I was skeptical, as a white, middle-aged, professional male, that I had a place amid the many small tents of identity politics — even though so many Americans have divided into affinity groups with a grievance and align and vote accordingly. I rather disdain its hold on progressive politics. So much so that I suggested to my teenage daughter recently that she should absolutely not consider herself a minority even though she is of a rather unique species — Jewish Minnesotan.
Though we Jews lean liberal and tend to vote Democratic, we have always been political independents of sorts in America, which I admire. We understood our interests were not monolithic and voted as Americans, not as a single-issue identity group.
But the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings last month forced me to contemplate my own identity in a changing America. Three decades ago my grandfather reminded me that despite our entrenchment in the American establishment, Jews have always been temporary guests on some other culture’s native ground.
Both my parents were Jewish. I entered Jewish adulthood at my bar mitzvah on June 12, 1976. (The proper date would have been July 4, but we moved it up to avoid clashing with the bicentennial — Jews are nothing if not flexible, at least when it comes to working around holiday schedules.)
Not long after that, I fell off the religious horse cart, and 16 years later I married an Episcopalian with the maiden name “Wadsworth,” for god’s sake. My relation to the faith of my forefathers was tenuous throughout my 20s and I faced a crossroads as we prepared to become parents in 1998.
The only clergy I knew in the Twin Cities was a rabbi who had officiated at my father’s funeral. We sought his counsel on raising Jewcopalian children.
“Doesn’t work; don’t do it,” he told us. “The kids end up with nothing. … I know some great Episcopalian congregations in Minneapolis, if you’d like some names. Or you can come here.”
On the way home I asked my wife how important the Church of England was to her. “Not very important,” she replied.
“How important is raising Jewish kids to you?” she asked.
“Important,” I said, sort of surprised at myself.
Today, my two children are the only Jews of their generation in my extended family. Neither of my siblings are practicing Jews, nor are my four first cousins. I know many college and professional friends born to Jewish parents, but few identify as Jews — other than for ironic purposes or in fleeting moments of fashion. Nor did they raise Jewish children.
What the Nazis were unable to accomplish, modern life and Western cultural ennui seemed to be finishing. I wasn’t going to be complicit.
After the massacre in Pittsburgh, I began to think about what it means to be a Jew in 21st-century America. Identity politics had no answers for macro-aggressions or trigger warnings delivered from the barrel of a gun.
Are we a religion? Sure, but many who identify as Jewish are not religious. A race? Anti-Semites consider us one, and when my sister sent off DNA for analysis it came back 98 percent Ashkenazi Jew — but U.S. courts have said no, as does science. A culture? Not in the monolithic sense certainly, given our preference for other cultures’ foods.
Another paradox: We are 2 percent of America’s population, but we are not considered a minority group, because that imputes hardship, which American Jews have mostly left behind.
We are clannish, stereotypical. We have been cast out by pharaohs and despots throughout time and roamed the world involuntarily, so we have learned to assimilate, to a point. We gravitate to one another with an implicit sense of trust rooted in millennia spent as the world’s “other.”
Our tendency to insulate ourselves via education and eventually excel no matter what our status in a society has rankled native populations for millennia. Eventually they grow tired of us succeeding at their perceived expense, and we are sent packing, often violently.
Jewish success and assimilation in the U.S. may not be historically unprecedented, but it is surely notable. We are so rooted and prosperous in America that we have long believed that despite our special practices and holidays and shunning of Christmas we are as native as anyone else. Many American Jews no longer regard Israel — the country formed in 1948 as a haven from a world that wanted to exterminate them — as a place they even care to visit. My grandmother, after her first and only visit to Israel in the 1970s, came home with two observations — Israelis were “pushy” and their food was “Middle Eastern.”
After the horror last month at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, I thought of the most and least Jewish person I ever knew, my grandfather, Philip Pinsof (the last name was Anglicized at Ellis Island). Born in Chicago in 1910, a second-generation American, like many Jews of his era, he spent his life in a family business, never moved out of the metropolis he was born in, and had an ambivalent relationship with his faith and people.
He moved from the Jewish West Side of Chicago to a Catholic suburb during World War II. He collected art and rare books, cultivated English gardens, and put Wilkin & Sons orange marmalade on matzo. He wore tweed suits, smoked a pipe, and pronounced “gas” as if it ended with a “z,” in the European manner. He was an unapologetic atheist who spoke fluent Yiddish, read Hebrew, and with my grandmother was the glue that maintained our family’s Jewishness.
During the Holocaust they plowed much of their savings into efforts to spirit distant relatives out of Germany and other parts of Europe to Israel. Phil had no use for God, but he did love Israel. I remember pressing him at one Passover Seder during my college years to justify Israel in light of its various bad deeds, Zionism being racism, and all the rest.
