What Makes This Column Jewish?

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 11, 2009, issue of March 20, 2009.
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A persistent commenter on the Forward’s Web site dependably complains whenever I write a column that does not deal explicitly with matters Jewish. As he puts it, “Being a Jew in America and viewing events from the point of view of a Jewish identity is a Jewish experience. Being an American in America and viewing events from the point of view of an American identity is not a Jewish experience. In even simpler terms, being a Jew is not the same as being an American.” And then, “I understand that for most American Jews, American identity is a much more substantial identity (‘primary’) than their Jewish identity (‘secondary’).” And the purpose of a newspaper that calls itself “Jewish” is to address the “secondary” identity of its readers.

He raises a serious question, one rooted in an important misunderstanding of the Jewish experience.

The story’s told of a clever rabbi who was introduced to a visitor from a distant land. The visitor, he was told, was “half-Jewish.” “Well then,” said the rabbi, “ask him whether he is divided vertically or horizontally — and if horizontally, which is the Jewish half?”

American Jews are divided neither vertically nor horizontally. They are not two-thirds American and one-third Jewish. Their Jewish identity is not a costume they wear on special occasions. They are people of a mixed or amalgamated or merged identity. They are, in short — and as is to be expected — American Jews. When they dream of mountains, it is more likely the Rockies or Vermont’s Green Mountains they see in their mind’s eye than the mountains of Moab or the Gilboa; their rivers are the Mississippi or the Monongahela rather than the Jordan. That is not only how it is; that is as it should be. It is quite different, I imagine, from the Jewish experience in the Pale of Settlement, though even there, where Jews were not invited to the national table, the surrounding culture tinged their weltanschauung.

The fact that we are American Jews means we are different from Israeli Jews. War, for example, is a distant experience for most American Jews, whereas it is a central experience for almost all Israeli Jews. Or, more pertinently, casual pluralism comes naturally to American Jews, as also casual religiosity, while neither is (yet?) embedded in the Israeli Jew. Yes, once we were Americans and Jews. But our story is no longer the story of a people transplanted from the Old World to the New and, having learned the language and habits of their new home, then discarded their ancient understanding. We have hardly been content to memorize America’s teachings verbatim; instead, we have rewritten them along our way. Ours is a story of synthesis.

That is what makes the American Jewish experience so fascinating, so complicated, so confusing — and so authentic. We are no longer strangers in a strange land. We are not merely in America; we are of America.

That does not denigrate our association with the Jewish people or with the Jewish state. It means only that we live at a time and in a place where the fact of our being Jewish is expressed differently from the way it was — and is — in other places, at other times.

None of this, however, directly responds to the question of why a Jewish newspaper is an appropriate venue for columns that deal with matters not Jewish. I don’t know that there is a general rule that applies. I do know that it is exceedingly difficult, in this connection, to define just what we mean by “Jewish” and “non-Jewish.”

One example: I believe that the radical income inequality that characterizes America these days is a Jewish issue. (During the first six years of this new century, 70% of all income gains went to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.) Am I wrong to wish that the Jewish community had been as indignant about the unequal distribution of wealth and income as it has been about Bernie Madoff? I am confident that Jewish sources frown on actions, such as the Bush tax cuts of 2003 and the simple greed that infects so much of corporate America, which helped bring us to this ugly condition. Am I required to footnote the sources that establish a formal Jewish connection to this matter? Shall the debate over this kind of thing be reduced to which side can come up with the more authoritative footnotes from Jewish texts? How tedious and trivializing our debate would become. It would be as if participation in a serious discussion of the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens by the Jewish state were limited to scholars conversant with classical Jewish texts.

No, it is not quite so simple as all that. A Jewish newspaper is not a congenial home to any subject under the sun. At the same time, it need not feel constrained to cut itself off from the great debates that rage in the larger society. Perhaps, then, it comes down to this: A writer who writes principally about matters internal to the Jewish community but who chooses now and then to step outside the Jewish precinct to address issues that affect Jews even as they also affect others is not leaving home. He is merely opening a window.

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