Saving Remnants: Feeling Jewish In America

SAVING REMNANTS: FEELING JEWISH IN AMERICA by Sara Bershtel and Allen Graubard. ( Free Press, 1992, $24.95.)

I’ve read several books over the last few years that alleged to be about the Jewish-American experience, and at the end of each one I would stop and think, but where am I in this book? Where are all the people I know?

This exceptional text is the opposite. It is so resonantly true to life, so ringingly authentic that I felt almost a frisson of suspicion — have I and everyone I know been secretly followed by these authors for years?

The interviewees in the book are all familiar: the man who received at age 13 not a bar mitzvah but a dog; the conflicted Harvard graduate whose “closest girlfriends are all half-Jewish”; the thoroughly assimilated filmmaker who confides that he has learned to use a rifle in preparation for another Holocaust; the Vietnam antiwar activist whose Jewish identity is the result of her exposure to some shocking anti-Semitism on the Left; the gay social worker whose mission included frequenting political, social and theater groups and gay churches in order to see where his gay clients might find supportive communities for themselves, but whose avoidance of the gay synagogue makes him confront, finally, his “strong, confused Jewish feelings'” the secular feminist who ends up as a board member in an Orthodox shul; the founding member of S.D.S. who hands her child, during the latter’s backyard bar mitzvah, not the Torah’s five books, but five other great works, including a Benny Goodman record, Sholom Aleichem in translation, and Tom Hayden’s master’s thesis.

Chapters documenting us by typology (“The Jewish Radical,” “Assimilation, the American Way,” “Anti-Semitism, the Ultimate Tie,” “The Resilience of Orthodoxy,” “The New Spirituality,” “Life in the Mainstream,” and “Liberations, Jewish Style”) present, for the first time in my awareness, a truly non-provincial portrait of American Judaism. One of the authors’ main theses is that most Jews in America are now post-assimilated — meaning that we are no longer moving from a particularistic Jewish world into a less differentiated one, but that we are, right off the bat, born into an open modern identity. Jews in America, then, posit the authors, are “a people not ‘chosen’ but choosing. This is true for the least affiliated as well as the most observant. And it is at the heart of both individual experiences and the apparently contradictory patterns of revival and asimilation that they generate. Identity, formerly objective and imposed, has become constructed and chosen.” Parts of the book, indeed, confront the reader with how bad and fragile it can really feel to have such bottomless reedoms.

This smart, straight-talking, brutally unsentimental book gets an A+. Having the klieg lights shine so mercilessly on you while you read can hurt your eyes a little — but it also clears your head.