To Be A Jew

When I lived in Brooklyn, a couple times when I was hanging out in Prospect Park on one of the Jewish high holy days, some Ultra-Orthodox guys in coats and hats would come up to me and find out if it was worth their time to proselytize.

“Are you Jewish?” they’d ask.

“Well, half,” I told them.

“Which half?” they asked.

“My dad.” They walked away, uninterested. It was the wrong half.

On the other hand, my first students in the Bronx had different impressions. In an effort to seem sage and impressive, I had grown a longish beard the summer before and wore a tweed sport coat every day my first few months as a teacher. (I’m not saying it was a good idea. It was hot in that classroom, for one thing.) When I finally shaved off the beard and came in wearing shirt and tie without a jacket, the first kid to walk into class, Jeffrey, said, “Wait, you look White now.”

“How did I look before?” I asked.

“Jewish.”

Steve Sailer links to this great interview between Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) and David Samuels (the journalist whose recent profile of Ben Rhodes launched a thousand takes.) The conversation as a whole is well worth your time, particularly if you are interested in how Judaiasm (or Jewishness, more precisely) influences contemporary American culture, but the last section in particular was fascinating to me. David Samuels introduces a perspective that I basically share, that reaction to the horror of the Holocaust, and a sense of survivors’ guilt, was a large part of the neuroticism of post-War American Jews, and that LA and Hollywood Jews were particularly cut off from the Holocaust and so, implicitly, particularly succeptible to those feelings of guilt. (Samuels in bold below, Weiner in unbolded text.)

In the interview, Weiner pushes back stridently against this hypothesis, saying no, no, no, we never felt guilty, that’s not why I’m telling you how tough it was for California Jews and how private West Hollywood high schools were a hotbed of Neo-Naziism in the 80s.

Whatever. To me, Weiner’s whole schtick, repeated in this and in many other interviews, about how “boo-fucking-hoo, it was so hard to be a rich Jewish kid growing up in LA in the 80s, my high school was so anti-Semitic, did you know they had Gentiles-only country clubs in the 60s?” makes most sense (aside from just being a marketing pitch, to connect Mad Men’s focus on 1960s-era sexism, racism and homophobia to the show’s creator’s own supposed experience) if you see it as an attempt to claim authority and a connection to the broader Jewish experience through suffering, even when such suffering seems comically absent.

My dad grew up in California in the 50s and 60s, and while it always sounded like his high school had its fair share of assholes, that was because it was high school, not because he was Jewish. His parents, though, were both, more or less, Holocaust survivors, which makes a difference. His mom, my grandmother, spent most of the war in hiding before she finally got caught in late 44, was transferred between prisons, almost escaped when the SS abandoned one prison, was recaptured when they came back, and then walked off a transport train after it was bombed by the Allies, shrapnel still in her breast. His dad, my grandfather talked his parents into leaving Europe in 39, but had also, unluckily, talked his brother into moving back to Europe from California a couple years before.

In any case, my grandparents  were thrilled to become Americans, and to leave Europe behind. (My grandfather had already been an American soldier, but he wrote my grandmother a fake telegram from Harry Truman the day she became a citizen, welcoming her to the club.) They generally pushed their two sons to assimilate as fast as possible, sending them to Baptist Sunday School for example. As my dad used to say, he only knew he was Jewish insofar as he knew Hitler wanted to kill him.

(My dad said this recently to a friend in a New York City restaurant, and someone from the next table grabbed his shoulder and said, “no, he didn’t.”)

For my grandparents, it made sense to hate Germany after World War II, and to disdain the country of their birth but to love America and Americans.

This is also how I perceive Vladek Spiegelman’s perspective on America, Poland, and Germany in the graphic memoir Maus: in the picture below, for example, the dogs are Americans and the mice are recently liberated Jews:


My grandparents  were more dubious about Europe; my dad’s last conversation with my grandfather was about the Maastricht treaty creating the Euro. “What an idiotic idea,” my grandfather said. “That’ll never work.” And my grandmother never forgave my uncle for moving back to Europe, telling him on her literal deathbed to move back to the States and to raise his children as Americans.

For American Jews who were cut off from the central 20th century experience, keeping it real may have felt like a bigger deal, and to have required more skepticism about America and about Gentile Americans.

Anyways, here’s the longer section of that interview that I thought was revealing, with Samuels in bold and Weiner unbolded:


My wife says, and I think she’s right, that part of the peculiarity of American Jewish consciousness after the war is a measure of denial that the Holocaust happened. Their brothers, cousins, parents, or whatever, had been murdered in a kind of unimaginable way. So what does that say about us? Could it happen here? Should we have done something to help them? The guilt and fear were so overwhelming that people were just like, “Let’s not think about that. Let’s please not think about those people at the edges, with the heavy accents and the tattoos on their arms.”

I don’t know if that’s entirely true. But there is a tradition—
When you finish this answer I’m going to tell you a funny fucking story about the Jews of Los Angeles.
—there is a tradition of immigration that has to do with assimilation and success. And as you know, you can go on the Upper West Side here and you can see the Portuguese Jews were here when Central Park was a farm. So, well before Bolshevism it was already like, this is your embarrassing poor country cousin. It’s a class issue.

