Diving Into 'The Melting Pot' for Answers on Pew Survey of #Jewish America

Literary Critic Looks to Stage To Gauge Reactions to Study

The Author: Israel Zangwill, in 1913, the man who coined  “The Melting Pot” as a phrase and idea,
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The Author: Israel Zangwill, in 1913, the man who coined “The Melting Pot” as a phrase and idea,

By Karen E. H. Skinazi

Published November 04, 2013, issue of November 08, 2013.
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Henry Ford, who hated Jews (and must have loved what he saw as the end of the Jews) thought the idea so brilliant he brought the crucible to life for his workers, staging a pageant for his Americanization School’s graduation ceremony, complete with immigrant factory workers dressed in Old World costumes descending into a 20-foot-tall cauldron only to re-emerge as flag-waving Americans in business suits (and if you haven’t read Jeffrey Eugenides’s fictionalized version of it in Middlesex, run your fingers — don’t walk them — straight to amazon.com and order the book!).

On the other hand, there was a second reaction to the play — those who refused to take seriously a British playwright’s fantasy of an imminently Judenfrei America. Philosopher and German-Jewish immigrant Horace Kallen thought that any assimilation of the Jew was temporary in nature and economic in reason, and “Once the wolf is driven from the door and the Jewish immigrant takes his place in our society a free man and an American, he tends to become all the more a Jew.” Similarly, Randolph Bourne, who envisioned America as an “international nation,” a salve to the world war happening across the Atlantic, argued the melting pot was a myth (and a poor ideal, and a symbol of the past, and a failure. He wasn’t keen on it). He said, instead, that as immigrants “became more and more firmly established and more and more prosperous, [they began] to cultivate more and more assiduously the literatures and cultural traditions of their homelands” (Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, four-term New York senator, echoed precisely this sentiment 60 years later, saying minority groups “become more ‘American’ and less ethnic all the time”; however, “in the course of participating in this process, they may also — simultaneously — become more ‘ethnic’”).

Many early 20th-century Jews were compelled by the well-argued writings of Kallen and Bourne and not melting pot rhetoric. They might have also been compelled by continuous signs that Jewishness was everpresent in America. Want to know the first two songs with words Americans ever heard in film? A ragtime piece and Kol Nidre. Jews were staying Jews. And a century later, even if some numbers are declining, it’s looking like Kallen knew a lot more than, say, Henry Ford (though maybe not about cars).

Now ironically, with a whole century of hindsight (something that we could probably use before we take too seriously the Pew results), we can see that pro or against the ideology that was being attributed to Zangwill, no one a hundred years ago really understood his play (or maybe they just never saw or read it. “The Melting-Pot” is probably just one book below Joyce’s Ulysses as the most influential never-read book).

“Not our race,” says David’s uncle, “not your race and mine.” He says this when David calls for everyone to go into the crucible, where the past gets burned off in the roaring and bubbling seething of the fires (sounds very inviting). David’s uncle, we should note, is the voice of reason throughout the play. Unlike David’s grandmother, the traditional symbol of the Old World, a figure who would show up again as the father in Anzia Yezierska’s “The Bread Givers” and the cantor-father in “The Jazz Singer” and the rabbi in “Call it Sleep,” David’s uncle is a nice embodiment of integration. Like their house boasting the stars-and-stripes and a mizrach, he is the figure of Jewishness and Americanism. If Teddy Roosevelt lauded the play because it fit with his belief that “there are no hyphenated Americans,” he missed the significance of Uncle Mendel.

And indeed, “our race” never really falls into the Crucible in the play. If we re-examine the “data,” we can find the abandonment of Judaism is not the de facto message of “The Melting-Pot.” Instead, when Vera decides to marry David, she says to him, “David, I come to you, and I say in the words of Ruth, thy people shall be my people and thy God my God!” If this isn’t a conversion tale, I don’t know what it is. Forget Jews losing their faith; Christians are becoming Jews! (And Vera’s not the only one. The Quixano maid, who spends the first scene complaining about all the restrictions of kashrut and Shabbat, is asked why she’s celebrating Purim at the end of the play, and she replies, “Bekaz we’re Hebrews!” Of course, the Irish maid is always a great source for humor, but–).


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