Friday, May 05, 2006

Strangers in Egypt: Isaac Singer, Philip Roth, Grace Paley and the Protestantization of the American Jews

I have never done this before and I am not sure why I am doing this now... This is a so-so paper, but I like some of the writing, I suppose... So, I am posting some academic work. This isn't even the final draft, though I will post that when I get it off the server at school...

America changed dramatically in the post-war period of the 1950s and 60s, and the American Jewish population was by no means left out. During this period, America saw the emerging dominance of its vast middle-class, a homogenized behemoth built from the working classes of the pre-war period, and the Jewish population was an integral part of this new society, built on the American myth of capitalistic opportunity and cherishing the core values of God and Country. In this new society, while a certain acceptable level of religious belief was necessary for membership, the lines and labels of faith were blurred, and ones’ church, or synagogue, ceased to be a defining element of one’s identity. Just as definitions between German-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Polish-Americans were being subsumed within the new, middle-class American culture, so were religious definitions fading, and increasingly it mattered less if one’s suburban neighbors were Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, or even, Jews. Already, the Jewish culture and faith had changed in many ways to meet the demands of America, but in this new, post-war, post-Holocaust world, the increasing pressures of assimilation and homogenization would change the role and meaning of religion in the lives of the American Jews. In their writing, Isaac Singer, Philip Roth, and Grace Paley examine how the changed nature of American Jewish religious practice and the increased pressures to assimilate even more completely with their Gentile neighbors leads to the, perhaps, inevitable completion of the process of the “Protestantization” of American Jewish life.

In the post-war period, as Yuri Slezkine notes in The Jewish Century, the Jewish-American community was, in some ways, rediscovering its faith, long eclipsed by the competing Socialist and Capitalistic values of the first couple generations of Jewish immigrants. Religion was once again playing a role in many lives, partially due to a renewed and changed Zionism that emerged after the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel and partially due to the religious requirements of membership in the post-war middle-class culture. While, before the war, “America offered full membership without assimilation” (Slezkine 207), this was no longer the case with the emerging middle-class, and as early as the 1930s, Jewish religion in America was already in the process of “Protestantization” (Slezkine 208). Slezkine quotes Ia. Bromegin’s 1931 words to this effect, noting that Judaism was becoming just another “of the countless sects that adorn the landscape of American religious life” (208). For the Jews of this new middle-class, while faith was necessary for membership in American society, religion over all was no longer an important aspect of their Jewish identity and, for many, romanticized memories of their parents’ and grandparents’ lost hometowns became culturally more important than faith. As Slezkine notes, “In the two decades after World War II, [Jewish] tradition was primarily represented by the memory of the shtetl … a shtetl comparable to everyone else’s rural ‘old country’” (323). In this new, post-war American identity, one was not so much Jewish because of one’s faith but because of one’s ancestral origins and, for many, going to synagogue was no more invasive and meant little more than going to church meant for the bulk for the Gentile majority.

Beyond the changed role of religion, the practice of the faith changed in America as well. In Isaac Singer’s “The Little Shoemakers”, the experience of a shtetl born Holocaust survivor’s first encounter with an American synagogue reveals that the practice of the religion no longer resembled the practices that had shaped and defined life in the European shtetl. While the changes described are mostly cosmetic, the beardless sexton, the electrified candles, the weak singing of the cantor, the tiny prayer shawls, the missing courtyard and, perhaps most important, the missing faucet for cleaning before prayer, the final line here is the most revealing, with the elderly newcomer being “sure that he had been hauled into a church to be converted” (116-17). The American synagogue looked so little like any that Abbas had ever experienced before that he was no longer even sure that it was one. Beyond the synagogue, though, these fears may have been brought about more by the role of religion in the life of his children than anything to do with the American version of the religion itself. With Abbas coming from a world where religion was central to everything, the secular life of his Americanized children combined with the deep disorientation brought about by his Holocaust experiences and the loss of his European life and led him to a moment where he feared that his children were no longer even Jewish; a moment where he feared that his sons had covertly “hauled” him to a church to be forcibly converted. He could not understand that, in America, one was American first, culturally Jewish second, as evidenced by Gimpel’s proud advertising claim that he came from “fifteen generations” of shtetl shoemakers (115), and that the Jewish faith came in a distant third, with dietary laws seemingly followed only on holidays and special occasions (114) and with the synagogue, instead of being the center of daily life, being a mere afterthought “ten miles away” (116).

