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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Madoff, the Jews, and Me

I found an essay by Joseph Epstein in Newsweek, called "Uncle Bernie and the Jews," about which I feel deeply ambivalent. It talks about the fact that Madoff bilked Jews more than any other group, and he speculates about what effect this might (or should) have on Jewish consciousness.

On the one hand, it describes very well my own visceral reaction to the rise of an ultrawealthy class of Jews emulating the WASP lifestyle they think their goyish counterparts lead -- a lifestyle of pettiness and intellectual flab, a loss of something in our culture that was valuable and great. The author brings as an illiustration the game of golf; that passage speaks loudly to me because it describes perfectly the yawning chasm between the values I was raised with by my middle-class Jewish academic parents, and a branch of my extended family that -- well, that plays a lot of golf:

There is something deeply trivial about golf that is unseemly for Jews, who have traditionally been accustomed to taking themselves seriously. Whacking away at a little ball, hoping, at the end of four hours' effort, to arrive at the finish a stroke or two fewer than the previous time one wasted a morning at this game—no, no, no, I'm sorry, but this is all wrong for Jews. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers didn't undergo pogroms and the struggle to evade conscription in the tsar's army to come to America for their descendants to put on peach-colored pants, spiked Nike shoes and chemises Lacoste to appear on the first tee promptly at 8 a.m. A Jew should be studying, arguing, thinking, working, making money, contemplating why God has put him through so many trials. A phrase like "dogleg to the left" should never pass his lips.

And yet I find the conclusions of this essay deeply disturbing. The author seems to feel that Madoff will have done Jews a favor if they come away from the experience wiser about the pitfalls of trying to be like others around us -- that we'll realize the danger of losing our edge by fitting in too much. This is just what I was taught growing up: "The antisemites are everywhere -- the Holocaust can happen here, too. Don't ever get too comfortable." As I got older, I came to realize that I didn't like the logic of that. Just because there are those who do not accept me does not mean that I have to give up my demands for acceptance and withdraw myself to a safe distance. And just because I refuse to self-segregate and withdraw myself from society does not mean that I have to give up that which has made my people unique and has driven their achievements through the centuries.

...does it? I do believe that assimilation of any minority group into a dominant culture tends to result in the minority group replacing many of its own best attributes with most of the less-than-wonderful aspects of the larger culture -- homogeneity in the worst sense of the word, with implications of blandness and mediocrity. But is this just because I can't see the good things about the dominant culture precisely because it is dominant, the status quo, and its positive attributes are therefore not set off in contrast to anything else? Are Jews (or any other minority group) really trading down, or does it just seem that way? And is the trade really necessary at all? Can we really be the salad bowl and not the melting pot? America as salad bowl is a lovely conceit; the trouble is, I've always had a very hard time believing in it.

NB: I just googled the author and learned that he is also the author of a rather infamous homophobic essay published in 1970 titled "Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity." So...hmmmm...not too surprising that I find this piece disturbing, I guess.