Sure, you can look at sociologists like Herbert Gans and Marshall Sklare. You can study the numbers of eminent demographers like Calvin Goldscheider. But it seems to me, you also must look to popular literature to illustrate how those lives are really lived. A couple years ago I wrote a very long (still unpublished) exploration of these themes. In the following excerpt, I go to classic Young Adult literature, some well known, some less, to see how migration, assimilation and intermarriage play out in real life.
I call this essay 'quasi-personal' because it contains so much of what animates my own personal project: the search for ancestors, for my place in history and the desire to understand why my parents (and grandparents) made the choices they did. Three of my four grandparents passed away before I was born. Both my parents moved away from their home state, away from siblings and abundant cousins. They raised me and my brother mostly without the benefit of extended family, ensuring that we grew up with a very different sense of our place in our own family history. (I wasn't even sure I had a family history.)
That lack was a painful one, but it was only through my study of contemporary Jewish history (migration and assimilation) that I developed a framework for understanding how my fractured family history was part of a larger trauma of mass migrations. Though my story is quite different from Margaret's in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret or Leonard and Alan's in Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars, something in their stories touched me, spoke to that place of hurt and alienation, long before I had a detached, academic way of talking about it.
Finally, though I wrote this essay a few years before I started my intensive study of mid-century Jewish sociology, my observations in this essay confirm much of what I've come to believe subsequently. That is, the seismic shifts in American Judaism-- the Americanization of Jews -- was complete by mid-century. Though I'm sure commentators on the right would assign the downfall of traditional Jewish values to the free love, do what you want revolution of the 60s and 70s, indeed, if you look at the data, it was the late 1940s and 1950s in which the ecumenical, mushy liberal version of American Jewishness is really cemented, setting in motion trends whose culmination we see today. In that respect, my analysis of Judy Blume's semi-autobiographical Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself is most pertinent to our discussion. Anyway...
Hope you enjoy!
Identity Crises and Suburban Jews: A Quasi-Personal Meditation (excerpt)
By Rokhl Kafrissen
The shrinking of the Jewish family coincided with a drastic impoverishment of continuity: familial, ritual, educational, spiritual. At my moment of adolescent identity crisis, I was seeking a connection to my people, the ones who had lived, not the ones who had died in the awful movies they showed us in Hebrew school.
I knew I wasnʼt an Israeli (nor did I want to be one), but I had no idea where to find those other people and little clue as to what they might be like and what I might learn from them. And that was a problem. As developmental psychologist Erik Erikson puts it, when the adolescent reaches his identity crisis:
“...the young person must learn to be most himself where he means most to others-- those others, to be sure, who have come to mean most to him...
One cannot identify, or rebel, without the stuff of identification. The inner conditions reach out to the outer circumstances in the identification process. Erikson, in his discussion of the psychosocial milieu of identification, calls this stuff ʻideologyʼ and says that before a young person can envisage his own future, he must have access to an ʻideologyʼ. It could be religion or it could be some other thing but:
“whatever else is ideology and whatever transitory or lasting forms it takes, we will tentatively view it here as a necessity for the growing ego which is involved in the succession of generations, and in adolescence is committed to some new synthesis of past and future: a synthesis which must include but transcend the past, even as identity does.” [emphasis mine]
The work of preadulthood, i.e., preparation for healthy adulthood, is absolutely contingent upon having a detailed, tangible, context and history into which the adolescent views himself as existing.
The problem is, how can the crisis of identity formation be faced if the adolescent has limited or no access to his own past? Or if access to the relevant ʻouter conditionsʼ has been abruptly, inexplicably cut off? With whom is he forming his ʻidentityʼ if his community is removed (or he from it)? In Eriksonʼs terms, what is to come of the identity formation process if the adolescent, at the moment of crisis, is removed from the place where he “means most to others”?
Iʼd argue that this adolescent search for the stuff of identity has profound implications for the American Jewish community. This quest is most poignantly embodied in the stories of young people swept up in their parentsʼ mobility and moved from city to suburb. The newly suburban preteen, removed from his urban context (and all that urban context implies) must search out a context for himself and (re)integrate what he learns, creating a unique future, and identity for himself within a community he sees himself as belonging to. That is the best case scenario.
On the other hand, the young adult in the search for that stuff of identification may meet up with that most American of ideologies, the fervent, universalist ecumenism of melting pot America. If the young person, in search of specifics (and, inevitably, in search of the past), is told that specifics not only donʼt matter, but are detrimental and divisive, that young adult will not come out of her identity formation crisis prepared for adulthood.
