The drama of Jewish acceptance into gentile society that played itself out in such a bloody and destructive way in twentieth-century Europe has been successfully transformed in America into an inner conflict about how to present oneself to the outside world that has fueled countless episodes of Sex and the City, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as the more primal riffs of Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. I know plenty of Jews who protest the tribal insularity of their community and deny any attachment to religion while proclaiming their fervent attachment to universal values. They fear what it is that makes them signify so powerfully to others. They root for the Mets and vote Democratic out of an atavistic attachment to the idea of the underdog. There is something ineffably sad and utterly American about the communal progression from tribal Judaism to a vague and watered-down idea of “Jewishness.” It’s like watching a family sell the old farmhouse to buy a drywall palace in the suburbs with twice the square footage and shiny new appliances.
Against this thesis, it can be argued that the growth of the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch movement is the most significant development in Jewish communal life in the last 40 years. But the success of Lubavitch may equally be understood as a mark of a larger collapse: The Lubavitchers have succeeded by filling the spiritual and institutional void left by the disintegration of the traditional infrastructure of Jewish life in New York City. The modern Orthodox community, with its arid pseudo-intellectualism and high-priced schools, is an unlikely wellspring of Jewish revival. Reform and Conservative Judaism look increasingly like relics of the nineteenth and twentieth centures, respectively. It’s an open secret in the Jewish community that the galaxy of Manhattan-based Jewish organizations with impressive-sounding names like the World Jewish Congress exist for the most part only on paper.
Anyone who wishes to gauge the true strength of Jewish communal feeling in Manhattan can also try to count the number of authentic old-fashioned Jewish delis left in New York City. When I go out with my Uncle Myron—an old gangster from Newark whose father grew up with Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel—I am reminded of the fact that the Jews were once a working-class ethnic people who danced the mambo and the meringue and the cha-cha, and mixed easily with their Greek and Italian neighbors. Uncle Myron takes me out to kosher Bukharan restaurants in Queens. We eat chicken soup and lamb fat on skewers. The delis are gone, as are the Jewish gangsters, Jewish tailors, and Jewish union organizers, the German Jewish bakeries of the Upper West Side, the Yiddish-language newspapers, and other humble markers of the Jewish ethnic presence in New York. The fact that the best bagels in the city are made by H&H, the bakery founded by Helmer Toro, a Puerto Rican businessman who grew up cutting sugarcane on his father’s farm, is a tribute to the genius of the Puerto Ricans—not the Jews.
The idea that Jews are a different kind of American—that they are Americans while also being something else—feels like an insult, or an accusation of treason. Does history matter if you are ignorant of history, or you reject history? Yes, yes, say the voices of our grandparents. History will find you. You can believe that, or you can share my own personal sorrow about the fate of the Harvard-educated Brahmins I admired in my youth, who cherished their belief in liberal openness while licking at the bleached bones of their family romances. Their mansions are threadbare and drafty, and stickers on their salt-eaten Volvos advertise the cause of zero population growth. It’s hard to imagine that their ancestors sailed clipper ships to China and wrote great books and built great companies and ran spies behind enemy lines in Europe.
Jews of New York City, we don’t have to go out like that. Now that the stock market has crashed, Ahmadinejad dines in New York, and Goldman Sachs answers to Warren Buffett, perhaps we can finally relinquish our fantasies of universalistic omnipotence and return to the prickly insularity that made us great. We can reopen the delis and bakeries, and celebrate the wisdom of our sages who knew that worldly success is fleeting, and that the secret to happiness is fear of God, a bowl of hot chicken soup, and a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn.