Assimilation and its discontents

Assimilation and its discontents

My last column, “When Jews stood up for the right to be unique” (Dec. 9), touched both a responsive chord and a sore spot among readers. I never got so many reactions to one of my commentaries.

I sent the column to one of my e-mail lists with the following summary: “Is assimilation good or bad? It is a mixed blessing…. The total embrace of multiculturalism has not been good for the survival of Jewish culture. We have seen it before. It is the now under-reported back story of Hanukka, the civil war between the Maccabees and the Hellenized Jews of Judea.”

One comment, which I liked, was from a friend who succinctly said, “That is one good piece!!! In just a few words, I think you have captured the essence of Chanukah.”

On the other hand, there were the reactions from a couple whom I have known for over 40 years. The wife and I are almost political polar opposites, while the husband is closer to me politically.

The wife said, “What the Hasmoneons also did was destroy the Jews who did not go along with their ways. Reminds me of the Hasidim who would spit at me when I went to my grandmother’s home in Boro Park wearing pants (when I was 4 years old). The Maccabees were terrorists, as were members of the Stern Gang years later. Does the end always justify the means?”

I responded, “The situations are not the same. At the time of the Maccabee revolt, there were only two types of Jews, Hellenic and practicing. No Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, etc. Jewish ritual had been banned. Would the Greeks, Syrians, and Hellenic Jews be ‘terrorists’ who wanted to destroy Judaism as then practiced? As I pointed out at the end of the column, if the Hellenic Jews won the civil war, would we even be having this conversation? The Greek civilization is only in books, museums, and ruins which are archeological and tourist sites. We survived, they didn’t.”

In frustration, the wife passed the debate on to her husband. On this point, he agreed with her. “Whether assimilation is good or bad is not for a fellow like me to answer, it is a fact of life. (Anytime one group lives among another it’s bound to happen.) Let the philosophers ponder that one, not me. What I do know is that the Maccabees were a bunch of cutthroat murderers who killed their fellow Jews who strayed into the Hellenistic world or who weren’t believers in their orthodox brand of Judaism.”

Although none of these writers was in communication with each other, an Orthodox correspondent provided a response to my friends. “The one kind, the most devastating holocaust in all of history by far, is the assimilation of Jews becoming non-Jews. That has indeed taken place in America. According to Jewish historian and lecturer par-excellence Rabbi Berel Wein, there are now 25 million descendants of Jewish immigrants in America. But there are only 5 million Jews here.

“The other kind is adopting the American nationality from the nationality that the immigrants left in their native countries. There is no problem with that. Every one of my immigrant ancestors to America became good Americans. Jewish immigrants can become good Americans and still remain Jews — even as Orthodox Jews.”

In my column, I compared the Jewish experience to the Chinese experience I witnessed in New York’s Chinatown. I even got a response from a Jewish professor on the Chinese-American experience. “I had a Chinese-American student in my class a few months ago who told me of her dilemma which is common to C-A families. Her daughter has become assimilated to the point where she is ignoring her unique cultural background. The girl couldn’t wait to start college (this past September) where this assimilation process will rapidly advance. The kid wants no part of being Chinese. The fact is that assimilation issues face all immigrant groups. My wife works for a C-A doctor who speaks no Chinese and his three sons are not being exposed to Chinese culture.”

He goes on to talk about the Jewish experience. “Your observations about Jewish uniqueness are entirely correct. With 1.2 billion Chinese in the world, they can lose a few hundred thousand every year to assimilation but we Jews, with our tiny numbers, lack that luxury. But that is the price we pay for living in a free society. Were we better off confined to ghettos? Sure, we kept our identity but cities like Venice chained us in every night. American culture, heightened by social media, iPads, cell phones, television, video games and computers are stealing our children away.… The only solution is for Jewish families to highlight the importance of retaining a strong Jewish identity.”

Fortuitously, my column shared the same issue as Archie Gottesman’s essay “Ten commandments for richer Jewish life.”

“I love being Jewish and I love my Jewish people, but for years we have bent over backward trying to make Judaism fit every taste,” she wrote. “Our openness is working against us. We need some non-negotiables…. We are a people in crisis and we should act like it.”

I concur.

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