In many other occasions I have compared the dynamics of Jewish American identity with that of minority cultures in Europe. Being of Catalan origin and having dealt with this kind of situations a good part of my life, I can’t avoid discovering in Jewish identity the unequivocal trends of endangered cultures I witnessed and studied in my own country of origin, as a sociolinguist amateur of sorts. Just last week, a good friend of mine sent me an interesting article about the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico, knowing my deep affection for this community. My friend’s reflection on the subject was a true eye-opener: he hoped that this NPR segment would become viral so that “finally people get to see and understand that not all Jews look like Tevye.” He also remarked that the author of the beautiful pictures admitted that what he witnessed did not fit the Jewish narrative of his life. “When did our Jewish life-narrative get so small?” asked my friend.
My conviction is that in the measure that people reduce their Jewish identity to a series of cultural stereotypes, they narrow down the collective identity to just a tiny segment of it. The main reason why Hispanic, black and Asian Jews, do not “fit in” in some people’s idea of Jewish identity is because they break the comfort of their own identitarian schema. And this can happen only because, once divested from its core essentials (such any connection to Judaism, for instance), their Jewish identity is fragmentary and folklorized, not unlike the Catalan identity I grew up with in Mallorca. To me, it is an eloquent trend that does not reveal a dynamic, alive culture, but one that is in deep crisis and whose survival is endangered.
In past postings I talked about the self-deprecating, stereotypical image of Jews in the American media, and about the use of swearwords as the only remnants of Yiddish language. At a certain stage in the process of minorization of a culture, individuals begin to consider it as something heart-warming, sweet, small and frankly goofy. That’s the way we are, our essence. We can even be proud of our heritage, but we can’t see why anybody else not born in our culture would ever want to embrace it. A painful majority of Mallorcans would speak Catalan at home –a sweet, beloved, hybridized version of if, full of “cozy” swearwords– and even preserve some traditional dances to show to the tourists, but would frown at the idea of a Catalan book on quantum mechanics or any other manifestation of high culture. And they would certainly frown at the idea of a non-Mallorcan trying to learn their language. In fact, they would not help this person learn, but rather always switch to Spanish or English as soon as the outsider tries to articulate a phrase in Catalan. For them, Catalan culture is something dear, even a source of pride, but essentially useless and clearly lower than all other surrounding, modern cultures. I am pretty sure we could find the same patterns of behavior in Native American collectives: the native culture is a source of pride, can even be shown to tourists, but it is not to be adopted by outsiders and can never compete as equal with the modern, western cultures of the world.
What defines the identity of your average secular Jew in America? A vague memory of Old World stories, some Yiddish expressions here and there, a taste for bagels and kugel, perhaps. Nothing alive, vibrant, that they want to share with their neighbors. When the average Josh encounters Jews by choice, Sephardic Jews, or New Mexican cryptos, he can’t recognize them as members of the same tribe. Moreover, he may occasionally feel that his cozy identity is endangered by these alterities. I heard many stories of non-white Jews feeling questioned, even rejected in our JCCs and shuls, sometimes in the name of outdated religious rules, but more often for the lack of a warm, welcoming crowd. I dare to adventure that part of the current obsession with mixed marriages and assimilation is coming from the upsetting conviction that in the not so distant future, average Josh will no longer recognize the folks at the shul where he “was barmitzaed” (note the passive) and never cared to join. Mainstream American identity is so strong and dynamic that it can assimilate millions of immigrants every decade; Mallorcan identity (and American Jewish identity for that matter) tends to see itself as so irrelevant that the assimilation of outsiders constitutes a direct thread to its very existence.
Another thing we can learn from the situation in Catalonia is that minorized cultures seem to have a tragical trend towards fundamentalist visions of the self and to the fragmentation of the collective. Colonial metropolis often use fragmentation as a tool of political and cultural assimilation of the colonies. In the Valencia region, the tactics have been successful: against any scientific definitions and against the academic community, the government not only convinced the population that their dialect was in fact a language different from Catalan, but also created a legal and institutional framework (which included an extemporaneous Academy of the “Valencian” language) in order to consummate the fragmentation. Why? Because it is is easier to make a language disappear when it is perceived to have only a couple million speakers instead of being part of a bigger, stronger culture. Today in America, a minority of us insists on calling themselves Torah Jews, thus implying that they are in and the rest of us are out. We all know how the Orthodox world is turning to the right, and how questioning of other denominations’ conversions is reaching absurd levels (oh no! what if your grandma’s conversion was Reform?). Does it happen because of a misunderstood, zealous fidelity to Yahadut, or rather because we humans seem to love being “the real thing,” the pure remnant always on the defense from the perfidious outsider? Readers can reach their own conclusions.
We can choose to mourn the seamlessly unified people we never where, or we can embrace our diversity and move on. I think that the cornerstone of Jewish survival in America resides in consciously planned efforts aimed towards regaining cultural dynamism. For some people, Jewish engagement will come through Judaism as a spiritual practice, in its many forms. For some others, engagement will come through literature and the arts, from the emergence and popularization of a new Jewish American culture proud of its past, but definitely grounded in our times, fearless and innovative.