“Doc, one day they are going to come for us here,” he said gravely, from the living room of his elegant house overlooking Lake Michigan. “Maybe not in my lifetime, hopefully not in yours. But when they do, all that you’ve built for yourself, your professional title, your money, your standing in the community, will be worth nothing.
“On that day, you better damn well hope there is an Israel, because the alternative will be an oven or a gas chamber or a bullet in your head, if you’re lucky.”
I remember thinking, in a very 20-year-old way, “Are you out of your mind? We are Americans!”
Watching events in Pittsburgh, I heard my grandfather’s voice as I absorbed the details of an event steeped in the blood libels that have devoured Jews for millennia. A made-up story about a rich Jew (George Soros) whose otherness and disloyalty to the land he lived in brought danger, evil and impurity on the country. It was a story told in the context of a government opportunistically intent on pitting its people against one another based on ethnic heritage and national status; told to a citizenry inflamed by misinformation, lack of education, in search of scapegoats.
In Minnesota, Jews remain the other. The roughly 45,000 of us are 1.45 percent of the population. My children’s public school teachers know the dates of Eid and Ramadan, but still schedule important events on the Jewish high holidays each fall. Coaches roll their eyes when we say our children will not be at practice on Yom Kippur. (Is that the holiday with the eight days of gifts? No.)
“Jewing ’em down” remains a tactic of savvy commerce in greater Minnesota, as I recall. It’s just a figure of speech. Jews don’t live outstate, I was told years ago.
When I spoke about Pittsburgh the other day with a gentile colleague whom I admire, explaining my sense of existential threat, she scoffed. I realized she had so little knowledge of the scapegoating of Jews throughout history (beyond Nazi Germany) that Pittsburgh as symbolic of a larger historical phenomenon seemed preposterous. After all, Jews are disproportionately represented in the halls of Congress, and even more so on the Supreme Court. Some of the president’s grandchildren are Jewish.
I wished I could feel the same assurance. But I never believed I would see the character and tone of this country change so rapidly and aggressively as it has. In Pittsburgh I saw the unthinkable — a scenario that, if repeated, could unleash a chain of events that would be a threat to me and my family.
The FBI’s 2017 data indicate anti-Jewish acts are the second most common form of hate crime in the country, after anti-black crime. (It recorded three times more anti-Jewish crimes than anti-Muslim.) There were 976 such offenses in 2017, up from 834 in 2016. Jews were the target of 60 percent of religious hate crimes, despite being 2 percent of U.S. population.
And then we have the chants of “Jews will not replace us,” in Charlottesville. There’s our Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who said while running for Senate in Iowa in 2014 that Jews should be ineligible to be judges. My U.S. Rep.-elect, Ilhan Omar, regards Israel as a pariah oppressor state.
And does it take a lot of surface-scratching to see America’s contemporary support of Jews and Israel as being mainly about geopolitics and Christendom’s conduit to the rapture?
I thought of all this as I voted earlier this month. I wondered whether the two political parties still subscribe to ideals that welcome Jews and acknowledge undeniable truths of global history.
I have long puzzled over why so many people I know who were born Jews don’t identify as such except in the rarest of situations. After all, you don’t need to believe in God to call yourself Jewish. It was surely uncool when I was coming of age. Did something about it not fit the identity they wanted to show the world? Was it a form of base-covering for the day when being Jewish evolves from being unfashionable to being unsafe?
And I wonder if our shunning identity politics in favor of assimilation in America, long thought to be the holy grail of outcomes, could one day render too few of us able to speak up for one another or effectively advocate for our place in this society.
My wife and I have raised two proudly Jewish children. The small but tight-knit Jewish community in Minneapolis seems to have done a better job than mine outside Chicago in fostering a sense of identity and purpose.
I tried to discuss my electoral dilemma with my daughter, who had devoted a recent public school project to Israel — a liberal, progressive country she was eager to showcase to her liberal, multi-culturally minded public school teachers. Of course, she and they are conversant in the global zeitgeist — the outrage of the West Bank settlements, the venal Netanyahu, citizenship policies that treat non-Jews unequally. Let’s say she was not overwhelmed by their interest.
My kids know only a life of comfort and prosperity, and a Twin Cities community steeped in liberal values with particular concern for those on the margins — Jewish values, I might add.
I reminded my daughter that unlike the U.S. — formed as a nation of protestants (small “p”) — Israel exists for one reason only: as a homeland for the Jewish people, whom no nation has seen fit to embrace for any substantial period of time. I remembered a similar conversation with my grandfather 35 years earlier, in a time wistfully referred to as “morning in America.”
I told my daughter that as Jews we can argue with Israel all we want. Just as we have argued with God every day since Moses received his marching orders. But I had come to accept that there had to be limits to those arguments.
Because one day, perhaps not in my lifetime, and hopefully not in hers … Jews who do not learn from their history will inevitably again be its victims.
Adam Platt is a journalist and writer. He lives in Minneapolis.