Arts & Culture

Are American Jews Authentic Americans, Or Posers, Or Pretenders?

To: David Samuels From: Shmuel Rosner Dear David, Thank you for your explanation. My impression is that this could become a long and detailed dialogue about the nature of journalism, literature and all things in between, but I'm really not … Read More

By / May 15, 2008

To: David Samuels From: Shmuel Rosner

Dear David,

Thank you for your explanation. My impression is that this could become a long and detailed dialogue about the nature of journalism, literature and all things in between, but I'm really not sure Jewcy's the right venue for such discussion.

However, after reading your comments, I think we stand to benefit from summarizing the differences between our respective approaches to our journalistic work. While I think my job is to make the world more orderly and understandable for readers, to try and overcome the chaos, your work does the exact opposite: You meddle with your readers' minds and make them more confused.

Having said that, I'm a little confused now myself: Is what you say in your letter is what you really think or just one of your mind-games? You write a lot of things (that's one lengthy letter, why do they tell me to write up to 800 words, and let you go crazy with a 1300 words – I wonder), but do you really mean them? I'll take a chance here, and assume that you do. So let's make this our topic of discussion for today:

If Americans are self-made people who embrace an imagined future in order to escape the burdens of the past, American Jews seek to have their cake and eat it too by embracing the future-oriented American idea without relinquishing their historically bound identity as Jews.

This, you imply, is the reason that "the themes of double-ness, lying and imposture have a special significance" for you "as an American Jewish writer." And these qualities are self-evidently vicious: Lying isn't be good, trying to have a cake and eat it too is what our mothers warned us not to do. But therein lies your irony. You go on to say that such characteristics "can be the source of a tremendous amount of creative tension." Which is a good thing, isn't it?

Basically, what you're up to is blaming American Jews for misleading their fellow-citizens, their communities, their friends: pretending to be aligned with American society while they really aren't. This is a serious charge, with potentially grave consequences — a charge that shouldn't be made lightly just for the sake of toying with outrageous ideas. And I must say I am not yet convinced about your motives (if you haven't noticed, I'm the self-appointed responsible adult in this crowded neighborhood of rogue writers).

So the question arises: Is this accusatory description of American Jewry even accurate? Many American Jews whom I know — who take the trouble to constantly marvel at the extent to which they are an integral part of the great American melting pot — might dispute your narrative. And they might be even right. They see a tolerant society that can put up with the cultural and religious differences inherent in so many groups playing a part in it. They see an influential group overcoming the difficulties of being a true American minority while preserving its distinctiveness and uniqueness. This, they will say, is not "lying" or "posturing," but rather living a complicated and rich life in this shining city on the hill.

You want to ruin this for them, and one has to ask oneself why. What's bothering you?

"Life Is Full Of Important Choices" is the name of an article you published in the second book you've just released, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a collection of articles you wrote for all sorts of magazines. Supposedly, the piece is about 9/11; it takes time for the reader to realize that as most of it is dedicated to, well, David Samuel's life. And too some degree, this old article of yours pulls the rug out from under the argument you made in your letter to me:

No one could dispute how beautiful Brooklyn was less than one year later, the summer after the towers fell. It was as if the ashes from the tower had fertilized our neighborhood. The local population of stoop-sitters, myself included, were the recipients of an unexpected bounty.

Can't this description of your Brooklyn count as proof that this joint venture of Americanness is no mirage, but rather the daily reality of "worshippers at the Mosque," and of your wife's mother who "called to tell us that Jesus Christ offered the only pathway to salvation," and of "Virginia and I" who "lit the Sabbath candles together, and said our blessings over the wine"?

"What is happening?", Virginia repeated as we stared at the picture on the television screen of the towers falling, one after the other. We went to the hardware store and bought white paper masks so we could safely breath, and then we went down to the Promenade, where my father used to take me to look at the cargo ships. We stood in the crowd of onlookers and watched the black cloud cross over the river.

Thus you, with your candles, and your decision to "not eat pork," were an integral part of an American tragedy. Not as a pretender, but as a participant. I'm no American, but it seems to me that your behavior that day, and the days following, is anything but part of an "ungracious refusal of large numbers of American Jews to buy into the full weirdness and wonder and scariness of the American idea."

It is your American-Jewish weirdness, your American-Jewish scariness — that is the American idea.

Best, Rosner

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