I Visit a German-Jewish Relative

When I was a kid, my parents had an expression, WASPy Jews. It was based in part on our one German-Jewish relative: Trudy (a pseudonym). Trudy was cold, straightforward, and wealthy. German Jews and Eastern-European Jews used to be the Sunnis and Shi’ites of American Jewish life. Having lately visited Trudy, I wanted to record some impressions.

Trudy grew up in the 1930s in Westchester, in a big house with a 40-foot living room. Her father was a German who emigrated at the turn of the century to open a branch of a family business. He was worldly. He went skiing in Switzerland in natty attire, he flew airplanes, and his attitudes were typical of assimilating Jews of his generation. He told his daughter that Judaism was a religion, it was not a nation. So he was anti-Zionist. Once Trudy asked her father who the two pretty blonde girls were in the photograph in the living room. “Those are your cousins; they died in the war,” he said. Along with many other relatives or hers, in concentration camps. But the word Holocaust was not used.

In Trudy’s family, they did not make giant distinctions between gentiles and Jews. Trudy’s family went to temple. Their friends were other Jewish families. And the four kids all married Jews. But some Jews were felt to be “too Jewish.” This attitude was not so different from what Columbia historian Fritz Stern, a baptized Jew whose family fled Germany in ’38, describes in his recent book Five Germanys I Have Known as “harsh” comments his family sometimes made about Jews.

Trudy raised two baby-boomer children without a strong sense of Jewishness. A little Hebrew school, a bar mitzvah. The social distinctions that my family of Eastern European Jews trafficked in–WASPy Jews, Jewishy Jews, religious Jews, and Christians, were not a big deal in Trudy’s more privileged household. Her daughter married a gentile, then another. Her son married 1, 2, 3 Jews. The son is much more Jewish-identified. My outmarrying cousin moved into the American heartland. My inmarrying one stayed on the east coast. The results are what you would expect: Trudy’s grandkids are Jewish-identified on one branch, “American nothings” on the other.

A few comments.

Trudy’s two children are representative of my generation. About half of us married out, half stayed in. The Israel lobby derives its power from the second half. These Jews had tribal allegiance. They cared more about being Jewish, and Jewishness in our generation came to be defined not as a religion, but a faraway country: Israel. I think my inmarrying cousin gives real money to a cause his grandfather rejected… I must say, I find my outwardlooking girl relative a lot more fun and interesting than my inward-looking boy relative.

Trudy’s father’s attitudes were typical of assimilationist Jews’. Many of them supported the anti-Zionist cause (per Thomas Kolsky’s superb book, Jews Against Zionism). They were made uncomfortable by Jewish nationalism, they saw a risk of dual loyalty. A crucial development in American Zionism was the defection of just such a German Jew, Louis D. Brandeis, who after caring nothing about things Jewish converted to Zionism in 1912, or so, in his late 50s, following a meeting with a disciple of Theodor Herzl’s. The cynical view (offered but not endorsed by Peter Grose in Israel in the Mind of America) is that Woodrow Wilson overlooked Brandeis as Attorney General in 1912 after leading Jews told Wilson that Brandeis was not “representative” of American Jewry—which over the last 25 years had become largely eastern European and Russian (my ancestors). Brandeis became representative by embracing a creed of the pogrom-fleeing new-Jews: Zionism. Wilson appointed him the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice in 1916.

Brandeis’s adopted creed is now the creed of American Jewishness. Back then, before the Holocaust, the non-Zionist or anti-Zionist assertions—Jewishness is a religion, not a nation, and Jews are NOT homeless—were openly and widely expressed among Jews. Many Jews worried about charges of dual loyalty if the Zionists held to a political agenda—forming a state—rather than a strictly cultural agenda, Let’s move to Jerusalem. Today all Jews in America are supposed to embrace the political agenda, the Jewish state, and if you raise an issue that leading Jewish critics of Zionism raised again and again (as did Balfour, Truman, and Carter), “Have you figured out a fair answer to the fact that Arab people are already living there?” you don’t count. Other concerns of the assimilating Jews’ have also been suppressed. And so you have a top aide to George Bush, Elliott Abrams, writing that Jews must segregate themselves socially from gentiles and that Jews are essentially homeless outside Israel, and statements like this have fueled wide but largely subterranean suspicions that Jews have pushed a foreign policy that is more in Israel’s than in America’s interests. The New Yorker and the Times dismiss these suspicions as “conspiracy theories,” without even fully describing them.

I should note that I’m a Jewish-identified “American nothing.” As an assimilating Jew, I hope to make room for a wider definition of Jewishness than the narrow diaspora-nationalist one we’re stuck in now.