The American Scene in Commentary's Mirror:
Introduction to an Anthology from our Pages
On February 16, Alfred A. Knopf will bring out COMMENTARY on the American Scene, a selection of about twenty from more than a hundred articles in which COMMENTARY, in its seven years of publication, has explored the complex patterns of Jewish experience in this country. Most of the pieces in the volume are taken from the department called “From the American Scene,” which has appeared in every issue since the beginning, but as our faithful readers know, that department has not sufficed to contain all that COMMENTARY writers have had to say about what has happened to them and to their kinsmen and landsleit on these shores since Columbus sighted San Salvador. We publish here David Riesman’s introduction to the forthcoming volume; as a footnote to Mr. Riesman’s COMMENTARY, we append Elliot E. Cohen’s brief foreword to the book—an editor, it has been said, is someone who, while obviously he should neither be seen nor heard, somehow manages to have both the first and last word. Mr. Riesman is the author (in collaboration with Reuel Denny and Nathan Glazer) of The Lonely Crowd, a study of the American character which since its publication in 1950 has added several significant new concepts to our national self-awareness. COMMENTARY on the American Scene includes contributions by the following writers: Morris Freedman, Herbert J. Gans, Harry Gersh, Ruth Glazer, Grace Goldin, Irving Howe, Milton Kaplan, Isa Kapp, Shlomo Katz, Milton Klonsky, Wallace Markfield, Donald Paneth, William Poster, Earl Raab, Ernest Stock, May Natalie Tabak, Samuel Tenenbaum. Yes, “The Jewish Delicatessen,” “The Jewish Paintner,” “Twas a Dark Night in Brownsville,” “My Grandmother Had Yichus,” “The Trojans of Brighton Beach,” and other favorites are in the book.
“Idle” curiosity about themselves, like alcoholic excess, is something that American Jews in the past have not felt able to afford. They feared inquisitiveness from their enemies; and over their friends they preferred to exercise a certain power of enchantment, controlling the image they presented of themselves—whether as sufferers, as bohemian and uninhibited, or as just like everyone else. Those nearly official guardians of disinterestedness, the social scientists, were also slow in getting around to studying the Jews. Compared with certain other immigrant groups around the turn of the century, the Jews seemed not too disorganized, and perhaps for that reason were left alone; our best study of immigration, Thomas’ and Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, was concerned with one of the most dramatically disorganized groups. Only much later did Thomas, a man with an extraordinary gift for curiosity, get around to studying the Bindelbriefe, the advice columns in the Yiddish press (his collection has never been published), and Louis Wirth write his brief study of the ghetto in Europe and America.
Meanwhile, fiction had discovered the Jews as quaintness to be patronized or as victims to be succored—both old traditions, reapplied to the American scene. Fictional treatment of Jews as intensely interesting individuals came much later, and was the work of a few brilliant, energetic writers. In Daniel Fuchs’s Homage to Blenholt, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? and other works in similar vein, it is often the non-Jews who are victims, while the Jews themselves, strident, violent, hysterically driven and driving, are self-victimized by the very American demons to which they have sold themselves. For the Jews among these authors, neither the ghetto nor America offered enchantment; each alternative, whether cultural orthodoxy or assimilation—or the tension between them—had its savageries; and these could only be expurgated by art, not by life.
In general the tone of fiction today is more subdued (of course the older genres survive), more aware of shadings and ambiguities. Think, for instance, of Isaac Rosenfeld’s Passage from Home, or Saul Bellow’s The Victim, or the elegiac mood of Alfred Kazin’s autobiographical homage to Brownsville, A Walker in the City. There is no wish in these works to shake one’s fist at either America or the Jews, but rather a resignation to both and a recognition that the existential dramas of daily living are colored rather than created by ethnic and cultural localism. In other words, now that it can be admitted, without rancor or apology, that Jews are different, emphasis can be put on the similarities between their fate and that of other people. It is on that assumption, indeed, that the essays in this volume rest: the assumption that Jews are interesting but not particularly special either in privilege or under-privilege. That is, the Jews are chosen not by history or God but by the writer, because of his familiarity with them or his fondness for them or by his interest in them.
