Saturday, May 22, 2010

Their world was very firmly divided between Jews and goyim. If there was a plane crash and fifty people were killed, my Aunt Rose, the most conservative voice in my family, would scan the newspaper list of victims for Jewish names and exclaim: ‘What an unglick; six Jews died.’


why then did they let Yiddish, the beating heart of that culture, go? It is possible that the answer lies in the Holocaust. If the Germans and their friends had not so successfully exterminated the Yiddish-speaking populations of Eastern Europe, then those communities might have continued to be a vital cultural force to this day, producing exciting music, theatre, literature and art. This cultural dynamism, the argument would continue, might have drawn the American-born children and grandchildren of immigrants back into their orbit. The problem is that there has been no comparable drawing power among groups whose European populations were not sent to the gas chambers. That is, the descendents of Swedish, Italian, French, Russian, German, Greek, Polish, Korean, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, all present in huge numbers in the United States, also fairly quickly lost their languages. (The only great exceptions here are the immigrants from Latin America, who have tenaciously clung to Spanish, though at a high economic cost, and have succeeded in making it the country’s all but official second language.) There was, in other words, nothing particularly unique about the pattern of culture loss and assimilation in Eastern European Jewish families; the erosion of primordial loyalty in two to three generations has been more or less typical of most immigrant groups to the United States.


In assimilating to the culture of the New World, immigrants like my grandparents did not submit to the traditional rituals and stories of another, dominant group: no one made them set foot in a church, bow down to graven images, recite the mythic creation stories of alien peoples, erect a Christmas tree in their living room or eat tref. But the material world in which they participated was a national culture whose immense transforming power over their lives derived precisely from its refusal of the local and the particular. This refusal was, of course, hugely to the advantage of the new arrivals, because in effect it made everyone an immigrant


From the perspective of the United States, it sometimes seems as if life in the old country remained fixed in its customs, only coming to an end in the catastrophe of the Final Solution, but I know that this stillness, this existence somehow outside history, is an illusion. Yet I am confident that, whatever changes might have occurred in their lives in the 1920s and 1930s, one thing would not have happened: my grandparents would never have thought of themselves or their children as Lithuanians or Poles, in the way that they came to think of themselves and their children as Americans.


My English professor, seeing the intensity of my engagement in the class, asked me if I would be interested in assisting him with a book he was completing. I accepted at once and made an appointment at the financial aids office, where these student positions were funded. I assumed that the appointment would be routine – a matter of filling out a form – but a minute into the conversation, just after I explained why I was there, the official, Mr Spaulding, looked up at me and said: ‘Greenblatt, that’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?’ Yes, I replied.

‘Frankly,’ he continued, ‘we’re sick and tired at the number of Jews who are coming into our office trying to wheedle money out of Yale University.’

[Never too clear on these things, but pretty sure I am pushing the boundaries and quoting TOO MUCH. This piece isn't behind a paywall, but it is the kind of piece that makes me subscribe to the LRB so I can login ad lib. Would I be happier traversing North America, persuading small town diners and coffee shops and what have you to stock the LRB, rather than fruitlessly shadowboxing the publishing biz? Probably.]

[Funnily. Until I met my ex, David, at Oxford, I didn't realise there were Jewish names. I just thought Cohen was a common name. Seriously.]

Stephen Greenblatt, LRB 21-09-00

1 comment:

Andrew Gelman said...

Part of my family came from Kiev. It was always--always--described as in Russia. Never Ukraine. After the Soviet breakup, I was surprised to learn that the Ukraine was its own country and that they didn't consider themselves Russian.

On the other hand, Poland was always Poland. The part of my family that came from Poland never said they were from Russia, even though I think the part of Poland they were from was part of Russia at the time.

And then there are the different Central and South American countries, where nationality does not have anything close to a one-to-one relation to language.