This modern, American Jewish quest is perfectly represented in two utterly different young adult novels. The first, Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, represents the successful recovery and integration of a usable Jewish ʻideology.ʼ The second, Are You There God, Itʼs Me Margaret, represents the triumph of ecumenism and the unsuccessful search for a usable ideology, whether Jewish or not.
Margaret Simon, of Are You There God, Itʼs Me, Margaret, begins her story the summer before sixth grade. She has returned home from summer camp to find that her parents, without her consent, have bought a house in Farbrook, NJ. They quickly vacate their apartment on West 67th Street in exchange for trees, grass and all the quasi- natural accoutrements of the suburbs.
As Margaret points out, she had previously been unaware her parents even cared about such things. All of a sudden theyʼre uprooting themselves in pursuit of a lawn? However, it is quickly revealed, the move to the suburbs is less about a lush green lawn than it is about putting distance between themselves and Grandma Sylvia.
Sylvia is Margaretʼs Jewish grandmother. We donʼt meet Margaret's non-Jewish grandparents until the end of the book. According to Margaretʼs mother and father, Sylvia is too pushy, too present and, the subtext is pretty clear, too Jewish. So, off to the suburbs it is, where all the houses looks the same and everything is, as Margaret notes, exactly seven years old.
On the familyʼs first day in the neighborhood Margaret is welcomed by a neighbor her own age and taken to her house to be initiated into her new life.
The main area of conflict, and concern, for Margaret and her new friends is their own physical development. The friend who welcomes her to the neighborhood, Nancy Wheeler, immediately interrogates Margaret about her development, coolly noting Margaretʼs lack of a bust.
Nonetheless, as the school year opens, Margaret develops a group of girlfriends all of whom are more or less at the same stage of development and share the same concerns. So, while the girls bond over their shared journey towards physical adulthood (this is their horizontal community) Margaret quickly finds that she is confused as to where she belongs in terms of vertical community.
She reveals to her club, the Pre-Teen Sensations that she has no religion. One of the other members asks her bluntly, “But if you arenʼt any religion, how are you going to know if you should join the Y or the Jewish Community Center?”
Itʼs not just membership in one or the other social center, but a question of Sunday school, and, because Margaret and her friends are 12 years old, the question of which will she participate in-- confirmation or bat mitzve? JCC or Y, confirmation or bat mitzvah, Hanukkah songs or Christmas songs as the end of year pageant? Margaret is confronted over and over with choices she is unprepared to make because her parents, one Christian and one Jewish, have decided that she should choose a religion when she is “grown up.”
But Margaret finds that the question of religious and social identity will not be put off. There are too many implications, even for a twelve year old, to wait to choose. So Margaret decides that her year long personal research project will be choosing a religion. Her parents are opposed to her exploration of religion, but donʼt prevent her from exploring the options. Over the year she attends services at a Methodist and Catholic church.
For her Jewish service, she asks Grandma Sylvia if she can attend her synagogue. Sylvia is overjoyed, with tears in her eyes, she exclaims that she has always known that “her” Margaret would be a Jewish girl. Margaret immediately pulls away, emphasizing that her attendance is for research purposes only.
What Margaret finds is that all three services are essentially the same. You say a bunch of prayers that donʼt mean much, a guy gets up and talks for a while and thereʼs a lot of stand up and sit down. Margaret finds herself counting different kinds of hats at all three services.
If all three services are pretty much the same, and the religions, in their suburban incarnations are pretty similar, why are Margaretʼs parents so dead set against her contact with any organized religion? Why have they gone to such extremes to remove Margaret from the Judaizing influence of Grandma Sylvia?
The explanation lies in her parentsʼ own trauma. Margaretʼs parents are still scarred by their respective familiesʼ reactions to their interfaith union. Grandma Sylvia was not happy about getting a non-Jewish daughter in law, but learned to live with it after Herb and Barbara eloped. She clearly had confidence in her own persuasive abilities and influence over any grandchildren that would result.
Barbaraʼs Christian parents, however, were less tolerant. They disapproved so strongly of the marriage that when forced to choose between their religious values and their own family, they chose their religion. Barbara has not had any contact with her parents since her marriage twelve years before. The climax of the book, for Margaretʼs religious journey, is her non-Jewish grandparentsʼ surprise visit to New Jersey. On a whim, her mother had sent them a Christmas card which, in turn, spurred them to pay their first ever visit to see their granddaughter.