The portrait painter has to place his easel; the essayist, novelist, or social scientist has to locate himself vis-à-vis his subject. Most of the subjects in this book, whether college students, delicatessen owners, or the Jews of San Francisco or “Spruceton” in New England, fall, I suppose, within the broad band of the urban middle class. (There are, to be sure, some garment workers of a bygone day and some chicken farmers who are as up-to-date as Space Cadets, but, as we shall see, there is scarcely a representative of the upper social strata.) Now, the urban middle class has been the butt of aristocratic satire since it first rose into prominence; socialism took over much of the aristocracy’s contempt for the bourgeois, so much so that for Karl Marx as for Brooks Adams “the Jew” could be a despised symbol of the banker, the merchant, the soft yet calculating city slicker. When, after 1929, the American middle class, which, much more than Europe’s, had escaped such contempt, turned out to be not only philistine but unsuccessful too, the intellectuals, most of whom were themselves members of the same social group, heaped bitterness upon it. Since the Jewish middle class was hardly less unsuccessful in the depression and since it had fewer traditions, the Jewish intellectuals made good their liberation from it by either merging Jewishness with the cause of the oppressed-at-large or by reserving their most savage digs for the “petty bourgeois” closest to them, the very types now celebrated by affection in this volume.
Since those days, two things have happened. Hitler and Stalin have made it plain to many that there are worse vices than the alleged bad taste and softness of the middle class, worse exploitations than those of “the bosses” or landlords or storekeepers of American capitalism. And at the same time, the middle class has itself become more differentiated, more sophisticated, more interesting and various. Indeed the revaluation of “ordinary” Jewish life which these collected pieces represent is part of a more general revaluation of the American middle class by its erstwhile more aggressively alienated sons. The authors of some of these articles have sought, not for a gambit of savagery and fanaticism, of wanting to do away with all that is merely local, but for a gambit of tolerance, wit, and “idle curiosity.” Thus, they do not propose to sweep the petty-bourgeois Jew into the “dustbin of history”; in fact, Shlomo Katz’s piece (“Heritage”) is a paean to dust, if it be only old and settled enough.
Yet there are obvious dangers in this shift in perspective—dangers of becoming merely pious, sentimental, and hortatory about Jewish, and, more broadly, about middle-class life. The middle-class American’s attitude towards the Jews has often degenerated into the corniness and schmaltziness we are familiar with in many radio and movie “treatments” produced by both Jews and non-Jews. Likewise, the “turn to religion” of many intellectuals often takes, among Jews, the form of an artificial identification with whatever can be labeled as part of an authentic folk culture. We already see the tendency to idealize the life of the shtetl, the small Jewish village community in Eastern Europe, now that it has vanished, much as we idealize the Indians, the pioneers, and other small folksy groups. (Of the analogous tendency to sentimentalize life in the kibbutz, or in Israel generally, we need not speak here.) Similarly, when our parents and earlier ancestors have become too weak and defenseless further to cripple our emancipation, we can sentimentalize them—“killing” them by the false kindness of applying the maxim: de mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Perhaps the Jews are especially prey to the two extremes of a vindictive and aggressive and contemptuous attitude towards tradition and a honeyed and sentimental one, and a loss of all tension between these in any orgy of reconciliation is a particular risk today when the Jews, because they have been victims, and the Americans, because they have been victors, are threatened by complacency.
Thus, what COMMENTARY is doing is precarious; a sharp and acrid curiosity is a needful preventive against any tendencies to become false and pious about the Jewish past and present. Not all essays in this volume escape. But fortunately the refugees in Ernest Stock’s article (“Washington Heights’ ‘Fourth Reich’”) are not treated with tears, nor the boyhoods of William Poster (“’Twas a Dark Night in Brownsville”) and Milton Klonsky (“The Trojans of Brighton Beach”) with excess nostalgia. Then, too, sentimentality is eschewed in those pieces which recognize that, on the whole, the Jews of America do pretty well—and despite the long faces they may pull when they launch fund drives for “defense.” These articles are rich—perhaps, from my ascetic background, I should say overstuffed—with consumables, whether in a city delicatessen or a summer “kochalein.” (Indeed, the addiction to food—brilliantly dealt with in Kazin’s book—seems to be at once frenetic and sedative, and talk about food among Jews may be a kind of ersatz sexuality, a proof of one’s belonging both to a gender and to a cultural group.) Then there are the intangibles: for instance, the library in which Brownsville’s intellectual youth nourished itself in preparation for escape; or the “yichus,” the aristocratic airs of a self-styled elegant and minatory grandma. And on the side of occupations, the essays also indicate a certain richness: Morris Freedman, in his article on the contemporary Jewish student (“The Jewish College Student: 1951 Model”), even regrets the disappearance of the older penury, radicalism, and vocation for the intellectual life as he watches his students prepare for such formerly Judenfrei professions as engineering. Anti-Semitism, where it exists at all in these pages, is only smoke from a distant fire. When the Jews of Park Forest, as described by Herbert Gans (“Park Forest: Birth of a Jewish Community”), set out to provide a “Jewish” cultural and religious life for their children, they are beset, in this moderately well-heeled and unashamedly amiable Chicago suburb, by the artificiality of forcing on their youngsters a group consciousness which they themselves have no urgent reasons to preserve.
