I’m in L.A. One of the liberating things about being here is that while there’s Jewishness all around me, it is not as confining a Jewishness as the one in New York. The definition is looser.
At a Christmas party of people in the movie business two nights ago, I talked to three Jews. 1 was a movie producer who said he welcomed Jimmy Carter’s statements about the Middle East and couldn’t believe the smearing he was getting, then went off to play with his child by a gentile woman. With 2 and 3 I had longer conversations about Jewishness.
2 was a producer married to a Jewish woman. He was the son of Holocaust survivors and in 1967 had been pressured by friends to move to Israel. He had refused and, feeling angry about the pressure, had come to the understanding he was American, and had moved west. He said he got along with his businessman father-in-law completely, agreed on all politics, till he’d had the worst argument ever with him over Carter’s book. The father-in-law said Jimmy Carter was an anti-Semite. He didn’t agree, he thought Jimmy Carter was saying important things.
3 was a beautiful woman who it seemed to me had traveled widely, using the powers of her beauty, and her mind. She had grown up here then gone to live in the middle of the country, where she had married and had kids with a gentile. Now she was going out with a non-Jew back here. She told me she felt really Jewish; it was her “core.” I found that moving. And her father had said to her, “Israel is very important.” But she was afraid to examine Israel. From what she had heard it was a place that prized violence and ethnic chauvinism. That wasn’t her way. The soul of Jewishness, she said, was to participate in the modern world, and see the best in everyone, and reach out for greatness in other groups and add our greatness to the mix unselfishly. “High five,” I said, mimicking Borat when the hotel clerk reads him the telegram saying his wife has been eaten by a bear. We high-fived. Her boyfriend came over, and our conversation petered out.
Comments. My focus group was self-selecting; of course this is a party an assimilationist like myself ends up at. In fairness to the body of American Jewry, it doesn’t go to Christmas parties like this one, by and large, and has a stronger sense of Jewish chauvinism than anyone at the party. Still, we assimilationists have close connections to that more-conservative body. I bet that 3’s father and 2’s father-in-law both give money to Jewish organizations, maybe to arms of the Israel lobby. While notwithstanding their strong feelings, 3 and 2 are not having much effect on our foreign policy.
On the East Coast I feel a lot more pressure to be Jewish-identified in a chauvinist way. People who live in New York tend to be more particularist-Jewish than California Jews. (It’s no wonder that Michael Lerner, one Jew to endorse Jimmy Carter, is in S.F.) And affluent Jews on the east coast form the heart of the Israel lobby. They have been given that role, by history, by the Jewish people, by Israel—someone—to stand with Israel and insist that America do so too, because they believe that America if left to its own devices would abandon Israel.
There is a Hebrew word for me and my Christmas-party Jews. We are galut. Galut means diaspora, homeless, exiled. To make aliyah in Israel (to emigrate) means to go up—because Israel is the highest spot. We are down. And galut is a judgmental word, it carries the hint, spiritually-alienated.
I’m still in that high-five moment with 3, a core Jew, not feeling alienated, offering a non-chauvinist way of identifying Jewishly to an America that, mimicking Israel, is mired in a bloody, racial clash with the Arab world. Happy holidays.