Degrees of Assimilation

Image courtesy of Light show via Wikimedia Commons, and edited by Shannon Sands

By Dr. Mark English / 11.11.2017

In a recent essay, Daniel Kaufman recalled the days when he and a couple of friends used to climb through a hole in the perimeter fence of their junior high school on Long Island and have lunch at Andel’s Kosher Delicatessen – “Hebrew National hot dogs, potato knishes, and half-sour pickles, washing it all down with Dr. Brown’s cherry, cream, or celery soda.” The delicatessen – emblematic of another time, another age – is now gone. “God, do I miss that place,” the writer confided, “… and that time.”

The anecdote led into a discussion of some of the unfortunate changes which have occurred within the general sphere of public education, but it was the references to New York Jewish culture that most caught my attention and brought to mind Philip Roth’s notion of ‘Jews with force’. The parallel is far from perfect, as Roth is referencing New York City whereas Dan Kaufman is focused on the North Shore of Long Island, but I thought it might be worthwhile to pick up Roth’s observation as a prelude to making a few observations of my own on the general theme of degrees of cultural integration.

The protagonist of Roth’s 1990 novel, Deception, a middle-aged American writer called Philip, is speaking to his English lover: “In England, whenever I’m in a public place, a restaurant, a party, the theater, and someone happens to mention the word ‘Jew’, I notice that the voice always drops just a little… [That’s how] you all say ‘Jew’. Jews included.”

Philip longs for his personal homeland, New York City, a heimish territory populated by his kind of Jew… “Jews with force… Jews with appetite. Jews without shame… Unaccommodating Jews, full of anger, insult, argument, and impudence.”

Roth’s comments could be taken as an acute but essentially light piece of social observation. The contrast is between English Jews of a certain class or type whose Jewishness is constrained (at least in social terms) by their Englishness and New York Jews who are not constrained in this way. The reactions and judgments of the authorial persona are amusing, seemingly more a matter of character and personality than serious social or ethical commentary. But, given the subject matter – and specifically the oblique reference to anti-Semitism – it is difficult entirely to avoid the more serious questions and issues which lie just beneath the surface.

My own observations are not incompatible with what Roth has observed. But, at the risk of being pedantic, it is clear that his dichotomy is a rhetorically-driven simplification. There are countless ways of expressing – or not expressing – minority ethnic or religious status, Jewish or otherwise and, like any community, Jewish communities are not homogeneous. This lack of homogeneity springs not only from individual personality differences but also from other factors.

One such factor relates to the fact that immigration often occurs in waves and earlier and later waves have significant cultural differences. One of the key differences here relates to the way later arrivals relate to and are perceived by earlier arrivals. The typical pattern (for obvious reasons) is that the earlier arrivals tend to be more inclined to adopt the social mores of the host community. As a consequence, early arrivals often had (or have) a disapproving attitude to subsequent waves of immigrants who are less knowledgeable – and sometimes less respectful – of the host culture. They may see the later arrivals as something of an embarrassment or perhaps as a threat to their own status and standing.

A friend of mine whose ancestors were Russian Jews who settled in Melbourne, Australia, in the early 20th century told me that she and her family tended to disapprove of many of the later arrivals because of their tendency to disrespect (or not conform to) mainstream social mores. My friend and her family kept up Jewish traditions, but in a fairly low-key kind of way.

Similar patterns and tensions were in play in German-speaking lands in the early 20th century, though the stakes were much higher, of course. David Berlinski sums up one perspective well – if a little provocatively – in his account (as given in his book The Advent of the Algorithm) of Gottlob Frege’s attitudes.

Frege was married for many years and the death of his wife during the First World War further darkened a personality that was, in Berlinski’s words, “already dark, lonely, crabbed, solitary, and withdrawn.”

We have evidence from his private diaries of this period of Frege’s political views. He did not speak out publicly or engage in political activity. But he certainly had very strong opinions.