Take, for another example, the problems that beset the “Jewish paintner” of Mr. Gersh’s article (“The Jewish Paintner”). They are essentially the same problems which (as my colleague, Everett Hughes, has described them) confront any occupational group: how to keep customers cowed and at a distance; how to prevent one’s own routines from being upset by the client’s emergency (in this case, a passionate desire for a particular color effect); how to control one’s own pace of work and guard one’s own sense of craft even though one operates under the ever-present eye of the client (in this case, abetted by the home-decoration magazines). Such tensions are common to all occupations, though they may be less well-concealed in the humbler ones. Thus, there is nothing in this article which is distinctively Jewish—nothing but the vocabulary (no small matter). But that is just the point: it is intriguing to see what patterns of speech and modes of insolence Jewish painters have contributed to one of history’s oldest struggles, the struggle between the seller and the buyer of service. And I am especially glad to see a study made of an occupational group that is neither glamorous nor oppressed nor oppressing, for here curiosity and personal accident guide us to what is interesting or near at hand, without portentousness or the need to make some kind of thesis for which the workers or consumers are mere pawns.
The jews, then, have moved far enough along in America to be able to afford the same problems—of work, of consumption, of community life—as their neighbors. They do not need to be buoyed up by an apocalyptic future, a menacing present, a chauvinist past. They take their Jewishness sufficiently for granted to permit us the luxury of examining in detail the enormously different ways there are of being at the same time both Jewish and American.
I must add, in fairness, that my own way and that of many other Jews I know is not represented here. The well-to-do and highly assimilated German Jews who in Philadelphia have been referred to as the Grand Dukes; the Jews who constitute what in Catholic circles would be termed “the leakage”—those who have severed all or virtually all Jewish ties; the few old-family upper-class Jews who have not lost their identity either in Christianity and change-of-name or in Zionism and other forms of fraternization with the later arrivals—none of these are included in the circles of sympathy and interest in this volume. Largely, the book grows out of the East European and Yiddish cultures which are those of the great majority of American Jews.
There is no harm in this; a book or a series must start somewhere. And for those who, like myself, were brought up with an almost hermetic ignorance of all things Jewish—an ignorance much greater than that of many non-Jews in New York or Chicago—there is a great advantage in this concentration on the middle and particularly the lower-middle strata of Jewish community life. Jewish culture coming from these strata has had a very considerable part in shaping lower-middle-class urban culture as a whole—something very much resented, of course, by people of rural, fundamentalist background. In contrast, some Jews and non-Jews who have moved in more sheltered circles may be stimulated by this book to find their way, first vicariously and later in person, to adventures across class lines and ethnic lines—to exploration of the heterogeneity which American urban life, despite all standardizing tendencies, continues to encourage. It could even be argued that glamor in America is no longer monopolized by the upper strata (however these are defined) but is sought by adventures downward rather than upward in the class system—adventures legitimized more readily today than social climbing is. Certainly I find it easier to interest my middle-class students in lower-class than in upper-class life—sometimes they deny the very existence of the latter, save in terms of income gradations—and fiction, save for Marquand and one or two other writers, avoids the upper class much as sociology has tended to do.
One reason for this, perhaps, is that the writers in this volume have risen above the class and cultural origins they describe and, like the traditional American self-made man, can reminisce, so to speak, downwards; not being ambitious to move higher still—they have become intellectuals and, as such, partly side-stepped the status game—they can accept without bitterness or concealment the ethnic and class base from which they have graduated. One reason for this lack of bitterness is that the parents of today’s Jewish intellectuals seem to have been not only willing but eager to see them graduate—which may be one reason why the Jewish college graduate (as They Went to College reveals) makes more money than his Protestant, and much more than his Catholic, classmate; family ties have helped the Jewish intellectual rather than held him back. At the same time, these Jews, unlike Scott Fitzgerald, the Irish boy from St. Paul, do not want to crash into an exclusive set—and so they either ignore the existence of such a set or find no fascination in it.
