A favorite inside joke among American Jews has always been their disproportionate influence on American culture. Although small in absolute numbers, their contribution to cultural achievement has been indisputably vast, to the point where some American art forms would almost not have existed were it not for Jews.
Tin Pan Alley became a virtual boarding house for rhyming Jewish boys who used to duck violin and cantorial lessons in their youth but ended up redefining American musical theater — from “Oklahoma,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and, yes, even “Fiddler on the Roof.” So, too, with the film and fashion industries, where Jews taught Americans what cowboys look like on screen, while Ralph Lauren showed them how to dress up like Connecticut, prep school Yankees. American literature in the second half of the 20th century was a virtual writing workshop for fast-talking Jews who stopped speaking just long enough to write some of it down. Comic books were created by men who transformed their sense of Jewish powerlessness into mythic super powers. Standup comedy was dominated by truant yeshiva boys who didn’t know how to sit still.
But in so many ways the snickering, perverse pride that Jews took in their cultural accomplishments had limited value. After all, while those who influenced American culture were Jews, there was nothing particularly Jewish about the influence they were having on this culture. With the aspirations of true assimilationists, the impact was undeniably Jewish, and yet intentionally neutered of what it means to be a Jew. Sandy Koufax may have been throwing no-hitters, but thousands of corn-fed gentile pitchers had no idea what exactly one does with a matzah ball.
Sometimes, of course — if you’re not careful — you might just get what you wish for.
Curious and improbable as it may sound, we are all now living in a Jewish nation, and the cause of this cultural transformation may have little to do with Jews themselves. Jewish culture and values have rubbed off on everyone else. Perhaps it’s the inevitable fallout of Jews scrubbing away the immigrant accents of their grandparents, with the sounds eventually landing and sticking onto everyone else. Jews finally have not only entered the mainstream, but apparently our immersion would not have been complete without a good drowning by others with what we had left behind.
Suddenly Jews have become hip. The broader culture has gone ahead and domesticated our mystery and, in many cases, they did so without our permission. They have adopted our ways, co-opted our culture. The question is, do we want it back, and now that they sampled the flavor of our tribal life, will they return it?
Just think how pervasive and ubiquitous Jewish values and sensibilities have become. For centuries Jewish men were warned against studying the kabbalah until they reached the age of 40. Now, kabbalah study is open to everyone — totally democratized, regardless of age and even religion. How did it come to pass that someone with the improbable-sounding name Madonna — a pop star, not a rabbi — would become the poster girl for Jewish mysticism? The story behind the 9-11 memorial was not only that a Jew, a son of Holocaust survivors infused with a sense of tragedy and remembrance, designed the rebuilding of Ground Zero, but that it’s broader significance was influenced by the aesthetics and symbolism of scores of Holocaust memorials from around the world. And Holocaust restitution initiatives have prompted calls for similar efforts on behalf of other once-victimized groups.
Jazz clubs resound with European klezmer music, often by young hipsters of Jewish Renewal, but occasionally the bands are fronted by non-Jews like, for instance, Don Byron, an African American. One of the leading translators of classic Yiddish plays is Caraid O’Brien, an Irish Catholic who is as versed in “The Dybbuk” as she is in “Ulysses.”
Television comedies, from “Seinfeld,” “The Larry David Show,” to “The Nanny” and “Will & Grace,” couldn’t be more Jewish, and yet the audiences for these shows are not primarily Jews. It’s not so much anymore that Jews are funny, but that their ways of life and values are funny, immediately recognizable in an American sort of way — not simply as stereotypes, but as an artifact of our common culture.
Elie Wiesel is the face of cultural memory and world peace. Rabbis Shmuley Boteach and Irwin Kula have brought Judaism not only to Michael Jackson, but also the heartland. Sen. Joseph Lieberman was not just a Jewish vice-presidential candidate, but perhaps even more important, he forced voters to consider what it would be like to give an Orthodox Jew a position of high elected office knowing in advance that he wouldn’t be working, or driving in a motorcade, on Shabbat.
