What Can Survive the Melting Pot?
[Note: In a letter to the editor published in the January 1949 COMMENTARY, Alvin Johnson, commenting on Robert Pick's “A Refugee Looks at Anti-Semitism Here,” suggested that anti-Semitism in America does not constitute a serious political danger, and that the exclusion of Jews from certain areas of American life (and the corresponding tendency of Jews to keep themselves apart) may be in some ways a blessing, since it tends to perpetuate within the Jewish group intellectual values which might be dissipated if Jews were accepted more readily in American “society.” There followed the exchange of letters between Mr. Pick and Dr. Johnson which is published below.—Ed.]
Dear Dr. Johnson:
In my article I did try very hard, in tackling the problem of social segregation, to distinguish between the—mainly utilitarian—reaction of Jewish refugees to racial segregation in such areas as employment and education, and the sense of exclusion from “society,” i.e., preferred social circles. What seems to have blurred the clear line I wanted to draw was the fact that, as you know, Jewish emancipation in Europe cannot be separated historically from the social acceptance granted to those 18th-and early 19th-century “court” Jews, bankers, and army contractors, who formed probably as foolish a group as their less excusable 20th-century counterparts. My thinking must have been more influenced than I thought by the notion of that “progress from above” which, at least in Jewish affairs, effected what progress there was in Central Europe. I wish I had admitted in my piece how strongly that concept still lives on in any Jew brought up in Continental Europe. I cannot but deplore that it made me appear, my assurance to the contrary notwithstanding, a special pleader for the handful of snobbish Continental Jews who crave to be admitted to American “society”. . . .
New York City
Dear Mr. Pick:
In writing to COMMENTARY about your article, I did not intend to criticize your views, but to invoke further discussion. For the problem is one that would profit by a good deal of airing.
There has been much criticism, particularly from Jewish thinkers, of Zangwill’s conception of the Melting Pot. The conception of persistent minority groups has been set up against it—a “pluralist” society. But in the furnace of American life most imported European ore does melt. Groups held together by religion, like the Mennonites, Dukhobors, French Canadians, and particularly the Jews, are refractory ore. But bit by bit they melt. The Rockefellers of today aren’st even aware that the 18th-century Roggenfelders thought it a sin to marry out of their sect and a temptation of the Devil to understand English.
The Jews are perhaps the most refractory ore of all, but yet they do melt. Hardly a month passes without some young Gentile of my acquaintance marrying a Jewess, or some young Jew marrying a Gentile. Such marriages, the wise ones say, are seldom successful. That I think is sheer nonsense. Among my friends, Gentile and Jew, divorce is common. Of the hundred or more mixed marriages among my friends I can’t recall one single divorce.
You may say, if this is true, there is a reason. To be sure. A mixed marriage is contracted over difficulties. The young pair have to override parental objections on both sides. Each realizes that the other makes a sacrifice which ought to be compensated for by especial devotion. Why shouldn’t such marriages succeed?
Take a long look ahead. Can you believe that with the rise of the working classes, too hard-headed for anti-Semitic sentimentalism, Jewish ore will remain refractory enough to resist melting? I don’t.
In a Western village I encountered a family of the name of Cowing. You will readily see the etymology. Cohen, Cowen, Cowin, Cowing. (Part of it you find in real estate abstracts.) The Cowings are good Methodists and fear for my soul, since I am living in New York “among so many atheists and Jews.”
Keep apart; encourage discrimination against you, or the Melting Pot will get a lot of you, anyway. I’d hate it if it got you all. Judaism is a grand religion; Jewish culture is a grand culture. For the elect. But for Mike Cowing, able auto repair man, it is good that Etta Burns has no reservations on him except as to the wart over his left eye, which he will have to have taken off before she’ll say yes.
The New School
New York City
Dear Dr. Johnson:
Your letter has given me much food for thought. In the beginning I hesitated to discuss problems about which I might be thought to know so little from first-hand experience. But I have been struck by the sense of apartness in a good number of Jewish second-generation Americans. Yet at the same time, by and large, I did not encounter among them the kind of religiosity that pervades such groups as the Mennonites and the Dukhobors. Quite often I was startled by the lack of Jewish, or even Biblical, knowledge among young Jews. If one does not believe in a persistent tribal instinct, and at the same time considers the evident fading out of ancestral memories of Jewish theocratic community life, the conspicuous sense of belonging together which most American Jews seem to have can be accounted for only by the feeling, or fear, of being discriminated against. I admit it is a vicious circle. A long book would have to be written to follow the course of this problem through the centuries.
You regard anti-Semitism in this country as a transitory phenomenon, bound to disappear with the gradual melting of the “Jewish ore” in the “furnace of American life.” I agree as to the usual success of mixed marriages and its reason. I know many European Gentiles who followed their Jewish spouses into exile and loyally shared its hardships. Intermarriage was, in certain periods, rather frequent in Western and Central Europe—more so, I seem to notice, than even in presentday America. But I am afraid that it had little impact on anti-Semitism in general. In fact, the anti-Semitic half-Jew was a well-known type. Naturally, the off-spring of mixed marriages tend toward the majority side. This, you may say, is as it should be.
And once all the Cohens have become Cowings anti-Semitism will no longer have an object. But you do not desire the disappearance of all the Cohens. You want Judaism and Jewish culture preserved. “For the elect.” Can any culture survive without a reservoir? Might not some anonymous Cohen of today be one of tomorrow’s “elect”?