The visit is, predictably, a disaster. Margaret is forced to give up her long planned vacation in Florida with Grandma Sylvia to be at home when the other grandparents show up. When they do arrive, the scene is tense, with the grandparents offering to take Margaret to see a minister to get things “straightened out”. The grandparents end up cutting their visit short and moving on to their next destination, New York City, after causing an uproar in the house and ruining Margaretʼs vacation. If they canʼt mold their granddaughter to meet their expectations (by having her be Christian) they are just not that interested in her.
Right after the grandparents leave, Grandma Sylvia unexpectedly shows up. Sylvia had decided that she would not allow Margaretʼs vacation to be ruined and, while sheʼs at it, she canʼt help but want to meet the other grandparents on the field of battle, as it were, for the loyalty of the only grandchild. She immediately wants to know if the other grandparents tried any “funny business” like taking Margaret to church. Sylvia is clearly fighting a battle not just for loyalty to her as the favored grandparent, but also for Margaretʼs potential loyalty to her team- Jewishness.
Margaret, however, is disgusted with the partisanship of both teams, Jews and Christians and says to herself “Sometimes Grandma is almost as bad as everybody else. As long as she loves me and I love her, what difference does religion make?”
Indeed, the way religion is portrayed, itʼs hard to see what all the fuss is about. How can it be worth sacrificing so much if theyʼre really all the same? Ultimately, Judaism ends up looking comparatively better, but only because it is the Jewish grandparent who is able to accept the ecumenical, assimilating trend reflected in her sonʼs life choices. In America, it would seem, our similarities matter more than our differences, and most importantly, the only value worth committing yourself to is love.
This isnʼt the first time this theme shows up in the work of Judy Blume. I would argue that Margaretʼs literary forebear is found in another Blume young adult novel, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself. Set in the years 1945-47, the book is quasi-autobiographical. It follows Sally, the protagonist, as her family leaves their comfortable New Jersey home for the healthier climate of Florida. Sallyʼs brother needs to recover from a devastating illness. (We should note that the move from the Northeast to Florida is part of an important wave of migration of American Jews to Florida and California, as described by historian Deborah Dash Moore.)
In Starring Sally J. Freedman, strict religious observance is again associated with self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Most of the families in the Freedmanʼs new building are Jewish. But not too Jewish.
The family down the hall, the Daniels, are the only traditionally observant Jews we see in the book. When they stop by the apartment on Friday evening Sallyʼs mother tells her to put away the scissors she was using to cut paper dolls. Sally doesnʼt understand why she has to, but her mother says ʻIt doesnʼt look nice.ʼ Sally describes the Daniels, who donʼt use electricity from Friday night to Saturday night as ʻvery religiousʼ. Everyone has a mezuzah, but they actually kiss theirs.
The Daniels family, self-righteous and insufferable, are the only traditionally observant Jews in the book and weʼre not meant to like them- they stand out, they keep to themselves, they make other Jews uncomfortable with their own ways of doing things.
The Daniels get their comeuppance soon enough. Their daughter, Bubbles, has been secretly seeing a non-Jewish boy. When she runs away to marry him, rather than accept the situation and welcome their new son-in-law into their life, they cut her off and literally pronounce her dead by sitting shive (the traditional Jewish mourning rite.) (The abandonment of Bubbles foreshadows that of Margaret Simonʼs mother by her own parents.)
Sally and her family are aghast. Their Jewishness is a maximalist one, centered on the family and home above everything else. Their Jewishness is enacted, effortlessly, unconsciously, through the rituals of domestic life. While at home, Sally eats specifically Jewish meals. For example, we note that Ma Fanny serves either meat or milk meals, unobtrusively keeping the family space within an easy Jewish cultural continuity. However, what happens outside the home is fair game.
One of the dramatic highlights of the book is Sallyʼs fatherʼs visits to Florida. (He has had to stay behind with his dental practice in New Jersey.) While in Florida he is befriended by Big Ted, a character meant to evoke Mafia associations. Big Ted invites the entire Freedman family out for dinner at a very fancy restaurant. The highlight for Sally is a big steak dinner followed by an enormous bowl of her favorite treat, whipped cream.