Arguing whether the changed nature of Jewish faith in America was due to the pressures of assimilation or whether these changes allowed for the assimilation of Jewish Americans into the new, middle-class culture may be a futile exercise, but it is clear that both of these shifts were interconnected for American Jews. In “The Conversion of the Jews,” Roth explores the traditional roles of religion in the life of a young Jewish boy conflicting with the secular experience of life in America. Beyond the exposure to the New Testament that allows Ozzie to struggle with the divergent theologies of Judaism and Christianity, the real conflict between the boy and his rabbi comes from trying to discern a separate cultural identity for Jews while being immersed in an American culture that promotes a unified society as its highest goal. During the free discussion periods of their studies in Hebrew School in the synagogue basement, the boys are encouraged to discuss “any Jewish matter at all – religion, family, politics, sports—“ (144), but the children are a product of their American culture and have trouble even identifying what a separate “Jewish matter” would be, unless there is a direct intersection between Jewish identity and American culture, as with the baseball hero Hank Greenburg, and they have little to talk about at all. Because of this blindness to any potential separation between Jew and Gentile in the American landscape, blindness to how the Jews can be “The Chosen People” in a land where everyone is culturally and legally equal (141), Ozzie cannot understand what is “different” about Jews when the Rabbi lectures him about “political equality,” “spiritual legitimacy” (141) and the need for Jewish, if not separatism, “cultural unity” (142). While this blindness makes the boy a solid American, it creates a tremendous, disastrous conflict between the rabbi and himself, and as the text quietly suggests, this conflict may possibly be, in the words of Blotnik, an aging European immigrant, “no-good-for-Jews” (150). While Roth sets Blotnik up to make such a moral pronouncement in the middle of the text, when the end arrives, no pronouncements are made either way on the benefits or harm brought to the Jews by the events of the story. In the end, the old Russian Jew is left silent and, “for the first time in his life upon his knees in the Gentile posture of prayer” (157), suggesting, perhaps, that the assimilation of the Jews within the dominant, Christian American culture is beyond moral judgment and an inevitable consequence of life in the United States. What is clear, though, is that an undeniable tension existed between the American born Jews and the traditional practices of the Jewish faith, tension that would lead to a fundamentally changed and diminished role for religion in the lives of children such as Ozzie.

In Roth’s story, the “conversion” mentioned in the title is driven by a child’s desire to reconcile the secular world of America with the religious traditions of his ancestors. It is a story where Jews, because of the pressures of this conflict, say that they believe in the role of Jesus as Christ in order to resolve an immediate crisis brought about by the conflicting desires to preserve their traditional faith and to assimilate with the world around them. In Grace Paley’s “The Loudest Voice”, however, we find what may be active, through subtle, pressures from the Christian majority encouraging the Jews to if not convert, to accept a certain level of Christian tradition into their lives. In this story, the conflict arises from Jewish children participating in a school Christmas pageant. The adults, immigrants from Europe, struggle with the meaning of this, and while some, such as Shirley’s father, see the acceptance of at least the cultural role of Christmas as a mostly harmless but necessary sacrifice for the safety and opportunity provided by life in America (58) and can deal with the play as being nothing more than a “beautiful … introduc[tion] … to the beliefs of a different culture” (62), others, such as Shirley’s mother, fear that the pageant may be a more threatening experience, a tension heightened, perhaps, by the city’s decoration of a Christmas tree in their Jewish neighborhood (60) and the fact that the Christian children in the school received, for the most part, minor roles compared with the Jewish children (62). She worries that these small Christian pressures may be nothing less than “a creeping pogrom,” with the “children learn[ing] a lot of lies” (58). In the fears of the mother, we can find the final vestiges of the old European shtetl exclusivism and the once absolute dominance of religion in every aspect of life, where merely “secular books,” let alone Christian plays, beyond not being trusted, were “anathema,” the study of which led to “calumny, abuse and hatred”, and could result in beatings, denial of food, banishment, and even assumptions that one studying such material was possessed by “evil spirits” (Goldman 11-12). By the time of this story, however, the role of religion in the daily life of American Jews had faded to the point where their children, far beyond receiving a secular education without inspiring fears of demonic possession, could, with their parents’ support, appear in a production celebrating the birth of the Christian Messiah. While this story barely touches on role of the Jewish faith in the characters’ lives beyond small touches such as the rabbi’s wife wearing her wig “[u]nder the narrow sky of God’s great wisdom” (58), it reveals much about the changing role of religion in their lives, and the new openness of many American Jews, who do not suffer as much from the clash of conflicting faiths and cultures as Ozzie did in the Roth story. In this story, Jews such as Shirley’s father are ready to open up their definitions of religion, tradition and culture to new influences, to transcend the medieval fears of the old shtetl orthodoxy, and to accept that a holiday such as Christmas has its origins in “pagan times,” has been influenced through the ages by many faiths and cultures, even by Chanukah, that it “belongs to history,” and that it is not even “altogether Christian” any more (59). According to the father’s view, the acceptance of Christmas as an American cultural tradition does not take away from his Jewishness, though this is still a much more liberal viewpoint than most of the other characters in the story, and it even implies a certain willingness to accept a degree of change in his own religious values and practices. Still, while one parent does not allow their son to take part in the production, and while the rabbi’s wife declares that the whole affair is “disgusting”(58), these are the minority views, and even these dissenting voices deal with these issues better, resulting in less conflict, turmoil and trauma, than Roth’s rabbi does in the previous story.

