Are American Jews assimilated?

Perhaps you’ve heard of Jewish assimilation in the United States. Jews are supposedly becoming indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors. Supposedly, many Jews have lost their Jewish identity and others have reduced their Jewishness to a receding ethnic background.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A large number of Jews celebrate Passover in some way. Perhaps only by eating some matzah. When we were young, we loved matza slathered with butter. Then there’s matzah brei (BRIE). Matzah is softened by being soaked in water. Then the water is drained and the matzah soaked in egg. The mixture is fried in oil.

Jews I know buy matzah only for Passover and finish the box and don’t have matzah in the house the rest of the year.

This may sound trivial — what some call “gastronomic Judaism.” But Jewishness in primarily in the home and only secondarily in the synagogue. Pollsters don’t investigate what the home is like.

The big observance of Passover is the Seder (SAY der) on Passover night. This is a recital of the Exodus from Egypt of our long-ago ancestors. It’s accompanied by eating matzah with bitter herbs and drinking four cups of wine besides eating a holiday meal. A large number of Jews participate in a Seder. Many make one themselves. Others are invited to the homes of those who make Seder. With electronics the way they are, there are even virtual Seders. There are also community Seders that are well publicized in advance.

Once again, observance is at home. Any number of these Jews don’t show up in a synagogue except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, if even then.

There’s one more home-based expression of Jewishness. It’s the winter holiday of Chanukah (KHAH noo ka). The eight-day holiday commemorates regaining the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the hands of the Syrian-Greeks who defiled it. The first touch of normality was to light the seven-branch Menorah candelabrum with pure, untainted olive oil. The Greeks had gone out of their way to defile all of the oil. The priests in the Temple did find one cruse of oil that escaped the attention of the Greeks. It was enough to last one day. G-d made a miracle that it burned for eight days until new, pure oil could be procured. So we light candles for eight days in our homes.

An untold number of Jews light Chanukah candles. Standard-sized candles are sold wherever there’s a Jewish market, even a small one. In the town where my synagogue is, there are 25,000 souls. An insignificant number of Jews live in town. Yet the local supermarket carries candles and holiday related paraphernalia.

You can believe that there’s a gastronomic dimension to the holiday. We try to eat latkes (LOT keez), potato pancakes fried in oil, not fat. The key here is the oil element. Since the miracle came about through oil, we are recalling the miracle when we latkes. People who are friendly with the kitchen grate their own potatoes — and maybe onions too — and fry them. And what better oil to use than olive oil?

Back to the supermarket. There are frozen, ready-made potato pancakes, which I bought this year and shared with my sister. Neither of us needed the empty calories of the eight latkes that make up the package. Then there are also mixes on the store shelves especially for Chanukah.

One dimension of Chanukah that is not in the home is the public menorah lightings across the country, even the world, wherever there might be a few Jews. A rabbi friend of mine in Cochise county, Arizona, sponsored celebrations around public lightings around the county and in, of all places, Tombstone, Arizona.

The Chabad synagogue where I said that I go lit a 12 foot menorah with lamp oil in the garden parkway across from the newish synagogue. The congregation moved into a vacant storefront across from where the menorah had been lit for a number of years before! Consequentially, the lighting was only yards away from the synagogue with its prominent signage that it belongs to the Chabad movement.

I would estimate that about 100 people — I wouldn’t know how many were Jewish — turned out around sundown. Hot latkes were served after the short prayers and menorah lighting — why not — and you had a choice of doughnuts, something else fried in oil.

So now we have moved into the realm of public, countable Jewishness.

Many American Jews do not enter a synagogue all year long. They say that they’re not religious, maybe even agnostics, so worship does nothing for them. They’re Jewish in their hearts. (You hear this a lot.) They aren’t asked by pollsters whether they’re Jewish at home sometime during the year.

Along come the Jewish high holy days (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), and Jews flock to synagogues. These folks are often derided as “twice-a-year Jews.” As I’ve shown, nothing could be further from the truth. They’re “twice-a-year” worshipers.

Please note that Judaism is more than a religion, more than worship attendance. It’s a way of life. American Jews punctuate their lives with Jewish ways.

Which brings up the cases when I am greeted with the expression shalom when as I pass by another person on my walks — sometimes a walker him/herself, sometimes a cyclist. I’m visibly Jewish, wearing a kipah (yarmulke) all the time, and that prompts their Jewish awareness to come out. Sometimes such a greeting comes from a non-Jew, though. But, what doesn’t come from a non-Jew is the greeting Shabbat shalom — literally “Sabbath peace.” This is a traditional greeting on the Jewish Sabbath, from Friday evening until dark on Saturday night. One does not say “good morning” (and so on) on the Sabbath. For those with a Sabbath awareness, it’s always Shabbat shalom.

