The case against assimilation

Gabriel Roth, in a recently published piece on Slate, is all for assimilation.

He takes the recent Pew survey news that the Jewish rate of intermarriage is 58 percent, and that many Jews are raising their children outside the faith, as “great news.”

Roth directs his spiel not at “the very small Orthodox community” or “genetic essentialists,” but rather cultural Jews like himself, who, he maintains, feel anxious about the lack of Jewishness in their children’s lives for the wrong reasons. He implores them to abandon their guilt, “stop worrying and learn to love our assimilated condition,” even knowing that “Jewishness will eventually die out as a distinct element in American life.”

Roth’s arch, knowing tone as he scolds his culturally Jewish peers for succumbing to guilt — tacking up mezuzahs and menorahs to “placate their parents” — makes a certain kind of sense. But his willingness to part with Jewishness as a unique element of American society perhaps results from his anodyne, vitiated sense of what Jewishness consists of in the first place.

The Jewishness that Roth describes consists of a few shopworn clichés — “unsnobbish intellectualism, … psychoanalytic insight, rueful comedy, smoked fish.” But Jewish culture, even divorced of religious or genetic considerations, offers much more than lox and laughs. In glibly summing up Jewishness as a generic love of “reading and learning and talking and arguing,” Roth ignores the richness, and the specificities, of the culture which gave rise to these recognizably Jewish traits.

For someone who describes himself as a “cultural” Jew, Roth ignores some of the fundamental elements that make up a culture: language, history, literature. The fundamental texts of Roth’s Judaism are the novels of Philip Roth, the songs of Bob Dylan and the films of Woody Allen — whose works date no further back than a few decades. Although no one doubts the importance (or Jewish bona fides) of these cultural icons, Jewish culture dates back much further than 1960; for millennia, Jewish culture has influenced the intellectual heritage of the Western world.  Moreover, its multifaceted, global history means that Jewish culture has been created in many languages, including purely Jewish languages like Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino. The argumentativeness Roth describes as part of Jewish culture arose in large part from its tradition of textual discourse, which rose up around the intricate workings of the Talmud, with its vibrant, dizzying array of argumentative techniques.  From Maimonides to Spinoza, from Agnon to Kafka, Jewish literature has been generated in many countries and contexts, and offers profound lessons to its adherents about how to conduct their lives.

One response to Roth’s projected loss of American Jewish identity is an old Jewish technique: education. In addition to “sticking a mezuzah next to the door,” cultural Jews can preserve their heritage by passing on Jewish culture in a way that reflects the depths of its roots, and the multitude of its lessons. Although some cultural Jews, particularly those in interfaith marriages, may find religious ritual alienating or meaningless, the depth and breadth of Jewish culture offers many possibilities distinct from menorahs, matzah and mezuzahs. Teaching Jewish languages, and engaging with Jewish texts in a way that reflects their astonishing intellectual richness, can imbue cultural Judaism with necessary vitality and meaning.

Roth’s acceptance of assimilation is partly predicated on the concept that Jews’ ability to assimilate so thoroughly is a positive sign, one that indicates a lack of anti-Semitic discrimination in American society. But Roth subscribes to the outdated ideal of the “melting pot”: the notion that minorities arrive in America, make some cultural contributions and then are free to fade away into obscurity, letting the traits that distinguished them originally pass away into a muted sameness, a generic “Americanness.”

But this conception belies a true ideal of diversity: a recognition of the benefits of cultural coexistence, and the richness of society that contains many languages, historical traditions and religious faiths. Multiculturalism is distinct from a melting pot: It acknowledges that a country is richer for its disparate, unmeltable elements, for the value they provide. By allowing American Jewish identity to erode into nonexistence, we are removing a rich resource for both ourselves and American culture at large.

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