The Race to Normalcy

This morning I found myself pondering the post-war period.

First I woke up to a New York Times article [click link here] in which Richard Alba says that, contrary to common belief and the census, Whites are not becoming a minority in America. He argues that many children of ethnically mixed marriages are not considered white by the census, but are in fact closer to being and feeling white in their daily lives. Something about the tone of the article put me off— Whiteness is, of course, a social category, but who gets to do the categorizing? It feels to me that he is talking more about ‘passing’ (how individuals are classified by white people), and about privilege (to use the loaded term du jour) than about identification and loyalty.

Here’s a part of my response in the comment section of the article: He [Alba] uses white religious minority groups as an analogy: “It was not that people ceased being Catholic or Jewish. But the public faces of those identities became much more muted and rarely intruded on everyday life.” That ‘rarely intruded’ bit is telling. What cost has been paid of losing community and identity in order to not be regarded as intrusions? And what attitudes are not fully ‘assimilated’ to Protestant culture? Has the majority been influenced by what it swallowed? Take a peek at our supreme court for one answer.

I’ve been interested for some time in the question of when and how Jews became white people. Not interested enough, mind you, to study the issue, but it rattles around, especially in our current climate in which the racist nature of American business as usual has been harder and harder to ignore.

Alba’s work might be an interesting lens through which to view this question. His argument, taken from the publisher’s blurb on his most recent book, Blurring the Color Line is that postwar America experienced “a rapid expansion of education and labor opportunities. As a result of their newfound access to training and jobs, many ethnic and religious outsiders, among them Jews and Italians, finally gained full acceptance as members of the mainstream. Alba proposes that this large-scale assimilation of white ethnics was a result of “non-zero-sum mobility,” which he defines as the social ascent of members of disadvantaged groups that can take place without affecting the life chances of those who are already members of the established majority.”

The book is undoubtedly richer than just this sketch outline, but as it stands, his characterization ignores Jews’ own agency in our fighting for equal rights, using America’s guiding principles and existing legal framework to argue for inclusion, our zeal for education and for attainment of political power through the ballot box. It ignores the fact that color prejudice may have made European religious minorities, by comparison, less of a threat. (Put another way, white ethnics could be granted equal status because Blacks were hated more, or because there would still be someone available to look down on).

It also ignores Christian guilt following the holocaust, and the stigma that came to be attached to hating Jews, when that had been at the core of the fascists’ ideology. The blurb is also mute on what price the price Jews may have paid. Perhaps the author is more interested in assimilation as individual opportunity and less as loss of community.

Alba believes that opportunities for people of color are immanent, if not here, similar to those which opened up for Italians and Jews in the postwar period. There may be more opportunity coming, but the analogy between what Jews accomplished then and what African Americans can accomplish now rests largely on wishful thinking. It should not need saying that the weak and utterly ahistorical argument has been made before, pointing to Jews, say, or to Chinese Americans as a model minority, that “all Black Americans have to do” is take advantage of their opportunities and they can succeed too. Not so simple. And a depressing number of commenters on the article long for a ‘colorblind’ view of society that really amounts to ‘not seeing racism’ when they say, “I don’t see color”.


The second thing that provoked my musing about the postwar period was the wonderful gift I received last night of Jan Schwarz’s book, Survivors and Exiles: Yiddish Culture after the Holocaust. I’ve been interested in looking at this book since I first heard of it. I didn’t really know what it was about, except that it featured my classmate Arnold Chekow’s great photos of the literary scene at the 92nd Street Y in the 1960s. [note: I usually don’t mention my classmates’ full names in this blog, based on my kakameyme ideas of what respecting privacy entails. But he is already credited publicly for these photos and deserves the hat tip].

This morning I started reading the introduction and found that it is an effort to integrate Yiddish Studies and Holocaust Studies. Here, “after the Holocaust” is not just a descriptive term for the literature of the period on a timeline from 1945 – 1970, but refers specifically to Yiddish writers’ responses to the holocaust. Schwarz argues that Yiddish writers developed their own “critical terminology about Holocaust representation, trauma, and commemoration.” This terminology precedes the academic discipline of Holocaust studies by a full generation, says Schwarz, and it treats that subject with “vastly different sets of critical concerns.”

In other words, whereas English speakers and writers were slow to discuss the holocaust, and while academics mostly had to wait until Jewish Studies departments emerged [in the aftermath of the movement for Women’s Studies and African American Studies], Yiddish writers could not help but actively engage, both as individuals and as a community, questions about how to talk about the Holocaust and about how to be a post-Holocaust Jew. Because the holocaust was the annihilation not just of people but also of a culture, because Eastern Europe had been the source of Yiddish literature and also of Yiddish readers, you could not continue to write in Yiddish during that period except as a response to loss.

This disparity across languages in the willingness, ability, and felt need to address the Holocaust is intriguing to me. Still not past the introduction, then, I am struck yet again with a question that has occurred to me before, and that I have discussed before in this blog: To what extent was the turn away from Yiddish among American Jews a turning away from coping with trauma? How did that turn change the meaning of continuity? A Jewish identity based on nationalism could continue. A Jewish identity based on religion could continue. Even a Jewish identity based on ‘race’ (or ethnicity) could continue. But a Jewish identity based on the felt connection to the language and folkways of the communities of Eastern Europe was in much bigger trouble.

Lastly, it occurs to me to wonder whether there is any relationship between these two questions about assimilation in the postwar period. Was the acceptance of white status in a society built on racism part of a tradeoff made to put victimhood behind us? Maybe it was nothing so overt and simple as that.

Maybe, less consciously and more subtly, the move towards raising children in suburbs where they were ‘safe’ carried with it certain implications for how Jewish families came to see both race and the more wobbly parts of our own history? Did rapid change, prosperity, and the discrediting of communism influence attitudes towards Yiddishkayt? Then, too, the Eisenhower era seems, at least in retrospect, like such a conformist time period. The more I ponder, the more it feels to me that many coincidences of culture and timing were involved in the nearly universal individual choices made to both to present ourselves as ‘just like everyone else’, and to raise children in English-only homes.

2 thoughts on “The Race to Normalcy

  1. There’s been lots written about the American development of interest, as opposed to avoidance, of the Holocaust. Some of it connects to the establishment of Israel and was specifically promoted. See a book called The Holocaust in History, by Michael R. Marrus.



    • Thank you.
      I suppose I am, more than I would like to admit, generalizing from personal experience. Perhaps a more accurate, if less flattering, way to say this would be that, raised in and confined to English, after an initial confrontation with Elie Wiesel, I found it possible to mostly avoid the subject. I believe that, among my secular and assimilated Jewish American peers, this was common.
      In English, it is possible to find and read literature of the period (1945 to ’70, but especially the 50s), by Jewish writers, that does not have the Holocaust as a central theme. It took Saul Bellow, as one example, until 1970 to get there. Reading postwar Yiddish poetry, that’s impossible. I have barely cracked Schwarz’s book, but I suspect the same is true of all literature in Yiddish.


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