Then there is Israel. Most American Jews are sympathetic to the welfare of the Jewish State. Many have gone or will go to Israel to see how a Jewish majority lives and to visit historical sites.

Parents send their children to Israel on programs specially geared to the interests of young people. Admittedly, some Jewish young people go to Britain, France, or Italy on programs, but how many? In what numbers? And going on these programs does not preclude going to Israel.

Some Jews on the left are obsessed with the Palestinians and how Israel treats them. This is still a Jewish identity. I’m sure that they’re indifferent to the way Russia has colonized South Ossetia, if they even know about it.

Still there is more public Jewishness than public menorahs. Some Jews make it a point of commemorating the Holocaust in public ways. This is a part of a distinct Jewish identity.

Some large universities have departments of Jewish Studies. There’s no telling how much of a Jewish consciousness students in these departments have (or if they’re even Jewish). When I returned to college — University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) — I took a course entitled Medieval Jewish History. While the professor had a Jewish identity, I’m not sure whether any of the students were even Jewish. The university also offered a course entitled Modern Jewish History. UMKC didn’t have a Jewish Studies department as of 2011.

Then there’s a tony high school in Chicago’s northern suburbs that offers Hebrew as a foreign language. I can’t say whether this is the only Jewish awareness for any students, but for Jews in the class, it is a public expression of not being assimilated.

Where there are concentrations of Jews, there are Jewish Community Centers. Funded by donations and membership dues, they serve the surrounding community, not just Jews. The JCC near Kansas City is equipped with a gym and a theater. Not so many JCCs are not so elaborate. But the JCC is primarily a venue for Jewish events. It also houses a Holocaust remembrance center.

What American Jews are is acculturated. This is a sociological description of describing a feature of immigrants to the U.S. and their children and grandchildren. The first generation has to learn English and navigate how to earn a living. The second generation goes to public schools and speaks and reads and writes fluently in English. The third generation of other immigrants to the U.S. assimilates, in this case to American ways and mores. But third generation Jews have rarely assimilated. They didn’t enter the melting pot.

Some sociologists liken the product of the American assimilation of immigrants as a cooking pot where all the ingredients come apart and meld and eventually become a puree. But, for the most part, Jews didn’t come apart and “melt” into American society.

Jews are acculturated. They know their way around American society. They’ve opened doors for themselves that were closed. The U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions that broke up residential segregation. Along came the civil rights acts and more barriers crumbled. But even though the doors to assimilation are wide open, most Jews have retained a measure of Jewishness that may only come out at home.

Indeed there are assimilated Jews. Many of these have married non-Jews. Still there are cases where the non-Jewish spouse agrees to raise their children as Jews. No one knows how frequent this is. People only hear about alarming statistics of how many intermarriages there are. I do find it alarming, but it’s anyone’s guess how much Jewish identity these families really have, especially the Jewish partner. In one case that I know of, the Jewish husband of a non-Jewish wife told me, “She made me Jewish.” If he was assimilated before, he now had a Jewish awareness when he lit the Chanukah menorah. He was acculturated.

Jewish assimilation and intermarriage are Jewish tragedies. No doubt. But my point is that there is less assimilation than the pundits say. And poll takers don’t do in depth interviews. Such interviews are the realm of sociologists. How many have received grants to undertake such research about the extent of Jewish assimilation? How many want to undertake such research? It’s not politically correct to diminish the magnitude of Jewish assimilation.

I don’t want to fail to mention of small groups of Jews in the United States, Israel, and around the world who shun acculturation. They embrace parts of contemporary technology but not any American culture. They are determined to live lives that duplicate the ways of their forebears in Europe. There is no compromise on their part. They also don’t reach out to their fellow Jews who are unlike them, whom they deem as non-Jews, to increase their Jewish awareness. Is this also a Jewish tragedy? I’m not sure.

I admit that there is nothing scientific about what I have written. Notice how many times I write “many,” “often,” and the vague “sometimes.”

What I have done is introduce the sociological concept of “acculturation” to describe what I believe to be the majority of American Jews. I want to change the discourse.

Immigrants are witnesses in Trump impeachment hearings

Three immigrants have testified before the U.S. Congressional joint impeachment inquiry concerning alleged misdeeds by President Donald Trump.

Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was the first to appear to testify. She was born in Canada. Her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was three years old. She has since become an American citizen.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman appeared to testify. He was born in the former Soviet Union. His father brought him to the U.S. when he was also three years old. He has since become an American citizen.

