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Jewish Identity Without “Otherness”

Michael Mirer
June 6, 2017


by Michael Mirer

From the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

TO DEFINE Jewish American identity is to invite disagreement. Each definition threatens to efface or minimize some aspect of the American Jewish experience that may be essential to someone else. Religious Jews, perhaps, can agree to a narrow definition: Jews are the people of the Jewish faith. But I’m one of the 32 percent of American Jews born after 1980 who identify, to use the recent Pew polls terminology, as “Jews without religion.” For me, the search for a defined identity is complicated by the urge to ask, “To what extent do I even consider myself a Jew?”

My answer to that question is dependent on uncountable accidents of history. Because I was born to and raised by Jewish parents, I have always identified as Jewish. Because I spent one afternoon a week learning about shtetls, Ellis Island, and Sholem Aleichem, I identify as Jewish. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- this upbringing, religion has only had a slight influence on my understanding of myself as Jewish. This is not to say that I don’t look forward to the Passover seder or enjoy the playfulness of Purim, but that their importance has always been communal and cultural rather than devotional.

My Jewish identity has always been tied to history: the history of the pogroms that drove my ancestors out of the Russian Empire; the humor and struggle that inspired the Chelm stories; the tragedy and promise of the American immigrant experience from sweatshops to assimilation. This history has always been a source of pride for me, animating my sense of social justice and of self.

That pride, however, is dependent upon experiences that are not my own. The Brooklyn in which I grew up was neither a shtetl nor a tenement, and to compare my experience growing up with that of my grandparents or parents is to understand the profound degree to which Jews have succeeded in assimilating. While my parents and grandparents were uninvited to parties and denied social recognition, my own experiences of Jewish alienation have been usually limited to awkward conversations about Israel and loneliness during the Christmas holiday.

In an interview given in 2008, Vivian Gornick, expanding on a point she made in an article on the literary achievements of Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow, argued that “What made them major was their gripe, the chip on their shoulders. The rage they felt at the world for keeping them out. That experience became a great metaphor. There is no hyphenated Jewish experience anymore . . . So there’s nothing to talk about. There’s really nothing to write about.”

THE SUCCESS OF JEWS -- in particular, secular Jews of European descent -- seems, somewhat ironically, to have obviated the need for differentiating Jews from everyone else (or at least other white people). Perhaps, then, the success of assimilation has, as Gornick argues, erased the meaning being a secular Jew. Perhaps I am simply an American.

For Gornick, this means that there are no stories left to tell, at least none that center on Jewish identity. There is a presumption here that, as far as narrative interest goes, an identity is only interesting as long as it is a source of conflict, of otherness. As a literary theory, this is surprisingly simplistic for a critic of Gornick’s depth — and, in her defense, I am likely extending her argument beyond what she meant to speak to. Still, her assertion is revealing for its presumptions about what constitutes Jewish (and American) identity.

There is, in fact, a persistent and not unreasonable assumption in progressive circles that personal identity is only worth naming as a site of otherness. There are often good intentions behind this assumption, insofar as people from poor, discriminated against, and occluded identities are most likely to profit from the proliferation and acceptance of positive representations of their “otherness.” In the classic American “bootstrapping” narrative, there is even a sense that the more obstacles a person has overcome, the more worthy he or she is of success. Well intentioned as this is, it can lead to some unfortunate consequences.

Anyone who has worked with well-off high school students, for example, will likely have heard some form of the complaint that they have nothing to write about for their college admissions essay because their lives have been too easy, and that poor, queer, minority, or first-generation students are lucky because their lives fit the narrative elite colleges are looking for. (A variant of this is the false belief that affirmative action constitutes discrimination against white people.) “Otherness” is thus fetishized in ways that reinforce resentments and the status quo, rather than stirring people to fight against it.

Has “otherness” been bleached from Jewish identity in America? Is there “nothing to talk about” when it comes to being Jewish in the U.S.? Leaving aside the recent rise of antisemitic harassment of journalists on Twitter and the rise of the white nationalist “alt-right,” whose idea of whiteness almost certainly excludes Jews, I don’t think we can or should abandon secular Jewish identity or view it as something that has petered out in energy or relevance. In the Pew survey mentioned earlier, 73 percent of American Jews identified “remembering the Holocaust” as “essential to being Jewish,” and 56 percent said the same about “working for justice/equality.” Without reading too much into these numbers, it seems possible to infer that for a majority of American Jews, the memory of past oppression is an important part of how we identify as Jews, and keeps us on guard about how tenuous our assimilation can be.

Nevertheless, despite the emboldening of antisemites in the wake of Trump’s election, it would be alarmist to say that our present situation has 20th-century analogues. On the whole, American Jews are more prosperous and educated than the average American, and have a disproportionate influence on public affairs. In the face of this success, however, it would be unfortunate if Jews began to forget their past -- and not only because such cultural memory serves as a tool for self-preservation.

While it is impossible, based on the survey, to give a causal explanation for why 56 percent of Jews associate Jewish identity with working for social justice, it seems likely to me that this belief is tied to the memory of Jews suffering past injury and injustice. Perhaps, given my secular upbringing, I am underestimating the influence of tikkun olam, mitsves, and other religious impetuses for social justice work, but even then I would hesitate to isolate such religious ideas as ahistorical.

