The Quiet Holocaust Of Jewish Assimilation In North America As Told Through The Stories Of Two Families

The American melting pot is doing away with American Jewry

Did You Know The Roman Colosseum Was Built With Treasure Stolen From The Second Temple Of Jerusalem?
In the most evocative image of the Jewish exile, the Menorah and other implements of worship are carried out of the Second Temple by its Roman destroyers

I was born in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. So were all my ancestors, likely dating back to the late Middle Ages. Though I lived in Kiev until I was ten years old, never have I thought of myself as Ukrainian and neither did my parents, my family members, my friends, my schoolmates, or my teachers. My mother tongue is Russian, but I am most certainly not Russian in any way shape or form. I am Jewish. No, not in the same way as someone is Catholic, or in any other religious sense. Though I believe in God and practice some aspects of the religion known as Judaism, I am hardly an observant Jew. I am Jewish in my nationality, my ethnicity, my core, down to the last amino-acid in my DNA and I could never be anything else.

We have a good friend in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is in his sixties and in possession of the most Jewish of all Jewish surnames. When visiting his home a while back, I noticed on his bookshelf a row of identical looking green tomes. Curious, I took a look. They turned out to be compilations of Palestine News, covering the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, all the way to 1948, when Palestine ceased to exist and became Israel. Inside, there were news stories from Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. The successes and the travails alike of the as yet young Zionist movement in rebuilding the Jewish sovereignty in our ancient homeland were detailed in perfect American English.

My friend noticed my interest. “My grandparents and parents subscribed to these,” he said. His parents left the pogroms of Ukraine, where I was later born, and came to New Brunswick, Canada when they were yet children, in the 1920’s. It is not inconceivable that his grandparents and my great-grandparents had known each other in the Ukrainian exile. Growing up in St. John, they did alright for themselves, my friend’s parents. They sold clothing and soon had a chain of stores. Their success allowed his mother to devote her time to philanthropy and her good deeds landed her a spot in the Canadian Senate in the 1970’s. Throughout their lives, these people were Jews who cared deeply about our nation and our homeland as their subscription can attest. But their son is a life-long bachelor and chooses not to get involved in anything Jewish, while his sister married a man of the Haida First Nation and their grandchildren are forever lost to ours.

My own family has what I call “the smart branch”. My grandmother on my mother’s side had a sister whose parents were smart enough to leave Ukraine and cross the Atlantic to Canada. They prospered and looked for us when the Iron Curtain parted ever so slightly in the early 1960’s. Though they were sure that we had perished in the Holocaust (and they were partially right; both my grandfathers had fallen in battle with the Nazis), they managed to find us with the aid of various Jewish agencies. We corresponded. There was no language barrier, because we wrote the same language, Yiddish, using the same letters, the Hebrew alphabet. I still remember being the only kid in school who had a winter coat with a zipper, a coat that my parents bought me with the Canadian dollars my distant relatives had sent us and which could only be spent in a special store set aside for tourists and communist party members.Today, none of that family are Jewish anymore. Some never married, some married Gentiles. The kids (grand kids, great grand kids) probably know that they have some Jewish heritage, but that is about it.

The truth is that North America, the US and Canada, have been and to a lesser degree still are, great for individual Jews, but they are absolute kryptonite to Jews as a people. Being Jewish rests on three foundations: the Torah (the religion of Judaism), the people (Jews as a genetically distinct ethnic group), and the land (Israel). Throughout our long, almost bi-millennial exile until the last century or so the first two were never in doubt. All of us were observant and we rarely if ever intermarried. Those who did, were simply lost to the community. The third, the land, took on a virtual meaning through the constant longing, expressed in every prayer, to one day return home. “Next Year In The (Re)Built Jerusalem”, says the Passover Hagadah. The word “galut”, exile, is one of the most common words in the Jewish prayer book and purposely so. It is there to remind us that we are never home unless we are in Israel. No matter what our citizenship papers say, we are always in exile, unless they say that we are Israelis.

In Ukraine, the Gentiles, the actual Ukrainians, knew well, knew immediately, from the first glance that I was not one of them. My first and last names, my looks, they all screamed “Jew”. They had no desire to mix with me, as I had no desire to mix with them. And thus it was throughout history, everywhere that Jews lived in exile. But not in America. America (and Canada) are “melting pots”. Everyone is from somewhere else. You can keep your religion and your food and other meaningless traditions; the dreidels, the latkes, the Hanukkah money, but you must assimilate. You should and can (!) be like everyone else.

The American experience knocks out two of the three foundations of being Jewish and in doing so makes it all but impossible to remain a Jew in America. One can certainly be an American who practices some or even all aspects of the Jewish religion Judaism, but that is not what it means to be Jewish. American Jews, other than the closed communities of the ultra-Orthodox, have lost their sense of exile. They think of America as home, which is the very essence of assimilation, of losing one’s particular, peculiar identity of being the last Jew in one’s long, long line of Jewish ancestors, of betraying their legacy of CHOOSING to remain Jewish even when that choice was exceedingly disadvantageous and physically dangerous.

Nobody knows exactly how many Jews lived in Judea before the twin revolts against Rome in 70 and 120 AD and the resulting Roman reprisals began driving them out of their homeland. Estimates range from two to four million. Natural population growth of such numbers over nearly two millennia would have given us today a world with as many as 300 million Jews. But that was not to be. Losses to genocide, particularly during the crusades combined with losses due to assimilation, both voluntary and forced, to whittle our numbers down to about eighteen million before the Holocaust and perhaps twelve million today. All we can say for sure is that there are seven million Jews now living in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox communities in exile number perhaps another million. As to the rest? Hard to say.

Perhaps it is our destiny to be few in number, but one thing is clear: as a Jew, a Jew who wishes to remain a Jew, one must banish the word assimilation from one’s vocabulary and make the choice to live in Israel or in exile, but never confuse exile for home.

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