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Ebb Tide in the Golden Country

All is not as it was for Jews in America

Rich Cohen
June 01, 2015

Probably the scariest sentence in the Bible, and maybe in all of Western literature, comes early in Exodus. “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.” It suggests how era changes to era, way leads to way, evening darkens to night and home turns ominous and mean. Of course, in our age, it’s not the pharaoh who sits on the throne but mood, trend, fashion. And the computer is its sword, social media its scepter. All to say, it’s not as it was to be a Jew in America.

Jews began arriving in numbers here in the 1880s. There had been Sephardic Jews in the country since the beginning, German Jews since the early 19th century, but these were the shtetl masses of Poland and Russia, our grandparents with their dark eyes and longing. By 1910, there were close to a million in New York alone, crowded into tenements, filling streets and schools, enough to remake the town. The New York of Benny Leonard and Al Jolson was a Jewish metropolis where everything was possible, and in many ways, America as we know it—the dream and promise—was imagined by Jews in the city’s vaudeville houses. “Ol’ Man River” and “High Hopes.” Abraham Cahan and Benny Goodman. Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” with its mountains and prairies and oceans white with foam.

There was prejudice, of course, snide remarks and closed gates, quotas at Ivy League schools and white-shoe firms. But in the end, there was something useful even in the hatred. It forced you to think and adapt, stay smart, sober, sane.

By the 1930s, Jews had re-imagined the nation. It’s the gift of the outsider—to see with new eyes. Their children were driven by ambition, optimism, glee. Jews had escaped not only ghettos and poverty, but history itself. That first generation had the freedom to work and to pray but also to stop being Jews. Unlike Germany or England, there is no host population in America, no single race that can be threatened. America is a nation of nations, a nation of mutts. The Constitution was set up as a series of checks against any such majority forming. The liberty found here did not depend on Joseph’s charm or special relationship with what my father would call “the key guys.” It was built into the founding documents of the country. The importance of the written word echoed the Jewish mind. On red-letter days, you stand as the rabbi opens the ark inside which you find … a book! In this way, American history and Jewish history rhyme. Which is why, for many of our grandparents, Zionism held little sway. Like the best bagels, theater, and Chinese food, the holy land was not in the godforsaken sands of the Ottoman empire. It was here.

The golden moment came after WWII, when the Jewish population of America crested—the population as a percentage of the whole. Maybe five in 100 Americans were Jews, which might not sound like a lot but was like a bumper crop to us, a remnant of a remnant. There were more Jews in the world before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. than there are today. If the Jewish population, polled at the time of Jesus, had kept pace with the rest, there would be 100 million of us. Instead, we’ve got 13 and we’re happy for each and every one.

After the destruction of European Jewry, American Jews were really what remained of the Diaspora. It made our life seem precious, important. Survival became triumph, quotidian life a thumb in the eye of Hitler. Before the rise of modern Israel, the philosophy of American Jews came to characterize the Jew by default. Hence the age of the New Deal Jew, the Women’s Lib and Freedom Riding Jew. This Jew had chosen New York over Jerusalem. His dream was secular. His prophets were Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. His moniker was “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.” His peak moment was the Broadway premiere of Fiddler on the Roof, which refashioned suffering into song and turned a pogrom into a high-kicking dance.

The horror of the Holocaust purchased us a 70-year vacation from history, though we didn’t know it. We believed the world had changed, as had human nature.

The unimaginable evil of the Holocaust seemed to kill anti-Semitism, even the polite country-club variety that shows up in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. After the war, Hemingway disavowed Jewish jokes, which, he seemed to realize, were connected, in some way, to what happened. It created a bubble, a zone of safety not only for Jews but for other minorities. It’s no coincidence that the civil right movements came in the wake of WWII. Anti-Semitism still existed of course, but, in America, it became socially unacceptable. It retreated to the bedrooms and parlors, where it was expressed in the way of certain mystery religions, in secret, behind closed doors, so quietly you might think it had vanished.

This is my childhood, the world where I grew up. The horror of the Holocaust purchased us a 70-year vacation from history, though we didn’t know it. We believed the world had changed, as had human nature. Jews remained distinct in the new dispensation, but in a good way—a near-at-hand exotic, a symbol of exile, which we were told was the natural state of modern man. For perhaps the only time in history, you might actually want to be a Jew. Because of the close families and good husbands and yada yada. Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Mel Brooks. To those of us who came of age in these years, the future seemed like it would be more of the same, the present carried on forever.

We were wrong.

