When the researchers at Pew released their study in early October, they offered a series of statistics that were supposed to offer “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” While I admit I’m not a quantitative type, its seems that a third of Jewish America immediately despaired the fate of Jews; then a third of Jewish America despaired the poll; meanwhile, a third didn’t know or care about it.
Of course, we only hear about the noisy two-thirds: those who despaired one way or the other and entered the debate publicly (see the Forward exchange between J. J. Goldberg and Alan Cooperman and Greg Smith, and Goldberg again, not to mention articles in Tablet, The New York Times, Telegraph, Huffington Post, and the Forward’s collection, Who Are We Now, the fastest ebook ever produced), or privately, slinging accusations on Facebook walls.
The initial response to the Pew’s results — the end of Judaism is nigh! — calls to the mind of a literary critic the initial reception of the 1908 play, “The Melting-Pot,” which made the British writer Israel Zangwill a hero to some and a traitor to others (or better yet, trader — of his role of Jewish leader for a mess of melted pottage). It’s from “The Melting-Pot” that we get the very term that’s come to define America. But “The Melting-Pot” is not, as you might think, about a bunch of people from all different countries who come together and magically there’s e pluribus unum. It’s about Jews. And the message — for those who worried about the preservation of the Jewish people and their ways — was thought to be “a grim portrait of the American Jewish population,” to cite Jack Wertheimer’s response to the Pew a century later.
In the play, the possibility of America as a “melting pot” comes to life with the love affair between Jewish David, whose family was killed in a Russian pogrom, and Vera, whose father orchestrated the pogrom. If these two can make it, then America really is a place where all the “blood hatreds and rivalries” of the Old World can be melted, and the superman, as David calls the fusion of the races, can rise.
No matter that the much-discussed marriage of the star-crossed lovers never takes place in the play; that the American is ever a future ideal (“I should have thought the American was made already — eighty millions of them,” says David’s uncle. But David responds, “No, uncle, the real American has not yet arrived”); that this play was probably Zangwill’s way of pissing off the Zionists with whom he broke after divergent reactions to the 1903 Kishinev massacre that the play uses as its backdrop (Z., a major figure in Herzl’s Zionist movement, was all for the Uganda Plan. The bulk of Zionists were not. So Z. went all “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”/We’ll have a new Promised Land in America on them). Viewers took David’s idealism about assimilation (no matter that his last name was Quixano — the same as that other fictional idealist whose battles with windmills have been the source of humor for centuries) in earnest, and understood the play to be a happy pronouncement of the end of Judaism.
Teddy Roosevelt was invited to the play’s Washington opening in 1909, and his enthusiasm for it is legendary. He reportedly shouted, “It is a great play, Zangwill!” Roosevelt wrote some years later, “That particular play I shall always count among the very strong and real influences upon my thought and my life.” The influence is clear in his 1915 “There is no room in this country for the hyphenated American” speech.