“[Frege] seems to have been – in plain fact, he was,” writes Berlinski, “a ferocious anti-Semite, seeing in Germany’s sad, doomed, cultured German Jews an alien and unwanted presence, and, no doubt, regarding the turbulent wave of eastern European Jewry, which had washed over Germany early in the century and with outstandingly bad judgement come to rest in Leipzig or Dresden or in Weimar itself, with feelings akin to frank revulsion. Disliking Jews, Frege disliked Catholics as well, the ink of his indignation ecumenical in its nature.”

And he was deeply devoted to the German monarchy, “its preposterous and dangerous kaiser” (as Berlinski puts it) receiving from Frege “the respectful sentiments that he had nowhere else to discharge.”

It is no surprise that differences both within and between ethnic, cultural and religious groups rouse the passions. A sense of identity is often at stake. On the one hand, the host culture is inevitably changed by immigration; on the other, immigrants who wish to retain their original cultural identity realize that concessions to the host culture can lead over time to the dilution, weakening and eventual merging of the guest culture into the broader community.

The family of Ludwig Wittgenstein – by descent, largely Jewish – had, by all appearances, assimilated completely into the Austro-Hungarian mainstream by the end of the 19th century. Not only had Ludwig (like his parents and siblings) been baptized a Catholic, at one stage during his adult life he had seriously considered becoming a priest.

The Wittgenstein name (an old German aristocratic name) had been adopted by the family some generations before. Wittgenstein’s father, an industrialist, was one of the richest men in Austria. The family was extremely cultivated and strongly associated with the arts, especially music.

It is no surprise, then, that Ludwig – who served with honor in the Great War – was flabbergasted when he found out that the Nazis had designated the family as Jewish. It may be that in his early years he was not even fully aware of his Jewish background. At certain times he seemed to deny it, but in later life he regretted trying to disguise or downplay his family’s Jewish heritage.

The case of Karl Popper is equally interesting and controversial. The Poppers were more recently assimilated than the Wittgensteins and more conscious of their Jewishness. They were Lutherans, not Catholics, but Popper made it clear that his Lutheranism was something of a formality, and certainly not in any way dogmatic. He believed in some kind of religious or spiritual reality but saw actual religions as very imperfect expressions of this broader religious point of view. As far as I am aware, Popper did not write directly about these issues – in fact, he deliberately avoided doing so. But a few reported remarks which I have come across suggest that he was acutely aware of (and embarrassed by), if not his Jewish background, then at least certain Jewish stereotypes which he sought studiously to avoid replicating in his own behavior. Some of his reported statements come across today as quite anti-Semitic. For example, he apparently suggested that non-assimilating Jews were in part responsible for the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

The Jews amongst my own ancestors – there are clusters of Jewish names in my family tree – failed to transmit any unambiguous or substantive element of specifically Jewish culture to my own or my parents’ generation. For me this is a matter of some regret. But I don’t blame them or disrespect their decisions. I think it’s absurd for us to make retrospective judgments about these kinds of things. They did what they did in situations which are impossible for us to reconstruct. Whether or not they chose to assimilate, or to what degree, they had their reasons, probably revolving around self-interest and the perceived interest of their families. Who can argue with that?

And those who chose to assimilate made their decisions knowing full well what the long-term consequences would be. Moreover, the more reflective and sensitive amongst them would have felt much stronger pangs of regret than I, as a non-Jew, could possibly feel as they contemplated the implications of their decision: the irrevocable end, for their branch of the family, of the rich and venerable religious and cultural tradition which had to a large extent formed them and made them what they were.

It might seem as if I am surreptitiously siding here with my assimilating ancestors and implicitly criticizing more determined and forceful Jews. This is not the case.

As I have made clear, I find it absurd and distasteful to criticize the decisions – on these sorts of personal matters – of past generations whose circumstances we can never fully understand.

Moreover, I am very reluctant to draw any conclusions from this analysis regarding current practices and current issues. This is because the situation in Western countries has, as I see it, changed radically in recent years. The status quo is now very different from what it was during the times I have been discussing. The key difference is that the traditional mainstream culture – previously both the goal and the driving force of the assimilation process – appears to be losing its power to command respect and allegiance.

And this changes everything.