It is not coincidental that the conflicts of culture and religion in these three stories all involve the generational shifts between parents and children. In the Singer text, the generational shift between the old world father and the new world, Americanized, sons represent less of a change that happened in the U.S., but one that happened in Europe before the sons left the shtetl in search of opportunities abroad. Because of this, the generational stresses involved are not so much due to the acceptance of American culture as they are due to the abandonment of European culture before the children ever emigrated. On the other hand, in the Roth and Paley stories, we see the generational stresses between members of what would be the younger generation in the Singer story and their own children, and these many of these stresses are inherently due to the fact that the generation born in America has no real concept of what role religion had in their parents’ and grandparents’ lives in the old world. While the older generations’ departure from Europe does indicate a break, and perhaps even disapproval, of the strangling religious traditions left behind in the shtetl, it is still difficult for them to relate to Jewish children growing up in a world where they debate the possible divinity of Jesus and perform in Christmas plays. Still, these parents do what they must in order to smooth the way for their children’s entrance into American culture and eventual pursuit of the American dream. Ozzie’s mother says that she “believe[s] in Jesus Christ” (158), and Shirley’s mother sets aside her fears, if ever so briefly, to concede that maybe the Jewish children are better on stage than the Christian children, and that since the native English speaking, “blonde like angels” Gentile children already “own” Christmas, and America, perhaps, borrowing Blotnik’s terminology, it is not-so-bad-for-the-Jews if their children own the play (63). For the parents of these American born children, religion takes a back seat to the opportunity for cultural acceptance and economic growth, all in the hope that, as Shirley’s father wishes for her, that she will enter the great, emerging middle-class and that “she won’t live between the kitchen and the shop” (59).

Many individuals in these American born generations do grow up to find themselves a part of the great, post-war homogenized middle-class but, lacking a religious foundation in their childhood, they can discover no role for religion in their adult lives, becoming, at best, the Jewish equivalent of the Christmas/Easter Protestants, and retaining barely any concept of their own Jewishness, culturally or religiously. In Paley’s story “The Used-Boy Raisers,” the ironically named Faith could almost be seen as Shirley grown up, cooking breakfast in the suburbs for her ex-husband and her current husband (127), raising two “rowdy, uncontrolled,” and, above all, “American” boys (133), discussing the merits of sending these boys to a Catholic parochial school (130), and having lost almost every visage of anything that would seem Jewish not only to Abbas in the Singer story, but probably even to his sons as well. With her Jewish surname surely obliterated two Catholic husbands ago and with “the subject” of religion “never especially interest[ing]” her, Faith’s only real connection with her Jewish past is a vague belief “in the Diaspora” and a rejection of Zionism “on technical grounds” (131). The very fragile, final tie to Judaism that Faith maintains that has not been obliterated “by marrying us,” as her second husband puts it, is an idea that Zionism reduces Jews to a “temporary nationality,” making them no different than “Frenchies” or “Italians” (132). In these bold statements, it would seem as if she is thoroughly rejecting Slezkine’s premise that the primary Jewish tradition that survived the post-war period was a historical tradition giving the American exiles a nationalistic past, a borderless homeland, on a par with other “Ethnic”-Americans. It would seem that she finds consolation more in the religious tradition of the Jews as “chosen people” elevated beyond such concerns, yet in one breath she betrays this belief. Her words are hollow and after a brief discussion of Jews, Europe, Israel and denying that she “forgot Jerusalem” when she married two Catholics she immediately turns the subject from a couple interesting notes on the spiritual qualities of exile to an interesting note on the British economy (133), giving one subject no more weight than the other and reducing both in the process to little more than meaningless small talk on international affairs. Faith reveals that, in reality, she has no more connection to her own Jewish heritage than she does to England being “wadded with installment paper” (133), regardless if the connection is to Europe, to the Israeli state, or if it is to an esoteric, spiritual identity. While it is obvious that Faith’s two Catholic husbands still hold some passion, positive and negative, towards religion, and while it could be argued that perhaps Faith too still holds tightly to some spirituality on a deeply private level that she is not willing to expose for the sake of casual breakfast banter, it is clear that all three of these characters have moved beyond the reach of any sort of public worship and the acceptance of any form of organized religion. For these characters, the Protestantization of both the Catholic and Jewish faiths is not even a factor, they have passed through it and moved beyond it, and for Faith, it seems that almost all traces of Jewish identity, religious and cultural, have been erased by the far more pressing demands of everyday American middle-class life. Her assimilation, for better or worse, is as complete as it can be, and her Jewishness seems reduced to being nothing more than a vague and distant memory, almost lost over the horizon of her life. Still, one cannot help but to expect that old Blotnik, if witness to these sparse words shed casually over eggs, would declare the whole scene to be one that was “no-good-for-the-Jews” (Roth 150).

