Sunday, March 30, 2008

The End of Ethnicity: The Bagel has Become Spam, and So Have We

The Jewish Week, May 19, 1995

It's official. The Era of Ethnicity is over. This was confirmed last week when I peeked at a supermarket circular and noticed that Dole is now putting bagel chips in its newfangled salad kits.

It was one thing when Lender's first neutralized the bagel by shrinking it, filing down the rough edges and planting it among unsuspecting shoppers in the frozen food sections of Peoria. We already knew that Lenders is to a real bagel what white bread is to seeded rye, but at least a landsman was getting rich off the idea.

But with Dole and Sara Lee in the bagel business, it is abundantly clear that the bagel has become as all-American as Spam was in the `40s, infiltrating our national diet the way chutzpah has infiltrated the American vernacular.

The bagel has become Spam, and so have we.

That's the good news, actually.

Jews are now fully integrated. We're in the clubs, on the boards and faculties, and if we had to give up exclusive rights to the bagel to fit in, so be it.The bad news is that many Jews are bemoaning the loss of Jewish ethnicity for precisely the wrong reasons, saying Kaddish over the passing of Grossinger's and Gimbels and shuddering at the theft of such colloquial staples as shmooze and kibitz by the Giulianis and D'Amatos of this world.

I must admit I shuddered the first time I heard "Hava Nagila" on the musak at K-mart, but I never considered it a crushing blow to my Jewish identity.

The next generation will have relatively little confusion about what is "Jewish" and what is not.

They will no longer have to ask the burning question of our time, "If we are Spam, who are we?" The chaff of ethnicity will be long gone.

Lenny Bruce's classic Jewish/goyish routine -- lime Jello is goyish, fruit salad is Jewish -- will be fodder for historians.

Someday we'll find that we don't need Borscht Belt humor to get good laughs, or to be neurotic or self-deprecating.There will come a time when people will watch old Mel Brooks or Billy Crystal and ask why that guy is talking funny and walking with that anguished shuffle.

Someday we won't need to act old and spit phlegm to be considered authentically Jewish, or won't have to harp on maternal guilt or shrewish princesses.

Someday the words "Jewish woman" and "fur" will not be connected in word association tests.

Already there are no bubbes. The last one retired to Sun City five years ago, took off 30 pounds at Weight Watchers and now does T.M. instead of mah-jongg and reads Bill Moyers in her spare time.

Do you get the impression that I will not mourn the end of the Ethnic Era?Actually, I'll miss a few things.I was awed by the spectacular voices of yesteryear's great cantors, even as I understood that performance Judaism would create a generation of spectators and critics rather than the comfortable daveners we need.

A good potato knish is increasingly hard to find, and the last great lokshun kugel left this earth with my grandmother.

But that's a small price to pay when we see the damage done by a culture that increasingly became all chaff and little wheat.The stereotypes of Jewish women, young and old, did more for the cause of self-hatred and intermarriage than hundreds of hours of forced labor at boot-camp Hebrew schools (another stereotype that needs to be discarded).

The image of the Jewish celebration has never quite overcome the staggering -- and truthful -- portrait of conspicuous consumption drawn by Philip Roth 30 years ago in "Goodbye Columbus."

Saddest of all is how saddened we are at this demise. Nostalgia had become the Jewish world's great growth industry.Most Jewish comedy is still mired in Catskill shtick and our gift shops are fully stocked with shlock.

There is much comfort in nostalgia, but like a swig of Classic Coke, it loses its fizzle quickly, and all you're left with are cavities. There is a deep cavity at the center of Jewish life, and all we do is mourn the passing of the peripheral.

Each great displacement of our history has brought with it the shedding of old ways.

The Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and those who left smoldering Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE undoubtedly longed for their old villages and cities the way we ache for our destroyed shtetls and abandoned neighborhoods. After each great upheaval, it always took a century or two for nostalgia to run its course.

And when it did, an incredibly creative reshuffling of Jewish priorities took place, resulting in such masterworks as the Mishna, Shulchan Aruch and significant parts of the Bible.

That is what is beginning to happen now, right here in America.

A brand new Jewish culture is taking shape, one that will incorporate the best of what was, the eternal part, and leave the rest for museums and folklore.

It will sadden us all to see our most familiar icons go the way of all transitional culture, but in its place will arise something as authentic and moving as that which came before.

It won't be long before people will stop bemoaning the loss of the old Maxwell House Haggadah and begin paying more attention to the words inside -- the words that will never be left behind.

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