By William Deresiewicz
The famous-Jew parade, otherwise known as the roll call of Semitic pride. If you grew up Jewish, you know what I’m talking about. Marx was a Jew. Freud was a Jew. Einstein was a Jew. Sing it, bubby. Kafka? Jew. Brandeis? Jew. Mendelssohn? Jew. Jonas Salk? Paul Newman? Norman Mailer? Henry Kissinger? Barbra Streisand? Bob Dylan? Bobby Fischer? Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew. Lauren Bacall? I didn’t know she was Jewish. Christ—even Jesus was a Jew. Israel, the Holocaust, and the list of famous Jews: the three touchstones of contemporary Jewish identity.
Whenever Jews enter the larger world, they do great things—that was the line that I heard growing up. They kept us out for centuries, but as soon as they let us in, we tore the place apart. And you know, it’s true. But it took me years to realize that the statement cuts both ways. Jews do great things … when they enter the larger world. When they don’t, they don’t. Almost none of those famous Jews actually practiced as Jews: not the ones who identified as Jews (Freud), not the ones who were proud to be Jews (Einstein), not the ones whose work was about being Jewish (Saul Bellow), not even the ones who personified traditional Judaism (Isaac Bashevis Singer).
To do great things—to express their abilities in a form that’s valuable to the world as a whole—Jews not only have to be Jews, they have to stop being Jews: at least, in any active way, any way that’s recognizable to traditional Judaism. It only makes sense. In traditional Judaism, you’re not supposed to write songs or novels, or think about economics or physics. You’re supposed to sit in a yeshiva and study the Talmud. You aren’t supposed to enter the larger world at all; you’re supposed to shun it. Whenever I drive through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, I think: what a senseless waste of comedic talent.
On the other hand, where is the next generation of Jewish renegades supposed to come from, if not from the Orthodox? The shtetls are gone, and so are the immigrant enclaves. Jews do great things when they enter the larger world—that cuts another way, as well. When they enter. If they’re already there, I’m not so sure. The distinctive attributes of the Jewish genius are those of a marginalized and persecuted people sustained by a text-based religion: moral seriousness, verbal dexterity, analytic rigor, dark humor, a tragic sense of life, an outsider’s gimlet eye and anxious sense of exclusion. It may be early days, but once you remove the marginalization, the persecution, the texts, and the religion, it seems the cultural DNA peters out pretty quickly. As for Reform and Conservative Judaism—forms of practice that attempt to strike a compromise between tradition and modernity, affiliation and assimilation—I’m sure that lots of successful professionals are to be numbered among their lovely children, but it’s hard to imagine a Kafka or a Bellow being reared on that thin broth. Besides, you need to have something to rebel against—that’s what propels you into the world, drives you to prove yourself, infects you with the necessary dose of insecurity and self-doubt, the never-sated sense of inauthenticity.
At this point, though, the Orthodox are becoming like the Amish, their isolation self-willed, factitious. My money’s on the Asians now, all those Chinese and Indian and Korean kids who are straining at the communal leash in suburban Los Angeles or New York or Seattle. I cannot wait to hear the litany of famous names that they’re about to write.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.