Similarly, the boom in the kosher food market has been fueled not only by the returning devout but by the consumer spending power of health-conscious, lactose-intolerant gentiles rummaging through grocery aisles searching desperately for an “OU” or a “K” stamped on bottles and cans.
And perhaps most paradoxical of all, Southern Baptists have become Israel’s staunchest and most unwavering political allies, just as many American Jews grew critical of and ambivalent about Israeli politics. When did their evangelical claims to Jerusalem, and their solidarity with Zionism, begin to supersede our own?
Perhaps there is nothing to fear here, only something to relish. After all, it’s much more desirable to be courted at the prom than hunted at the pogrom. Jews always wished for cultural acceptance, to be considered true Americans. Now it seems that one can’t patriotically call himself an American unless he has visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, broken matzah at a seder and danced the hora at some kid’s bar or bat mitzvah. Americans not only have finally decided to accept Jews, they are, in some instances, determined to shamelessly copy them, as well.
When the whole country starts wearing Stars of David around their necks not as affiliated religious symbols but as crass fashion statements, we should really start getting nervous. The Jews of the new American millennium are living through a virtual “Twilight Zone” episode. Collective memory is fading when it comes to persecution, largely because it has been showered with the stardust of relative adulation. Americans used to want to “Be Like Mike”; now they want to be more like Moshe.
But does the impulse to assimilate and share ourselves also require that we dilute our values and culture? Was there strength in our once-avowed uniqueness — the “do-not-touch” ethos of our deepest convictions — or did our marginality and self-regard result in the murderous resentment of others and the deprivation that we experienced by not embracing, and being embraced by, the wider world? Ironically, during the very time when many more Jews have forsaken the homogeneity of assimilation and returned to the rigors and rituals of organized Judaism, the rest of the country, rather than criticizing our insularity, has decided to come along with us, peeking inside the sanctums of what makes us tick, observing our customs, not as lurid voyeurs, but as quasi-practitioners.
And yet, paradoxically, there is still anti-Semitism in the United States. It just doesn’t affect most Jews, who hardly notice it all. But such attitudes remain in pockets of our society and linger unexpressed in quiet hearts. Anti-Semitism used to be on the mind of every Jew; today, most Jews reflexively attribute such animus to an archaic era, or the social divisions of Western democracies, or the madness of the Middle East.
America, after all, is a Jewish nation. Hatred toward Jews does not exist here, certainly not now.
Maybe so. But even if true, this renaissance, marked by our cultural imprint, will doubtless be short lived. Everything that is fashionable and hip soon loses its exoticism. We once luxuriated in being vintage. Now we are exposed to the consequences of being cool. But rest assured, we, too, will slide into cultural oblivion.
The clock on our 15 minutes has been ticking. Our time will be exhausted before we ever knew that it had started. Our cultural moment will be over, and it will feel aptly named — as only a moment. And then the next ethnic phenomenon will take its place in the reality game show of cultural curiosity. And that may not necessarily be such a bad thing for Jews.
But before that happens, I think that the sticker shock of retrieving our culture might be costly. It’s not that America won’t give it back, it’s just that once it is returned, it will feel different to us — like when someone sleeps in your bed, or with your girlfriend, or takes a bite out of your sandwich. Some of the snugness and appeal is gone; the intimacy is no longer as comforting. And depending upon what comes back, will it be recognizable? When Judaism and Jewishness is finally returned like a car that had been on a joyride, we might not know what to do with it anymore, or how to appreciate it. A long overdue book, consumed by so many others, has a way of becoming unreadable, even to the People of the Book.
If our culture can be so easily enjoyed and experienced by everyone, how Chosen can it have possibly been?
Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the novels “The Golems of Gotham,” “Second Hand Smoke” and “Elijah Visible.”