Now, itʼs clear that Sally would never have the opportunity to eat a mixed meat and dairy meal (in violation of the laws of kashrut) at home. But what happens outside the home is just life. Sallyʼs mother is a lot more worried about Big Ted and her familyʼs safety than she is about whether her family keeps kosher outside the home.
Itʼs not too hard to see how the values inculcated in Sallyʼs generation (of the 1940s and ‘50s) come to fruition in the generation that would be parents in the 1970s, like Margaretʼs. Jewishness is embedded, more and more, in particularistic, non-transmissible locations (grandparents, home life) and not transmitted systematically. The ʻlove is all you needʼ ethos, and hostility to cultural particularities which may divide us, leads, perhaps inevitably, to an unsuccessful identity crisis when an inner attachment is cultivated without the outer conditions of cultural continuity.
In this light, when the Simons (of Are You There God) flee Manhattan (and Grandma Sylvia) they are doing more than fleeing a person. Grandma is a practicing Jew and is deeply enmeshed in her Jewish community, both globally and locally (in New York City.) Sylvia embodies the Jewishness (practical and historical) community which, if Margaret had stayed, would be one of the communities against which she would have defined her identity.
Blume repeatedly shows how Margaretʼs relationship with Grandma Sylvia is one of the most important, and meaningful, in Margaretʼs life. It is Sylvia who treats Margaret like a person, not like a kid. Itʼs Sylvia who initiates Margaret into the world of adult tastes and activities (they have a season pass to Lincoln Center.) As Margaret says “”Now some kids might think, who cares about seeing a grandmother? But Sylvia Simon is a lot of fun, considering her age, which I happen to know is sixty.”
According to Erik Erikson, one cannot have an identity alone- identity only occurs in community and in relation to others; identity:
“...points to an individualʼs link with the unique values, fostered by a unique history, of his people. Yet, it also relates to the cornerstone of this individualʼs unique development...It is this identity of something in the individualʼs core with an essential aspect of a groupʼs inner coherence which is under consideration here: for the young person must learn to be most himself where he means most to others-- those others, to be sure, who have come to mean most to him.” (emphasis mine)
For Margaret, religion isnʼt just knowing which place youʼre supposed to be bored once a week. Itʼs not even where you play basketball (Y or JCC) or which songs you sing at the Holiday pageant. Religion embodies all the things implied by Eriksonʼs invocation of ʻunique valuesʼ, ʻunique historyʼ and ʻpeopleʼ.
Religion necessarily means valuing one thing more than another, some people more than another, some places more than other places. Religion brings with it prejudices and preferences, obligations and restrictions. It means having to import kosher deli meat all the way from New York City to Farbrook NJ (as Grandma Sylvia does) because it just canʼt be substituted anywhere else. And that, above all, is what the move to the suburbs rebels against. It is Margaretʼs parents insistence that the food in Farbrook is just as good as the food in New York City. One food is as good as another, just as one city is as good as another.
The move to the suburbs leaves the adolescent high and dry when it comes to identification. Margaret may fit in with her peers in the transient world of school friends and cliques, but she has so far failed to identify with them outside anything related to the automatic processes involved in sexual maturation. That is, Margaret hits the landmarks of boobs and menstruation, along with her best friends, but at the end of the year she is no closer to knowing who she is and what community defines her and her future. Indeed, her year long personal research project had been to investigate different religions to find where she belonged. But as she writes in her final report:
“I have not come to any conclusions about what religion I want to be when I grow up-- if I want to be any special religion at all...”
No surprise there, as Margaretʼs only contact with religion has shown her that though the different religions offer nothing obviously unique, they still cause disproportionate sadness and isolation.
But Margaret doesnʼt reject religion. Indeed, the framework of the book is her reaching out to ʻGodʼ at each crisis point in her life. Itʼs right there in the title. Margaret instinctively knows what she needs, but the circumstances of her life make it impossible for her to get it. She knows that the problem isnʼt with religion per se, but with the way it has been presented (or not) to her:
“I have not really enjoyed my religious experiments very much and I donʼt think Iʼll make up my mind one way or the other for a long time. I donʼt think a person can decide to be a certain religion just like that... If I should ever have children I will tell them what religion they are so that they can start learning about it an early age. Twelve is very late to learn.”
The book ends on this somewhat ambivalent note. Margaret gets her period and continues to keep up with her peer group. But her future as an individual is unclear. Is twelve really too late to learn?For the answer, I turn back to Alan Mendelsohn and his quest for the stuff of identity.
(To be continued...)