1985 Silberman, "A Certain People": Intermarriage is good for the Jews and other bon mots

22 years later and not much can convince me that Silberman was wrong on any of the big issues. He represented a Reconstructionist view of American Jewish identity then and that has not changed.

I continue to scoff at the rhetoric of the reversion movement - that intermarriage is the completion of Hitler's Final Solution. That's just beyond the bounds of civilized expression.

A marginal Jew who marries out or marries in - remains a marginal Jew. If they marry out and the mate converts in 51% of the cases then we do have a net gain for the Jewish people. If you argue that "waters down" the quality of the tribe - I can't answer you other than to say, you ought to get real.

Here is the 1985 review of Silberman from the Times:

A CERTAIN PEOPLE: American Jews and Their Lives Today. By Charles E. Silberman. 458 pages. Summit. $19.95.

AMERICA'S Jews have never had it so good. That, briefly, is the message of Charles E. Silberman's new book. Drawing on a library of statistics, a lifetime of anecdotes and some old jokes, Mr. Silberman reports many things that few are likely to quarrel with and a few things that many are bound to question.

In the so-what's-new? category are his findings that Jews are relatively well-educated and affluent; that they have moved into professions such as law and medicine in numbers far exceeding their small percentage of the population, have established themselves in executive suites, academic groves and the halls of Congress and figure conspicuously as performers, creators and benefactors of cultural activities, high, low and middle.

More controversial is Mr. Silberman's contention that anti-Semitism in America is not just around the corner or under the surface as Jewish defense agencies never tire of cautioning, but that with the disquieting exception of stirrings among young blacks, anti-Semitism exists only in vestigial form. He exhorts Jews to remain true to the Democratic Party in order to preserve it from the ''Third World stance'' on foreign policy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but he sees little cause for anxiety in what he calls America's ''benign atmosphere.''

And most controversial, particularly among traditional Jews, is his assurance that despite assimilation and intermarriage, Jewishness is thriving.

Mr. Silberman, an experienced magazine hand, puts forth his argument in serviceable if not especially felicitous prose. He is given to the big statement: ''In the America of the 1980's no challenge is more urgent or more important than that posed by the willingness of mixed-married couples to raise their children as Jews.'' And he uses some old tricks of the trade, notably this sort of interpolation: ''ITEM: When Louis Borgenicht, the father of a childhood friend of my mother's, arrived in New York in 1888, he sold herring out of a barrel on a Lower East Side corner.'' A quarter of the book seems to be taken up by such ITEMS, which I found more jarring than enlivening. However, Mr. Silberman and his researchers seem to have read all the books and talked to everybody who's anybody. If there are holes in the research, I failed to spot them.

Mr. Silberman's good riddance to anti-Semitism runs counter to an understandable tendency in his generation to see the worst in every rude word written on a temple wall, but he marshals considerable supporting evidence in the form of public opinion polls and other data. Although acknowledging that there are perils for American Jews in their close identification with Israel, he reminds us that the fears of a few years ago that the oil crisis would engender ill feelings toward Jews ''turned out to be groundless.'' Even if Mr. Silberman is right, however, the matter invites more stringent analysis than he supplies. It is hardly enough to say that the reason for the happy situation is that ''a multiethnic, multireligious society cannot permit anti-Semitism, or group prejudice of any sort, to intrude in its public life.'' It has intruded often enough.

As for the prospects for the survival of Jewish identity, they have always been problematic. Mr. Silberman emphasizes that although about one in four Jews marries outside the faith, in many cases the gentile partner converts and the children are brought up to consider themselves Jewish. He writes that ''most Jews are choosing to remain Jews - some kind of Jews, if not necessarily the kind their parents or grandparents were.''

But what does that mean? Will celebrating Hanukkah instead of Christmas suffice? Or having the family over for a Passover seder, possibly without the prayers? Or lighting candles on the Sabbath? Or just feeling Jewish?

Mr. Silberman, who is active in Jewish affairs, is associated with the Reconstructionist movement, which emphasizes ''the centrality of Jewish peoplehood'' rather than the religious side of Judaism. He is sanguine about the endurance of the community, if not the faith, and quotes approvingly the view of the Reconstructionist leader Mordecai Kaplan that ''the Jewish religion existed for the Jewish people and not the Jewish people for the Jewish religion.''

On this matter of whether Jews are an endangered species, Mr. Silberman's evidence is selective. His persuasive confirmation of American Jews' sense of belonging, of the breadth and depth of their place in the society and the fading of resistance to their full participation cuts both ways. Assimilation can mean a more secure identity or the loss of identity. It's a long-simmering issue, and ''A Certain People'' can be counted on to bring it once again to a boil.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"If they marry out and the mate converts in 51% of the cases then we do have a net gain for the Jewish people."

That's some big "if"!

According to the following site, the number is closer to 15%.