It follows from this that these essays characteristically combine two American themes: democracy and social mobility, both harmonized by not pushing each too far. The mobility may take geographic form—witness the movements into and out of such areas as Brownsville, Brighton, the West Bronx, and the Grand Concourse. It may take religious form—as, for example, in Grace Goldin’s historical description of patterns of worship (“I Remember Tulsa”). It may take financial form—as in the Alger stories of Milton Kaplan (“Private Enterprise in the Bronx”) and in Wallace Markfield’s picture of the Seventh Avenue “bosses” (“Seventh Avenue: Boss and Worker”). All these shifts in taste, assimilation, worship, residence, and understanding are direct and unequivocal. But the very existence of this volume is indirect testimony to the social mobility of Jews as a group. For if its writers and prospective readers were not themselves reasonably secure in their Americanization, they could hardly profess such an interest in the humble incunabula of Jewish communal life; rather, they would have to establish their distance from it. As the Italian immigrant has to go through a gastronomically bleached and bland period before he can again publicly eat garlic and spaghetti, so the Jewish immigrant must also become Americanized before he can again comfortably take pride and pleasure in his ethnic cuisine, idiom, and gesture. It is evidence, then, of his having establishment as an American that he can afford a sprinkling of Yiddish in his speech, a Jewish dish at his table. I speak here, of course, about Jews for whom the non-Jewish audience, real or imagined, is an important influence—even if only an influence to be righteously rejected. Assimilation works less dramatically but perhaps even more surely among the Jews who live, in fact and feeling, in an almost entirely Jewish world; they move as a group, and by imperceptible steps, away from the ethnic culture, with less pronounced cycles of ambivalent rebellion and return.
To be sure, this metaphorical mobility within America, in terms of what one can accept of one’s lowly or immigrant past, has been speeded by developments outside America. The stolidly conservative Spanish and German Jews, under the impact of recent immigration and recent history, have lost ground much faster than conservative Protestants of similar class position—They Went to College shows that only 6 per cent of Jewish college graduates today classify themselves as Republicans. Thus, to have a working-class background or perhaps even working-class manners can be as much a source of pride among American Jews as among Israelis—both reflect the worldwide tendencies towards democratization. Furthermore, the fight against Hitler and Nazi anti-Semitism, the widespread crusade against ethnocentrism and prejudice of race as well as class, has had as one of its minor consequences a willingness on the part of many Jews to accept—even to flaunt—a Jewishness they would once have wished to play down. And for the many American Jews for whom European events are still pretty far away, the local chapters of national organizations, and particularly their ferocious fund drives, have served as continuing and only half unwelcome reminders that one was a Jew, that—anti-Semitism or no—one was stuck with this Jewishness, and that one might as well attend the rally, enjoy the food and the “Jewish” jokes, and pay the collector.
On the other hand, non-Jews, out of shame, sympathy, or simply an altered focus of attention, have sought to familiarize themselves with Jewish matters. Indeed, the use by non-Jews of Yiddish phrases, their knowing references to the Jewish worlds of New York, their fondness for Jewish foods, are sometimes symbolic ways of indicating sympathy, lack of prejudice, and the urban sophistication for which Jews are supposed to stand. In the increasing venturesomeness of American leisure and consumption, Jews play a large share as models and pacesetters, and the Protestant revolt against Protestantism makes frequent use of them: to be emancipated in America means to have Jewish friends, either in fact or fancy.
The economic well-being of the Jews in contemporary America thus appears to have at least two aspects. Coming here as one of the few immigrant groups which already had something of an urban, intellectual culture—and a certain experience in combating discrimination—the Jews succeeded in rapidly adapting themselves to the business and professional opportunities of an expanding metropolitanism. This adaptation, however, was never internalized. Most Jews never learn a true devotion to their vocations, to substitute for their devotion to family, fame, career, and the main chance. Thus, the Jews were prepared, somewhat in advance of other groups, for the general shift of cosmopolitan America towards leisure-minded rather than work-minded attitudes. My guess is that a study would show that Jews were among the first to ride commercial airlines for ease as well as for business reasons, to install air-conditioning, to run hospitals that didn’t smell of ether (sickness may be regarded as a form of leisure), to take winter vacations, and otherwise to pioneer on the frontiers of comfort. In “West Bronx: Food, Shelter, Clothing,” Mrs. Glazer describes some of the pioneer styles, and she grasps (as Jacques Barzun does more generally in his brilliant Harper’s article on “America’s Romance with Practicality”) the substructure of idealism beneath this seeming devotion to the things of matter that matter.
