In the Melting Pot

 "That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.” President Theodore Roosevelt famously shouted out these words to Israel Zangwill as the curtain went down on the Washington, D.C., premiere of the British Jewish author’s The Melting Pot in October 1908. The president, who on later occasions explicitly deplored the very notion of “hyphenated Americans,” could only have been pleased by a drama whose Jewish hero celebrated America as “God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming,” and where, out of “Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians . . . God is making the American.”

Even before the performance of the play and the universal adoption of its title as a metaphor for the process of complete assimilation, American Jews had been busy devising means of withstanding the pressures that Zangwill welcomed. Among other things, they founded (or rather, refounded) in 1888 the Jewish Publication Society. One of the first works the society published was what Jonathan Sarna has called “the first best-selling Jewish novel in America,” Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto—a book that sensitively depicted the lives of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in London (without pointing hopefully to their disappearance through assimilation). 

Zangwill was also for a time one of the most important figures in the Zionist movement, a key ally of Theodor Herzl in its earliest days and one of his ardent supporters until Herzl died in 1904. Zangwill left Zionism the following year, in protest against the movement’s principled rejection of any territory other than Palestine as a destination for Jewish settlement, but he remained a nationalist activist. For 20 years he led the Jewish Territorial Organization, which scoured the world, from Australia to North Africa to southern Africa, in search of an alternative site for a homeland for his people. 

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About the Author

Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies at Binghamton University.


goldish.1 on June 19, 2018 at 4:53 pm
Beautifully and cogently observed. This is the painful reality.
ashgerecht on July 19, 2018 at 12:43 pm
Irrational paralysis should not accompany this rational analysis. Future-weighers might consider these two elements:
1. Increased welcome of prospective converts, both fro intermarried ranks and the general community, attractable to the Jewish concept of an incorporeal, abstract God and the exercise of free will from Adam on with accepted questioning and discussion.There are increased stirrings on this issue in both Conservative and Reform.The enlarging group of "nones"-religious but "spiritual" and disaffected Christians are available for take-a-look invitations.
2. Dropping the price bar. Jews and prospective Jews should be invited to the synagogue as a focus. (Tikkun olam today is the sacrifice of yesterday. The core of Judaism connects a concept of God to action.) Let seekers come in, then adjust staff to revenue instead of the present reverse.
Then take another look.
fsilber on July 19, 2018 at 11:55 pm
"In the Melting Pot" suggested that Modern Orthodoxy had a successful approach to the fight against assimilation. From my place on the inside I see two weaknesses. One is that a good percentage of the children leave Modern Orthodoxy, becoming either Haredi or not-Orthodox at all. The other weakness is that educating each child requires, in today's money, about a half-million dollars. Physicians in the more lucrative specialties can afford it, as can businessmen who do at least as well. But most people cannot afford it.

I believe, however, that American Jews' assimilation rates are about to peak and go down, though the reason I believe this is not something to celebrate. I believe the next few decades will see a huge upsurge in antisemitism (where the word is taken to mean a general hostility towards most Jews for whatever reasons -- not necessarily race hatred). I see two sources of this increase.

One source is immigration. The Inquisition is a heritage of Latin Americans, and while they don't seem preoccupied with antisemitism at the moment, I don't think they have a horror of it. Furthermore, they probably view Jews as privileged European capitalists. As to the results of a large Islamic immigration, I don't think I need to say much.

The other source of antisemitism will be the Left. Just as racial antisemitism did not depend upon religious antisemitism but drew strength from it, the new antisemitism will be based on anti-zionism. For a Jew, the price of remaining in the Left is to ally oneself with and support those who chant "Death to the Jews" and who distribute candy in celebration when a Jewish child's head is blown off at point blank range. A Jew can gain acceptance by being OK with those who want to kill the 5 million Jews of Israel. (This reminds me of Jews in Germany who could earn a few days of freedom by helping the Nazi authorities catch other Jews.) Already they have made many major college campuses hostile environments for Jews, and a few decades from now it might be the entire Democratic Party. Most Jews will not want to seek refuge with the right, and may not have the option anyway if the antisemitic paleo-right gains a resurgence as is happening in eastern Europe.

So we may once again find ourselves socializing mainly with other Jews even if we're not religious -- for the same reasons that Jewish immigrants 100 to 140 years ago did so.

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