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Anti-anti-semitism and the myths of my Jewish identity

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One thing I have always enjoyed about winter-camping is that I get to hang out with the Other, in my case privileged gentiles. When I was a kid, people from that tribe ran American institutions and my family was highly suspicious of them. We blamed them for some grievances we had personally suffered. My parents had friends in that clan, but they were exceptional– proto-hippies, leftwingers, nuclear-test-ban types. We didn't really know the WASPs. Today that cultural chasm is over. I'm sure that some ancestors of my friends were antisemites but it doesn't bother me. My friends all work with Jews and are comfortable doing so. Maybe it griped one or two of them initially, but that's long ago. One of my friends is adopting a black kid. The other day in the hut I asked him half-jokingly whether he'd done an inventory of his heart for racist feelings. He said he had, and he didn't really have any; and I believe him.

I was at my most vehemently anti-gentile when I was in college. Then I came up against gentile institutions myself for the first time and found them intimidating, exclusive. For a while I got hung up on the social clubs at Harvard that had antisemitic traditions that were beginning to crumble even as I was there. The neocons suffered from the same resentment. As Jacob Heilbrunn points out in his book, They Knew They Were Right, the neocons felt excluded from these fancy institutions and the resentment burned like rocket fuel as they built a parallel establishment.

In my case I mingled. My close Jewish friends in college detected in my obsession a deep curiosity about the WASP world, and certainly my trajectory was closer to Ralph Lauren or Mortimer Adler (he was a convert to Protestantism) than to Jeffrey Goldberg, who, mistrusting the gentile world, and understanding the Holocaust as the touchstone of WASP-Jewish relations, made aliyah to Israel from Long Island.

On my first date with my wife I was enthralled by hallmarks of her WASPiness. When she pulled off her sweater at the restaurant, I saw that her old turtleneck had holes in it. She doesn't care about that kind of thing. We have old cars now for the same reason. Back at her place that night, I got her to dig out pictures of her family at their summer compound. She and her sisters were lying out on an old weathered dock on a lake in the middle of nowhere wearing unglamorous bathing suits. It wasn't the beach scene I had grown up in, a very social scientific beach in Woods Hole, Mass. The motto of the Quaker compound they went to was Simplicity, Sincerity and Service; and those values were very different from the place I grew up going to. If I had to pick three words, they'd be, Brilliance, Irony, and Achievement.

That first date with my wife I expressed a fiendish desire to know the gentile world I'd always mistrusted, but said I didn't know if I could overcome the mistrust, and she said, anthropologically (she studied anthropology in college), that the differences between us on cultural grounds would either get bigger or smaller, so we'd soon know if we could overcome them together. I guess black and white couples go through a similar voyage. Barack and Michelle probably did too.

My wife was curious about the Jewish world. Her first Jew had been in elementary school, and she'd had a couple of Jewish boyfriends before me. Neither of them was as Lower East Side as me. When she first visited my apartment on Grand Street that I had lately shared with my grandmother, she was in shock. Before too long she moved in. Her sister told her, All you need is to find a cleaning lady, and I'm sure there are some living in the building.

Later my wife said to me that the challenge was to overcome the myths of Jewishness and Christianity we each had. The family myth and the collective myth. I still think about that a lot. When the writer David Samuels visited this blog a while back, he offered a feeling of Jewish cultural determinism that I've never felt: that we Jews are formed by this great spiritual tradition, that's who we are, and to discover it you have to read the Old Testament. I think of my identity in far more fluid terms, as formed by multiple influence, including some of the gentiles I met in college, including the first ones who I got crushes on. So my wife's idea of Jewishness as a myth has been helpful. Just like all the other myth structures.

My wife readily acknowledged the anti-semitism in her own background. But she came back at me with anti-anti-semitism. (I've written about this before. Forgive me for the repetition.) She saw it in my extended family. For instance my father once called her Brenda Frazier, a reference that only my wife and father, the two most insightful people in my life, would have gotten, to a famous old debutante and participant in society scandal. It was an insult, and helped form my wife's not-so-great relationship with my father. It reflected my father's own sociological arc, of course, born in Brooklyn, on to the City College of the neocons, his parents living in the Queens apartment house outside which Kitty Genovese was murdered as people ignored her cries (a tale that A.M. Rosenthal reconstructed a little jingoistically as a Holocaust fable; but my father understood it as a different kind of Holocaust fable: that his own Jewish parents, who he believed heard her cries, had come away from the Holocaust with a sense that you don't get involved with the goyish world.) Kitty Genovese and Brenda Frazier: these iconic women helped form the myths of my Jewish identity.

The only question for a Jew marrying into a gentile clan–as an old editor friend of mine has put it–is Would they hide you? Would they hide you when the Gestapo came for you? The answer in my case is yes, they would. It's one reason I feel comfortable with my wife's family. They're big on loyalty, they would take risks for me. Those guys in the woods would, too.

My wife, after discovering anti-anti-semitism, has always wondered about the reverse. Would they hide her? If the police were coming for her, would my extended family find an attic for her? And she wonders about that. I would apply the question more broadly, to the holding on to the concern "Is it good for the Jews?" when we have so much power in American society, to the resentful neoconservatives and the Iraq war, to the strain of dual-loyalty that so corrupted foreign-policy making in the last 10 years. Andrew Sullivan's long-delayed epiphany that the neocons were acting for Israel follows on many another's revelation on the same score, Joe Klein's, my own, Tony Judt's, John Judis's, Walt and Mearsheimer's, Colin Powell's. The media haven't touched this question, and probably won't. No, that would involve turning on a religious searchlight on Bill Kristol and Jeffrey Goldberg and Judith Miller, involve a soul-searching by hardworking intellectual action-figures (journalists) who aren't geared for that sort of reflection. They would have to tell us how much suspicion they have of antisemitism in American society, and how much of a belief they have of the necessity for Israel on that basis. 

But I think that inventory is going on, silently, agonizingly, in many a Jewish heart. 

(Phil Weiss)

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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