I Married a Jew

I am going to tackle an essay now that made the rounds a few years ago and originally dates back to 1939, so I'm not exactly treading new ground here. The article is titled "I Married a Jew" and was published in the Atlantic, which put its archives online in 2008, leading to the rediscovery.

I think it enjoyed  attention a few years back because the author, a liberal-minded young woman, manages nonetheless to be spectacularly wrong about just about everything. She's even wrong about Hitler, lecturing her Jewish husband that there is nothing especially notable or unique about the man, and that Jews are just being oversensitive about the subject.

Indeed, the whole essay is essentially one long harangue about the failings of Jews, so much so that New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait called her "the world’s first recorded Shiksplainer."

The story became popular enough that The Atlantic itself felt a need to respond, in the form of a column by staff writer Olga Khazan that essentially treats the whole article as a bizarre artifact of an ancient time. "It’s now basically an after-midnight SNL sketch in magazine-article form," she wrote, later adding that the story is a "a powerful remembrance of how much more hateful our world was just a few generations ago."

Faraway and alien

And the original story does seem faraway and alien, despite having been written not-so-very-long ago -- it was authored a year after my father was born. And yest, especially in the past few weeks, it does not seem so very, very faraway or alien. It's an essay that just reeks with privilege, and I don't think privilege has gone away.  If anything, I think the past election, in which a candidate pushing a white nationalist worldview was elected president, shows that not only is this sort of privilege still around, but it can decide the fate of nations.

What strikes me now upon reading the essay are not the things that seem different, although they are worth noting. She is adamant that Jews are a different race, which her Jewish husband agrees with. In general, this is not a widely held worldview anymore, except among rabid antisemites. She quotes her mother's concerns that her marriage to a Jew will bar her from certain circles, but that isn't so much the case anymore. The mother also declares Jews to be Oriental, and not only has the meaning of the word changed quite a bit (at the time it included the near Middle East), but the word has fallen out of popular uses except to refer to rugs.

She also declares Picasso a Jew, for some reason, and doesn't think much of him. She calls a synagogue a Jewish church, which is crazy. She seems to think it is literally impossible for someone from China to assimilate into American society, which was then a popular stereotype that doesn't get applied to the Chinese as much nowadays; no, instead we hear it is Muslims who are incapable of assimilating.

And, finally, as mentioned, she minimizes the threat of Hitler, who on January 30th of 1939 had announced his intention to annihilate the Jewish race in Europe. Writing the same year, the author of "I Married a Jew" tells her husband that "a hundred years hence the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England, who did the same thing in the thirteenth century." In the entire history of predicting things, this may the worst prediction anyone has yet managed, and the fact that she had the temerity to lecture a Jew about antisemitism, its risks, and how real its threat is -- well, I just can't. I can't.

But what stands out for me is how little room she makes in her life for Judaism. She boasts that her husband does not look Jewish, does not have a Jewish name, and is not religious. It's the only thing that convinces her nakedly antisemitic mother to approve the marriage. The author learns almost nothing about Judaism, although she boasts that she has read the Old Testament, as though reading a document that is considered sacred to Christians is in some way a favor to the Jews.

There is a moment when she tries to describe the Yiddish used by her husband's family, and she manages two actual Yiddish words -- meshuge, meaning crazy, and tzimmes, a sweet stew. But then she also says chasseh, and I have no clue what she's trying to say, and I grew up with exactly the sort of Yiddish she describes and have studied it as a language for almost a year. In fact, if you do a Google search, the second result for "chasseh" is this article, and the first is for a Jewish history project from Maine that describes a man speaking Yiddish with a thick Mainer accent, so that the word for pig, chazzer, is rendered chasseh. Maybe that's what she's hearing.

Anyway, she doesn't like the Yiddish. Well, not the Yiddish, per se, but instead the fact that the husband's family "make no concession to me as a Gentile." She continues: " They go about their Jewish ways, tales of their Jewish problems, and consider me aloof if I do not enter whole-heartedly into all this and become as one of them."

Let me remind you of the thing that made the husband appealing to her: The fact that he didn't seem especially Jewish. There is no indication that she has made any room for his Jewishness in her life. But, then, it is pretty clear she thinks she shouldn't have to. Here is her harangue on the Jewish character:

Had the Jews seized these opportunities for amalgamation, eventually all the barriers would have been broken down. But the Jews did not seize the opportunity. They chose to retain their identity and remained in intact as before. Today it is America that is offering the children of Israel the greatest opportunity in history for absorption.

