The Special Case of American Jewry – Part 2

by Tsvi Bisk and Moshe Dror

The following is an excerpt from the book Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for Meaningful Jewish Existence in the 21st Century:

African Americans

The second foundational culture is that of the African Americans. It is also based on the Exodus metaphor, although in both negative and positive ways. It is both an escape from the Egypt of America and a journey to the promised land of America. The Black spirituals, rooted as they are in the slave experience, sing of deliverance from slavery, going into the Promised Land (Go Down Moses), and crossing the river Jordan (the Mississippi serving as a substitute — how water-deprived Israelis wish it were so!).

Examine the speeches of Martin Luther King and other Black civil rights leaders and see how often the Exodus and redemption metaphors repeat themselves. In King’s last speech before he was murdered, he likened himself to Moses, and I paraphrase: “I may not enter the Promised Land with you; I may only stand on the mountain top and look in, but you will enter.”

Even though African Americans constitute only 15 % of the population, Black culture has made a disproportionate contribution to American culture. What, after all, is American music? Jazz, rock and roll, blues. This music can be traced back to Black church music, founded on biblical mythology and metaphor.

The Saga of the West

The great migration to and conquest of the West is another great Exodus. The West with all that it represents (cowboys, individualism, and freedom) is still a fundamental saga of American culture. These pioneers were looking for their own promised land. They wanted to leave the perceived injustices of the East for freedom, dignity, and happiness. The Great Plains were the Sinai desert. Read the correspondence and the diaries of these pioneers and you will discover redemptive biblical language in its full force. James Michener’s popular novel Centennial captures the sense of destiny of these pioneers. Prayers of guidance and of thanksgiving were their daily lot. The phrase Manifest Destiny connotes a God-given right and task, similar to the God-given right and duty of the Hebrews to conquer the Promised Land.

American politicians spoke about the God-given rights of the God-fearing nation to these lands. Native Americans were sometimes seen as hostile Canaanites who had to be eliminated to make room for God’s people. To justify their elimination the white settlers often called them Amalek.

The Immigrant Saga

The immigrant saga is the fourth foundation of American culture. America was the Promised Land for a mixed multitude of downtrodden peoples looking to escape the persecutions of modern day pharaohs and find freedom and dignity. Their Exodus was in steerage, not on camel or donkey, and the ocean, as with the Pilgrims, was their Sinai wilderness. Their sighting the Statue of Liberty at the gateway to the Promised Land after their travails remind one of the Israelites looking over the Jordan River from Mount Nebo into their Promised Land after forty years in the desert.

Suburbia

The foundation cultures of the Puritans, African-Americans, the West, and mass immigration are all variations of the Exodus metaphor. In addition, we have the materialistic redemption dream of suburbia, a caricature of the Exodus metaphor, but no less powerful than the other foundation cultures in molding the American persona.

Fleeing the imperfect city — looking for the American Dream of perfect happiness and harmony in the promised land of new perfectly designed communities. The promised-land American Dream of suburbia has resulted in a peculiarly idiosyncratic American-style literary form called suburban angst, based on the failure to find perfection and harmony, something that only Americans would even seek. Some claim that the elusiveness of this American Dream has had crucial formative impact on the American psyche, culture, and polity. How un-French, how un-German, how un-Italian – how Jewish! Is this one reason that so many Europeans feel foreign in American culture while so many Israelis feel at home?

American Culture and Patriotism

Europeans often deride the United States for having no culture. This is both true and untrue. The United States certainly has culture and profound cultural creativity. But unlike Europe, America has no generally agreed upon normative culture. It is a mosaic of subcultures. American cultural life has no center and no periphery. Neither Jews nor anyone else can be accused of not assimilating, like the Eastern European Jews in Germany, or assimilating too much, like Stalin’s ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ in the Soviet Union. Can anything be more amenable for Jews than this?

Patriotism in the United States is also different. It is not measured by swearing loyalty to Volk, Fatherland, or hereditary sovereign; it is measured by swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution. Civil rules of behavior, not race, blood, or mythical appeals to the land and historical legend determine what a true American is. One does not pledge allegiance to the tribe; one pledges allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands: that is, to the Constitution, which is the republic. A true American is one who adheres to Americanism, to the American way of life, not to particular bloodlines. This is why Chinese, Blacks, and Jews can talk about ‘our Pilgrim forefathers’ without a sense of absurdity.

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