Both Paley and Singer make reference in their stories to the Israelites in Egypt, and all four of these stories deal with the pressures a religious and cultural minority experiences at different stages of assimilation within a dominant, foreign culture. From Abbas, fresh off the boat, traumatized first by the destruction of his culture in Europe and then by the sudden immersion in a society so foreign to him that he has absolutely no context to process it in, no conceivable way to ever adapt to it, to Faith who is assimilated on almost every level but who still cannot escape some deep feeling that she is a foreigner in the land of her birth, all of these characters can be seen as “stranger[s]” in a modern day “Egypt” (Paley 60). Only the deeply spiritual Abbas explores this concept in depth, experiencing visions of New York’s “huge buildings and towers” as being “the pyramids of Egypt,” the vast sprawl of development spreading across the land being so unfathomable to him that the only contextual reference available to him is to think of the labor necessary for the construction of such cities, bringing up memories of the Israelites’ captivity under the Egyptians, “their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick and in all kinds of work in the field” (Ex. 1.14) building “Pithom” for “Ramses” (Singer 113). While, for most Jews in America, this new land did not so much represent a new chapter in their long exile but rather an opportunity for safety, freedom and economic growth that was not available to them in Eastern Europe, the feeling of being overwhelmed by such a vast and dominant culture as Protestant America was often inescapable, and even a child, Shirley in “The Loudest Voice”, cannot help but to be drawn to the images of the ancient experience of the Israelites in the land of the Pharaohs. Shirley’s Biblical reference is inspired by the Christmas tree in the Jewish neighborhood, a symbol shunned by many but one that she accepts with “a kiss of tolerance” (60) and a thought towards the positive experiences of Joseph and his father Jacob in Egypt, but still, coming from a Jewish girl involved with a Christmas play, and the inescapable knowledge that the Patriarchs’ flight to the Nile marked not only their salvation, but the beginning of their eventual enslavement, a chilling shadow falls over the naïve innocence of the scene. Where the ancient Israelites’ experiences in Egypt could be defined as a battle to maintain their cultural and religious identity in both times of prosperity and enslavement, the American Jewish experience, especially in the post-war period, has been marked by the unspoken invitation of the dominant demographic to join them culturally and to enjoy the economic benefits of assimilation, but the price of acceptance is the sacrifice of their uniqueness.

While the characters in these stories struggle to define themselves between the competing pressures of tradition and assimilation, the experience of this struggle changes them fundamentally. It changes their relationship with their culture and religion, it distances them from their past. In a period where the religion itself has already undergone dramatic changes, rearranging itself so it is no more intrusive than, as mentioned earlier, any of the other “countless sects … of American religious life,” it is not surprising that, as these characters struggle to define themselves as both Jews and Americans, they all find that the Protestantization of their faith distances them from the faith of their ancestors. For Ozzie, this distance becomes antagonistic, for Shirley’s parents it becomes a sort of negotiation with the dominant culture over the price of admission, for Faith the distance becomes a void, an emptiness in her heart, and for Abbas the very existence of this distance feels like conversion itself, and all of them confront the real possibility that assimilation within the dominant culture may not lead to safety or to success, but to a new form of enslavement, or even martyrdom, where their very identity as Jews is completely consumed by the overwhelming hunger of the American culture.

Works Cited

Goldman, Solomon. “Introduction.” Whither? By Mordecai Zeev Feirberg. Trans. Ira Eisenstein.
New York: Abelard-Schuman, ____.

Paley, Grace. The Little Disturbances of Man. New York: Penguin Books, ____.

Roth, Philip. Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories. 1959. New York: Vintage International,

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “The Little Shoemakers” Trans. Isaac Rosenfeld. Gimpel the Fool and
Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Slezkine, Yuri. The Jewish Century. Princeton: Princeton UP, ____.

1 comment:

Dad said...

Hi Son: I thought this was interesting even though my knowledge base on the subject is limited.