"How Success Ruined The New York Jew" - And Authentic Old - Fashioned Jewish Delis...
This is an excerpt from a fascinating article from the 40th anniversary
issue of _New York_ magazine.
"Assimilation and Its Discontents
The drama of Jewish acceptance into gentile society that played itself out
in such a bloody and destructive way in twentieth-century Europe has been
successfully transformed in America into an inner conflict about how to
present oneself to the outside world that has fueled countless episodes of
Sex and the City, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as the more
primal riffs of Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. I know plenty of Jews who
protest the tribal insularity of their community and deny any attachment to
religion while proclaiming their fervent attachment to universal values.
They fear what it is that makes them signify so powerfully to others. They
root for the Mets and vote Democratic out of an atavistic attachment to the
idea of the underdog. There is something ineffably sad and utterly American
about the communal progression from tribal Judaism to a vague and
watered-down idea of "Jewishness." It's like watching a family sell the old
farmhouse to buy a drywall palace in the suburbs with twice the square
footage and shiny new appliances.
Anyone who wishes to gauge the true strength of Jewish communal feeling in
Manhattan can also try to count the number of authentic old-fashioned Jewish
delis left in New York City. When I go out with my Uncle Myron-an old
gangster from Newark whose father grew up with Meyer Lansky and Bugsy
Siegel-I am reminded of the fact that the Jews were once a working-class
ethnic people who danced the mambo and the meringue and the cha-cha, and
mixed easily with their Greek and Italian neighbors. Uncle Myron takes me
out to kosher Bukharan restaurants in Queens. We eat chicken soup and lamb
fat on skewers. The delis are gone, as are the Jewish gangsters, Jewish
tailors, and Jewish union organizers, the German Jewish bakeries of the
Upper West Side, the Yiddish-language newspapers, and other humble markers
of the Jewish ethnic presence in New York. The fact that the best bagels in
the city are made by H&H, the bakery founded by Helmer Toro, a Puerto Rican
businessman who grew up cutting sugarcane on his father's farm, is a tribute
to the genius of the Puerto Ricans-not the Jews.
The idea that Jews are a different kind of American-that they are Americans
while also being something else-feels like an insult, or an accusation of
treason. Does history matter if you are ignorant of history, or you reject
history? Yes, yes, say the voices of our grandparents. History will find
you. You can believe that, or you can share my own personal sorrow about the
fate of the Harvard-educated Protestant Brahmins I admired in my youth, who
cherished their belief in liberal openness while licking at the bleached
bones of their family romances. Their mansions are threadbare and drafty,
and stickers on their salt-eaten Volvos advertise the cause of zero
population growth. It's hard to imagine that their ancestors sailed clipper
ships to China and wrote great books and built great companies and ran spies
behind enemy lines in Europe.
Jews of New York City, we don't have to go out like that. Now that the stock
market has crashed, Ahmadinejad dines in New York, and Goldman Sachs answers
to Warren Buffett, perhaps we can finally relinquish our fantasies of
universalistic omnipotence and return to the prickly insularity that made us
great. We can reopen the delis and bakeries, and celebrate the wisdom of our
sages who knew that worldly success is fleeting, and that the secret to
happiness is fear of God, a bowl of hot chicken soup, and a rent-controlled
apartment in Brooklyn..."