Assimilation and Its Discontents

Photo: Richard Sandler

A New York Jew is a kind of universally acknowledged wizard, like a Swiss banker, an English tailor, or a Parisian couturier. Fast-talking, funny, obnoxious, able to conjure some shimmering, tantalizing brilliance on the fly while complaining about the stale Danish and bad coffee and waving a folded copy of the New York Times at the oncoming traffic, with one foot planted firmly on the cracked sidewalk and the other tapping on the curb.

Everyone who comes to New York City in 2008 becomes a little bit Jewish by osmosis. New Yorkers eat Thai food, buy condoms in Korean delis, and face death at the hands of insanely reckless Nigerian cabdrivers, but they inhabit a moral universe in which certainty and doubt are balanced according to a particular mathematics that is intimately familiar to Jews and not quite so familiar to other tribes. The glass towers of midtown Manhattan are filled with Jewish magicians who manipulate abstract symbols that shape the contents of people’s characters and opinions as well as the contents of their wallets and can seemingly be transformed at will into other markers of value in a dizzying progression that destroys the certainties of blood and soil on which life is founded for ordinary villagers. Ivy League graduates who move to New York often find themselves thinking about how their Jewish friends, co-workers, and bosses are different from their neighbors back home—less polite, more exciting, more exacting and didactic, with different ideas about pleasure and sin.

Future historians will record that the Jews replaced the old Protestant elite, who had run the city off and on since the eighteenth century until their power was finally shattered by the cultural metamorphosis of 1968, followed by the financial collapse of 1974. John Lindsay, New York’s last Wasp mayor, presided over a city falling into bankruptcy and seemingly irreconcilable racial and class tensions. Academics and residents agreed that New York City was dead—a mid-century idea on which the clock had finally run out. Lindsay’s successor, Abe Beame, was the first Jewish mayor of a city where Jews would assume the leading positions of political, economic, and cultural power.

It takes a certain amount of effort to remember that it was not surprising even into the late sixties for Jews to be excluded from top-tier jobs at the commercial banks, ad agencies, and insurance companies that formed the elite of the city’s business class, and from the boards of the city’s major charities and cultural institutions. Jews were barred from membership in midtown social clubs, from golf courses and tennis clubs, and from buying apartments in desirable buildings on Park Avenue. Universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale did their best not to employ Jews on their faculty and made “character” (by which they meant a lack of Jewishness) a criterion for admission. The Jews of New York City had their own banks, their own law firms, their own social clubs, and their own charities, which enabled them to function as a kind of parallel elite, making their exclusion from the apex of social, cultural, and political power all the more glaring. Today, it is hard to think of a single institution in the city that doesn’t open its doors wide to Jews (and not just a few token Jews, or the “right kind” of Jews)—Citibank, the board of the New York Philharmonic, the New York Times (a newspaper owned by Jews-turned-Episcopalians whose first Jewish editor, A. M. Rosenthal, was appointed in 1969), The New Yorker (once the home of Cheever-style gentility, now edited by a Jew who writes regularly about Philip Roth, the State of Israel, and other family business), the Metropolitan Club, the Century Club, whatever. Who would want to belong to a club in New York that didn’t accept Jews as members? What on earth would you do there?

The Jews owe a debt to David Rockefeller, who eased their path onto the boards of prominent cultural institutions like MoMA and helped create a new finance-based economy for the city that rewarded the Jewish talent for abstraction, and to Edward Koch, who fused the familiar voice of the Jewish underdog with a policy of large tax breaks for the kinds of businesses that would become the foundation of the city’s future. Without these two men, New York might have gone the goyish way of Baltimore or Philadelphia, the kind of place that no one in his right mind would want to visit even for the funeral of his enemies.

The ascendancy of the Jews of New York can be viewed as a Hollywood-style triumph, but it can also be read as the tragedy of a group of brilliant outsiders who remade a city in their own image, only to cut themselves off from the roots of their tribal genius, ensuring that the future will belong to the children of the new outsiders—Koreans, Indians, Russians, and Chinese.

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.

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.

Assimilation and Its Discontents