Since the European Enlightenment, when Jews were given the rights of other citizens and eventually rose in society in finance, the professions and the arts, assimilation has been rampant. And that situation applies in America today.
When Jews lived in ghettos in eastern Europe, with little chance to mingle with their Christian neighbors, there could obviously be little assimilation. And even without physical barriers, the invisible line of prejudice and discrimination between Jews and their neighbors kept them apart.
Once the world of European culture was open to the Jews, it is clear what attracted them; it was a treasure trove of music, art, literature and history that had been denied to them for generations. Finally, opportunities abounded in the professions and in business, and Jews soon made notable contributions.
In modern times, prominent non-Jews have publicly praised Jews and seen in them what Jews themselves too often ignore. Paul Johnson, the Catholic historian, wrote that “no people has been more fertile in enriching poverty or humanizing wealth, or in turning misfortune to creative account. This capacity springs from a moral philosophy both solid and subtle, which has changed remarkably little over the millennia because it has been seen to serve the purpose of those who share it.”
The great Russian novelist Tolstoy said that “a Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the eternal fire and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the nations have drawn their beliefs and religions.” For Winston Churchill, “no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race that has ever appeared in the world.” Mark Twain wrote glowingly of Jewish resilience, noting that all nations from the Babylonians, Romans and on are gone, but the Jew remains: “What is the secret of his immortality?”
While others have recognized the rich heritage and astounding contribution of the Jews to the western world, too many Jews in America seem ignorant of or oblivious to their own people’s accomplishments and heritage.
Only one-third of American Jews regard being part of a Jewish community as essential. Among young Jewish adults 18 to 29, 35% have few or no Jewish friends according to a Pew Research report of 2020. Giving to Jewish causes, attendance at synagogues and attachment to the State of Israel are all down from previous years. In the words of professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary: “Taken together, these figures suggest declining commitment to specifically Jewish causes, distancing from the Jewish state and its people, and the fraying of the Jewish social networks so necessary for anchoring Jews to their people.”
There is a great irony at the heart of the current situation. There has never been more opportunity for Jews of all backgrounds, religious or not, to learn about Jewish history, source texts, culture and wisdom literature. In addition, in spite of rising anti-Semitism, there is no ghetto, there are no restrictions, no obstacles to reaching the highest levels of society, even for the religiously observant, and yet now is the time when the majority of American Jews turn their backs on it all.
Throughout the ages, persecution, discrimination, pogroms, exiles and forced conversions reduced our numbers dramatically and turned Jews into a reviled people. Yet we persisted, and when the possibility for peace and stability arose, we contributed to the common good of every country that gave repose to a weary and beaten people.
Now we have the opportunity to be both full participants in our society and faithful to our history and heritage. So why make it a choice between Judaism and the world when one can have both?
Whatever the cause of today’s apathy, those who have written themselves out of Jewish history are a massive and tragic loss to the Jewish people. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that we have lost the script of the Jewish story, the story of a people who “though scarred and traumatized, never lost their humor or their faith, their ability to laugh at present troubles and still believe in ultimate redemption; who saw human history as a journey, and never stopped traveling and searching.”
We can only hope that the script of the Jewish story is recovered, that the search is renewed.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.
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