Kike is a word invented by Jews. From Kikeleh, the little circle that illiterates made, because they couldn’t write their names.

One of the things I was trying to do in that Babylon episode is explain that to white America, they look the way the boat people look to us. They were assumed to be indigent, uneducated, farmer class, or working class people who had been displaced through genocide. No one assumed that there would be a dozen Nobel Prize winners from eight blocks down here on the Lower East Side.

And America in general as I’ve mentioned in the show, Lyndon Johnson, they asked him why he supported Israel, he said because it’s right. Without any hesitation. America embraced the idea that that victim was now fighting a war to secure their state. You know what Exodus is about, you’ve seen the movie, you’ve read the book. It was a best-seller in the United States, not just with Jews.

So, I think that as someone who’s family was really unaffected by the Holocaust, my grandfather had one brother, but my family was here from the Russian Revolution on, there was so much bending over backward to make sure that those people could come here. All the way to the point of that the waves of immigration in the ’80s from Russia and Persia were both overseen by a lot of Holocaust survivors. I don’t think people realize this.

That is more an L.A. thing, I think, than a New York thing, that sense of openness and generosity toward newcomers. That’s one reason I like L.A. in theory much better than New York. It’s a more welcoming, American place.
My mother-in-law and this crowd, they became social workers. That’s how concerned they were. So, I don’t think people are denying the Holocaust. I enjoyed the article in Tablet that was about how it’s the obsession and defining moment for American Jewry.

So, the most cogent version I can muster is this: Whether American Jewry was asleep at the wheel, whether it was about the St. Louis or whatever they were unable to get done with Roosevelt during the war, that was definitely a source of guilt. But don’t act like American Jewry is not involved in the creation of the State of Israel. And my father said it was a great moment, a change in his thinking. I remember him telling this story about collecting money for the JNF. Some guy said to him when he was shaking the can, saying, “Can you give money to support to plant trees in Israel?” And some guy said, “You know that money’s used to kill Arabs.” My father said he went home and asked his dad about it. He did not realize that’s what they were doing.
“They shoot Arabs, don’t they?” And they did.
I still have not been to Israel, believe it or not.

In your whole life?

It was not part of my childhood. My parents did not go. I was bar mitzvah-ed and everything, but they did not go. They go now all the time, but they did not. And I felt a tremendous kinship and relation to the culture anyway.

You should go. They have great television now.

They have the best television. It’s all here now.
When I started hearing people say things about Arabs like this I was like, that’s racist. But I don’t live in Israel, so I don’t know.

People are awful racists all over the world. Including plenty of Israeli Jews. And screw them. But the idea that racism is an essential component of Jewish nationalism as opposed to any other kind of nationalism is just ridiculous. That statement is a form of racism directed against Jews. And screw that.
So, here’s my story about L.A. Jews. I promise you’re going to like it.

OK, yeah.

Twenty years ago, I was staying at a friend’s house and her dad was a personage of whatever note among California architects, and he had a dinner party, and the person sitting to my right was John Milius, who wrote Apocalypse Now, and—

I know John!

Right. I was like this is so cool, right? John Milius!!

Yeah, John’s the coolest.

He was so cool. And so he told me a cool story. At some point he was like, “You’re from New York, are you Jewish?” I was like, “Yeah I’m Jewish.” He’s like, “I got a good story for you. You know that I went to film school with Steven Spielberg, right? We’re friends.” I was like, “All right.”


He says, “So, one day I got a call.” This is sometime in the late ’80s, 1990s, something like that. So he got a call and it’s Spielberg, and he says “John, you’ve got to come over right away.”

You should ask John about being an L.A. Jew. He’s another one, he grew up in Bel Air. Anyway, go ahead. He says, “You gotta come over.”

He said, “ ‘You gotta come over right away.’ I said, ‘Is something wrong?’ He said, ‘Just come over, come over.’ And so I said, ‘OK.’ So, I get in my car and I drive up to the Spielberg mansion and I’m going through the gate, I parked the car, Steven comes to the door himself, and he’s like, ‘Come in here, John. I’ve got to show you something.’ And so I got in with Steven and we go in his living room and there are books all over the living room, dozens of books, like Time-Life books, open to these photographs of the ghettos and the gas chambers and whatever else. And he says, ‘John, did you know that they killed 6 MILLION Jews during the Second World War?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Did you know that they had gas chambers where they gassed Jews to DEATH.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Steven. I knew that.’

I was so stunned, for a moment, and then I was like, “No, that’s bullshit.” And Milius said, “No, no, no, that really happened. Steven discovered the Holocaust when he was in his late 30s. He had no idea it happened.”
That is a great story. And I take your point. Meanwhile, his mother owns a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, so it definitely must have come up.

His parents knew about it, for sure. But he was a suburban prodigy. Then he was doing Jaws, he was doing Close Encounters, E.T., he didn’t have time for much history until he was older. Plus it was California in the ’70s and ’80s. So it does make sense.

You know what, that’s amazing.

So, is that a story about Los Angeles Jews?

He’s from Arizona, he went to college in California but he’s not a Los Angeles Jew.

One thought on “To Be A Jew

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s