Dr. Fiona Hill testified. She came to the U.S. as an adult and has since become an American citizen. She was born in England.

No wonder why President Trump dislikes immigrants.

However, a wall along the southern border with Mexico would not have kept them out.

Yes, they are concentration camps on the border

Migrants and refugees from Central America are being held in concentration camps along the U.S. border with Mexico. Please note that they are not death camps, but they bear the hallmarks of other concentration camps from the 20th century.

The conditions are inhumane. The inmates are a persecuted minority. The inmates are considered dirty, diseased, and dangerous. They are seen as what’s wrong with the country. The country would be better off without them, in fact, without all Latino immigrants.

It’s true that previous administrations in Washington should be ashamed of how they treated detainees, but that’s no excuse for the Trump administration. This administration is not bound by the policies of previous administrations. They are perfectly able to formulate their own, which they have done.

The administration’s policies are cruel. They have been designed to be cruel. I don’t know how the president’s advisors can sleep at night. They should know better.

When did the Department of Health and Human Services know that migrant children would be taken from parents?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services supervises the migrant children who have been taken from parents. When did they start making preparations for this policy?

It’s inconceivable that facilities and personnel are in place today without sufficient preparation time. This suggests that the Trump administration has been planning for awhile to implement this policy.

Surprisingly, no one leaked any advanced information to the press. No whistle blower came along to let the public know that a cruel policy was in the offing. It remains possible that people considered that separating children from their parents was only a contingency, that Mr. Trump would never go so far. Do I believe in contingencies? No.

It seems that the President has his house in order (finally). As a businessman, his acumen is acute. He has been running the executive branch firmly and surely. What has seemed to be a whim on his part may have been part of a plan to catch us off guard. He has been building a new Trump enterprise slowly but surely.

This truly frightens me.

U.S. Immigration Regulations

“We have the worst immigration laws of any country anywhere in the world.” “… we have the biggest loopholes of any country anywhere in the world.”

President Donald Trump
Bethpage, New York, May 23, 2018

Whose fault is it? Congress’s and several Presidents’.

Congress has not addressed the subject of immigration in a comprehensive way since about 1980.

The immigrant First Family

U.S. President Donald Trump has had two foreign born wives. Both were born in the Slavic region of Central Europe. The present First Lady is from the Slovenian region of the former Czechoslovakia. Mr. Trump’s first wife was also born in Czechoslovakia – in the Czech region.

President Trump has proposed that future immigrants to the U.S. be restricted to the most skilled people. So, I ask the question that others ask: what superior skills have his wives brought to the United States? Does the U.S. have a shortage of willowy, bosomy women?

According to Mr. Trump’s proposed standards, would his wives have qualified for anything but three-month tourist visas with round-trip tickets?

On the other hand, these two of his three wives have demonstrated the unique skill set of being married to Donald Trump, the not-yet president.

My family’s illegal immigrants

My great grandfather and his family came into the U.S. without papers. This is my father’s father’s father, “Tatta Bouche” * Siegel. Tatta Bouche, Nosan Natte Siegel after whom I am named, was born in Romania, as was my great grandmother, Bubbe Kreintse. I remember her since I was about ten years old when she passed away. Tatta Bouche passed away before I was born.

They left Romania for Paris with their first born Yonah Leib (“Jean,” then “John”) around 1900. Romania and France were on good terms because France was a European advocate for Romanian nationalism against the Ottoman Empire.** On a personal level, the Romanian language is a Romance language like French.

After about ten years they left Paris for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my great grandmother had an immigrant sister and a brother-in-law. I can’t say whether my great grandparents arrived in Paris with papers or not, but I’m almost certain about the family tradition that they came to the U.S. without papers.

The family first appears in the 1920 United States Federal Census as living in Chicago. Even so, my Zeide (Grandfather) John does not appear to be living in the family home or anywhere else that I’ve found. Family tradition was that John was working at the Ford Motor Company in Michigan.

So how did my great grandparents enter the U.S.? I surmise that they entered through Canada. Perhaps it was relatively easy to enter Canada from France, at least the Francophone part of France.

* Tatta – for grandfather, literally father in Yiddish.

* Zeide – grandfather in Yiddish.

* Bubbe – grandmother in Yiddish.

* la bouche – ‘mouth’ because of his luxuriant mustache. The family lost the French pronunciation /boosh/, it becoming /boozh/.

** See the subject of the “Eastern Question” – how the powers of Western Europe were supporting Greece, Serbia, Romania, and other countries in their independence from the Ottoman Turks.