But of course there are many Jews of whom all this is not true—Jews who have had no part in the progression by which the casserole and the icebox have replaced the melting pot as America’s contribution to ethnic harmony. For some of the Jews reported on in this volume are Puritanical; those who obey the Law, and those who, in Brownsville’s library, prepare to leave it behind, live lives which may be intense but which are hardly gay or colorful. Where it is not simply a stereotype, the American image of the Jews has been set in the mold of a few—of a minority within the minority. Both Jew and non-Jew may find in this volume a greater range of “Jewish” existence than they had known of.
And this leads me to recur to the view that such a volume should be thought of as a first installment in a long series of portraits. There are recorded here some vanishing, if not vanished types and scenes: the old-clothes man, the genteel lace-curtain grandma of “My Grandmother Had Yichus,” the early shul in Tulsa, the new Eden in San Francisco. Doubtless, the amateur and gifted anthropologists represented here wanted to describe these persons and places before acculturation should alter them beyond recognition. But Jewish life in America is changing so rapidly that new kinds of persons and new kinds of places are always being thrown up—Morris Freedman’s article on the new-mode] Jewish college student is one such attempt to capture the future as well as recapture the past. And in turn our other ethnic groups in America need to be looked at with the kind of attention illustrated here. Matthew Arnold’s conclusion, in 1883, that America was simply “not interesting” was not true then; today, it would be a fantastic statement about so various, so enterprising, so spirited a culture. Good reporting about that culture is itself part of that variety, that enterprise, that spirit.
Most of the COMMENTARY pieces that make up this book were published in the department of the magazine called “From the American Scene.” They are written by Jews about Jews. Inescapably, one might think, they would be anxious, defensive, aggrieved, purposeful. Paradoxically, they are not. They aim neither to prove anything, to solve anything, nor to make a “contribution” to the times or the ages. They are written for enjoyment, and with enjoyment, we guess—and need no introduction. So—they have two, by the editor himself and a guest professor—and of sociology, no less.
Perhaps it is that one feels that COMMENTARY, even after all of seven years of existence, still needs a word or two of explanation. The official statement that it is a magazine devoted to “Jewish affairs and world issues” for some reason doesn’t suffice. People ask questions, plenty of them. We like best of all the definition which one of our subscribers overheard his eldest giving: “Well, COMMENTARY is like the Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s, you know, serious, but more serious . . . but more funny too—say, that’s funny!”
Well, perhaps COMMENTARY is a bit odd, as befits a Jewish magazine. One oddity is that so “specialist” a magazine gives so much of its pages to “general” affairs; another, that by now so large a proportion of its non-Jewish readers read it, as they say, “religiously” and find it “represents them,” reflects what they feel and think. And of all its oddities, many readers profess to find most odd the department “From the American Scene”—so “popular” a department in so “serious” a magazine.
As A matter of fact, this department has from its inception been, in the editor’s view, nearest of all to the heart of the magazine’s purpose. It was our thought to use many methods to help bring American Jews and their concerns into their own and the public view with fuller knowledge and insight than generally obtains—historical reconstruction, intellectual analysis, reportage, religious reflection, sociological and other scientific study, fiction. But from the 17th century we remembered one way of writing about human life that has fallen into disuse, though it was once immensely fruitful and indeed may be said to be the mother method of journalism. We refer to those informal sketches from daily life called “characters.” Less specific than the individual incident or personality, less general than the scientific or philosophical essay, these sketches of representative figures and scenes built up a typology of the familiar life of their times.
In “From the American Scene” it was our hope to provide a similar picture gallery of Jews and their familiar ways of life “on the American scene.” What could be simpler than to look about and write of what you saw and remembered of the landscape nearest to you? Of course nothing is more difficult to do than just this, especially in these times, and especially with Jews. It is the very last mode in which it is fashionable to write today—and who writes about Jews except problematically, creating new problems where, heaven knows, enough exist already? Who writes of human beings simply as human beings, taking the stance of neither the scientist, nor the objective reporter, nor the detached social or psychological novelist, but con amore, identifying oneself with the common life and being open to it and about it—and about oneself?
But it can be done, as this book shows. Whatever the novelists and the deep thinkers and the apocalyptic politicals dredge up—alas, all too accurately!—about this desperate world, and whatever they discover about the Jews, that most desperate of peoples, it is still possible for Jews in America to look at their lives with a new ease—an ease that comes from the realization that here they, like a hundred other kinds of people, are at home, and can at last permit themselves to sit around once in a while in their house slippers, and even let the neighbors see them through the windows en famille with their hair in curl-papers and their suspenders dropped.