Historical memory has its pitfalls, however. Too often, Jews fall into the trap of using the struggles of previous generations to disdain the seeming failures of other minority groups, particularly African Americans, to achieve similar success. This argument disregards the very real differences in the types and severity of discriminatory obstacles faced by Jews and African Americans, even in the post-slavery era — notably the denial of GI Bill benefits in education, housing, and employment to blacks, as well as other discriminatory practices such as redlining, denial of the vote, and outright violence. The Jewish “bootstrapping” success of previous generations is often invoked to justify our own privilege, rather than as a point of empathy that might inspire us to use that privilege to work to overturn discrimination against others.

AN ALMOST-too-perfect example of this can be seen in an opinion piece published two years ago by a then Princeton freshman titled, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for my White Male Privilege.” The author, Tal Fortgang, claims that admonitions to “check your privilege” obscure the struggles of previous generations whose work has contributed to his own success. To illustrate this, Fortgang discusses his grandparents, who fled Nazi-occupied Poland, survived concentration camps, then came to America and succeeded in business despite the considerable difficulties of surviving in a new country. Fortgang concludes that we shouldn’t call someone out for their privilege because “You don’t know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are . . . You don’t know whose father died defending your freedom. You don’t know whose mother escaped oppression.”

The essay mixes ignorance of racial privilege with the naive belief that opportunities for advancement are equally available to all, and makes several historically inaccurate assumptions about how race, ethnicity, and gender work in the United States. Knowingly or not, Fortgang’s article uses a familiar rags-to-riches arc popular in American literature, best known through the Horatio Alger stories — although in this case, Abraham Cahan’s David Levinsky might be more appropriate. As Fortgang writes:

Perhaps my privilege is that [my grandparents] came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will . . . Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for twenty-five years got up well before the crack of dawn . . . to earn that living.”

Notwithstanding the horrors that Fortgang’s grandparents survived and the achievements they secured, his attempt at irony misses the point. Consider the wide array of factors outside of his parents and grandparents’ control that have made possible their success. Fortgang’s grandparents likely entered the United States under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which allowed 400,000 European refugees to enter the country between 1948 and 1950 (by contrast the U.S. took in less than 85,000 refugees in 2016). The post-war era was a period of unprecedented economic expansion and growth for the U.S., and one in which income inequality was fairly low (with the top 1 percent controlling about 10 percent of total income, compared to 20 percent in 2010, according to Thomas Piketty). This was also a time when the government invested heavily in education, and public institutions like City College were still tuition-free and integral to the economic mobility of working-class and middle-class New Yorkers, many of whom would have been denied access to more elite institutions because of discrimination.

Yet this lowering of class barriers to prosperity was not equally available to all. Even beyond the Jim Crow system of the South, African-Americans in the era of Fortgang’s grandparents were legally excluded from neighborhoods, refused entry to jobs of authority, mocked in the media, and victimized by widespread racial violence. While Jews in post-war America were hardly free from antisemitic exclusion, in comparison with the deeply embedded racism faced by African Americans, Jews were privileged and the mystery of our comparative prosperity vanishes.

To a very real extent, the success of American Jews can be explained by their ability to make their “Jewishness” invisible and to pass for white. This is especially true for secular Jews, who, lacking clear ethnic signifiers like yarmulkes, peyes, head-wraps, and other religious garb, can easily vanish into the privilege of their skin color.

HERE I WANT to return to the question of secular Jewish identity. As I noted above, identity is always contextual, informed by accidents of history. None of us comes to self-understanding simply by force of will; as the philosopher Anthony Appiah has said, “it is in dialogue with other people’s understandings of who I am that I develop a conception of my own identity . . . my identity is crucially constituted through concepts (and practices) made available to me by religion, society, school and state, and mediated to varying degrees by family.”

However, while our identities are to a large degree predetermined by historical and cultural factors, how we interpret them is within our control. I may not be able to determine how the world sees me (whether that be Jewish, white, male, etc.), but I can shape the way I understand and express my identity. I do so with the belief that the history of Jewish oppression cannot simply be stories of wrongs done to the Jews; they must also shape how I, as a Jew, see my role in the world.

One option is to see this history simply as a call to self-defense. While recognizing the grim reality of Jewish oppression, I reject this interpretation as inadequate. For me, Jewish history gives insight and warning about the violent power that fear and intolerance can wreak — and what I conclude from this is that those of us lucky and privileged enough to have come of age in the 21st century, in this part of the world, must struggle for a better society and not countenance the oppression of other vulnerable peoples (even those who supposedly don’t care for Jews). Simply because my own world is not my grandfather’s, I know for a fact that change is possible, slow and difficult though it is.

To what extent do I consider myself a Jew? To the extent that I remember our history and our traditions, learn from them, and adapt them. This can mean incorporating simple gestures into old traditions, like adding an orange to the seder plate, or more radical actions in Jewish settings. It can mean learning and teaching Yiddish songs or passing on Jewish jokes to the next generation. There is something powerful in the act of claiming an ethnic identity: To call yourself Jewish means to stand in opposition to all those who would make you afraid to do so. And for this reason, I have never been able to separate my identity from my politics.

My Jewishness has always been cosmopolitan, inspired as much by the works of writers like Henry Roth and Bernard Malamud as by the Books of Esther and Exodus. But it is the sense of social and economic justice that I’ve inherited that I most treasure. Because of this, I hold on to my Jewish identity, and will continue to do so — as a call to activism.

Michael Mirer is a writer and tutor living in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he is trying to figure out what to do with his Master’s degree.