If you go online and read the comments on any story about Israel or George Soros or search certain terms on Twitter, you begin to feel the golden age of the American Jews was just a moment in time. Perhaps the old paranoia stirs in me, but I see ominous signs everywhere: In an article about stubborn, black-hatted Jews who refuse to sit next to women on airplanes—a phenomenon I don’t believe is happening in a statistically significant way—which echoes depictions of Russian Ostjuden, strangers from the East condemned for making the rest of us look bad; in a review of an Ezra Pound bio, which makes the poet’s diatribes sound like quaint digressions. (“The poet’s vitriolic attacks on the banking system … have a particular resonance for twenty-first century readers: and however unworkable the solutions [emphasis added] Pound offered, his volcanic anger at the pain caused to ordinary men and women during the Depression by the greed and malfeasance of financial institutions allows us, Moody contends, to see the raging poet as a ‘flawed idealist’ whose quest to bring about more equitable systems of government [read: Fascism] was, at bottom, principled and decent, however tarnished by anti-Semitism.”) In imbroglios at UCLA and Stanford, where students have been asked to explain their affiliation with Jewish groups. According to a Trinity College study, 54 percent of Jewish students reported experiencing or witnessing ant-Semitism on campus.

President Obama? I don’t blame him, but I do think his disgust with Benjamin Netanyahu, which seems almost physical, as if repelled by the stink of the man, has given certain practitioners the sense that it’s safe to come into the open. It’s a frequent topic of conversation among my friends: Do you feel that chill? That sudden drop of barometric pressure? “That UCLA girl, the Orthodox airplane Jew … the message is slowly getting out, we are now post post-holocaust,” a friend emails. “It’s like leaves budding or animals leaving warrens or girls without coats; all these signs of it being OK, coming tentatively back into season again.” It’s as if Jews are bell-bottoms or fringed coats. Once upon a time, we’d been in fashion, but not anymore. What you have now is a return to the green-screen hatred, which, like malaria, spikes and remits but never goes away.

What changed? Well, for starters, there are just fewer of us in proportion to the whole. Whereas Jews once constituted five percent of America, and as much as forty percent of New York, those numbers have shrunk. We’re perhaps thirteen percent of New York and around two percent of the nation. In this sense, American Jews are living with the results of their success. This is indeed the promised land. It’s where Jews fulfilled the dream which, for many, has been to stop being Jews and become part of the imagined whole. Like the caboose of a train, we’re getting smaller as we go away.

Which brings up the second point—the Holocaust, which is one reason there are so few Jews. We lost almost half our population not long ago. “Never Forget” is one of the admonitions we heard in Sunday School. But people do forget. Everything, all the time. As the events exit living memory, as the people who survived it as well as those who liberated the camps, die, tragedy shifts from memory to history. As memory fades, the old thing returns, filling the subterranean cisterns.

Then there’s the Iran deal: To get the papers signed, the president must separate from Israel. To do that, he muddies the brand. That’s how he’s always campaigned, on health care, free-trade deals, against the right and the left alike: demonize the opponent and frame the issue. You’re for this deal, or you’re for war. In the process, President Obama has unintentionally, or thoughtlessly, given cover to the normalization of the old tropes of Jewish dual loyalty and war-mongering.

It’s painful for those of us who love Obama. We voted for him and voted for him again. At best, the Iran deal seems misguided. Meant to avoid conflict, it will, by putting Iranian proxies on the northern and southern borders of Israel, make war inevitable.

For me, who remains just as Jewish as ever, who is so Jewish it’s absurd, the question haunts: What does it mean, this return of the old hatred? First and foremost, it means losing the ability to define yourself. It means being defined by those who believe they know you before you’ve even met. Your name tells them everything important about you.

This outwardly imposed identity is shaped by a particular depiction of Israel, which, conveniently, matches the antediluvian image of the Jew as pushy and aggressive, if not wildly committed to poisonous rituals. It always puzzled me when some fanatic kills a Jew in, say, Paris. I mean, what does this fanatic want? The destruction of the State of Israel? So, what does he do? Kill a Jew who, having chosen Paris over Tel Aviv, is living just where the fanatic wants him to live. But increasingly, no distinction is made between Israel and Exile. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.

Some attribute the hatred to the policies of Israel. (“Bibi is to blame.”) But this confuses cause and effect. Israel is not the source of anti-Semitism, but a result. Before the Holocaust, it was said that the Jews in their statelessness were the cause of wars and disturbance, the burr under the saddle of mankind, the ghost in the machinery of statecraft. After the Holocaust, it’s said that Israel, the Jewish State, is the burr under that saddle. Though the condition has changed—no state v. state—the conclusion remains the same: It’s the Jews. To me, this is the world settling back into the Jew-loving and Jew-hating equilibrium that was unsettled, for a time, by the Shoah. After, all, the dream of the early Zionists was neither to be hated, nor loved—it was to be normal, treated as individuals, like everyone else.

For a long time, I dreamed of being free. Of making a separate peace and standing on my balcony and watching the sun set on my city with no greater thought than “this is my city in the dark.” But I can’t stop caring and worrying. I can’t stop arguing. I know that I’m an individual free to make my own decisions and choose my own path, but I feel I’m being defined by something bigger than myself. I know a little of what my grandparents knew. My worries are older than I am—ancient, the old history closing in. Ebb tide. In the afternoon, you swim above the sand in the clear water, but in the evening the sharks come in to feed in the oceans, white with foam.

Rich Cohen is the author of 11 books, most recentlyThe Last Pirate of New York.