In the introduction he has written for this volume, David Riesman speaks with great penetration of what these pieces show of the Jewish group in the American setting—their origins, their socio-economic status, etc. I should like, myself, to mention briefly an aspect which he does not much touch upon, possibly because he is looking chiefly elsewhere as, indeed, the writers of these pieces were, mostly. I refer to that extra dimension given to Jewish personality and life by the fact that each Jew moves, consciously or not, in the context of a long and special history and a religious-ethical tradition that lays upon him, whether as a burden or a badge of pride, the sense of being “chosen,” and so creates in him the tendency, even the obligation, to carry himself “with a difference.”
It is this that plays a persistent counterpoint—humorous, pathetic, tragic, farcical, serious-making—to whatever Jews do or are.
Under the caftan in the ghetto we were princes of the most royal of all lineages—as Sholom Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” said, “the envy and admiration of the world”—and vestiges of this magnificent pride remain somewhere in each of us. The Jewish “paintner” behaves as he does—and how he behaves!—because, in addition to all the good reasons Mr. Riesman cites, what kind of life is it anyway for a grown Jew to be daubing cinnamon-bun tan on some silly woman’s dinette?
More than once in a while in these sketches there shows through, often undefined but still real, the enduring hold of Jewish historic memory. And perhaps as COMMENTARY goes on into the years following, we shall see it exhibited more often and explicitly—and more often, too, without the nostalgic sense of loss, but as something cherished that is felt likely to continue.
Indeed, cannot one already note month by month how the American Scene pieces in the magazine increasingly reflect the impress of Jewish tradition and heritage upon American Jews? [The two sketches in this issue, for examples—“In Tails, Tallis, and Tachrichim” by S. T. Hecht, and “Making the American Shabbos” by Grace Goldin.] For all their differences of theme and tone, don’t these pieces, in their various ways, reveal how amazingly the complex, intimate, and infinitely diverse relations of Jews to their code and faith still persist, despite alterations, in their daily life in free America? [If one would trace the stubborn strain, in some of its various flowerings, compare the two contemporary American sketches just cited with other pieces in this same issue, set in differing places and time—“Sayings of the Fathers,” “The King, the Bishop, and the Jew,” “The Interviewer at Work,” and “The Heart of a Chauffeur.”]
Perhaps the “old rabbinic conditioning,” to use Professor Erwin Goodenough’s fine phrase, is the hardiest of all perennials—whatever the soil and in whatever new “religious” or/and “secular” hybrid. So our forefathers thought—and so more than a few of the neighbors testify. A mystery? No, and yes. . . . Like all human life. . . . After all, is not Jewish experience purported to be human history’s favorite mirror, symbol, and paradigm?
But this brings us to still another last word. Why are these “Jewish” pieces so “American”?—this question has been asked with speculative wonder by a hundred COMMENTARY readers, Jewish and non-Jewish. Why am I reminded of my Congregationalist grandfather, my mother’s eccentric cousin who runs a filling station in Tennessee, my very Italian mother? Well, maybe the old saying will help us: the Jews are like everybody else—only more so. This need never have been such a paradox—for haven’t we found, the common belief to the contrary, that to be most individual is to be most representative? Is not the commonest element shared by all common men the fact of difference? So it is, we venture to say, that most of the paradoxes about “the Jew” apply to all people, and especially to “the American,” who is always something else besides American, whose very Americanness perhaps consists in being something else—Jew, Catholic, Italian, Negro, Irishman, Pole, white native Protestant, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Westchesterite, Texan, Baltimorean, Brooklynite—“and proud of it.”
It is all of this, and much else, that makes the sum of these states and its peoples add up to the richest country in the world to live in (and to write about)—and in every sense that the word “rich” has meaning.
And it is only the beginning. For over this land, too, whether by the accidents or the predestinations of history, there hovers that extra dimension, a sense however dim of some high promise that keeps this “most materialist nation on the globe,” as more than one has called us, the most conscience-ridden of all.
Jews, we said earlier, traditionally feel that they live under a covenant. What if—suddenly it occurs to us—it is the fate of American Jews to live under a double covenant, our ancient one and that which we feel crystallizing in the American firmament? Awful thought! But need a double covenant be a double burden—may it not prove a double blessing, not only for the lot of us, but for lots of others?
—Elliot E. Cohen