A Melting Pot President

Opinion

By David Biale

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.