This paragraph is not unique. It's a subject she returns to again and again, almost obsessively -- indeed, she refers to her husband as "lapsing" back into Jewishness when he is around his family, which  feels alien to her. "Separately I am fond of them; individually I welcome them to my home; but in a large group of them I feel like a fish out of water," she complains.

And this is the crux of it. This is the privilege. She has grown up in a world where she has never been made to feel the outsider, and when she very briefly experiences it, when she very occasionally enters an environment where her concerns, experiences, and worldview are not dominant, she recoils. Never mind that this is how her husband's family feels all the time -- that is their own fault, as they are clannish, foreign interlopers.

She gestures at sympathy at one point, saying that we must meet halfway, that Jews must not be so entirely Jewish and Gentiles must not be so entirely Gentile, but she offers no concessions of her own. Well, one. When her husband irritably reminds her that many Jews have assimilated but been subjected to antisemitism anyway, she allows that this as true. But, when it comes down to it, whose fault was it?

The Jews. The Jews did not seize the opportunity. They chose to retain their identity and remained in intact as before.

Echoes of fascism

It is almost impossible not to hear echoes of fascism in these words. Here are two quotes, and I will not tell you whether they are from the article or from Adolf Hitler. See if you can determine who said what:

"The best characterization is provided by the product of this religious education, the Jew himself. His life is only of this world, and his spirit is inwardly as alien to true Christianity as his nature two thousand years previous was to the great founder of the new doctrine."

"The Hebrew religion must be divorced from the promulgation of that race consciousness which every synagogue and temple considers as important a part of Judaism as prayer; it should be mortified at least to the point where it does not belittle the great ideal of western culture and civilization: Christ."

It's the latter. I know that this is a little unfair, as typically Hitler was a little more blunt about his antisemitism, referring to Jews as vermin and enemies of the state. But both started from the presumption that Jews are interlopers, and that their refusal to assimilate was the crux of the Jewish question -- the difference between Hitler and our more tolerant Gentile wife is that the former did not think Jews could assimilate, by virtue of being a degenerate race, while the author of "I Married a Jew" thinks Jews can assimilate, but choose not to, and therefore encourage institutional antisemtism.

But both share a core belief: That the problem is the Jew. That antisemtism isn't a pernicious evil perpetrated by Gentiles upon Jews, but instead a predictable response to the fact of Jews. Particularly, that there is something about the Jewish experience that, by its clannish nature, makes it hard to trust the national identity of the Jew. "A few cultural, intellectual Jews announce they are first Americans and then Jews, but they are voices crying in the wilderness," she complains.

What is the source of her sense that there is something suspicious about the Jewish experience in America, something that might be contradictory to the national interests of the country? She is never especially clear on this, but, based on her essay, I would guess it is this:

She thinks her experience, as a Gentile woman in America, is the American experience. When she is among unassimilated Jews, not only does she encounter an experience that is unlike her own, but one that does not defer to her experience.

It never occurs to her that this is what it is like to live in a multicultural America, because she was not witness to a previous generation's conflict, in which the loyalties of German Americans were seen as suspect, and were suppressed. No, she grew up in an America where German-Americans were comfortably mainstream. As a result, when she finds herself in a situation in which she feels her own experiences being marginalized, she makes an amazing leap: She is not sure she can trust these people as Americans.

But it's not that amazing a leap. The idea that the refusal of Jews to assimilate makes them a suspect people, an invading nation with Jewish loyalties, is a classic antisemitic trope -- it was the very one that Hitler used to justify the Final Solution. Our author grew up with a mother who was nakedly antisemitic ("Jews are sensual, aggressive, ostentatious, cunning—that is a heritage they can never overcome. They accomplish things in business because they are shrewder than Christians and never hesitate to seize an unfair advantage."). More than that, she grew up in an American that was more nakedly antisemitic than now. She absorbed that antisemitism as fact and, amazingly, decided to write an entire column in which she lectures her husband about the problems with Judaism, using these antisemitic arguments.

