I was recently in New York to promote my new book, Tel Aviv Stories, and took a walk to the once-upon-a-time nerve center of American Jewish life, the Lower East Side. I had a quintessentially Jewish errand to run: I needed a suit tailored. The Lower East Side, which was once home to the best tailors in New York City, the Jewish tailors, lived up to its reputation for great tailoring. But my tailor was Turkish. His assistant, Chinese.
The Lower East Side, that once Jewishly glorious neighborhood is now an interesting hodge-podge of hipsterism, Chinese tailors, Asian eateries, and ironic bars. It’s the American melting pot fired up and steaming a multi-ethnic broth. But where Jewish culture is concerned, it’s not so much melting pot as meat grinder.
Yale University’s preeminent Shakespeare scholar, Harold Bloom, once remarked that decades ago he could look at his students’ score cards and tell you, without looking at the names, who was Jewish and who was not: The Jewish students were that much better. Today, Bloom says, it’s not the Jews whose intellect describes their identity, but the Asians.
Let’s give credit where it’s due: America is the first country in history to accept the Jews wholeheartedly, by law and convention. As an introduced species, Jews in America have found that the land of introduced species suits them quite well. Finally, after all these millennia, they can go about their business free to live their lives as… Americans.
But despite this, American Jews are still exceptional in one notable respect: they have adopted Americana in a way no other non-white ethnicity or race has, and they wear the badges of American culture proudly. Tucked under arm is no longer The Forward or Commentary, but The Nation or Wall Street Journal. They don’t get miffed by the age-old Sephardi-Ashkenazi debates, but by the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry. And when it comes to Israel, it’s no longer Labor or Likud, but AIPAC or J Street.
The Jews always were and still are a people of “Why?” Our culture – our literature, our theater, our filmmakers, even our comedians – exists in answer to that purpose-question. American as they are, why would the Jews of America today strive to express a Jewish purpose? It would be akin to an act of lunacy -- or maybe just a kind of cultural pantomime -- to do so.
The culture that once sprang from the Lower East Side ghetto has withered. Maybe in fifty years there will still be a lot of Americans with Jewish genetics, but what, exactly, will make them Jewish?Ashley Rindsberg is the author of Tel Aviv Stories a collection of short fiction, and contributes to the Huffington Post. Rindsberg lives in Tel Aviv.