A Melting Pot President

Opinion

By David Biale

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
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It was a century ago this year that Israel Zangwill’s iconic play “The Melting Pot” was first staged in New York. Hailed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the quintessential expression of the American spirit, the play celebrated America as the “crucible” that would melt away all Old World hatreds and rivalries.

As I contemplated the election of Barack Obama, I could not help thinking of Zangwill’s play. To be sure, Zangwill was at best ambiguous about whether the American melting pot might include African Americans. He includes “yellow and black” in the crucible, but he also raises doubts in an afterword as to whether blacks would be assimilated into America. Yet, at its core, the play certainly affirms the vision of America as open to all, a paradise of pluralism.

Since Jews are the protagonists of “The Melting Pot,” the play also serves as a springboard for thinking about what Obama’s election and Obama as symbol might mean for Jews today. Zangwill explicitly compares the suffering of Jews in the pogroms of Russia with the contemporaneous lynchings of African Americans in the South. The now-frayed black-Jewish alliance often rested on this comparison: Jews felt called upon to take up the cause of their African-American compatriots since Jews, too, had been slaves in the land of Egypt.

The collapse of this alliance — whose original dimensions have perhaps been exaggerated — with the rise of Black Power, social and economic tensions in the inner cities and clashes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a story too long to be told here. But with Jews having voted for Obama more disproportionately — at 78% — than did any other ethnic or religious group save African Americans, perhaps the time is now ripe to re-weave the fabric of the old alliance.

Yet while Obama’s identity as a black American is significant, so is the fact that he is the product of an interracial union — or a “mutt,” as he jokingly put it at his first post-election press conference. Indeed, he has been remarkably forthright about his hybrid origins. In his Philadelphia speech on race, he discussed his own conflicted feelings as a black grandson hearing his beloved white grandmother voice racist opinions. But by evoking his mother’s Kansas roots, he was able to build a bridge to white voters.

Obama’s mixed background led him to deliberately choose an African-American identity. Since his father was Kenyan, his identification with African Americans, whose ancestors came to America as West African slaves, was as much an act of self-invention as it was a given. His choices reflect the malleability of identity in America.

Our president-elect’s hybrid identity raises questions that are familiar from the last hundred years of Jewish history, but puts them in a new light. Can one affirm a minority identity while belonging at the same time to the majority? Does intermarriage mean the melting away of old belongings or, instead, the possibility of choosing to belong to more than one home? The old Jewish debate between universalism and particularism may have found a new expression, not from a Jewish source, but from a black one.

Which brings us back to “The Melting Pot.” The plot of the play revolves around the romance of a young Russian Jew with the daughter of a Russian nobleman (a general who commanded the Russian troops during the Kishinev pogrom at that!). For Zangwill, himself intermarried, America promised to allow affairs of the heart across religious and ethnic boundaries. The essence of the melting pot was not just formal integration but genetic recombination.

On one level, such mixing of populations might seem to presage the end of cultural and religious identities: The crucible, says Zangwill, was swallowing up German and Frenchman, Jews and Russians, turning them into “the American.” But the play also hints that such identities might still be preserved, because in America identity itself is flexible. The hero of the play never gives up his Jewish identity; America becomes more Jewish as the Jews become American. Thus, the Jewish family’s Irish maid, who denounces their religious practices in antisemitic terms, ends up speaking Yiddish and celebrating Purim.

Jewish life is dramatically different in today’s America than it was when Zangwill wrote his play. Then, Jews were a compact ethnic group, living in their own neighborhoods and still the targets of intense discrimination. To imagine the melting pot then was prophetic — or foolhardy.

Obama’s electoral triumph testifies to present-day America’s remarkable tolerance of racial, ethnic and religious difference — a tolerance that stems, in no small part, from the increasing fluidity of these very categories. While a multicultural society of mixed and fluid identities certainly represents a challenge to traditional forms of Jewish self-definition, it also offers Jews tremendous opportunities.

Today, Jews are an integral part of the political and cultural elite; the top political adviser and future chief of staff to the nation’s first black president are both Jews. Can a Jewish president — or perhaps even a black-Jewish president — be far behind? If the Jewish wager on America was for a cosmopolitan, melting pot society, it is a bet that Jews have won.

David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. He is the author, most recently, of “Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians” (University of California Press).


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