Not so dominant

With the rise of the belligerently antisemitic so-called alt right, it is tempting to look at how they use these classic antisemitic tropes. But I think most Americans are closer to "I Married a Jew's" author, and I think we're seeing a lot of this same sort of reaction right now. The dominant majority is not so dominant anymore, and soon won't be a majority -- by 2060, it is projected that non-whites will be the majority in this country.

That's still a ways off, but we're certainly seeing the effects of white people no longer feeling like they are being pushed out of the center. It shows itself whenever a minority asserts themselves in any way. "Black Lives Matter" is immediately responded to with "All Lives Matter," which must be understood as saying "How Dare You Craft a Slogan That Doesn't Include White People." Abigail Fisher insists, without evidence, that she was passed over for acceptance into the University of Texas in favor of less qualified black people, and takes the case to the Supreme Court. Pharmacists refuse to provide birth control to patients, and county clerk Kim Davis refuses to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, and both insist that they are not discriminating, but instead are being discriminated against, because their religion gives them the right to treat other American citizens unequally.

Never mind that it doesn't. But you'll note that, despite the fact that these people are violating the law, nobody ever questions whether or not Christianity is compatible with being American, or demands that Christians assimilate.

When I say Trump ran on a platform of White Nationalism, I mean that his speeches were meant to assuage white Americans that this is a white nation, and inflame their anger than it is becoming increasingly less white. Consistently, he targeted non-whites, particularly (but not exclusively) Mexicans and Muslims.

I won't spend any time on arguments that he reached his audience because he addressed economic insecurities, as he had no actual policies to address this. Instead, he ran on a platform that looked for scapegoats, and found them, and they were almost entirely people of color. He appealed to national humiliation, but his voters weren't economically humiliated -- Trump's supporter had a median income of $72,000, which is $20,000 higher than the national median income and $48,000 higher than the poverty rate for a family of four.

No, they were responding to racial humiliation. Trump painted undocumented Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, despite the fact that these immigrants commit, on average, less crime than American citizens. Trump painted Muslims as either being violent extremists or participating in a support network for violent extremists, despite the fact that your average American is almost totally unlikely to experience political terrorism, and if they do so it will likely be at the hands of a white extremist. 

Trump opposed globalism, but he almost exclusively pointed to Mexico and China as places where US manufacturing jobs have gone. But the truth is, while the US did lose about 5 million factory jobs since 2000, most of them didn't go overseas, but instead were lost to increased automization. Brown people didn't take the jobs; robots did. 

But white people aren't afraid of robots. Not the way they are afraid of brown people, afraid of being pushed out of the center. And it was a winning strategy -- although Trump did not manage to win the popular vote, the Electoral College, which was designed to protect the interests of slave owners, aligned with white nationalist concerns in this election, a stunning demonstration of both the tenacity of racism and the longterm effectiveness of institutions designed to support racism.


I suppose the thing that I find most illuminating about the essay it is fragility. That's a word that's enjoyed a lot of currency lately, and I think it is the right one. She presumes her privileged is somehow natural and earned, and that the experience of white Christians is the American experience. She spends almost all her time luxuriating in this while witnessing the real-world oppression of her husband. He is, as an example, denied the opportunity to join a fraternity due to his religion, and that's just one of the many opportunities that were denied to Jews in the 1930s. And this happens despite the fact that he does not look Jewish, does not have a Jewish name, and is not religious -- for all practical purposes, he has assimilated away his Judaism, to such an extent that the author admits the subject almost never comes up.

And yet, for the very brief moments when she is with his family, and her experiences are no longer assumed to be dominant, she becomes tremendously unhappy. So unhappy that she had to write an entire essay for The Atlantic discussing how Jews desperately need to be less Jewish or antisemtism will continue. 

And it is worth reading this essay knowing that the author is still with us, or at least her worldview is. There are a lot of people in America like her, who presume the experience of being white and Christian is the American experience. She couldn't stand hearing a little Yiddish -- imagine how hard it would be for someone like her to be in America that constantly challenges her dominance, her centrality, her status.

And we Jews must be mindful of this, both because we are still not so close to the mainstream, as the brutal antisemtism of the alt right reminds us, but also because we are close enough to the mainstream to likewise be threatened, likewise be fragile. 

When we hear our neighbors described as incapable of assimilation, or as having divided loyalties due to their religion, or as being unwelcome interlopers undeserving of the same rights or opportunities, we should remember that the same was said of us.

It was not so long ago. Some say it still.