Rattling the Cage: Nice Jewish boy, nice Asian girl
One of my closest friends from Los Angeles, like me an old-fashioned, secular, unrich son of Polish Jewish immigrants, just married off his own first son to the daughter of Korean immigrants. From the sound of it, soon he’s probably going to be marrying off his younger son to the daughter of Singaporean immigrants.
Two American Jewish sons, two Asian-American daughters-in-law (or one, going on two). Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so.
The simplest reason it’s not is that both couples met at UCLA, a gigantic university loaded with Jewish and Asian students. The less simple reason is that my friend’s two sons received an old-fashioned, secular, unrich Jewish upbringing in America, and for people like them, there aren’t many American Jews of similar background and outlook to marry anymore. For people like them, there are more opportunities to find suitable spouses among Asians and other studious, hard-working, family-oriented American immigrants than there are among American Jews.
THIS IS not a cautionary tale about intermarriage, not by any means; if my own two sons want to marry non-Jews when they grow up, that is 100% fine with me. What I’m writing about is how American Jewry has changed, and not for the better, but also about how there are ways, traditional and untraditional, to recapture some of the old spirit.
When people say Asians are America’s “new Jews,” they mean Asians are the new American immigrant success story, the new super-achievers. Yet they’re the new Jews in another way, too. They have something that mainstream American Jewry used to have, but lost after living in America so long: Humility. That heimishe quality.
My friend’s sons still have it because their parents are a throwback to a better time for American Jewry – the middle of the 20th century, when there were millions of Jews who didn’t practice the religion yet were identifiably Jewish. That’s because they were no more than a generation away from the traditional Jewish communities of (mainly Eastern) Europe, they lived in close-knit, secular, unrich American Jewish neighborhoods, and they had what I think of as a Jewish sensibility. They were sensitive, earnest, warm, funny and somewhat driven. They had close families and friendships. There was nothing sleek, or smug, or high and mighty about them.
Back then, my friend’s sons probably would have found secular Jewish brides who came from homes not unlike their own – where the grandparents were Yiddish-speaking storekeepers, where the parents were college-educated civil service professionals – a middle-class, secular Jewish home where education and hard work were prized, and conspicuous consumption was for puffed-up jerks.
But that breed of American Jew began dying out about 40 years ago, as the influence of the old country receded and young people moved up and out of the lower-middle-class urban Jewish neighborhoods where they’d been raised.
Now, in 2008, what are the chances that my anachronistic Jewish friend’s anachronistic sons are going to find secular Jewish girls on the same wavelength as theirs? Very, very slim. Today, young secular Jews in America come from either wealthy homes, in which case they’re groomed to marry wealthy spouses, or they’ve assimilated and become really no different from American WASPs.
THE ONLY large concentrations of young Jews in America today who are neither rich nor assimilated and who, like my friend’s sons, still have something of the old-fashioned Jewish sensibility, are found among the religious. This means the Orthodox, but also the non-Orthodox who, out of determination to hold onto their Jewishness, take part in religious or some other kind of “Jewish activities” from week to week.
So where does that leave my friend’s sons? If you’re a young, humble, heimishe American Jew, but religion and organized Jewish “fellowship” really don’t talk to you, where do you find your match?
Among the Asian-Americans. Or among the Armenian-Americans, or the Greek-Americans, or any American immigrant group whose family-oriented, purposeful, modest way of life resembles that of America’s earlier generations of immigrant Jews.
I miss that older Jewish breed, the kind I grew up with in the middle of the last century, more than I can say. Their European Jewish sensibility was as natural and authentic as could be, but it didn’t last in America over the generations. It was gradually displaced by a shallow, starry-eyed American sensibility, and the only way American Jews today can preserve the old spirit, or even try to approximate it, is by holding onto the religion.
Whatever works, whatever keeps that humble, heimishe quality alive, is all to the good. And when I look at some of these shallow, starry-eyed, spoiled, smug young American Jews, somehow I don’t see that quality – yet when I look at some of these earnest, academic, family-centered Asian-Americans, I do.
My L.A. friend’s older son married a Korean girl, and his younger son sounds like he’s about to marry a Singaporean girl. From what I hear, both girls are good, kind, hard-working, smart, modest and loyal. They’re not Jews, but they have what I think of as a Jewish sensibility. As far as I’m concerned, these two mixed marriages (or one, going on two) are preserving the old Jewish way of life in America, only now it’s an old-new, Jewish-Asian way of life.
All I can say is mazel tov.