The weight of memory, and the histories Jews tell of themselves, the tradition and experience we imagine we are heir to, shape the way the creation and conduct of the State of Israel is considered.
The other evening, I went to see a film, The Golden Age of Second Avenue, a documentary love poem for Yiddish theater in NYC, from 1890s-1930s, narrated by Herschel Bernardi.
The film was shown to promote a project to save Abe Lebewohl’s 1986 Yiddish Theater Walk of Fame, with stars with the names of Jewish theater figures set in the pavement in front of what had been the Second Avenue Deli.
The film is a tribute to a richly isolated moment in Jewish American history, when, reputedly, the Lower East Side became the most densely populated place on earth outside Asia. The LES filled with Jewish strivers escaping the Russian empire — filled by a flood that ended with the nativist 1924 Johnson-Reed Act controlling immigration to match the 1890 ethnic composition of the US.
Descendents of that movement of Jews have transited to Connecticut or Albuquerque or Marin County, but have in their voices the syntax and timbre of that square mile and moment of NYC. Molly Picon, in the film, said many in her audience never went above 14th St., remaining in that intense cauldron of first-generation Yiddish Americanism.
Narrator Bernardi said Yiddish is “the language of the Jewish soul.” I have to agree with Bernardi that Yiddish — the language of my parents and grandparents — to me sounds like the language of “my people.”
The evening of film was cascading layers of nostalgia, delicious moments of time, pleasure palpable in the film audience, calling out, speaking Yiddish-inflected English. The audience skewed older, and Ashkenazi.
The evening was an exercise in sequential nostalgia, nostalgias for:
- the turn of the century innocents fantastically replicating in the Lower East Side the intimacy of the shtetl, making new lives in America after the voyage in steerage;
- hard working tailors and shopkeepers in the1920s and ’30s, raising a generation to get all the education they could, building a solid middle class American Jewry;
- those children going off to war, defeating Hitler and the Empire of Japan, and coming home to take their part in the post-war American prosperity and plenty;
- breaking covenants and Gentleman’s Agreements and assuring their fellow Americans, You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s — and that Jewish kids named Mailer, Zimmerman or Ginsberg were as worthy as anyone to be American poets and prophets;
- nostalgia for the moment when the film was made, 1969, when Jews of achievement were unquestionably triumphant in the United States.
The film showing, with an introductory talk by Abe Lebewohl’s daughter Sharon, was in the Third Street Music School Settlement, in the neighborhood of 2nd Ave Yiddish theaters.
In Bernardi’s film narration, he says the Yiddish theater expressed itself in Yiddish but its themes were menschlichkeit, humanity, in the area from 2nd Ave to Avenue B, in a theater scene encompassing Sophocles to Shakespeare to Ibsen.
American novelist Henry James described visiting the Lower East Side, in his 1907 book The American Scene. What was impressed on him on Rutgers Street was the persistence of identity of these newcomers to his New York.
James waxed on the “intensity of the Jewish aspect” of the LES population. James reacted to the Yiddish-speaking hordes with somewhat prolix verbiage, recapitulating the saying, “Jews are like everyone else, only moreso”:
This, I think, makes the individual Jew more of a concentrated person, savagely possessed of everything that is in him, than any other human, noted at random — or is it simply, rather, that the unsurpassed strength of the race permits of the chopping into myriads of fine fragments without loss of race-quality? There are small,strange animals , known to natural history, snakes or worms, I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wiggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel.
…it was a sense, after all, of a great swarming, a swarming that had begun to thicken, infinitely, as soon as we had crossed to the East side and long before we had got to Rutgers Street. There is no swarming like that of Israel once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that has burst all bounds.
The familiarity and identification of American Jews with Yiddishkeit may be a problem and a confusion. Yiddishkeit is Yiddish word meaning Jewishness. And Yiddish (literally “Jewish”) is linguistically an eastern European Hebrew and German-based creole, which was termed a “jargon” before it was dignified as a language.
Confusion can be “a feature, not a bug” if it serves a function. For Jewish nationalists, confusion about the varieties of the world’s Jews helps flatten out the identity, and make it amenable to simplification to a nationality needing a nation-state army and territory.
American confusion of Ashkenazi/eastern European Jews (whose descendents predominate in this country) with Jews as a category is of a piece with the confusion of Jews with Zionists. It is in an effort to homogenize Jews and make them one people in ways in which they are not, for geopolitical purposes.
Israeli-American anthropologist Smadar Lavie said, “…the extent of Israel’s intra-Jewish racial divide is unfamiliar to most progressive Jews abroad. …Since the arrival of Ashkenazi Zionists in Palestine In 1882, and since 1948, the Mizrahim have been expected to relinquish their Arab or Mediterranean culture and family structure and their non-European mother tongues.”
Lavie describes Israeli society as both hiding and manipulating those divisions: Ashkenazim are the urban, well-heeled elite, live in the high-value “center,” and that Mizrahim live more in the “periphery” and development towns. She poignantly describes how Mizrahi anger at their status is turned to anger at “Arabs,” reinforcing a bitter denial of commonality with Palestinians.
In the United States, Jewish culture has come to mean Eastern European Yiddish-speaking culture, from the mass immigration that began in the 1880s, overwhelming the stories of other American Jews, stories beginning in 1654 when 23 Sephardim (Jews descended from the Spanish expulsion of 1492) arrived in New Amsterdam from Brazil.
With the rise of Zionism, Jewish identity came to be State of Israel-identified. In 1946, sociologist Sidney Hook warned that American Jews “cannot orient their life to activities halfway around the world.”
Really, most don’t, but when they think of the State of Israel, may imagine a land of delis and Yiddishkeit.
Drenched as we sometimes are with Yiddishe kitsch, from tales of the Goldene Medina to the Broadway “Fiddler,” we forget that poet Emma Lazarus who wrote “The New Colossus,” of the statue in New York Harbor welcoming teeming huddled masses yearning to breathe free, was of a Sephardic family that had been in America since before the revolution.