A Gay Moment (But This, Too, Shall Pass)

Have you noticed? Jews are gone. Individual Jews still exist, of course. But Jews as a group, whose preoccupations, predilections and foibles are objects of universal concern, attention or emulation-Jews in that sense no longer exist. I noticed this a few years ago when I was reading an article in New York magazine on Jewish rappers. I was aware simultaneously that I was not interested, and that even as late as a few years earlier, I would have been. Jews, as Jews, aren’t interesting.

Prominent Jews have either lost their distinctness as Jews, or they are no longer prominent. Look around. How many of Jerry Seinfeld’s million fans notice that he is Jewish? What distinguishes him from any other neurotic New Yorker? Ed Koch? Gone. Woody Allen? Gone. Whoopi Goldberg? Lose the surname. The last Jew in America is Jackie Mason, reminding us in taxicabs to take our personal belongings.

Events involving Jews that once would have been of national interest 20, or even 10 years ago, simply don’t register in the same way. The Six-Day War, or the Entebbe raid, seemed like vicarious American victories. (Finally-allies who can fight!) If the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin had happened then, it would have seemed like a vicarious national tragedy. In the 1990’s, it was as shocking and peculiar as the fall of a French republic.

What we have witnessed is the passing of a Minority Moment-that period when the doings of a minority are known to everyone whose knowledge counts. I discovered Minority Moments in Beyond the Melting Pot , where the subject was not Jews, but the Irish, who had the previous Minority Moment to themselves. The chapter on the Irish in that book was written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and it was a grave and eloquent eulogy. In the guise of a sociologist, he surveyed a vanished era of Irish cultural prominence in American life-in sports, entertainment and, above all, politics. He ended with the tombstone, the death of John Kennedy. “On the day he died,” the President, the Speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader “were all Irish, all Catholic, all Democrats. It will not come again.”

The psychological subtext of this lament was fascinating, for the co-author of Mr. Moynihan’s book was Nathan Glazer-the intellectual whom Mr. Moynihan has repeatedly honored as the peer and supplanter of Karl Marx, and who, as a Jew, partook of the Minority Moment that was occurring when Beyond the Melting Pot was published (1963). Mr. Moynihan’s chapter on the Irish was a gracious passing of the torch, and a secret memento mori : As Al Smith is, so Saul Bellow shall be.

Minority Moments pass in part because of assimilation. When the minority finally goes mainstream, it loses that indefinable sizzle. Jews have gone in two directions: Most of them to the mainstream, some of them to Hasidism, or Israel, or other distant options. Either way, they have lost that ideally oblique vantage point from which both communication and aloofness are possible.

The other reason Minority Moments end is that a minority says all it has to say. Been there, heard that. On to the next moment. That moment, the current one, is the Gay Moment.

Gays are everywhere that matters, and understood by everyone who counts. This has nothing to do with Vice President Al Gore praising Ellen DeGeneres. Who cares what Al Gore thinks? By the time a thought pops like a toad or a bat out of the mouth of a Vice President, it has been incubating for a long time.

Twenty-five years ago, back in the Jewish Moment, a gay college classmate of mine said, in my hearing: “Lesley Gore-she was a goddess .” I was stumped. What could he mean? Did he like “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows”? Now, of course, I understand. Now even a 19-year-old me would understand. Everybody understands. It is the Gay Moment.

The form for describing Minority Moments is a two-part phrase. The first element is always plucky . Plucky suggests the minority’s embattled status (but not too embattled, because to enjoy a Moment is to have won). The second element is some quality that is characteristic, in their own and the world’s eyes, of the minority. The Irish were plucky and brave (the Fighting Irish). The Jews were plucky and smart (10,000 intellectuals and comics). Gays are plucky and cool (gays themselves might say plucky and fabulous -and why not? Everyone understands).

There is a final reason why Minority Moments pass, and that is because there are only three permanent tenants in the American mind. There are no vacancies in the big house; only the cottage is for rent, and only for transients. The permanent tenants are:

( 1) The Red Man. Indian, Native American-he has many names and many identities, but he is always there, whether as scalper, victim, hero or casino owner. “No, Sagamore, not alone. The gifts of our colors may be different, but God has so placed us as to journey in the same path.” You kept your promise, Hawkeye.

(2) The Black Man. More names, more identities, from Frederick Douglass to Don King-with still more to come, and all of them affecting everyone else. Carl Jung thought all Americans walked like black Americans. Right you were, you old Nazi.

(3) The WASP. Plant yourself before almost any phenomenon of American life-niceness, bigotry, shame, boastfulness, bad food, big buildings, the Constitution, the Civil War, Henry James, Jesse James-blindfold yourself and spin around, and you can unerringly lay your hand on that part of it that is fingerprinted by WASPs, and that makes it unlike its analogs anywhere else.

To change the metaphor, the American mind is a theater with only three boxes, whose subscriptions were sold in the 17th century. Down on the bright stage stands some plucky performer, doing his act. The house laughs, weeps, shouts. Then some other plucky aspirant clambers up from the orchestra-he thinks he has forced the management (whom he identifies with the boxholders) to pick him, but there is no management, it just happens-and the performance begins again.