America killed Judaism!" responded a guy. And soon the chat room was off and running, each combatant to joust from his or her own corner. Half of us praised the Boston Pops and Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Others saw only the suspect blessings of assimilation, including the disappearance of the square knish. I was caught between the two: This year, I've perfected a mixed-berry cheesecake, served with balsamic vinegar to keep it tart.
Cynicism was part of Judaism when I was growing up, and even now it's hard to give up. To update the nation's hit single, "La Vida Loca," we're living "The Chayim Meshugannim," this crazy life. And for good reason: The history of this century, after all, is one of Jews in flight.
My grandparents fled Europe, escaping terror.
My parents fled the city for the suburbs for a better life.
I fled the East Coast for the West, seeking new adventure.
Only my daughter is teaching me, by loving life in Los Angeles, that there is nothing more to run from. Can I believe it?
Accepting the bounty of America is placing particular strains on contemporary Judaism. We are having to adjust to new tensions, particularly the tension of No Tension at All. Can it really be that we can continue to live here, adapting our Jewish values to our land, without fear of the Cossack at the door? Those Cossacks have many faces -- intermarriage, assimilation, loss of demographic might. But what if there are no Cossacks, and we are free now to roast our marshmallows not in fear, but joy?
Worse yet, what if America doesn't care if we assimilate or not? As the century closes, a vastly more tolerant nation has room for Jews, regardless of how we self-define. In fact, we are so excepted that our religious symbols are ripe for abuse, as the ongoing battle over the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools dramatically demonstrates. Those clay tablets may have been a gift of the Jews to civilization, but most of us -- including the most devout -- recognize that displaying them in publicly funded classrooms would in no way heal the violence at our schools and would only lead to religious intolerance and intellectual censorship. Thanks for the compliment, but no thanks.
In my chat room, some are so frustrated by the openness of our times that they reflexively insult others, asserting that there is no Judaism outside the ghetto, and no belief without fear. We often treat each other worse than the non-Jewish world treats us.
The challenge for American Judaism is to recognize that our success here was not a fluke, and, hence, we are not so vulnerable as a faith-based people (as opposed to a mere culture or tribe), as our most anxious critics would have us believe.
This week, as if to prepare for the hoisting of the national flag, I've been reading "God and the American Writer," one of the last books by Alfred Kazin, who died a year ago June. Kazin was America's premier cultural critic, best known to many for his memoir, "New York Jew." The underlying question of his life was why had Jews fit in so well in a land so diverse.
"God and the American Writer" lays out the answer for us. By studying our greatest writers, from Hawthorne to Faulkner, the great son of the Jewish ghetto defines just how deeply iconoclastic even our most religiously imbued writers were. Kazin's point is clear: Even at a time when America might have been truthfully called a Christian Nation, the struggling minority voice of the doubter was heard.
"The American writer," Kazin writes, "has no common religious heritage." This, to him, is a major benefit. Unlike European writers, each American creates God uniquely from his own point of view. Kazin gets a particular kick out of Ralph Waldo Emerson, son of nine generations of ministers, who, he writes, made "the self-sufficiency of the individual the key to all things identifiably American." No wonder Jewish New Agers love Emerson so.
And though, in the past, Massachusetts and Mississippi were both controlled by religion, neither of their respective writer sons, Hawthorne and Faulkner, were believers, Kazin states. One can write a deeply moral book, like Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," without selling orthodoxy. As for Melville, so committed to exploring religious belief that he visited Palestine, Kazin writes that he could never either "believe or be happy in his disbelief."
What has this got to do with Jews as we live now? Kazin champions the very thing that so many Jews today still strive for: The independent voice, the search for a moral world based on inner truth, the open mind and the open heart that make America safe for everyone, Jews included. He had no interest in organized religion and found the greatest safety in separation of church and state. Only this separation, he implies, protects the intellectual and the faithful alike.
We American Jews still cannot believe our good fortune. We criticize each other. We criticize our land. We criticize our parents and grandparents, and the grandchildren we cannot control.
Relax. We are part of a grand dual tradition, the skeptics and the believers. Light the barbecue. It's Independence Day.
Marlene AdlerMarks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press.)
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.