A modern Passover service centered on the experience of the Jews of New York City might begin by reminding an audience of bored Bennington sophomores and their parents (one of whom was born Protestant in New England, the other one of whom blathers on about Grandma Sadie who worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory before the tragic fire of 1911) that their forefathers were once members of a poor and oppressed minority. Well before the Holocaust, the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine at the beginning of the twentieth century were a galvanizing human-rights cause—the Darfur of their time. We think less about those uprooted Eastern European immigrants than their children, whose secular brilliance was diffused into the common culture by dozens of Nobel Prize laureates who graduated from New York City public high schools, including Stuyvesant (four), Bronx Science (seven), Abraham Lincoln (three), James Madison (three), Brooklyn Tech (two), and Erasmus Hall (two), with a few non-Jews mixed in for good measure, of course. By contrast, the number of Nobel Prize winners who have graduated from elite Manhattan private schools such as Trinity, Dalton, Fieldston, Collegiate, and Horace Mann, where New York’s Jewish elite now scrambles to send its children, is exactly zero.
The children of Jewish immigrants who became Nobel laureates and Supreme Court justices succeeded precisely because they were not accepted in private schools and private clubs. The exclusion allowed the brightest minds of the tribe to gain a sharper angle on the received wisdom of the wider culture and turn it upside down. By the sixties, the Jewish outsider culture of New York—a home-brewed concoction of Talmudic irony, psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo, disenchanted Marxism, the symbolic language of modernism, the bitter ironies of Yiddish humor, sexual openness, and aggression, downed with a wry, European-style shrug—was admired and imitated by the rest of the world. The city’s artists, writers, thinkers, and critics were famous for a magpie genius that reshaped every aspect of American culture. Bob Dylan took Woody Guthrie’s wandering spirit and ran it through his bookish imagination of American history and the collective psyche of Greenwich Village bohemia, and it came out as a weird, inspired commentary on our longing for God. Lou Reed did the same for Andy Warhol’s Factory. Jerry Wexler helped invent rhythm and blues for Atlantic Records and then signed Led Zeppelin, whose heavy blues hooks were pillaged by Rick Rubin, who helped take rap music from the Bronx to the rest of the world.
The best writers were Jews who lived in New York and who injected a worldly, ironic, and often despairing Central and Eastern European sensibility into a more hopeful and lunatic American vein. Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, followed by Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978. John Updike wrote a series of very good novels in which he impersonated a Jewish writer in order to prove that he was every bit as good a writer as Bellow or Philip Roth—who this year or next year will hopefully win the Nobel Prize. Then the U.S. Postal Service will issue a long-overdue set of stamps featuring Bellow, Singer, Roth, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, and Bernard Malamud—all made their mark in New York after the war, and their names were on the tip of every literary aspirant’s tongue in New York City in 1968.
Who would want to belong to a club that didn’t accept Jews? What on earth would you do there?
New York may now be a center of global finance, but it is difficult to locate any equivalent, specifically Jewish, genius in the arts today. The collision of Jewish specificity and postmodernity will continue to give off sparks, no doubt, but the story of Jewish cultural life in New York City over the last 40 years is a story of triumph, then decline. If the rest of the world liked Jews better as victims and outsiders, it is possible—if great art, music, and literature is what you care about—that they may have had a point. As the barriers to Jewish acceptance fell away, so did our connection to shared communal values and the traditions of intellectual work that formed the common cultural inheritance of our grandparents.
New York Jews circa 2008 are wealthy white people whose protestations of outsiderness inspire blank stares or impatient eye rolling. We are no longer outsiders able to effortlessly sketch the inner logic of a culture while standing with one foot in and one foot out, looking nervously around us. I remember being in kindergarten during the Yom Kippur War as the shofar sounded in synagogue and news of the unfolding tragedy traveled around the pews in shocked whispers. I wondered if the Jews would have to leave Brooklyn in the same way that my father left Russia, where the rest of his family was slaughtered during the war. I wondered which of our neighbors would hide us behind a false wall, like Anne Frank’s family, and which would turn us over to the American Gestapo when they came to Jay Street. I would be appalled if Jewish children in today’s New York City were growing up with these same fears. We enjoy the luxury of the powerful, which is to feel at home.