I don't suppose
that Groucho Marx looms large on anyone's agenda of burning
Jewish issues. But along with such "Kings of Comedy" as
George Burns, Sid Caesar, and Jack Benny, Groucho and his
brothers worked one of the great miracles in American
popular culture. They got Jew-hating farmers from Indiana to
Idaho to laugh out loud at jokes that germinated in the
shtetlakh of Jewish Eastern Europe, took root in the
holds of trans-Atlantic steamers, and flowered in the
pushcarts of the American Jewish urban ghetto.
If Jews feel at
home in Tuscaloosa in 2004 (where, we recall, the elephant
hunting is terrific because "the tusks are loosa"), it's in
part because of Groucho. He taught even the Mayflower WASPS,
who counted on two hands the Jewish admissions to Yale in
the 1930s, to see their own reflections in that defiant
dialectic of Marxist, self-definition: "I would never join
any club that would have me as a member"
One of the clubs
that Groucho and most of his buddies from Orchard Street
never joined, of course, was the local shul. Drenched
in immigrant Yiddishkeit though it was, the
Jewishness of the Kings of Comedy was that of the upturned
skeptical eyebrow and the sly rejoinder to pompous power,
not the Judaism of eyes reddened from tears shed over the
pain of the Shekhinah's exile. No, Groucho would
never have been able to make sense of a totally
unpredictable fact of contemporary American Jewish life.
According to the
recent National Jewish Population Survey, some 200,000
Gentile Americans - about 4 percent of the American Jewish
community - have voted with their feet and entered the very
Jewish club that Groucho wouldn't join.
Not an enormous
number, but still, it means that conversion to Judaism is
now more common than at any moment since the late Roman
Empire. In those days, entire communities of Gentiles, known
as "God Fearers," flocked to the Sabbath and festival
celebrations of synagogues from Gaul to Rome to Asia Minor
and beyond. Some historians, in fact, believe that by the
first century of the Common Era, the Jews and their converts
formed about 10 percent of the population of the Roman
Can you imagine
life in America if the Jews accounted for such a percentage?
Never mind a kosher kitchen in the White House. How about a
mikvah!? Why, if 10 percent of the American
population had been Jews during the Reagan years, we might
have seen garlic designated as a vegetable in school
lunches! But before we indulge our fantasies, however, let's
ask: what's going on here?
of all this is that the American Jewish family is becoming a
very complicated institution. Increasingly rare is the
Jewish family of a single ethnic stock, able to trace its
ancestry back several generations through the stately
portraits of solemn, bearded men in dark coats and square
yarmulkes or grim, box-shaped women whose sheitlakh
recall the homeyness of crow's nests. The new Jewish family
includes born-Jews, converts, and their non-Jewish
birth-families. Jewish children in Hebrew schools, day
schools, and even heders are learning about Gentiles
not merely from religious texts, folk memories, or
fist-fights on the street. They know them as grandparents,
aunts, uncles, cousins, and even brothers and sisters.
And in the same
way, American Gentiles are learning about Jews. Not only
from the neurotic self-projections of the likes of Woody,
Seinfeld, and Sandler - but, more importantly, from people
they love and share their lives with. Paradoxically, the
entry of non-Jews into American Judaism makes it easier for
Judaism to be part of America, and also to define itself as
separate and unique. What Lenny Bruce used to say of New
Yorkers - "even the goyim are Jews!" - now holds true
in every major American population center.
Let's say your
daughter is a convert. Go to a couple of her seders and
you'll understand why your Jewish office colleague isn't
just "taking vacation time" when Pesach comes around!
It's easier to tolerate a "clannishness" in which you are
At a deeper
level, however, the numbers game masks a more important
question. Namely, what do these people see in Judaism?
In the Roman
Empire, it was the monotheism of Judaism, its antiquity, the
humaneness of the Torah's laws, and the strong sense of
concern for one's neighbor that drew Gentiles into the fold.
The invisible, morally stern Jewish God seemed somehow more
godly than the fornicating child-murderers who could attain
divine status in the Roman pantheon.
Jews raised all
their children to adulthood instead of exposing their
superfluous girl infants to certain death in forests and
urban alleys. And everywhere you traveled in the Roman
world, there was a Jewish community whose synagogue offered
the weary Jewish wayfarer a bed and a meal.
situation of ancient Roman Judaism teach us about our own
day? After all, monotheism is no longer a remarkable
religious innovation. And, in the era of Dubya's
"compassionate conservatism," who can accuse American
society of systematic neglect of the underfed, under-housed,
and under-employed? What explains the charm Judaism works in
the hearts of so many non-Jewish Americans? In the absence
of scientific data, I'll offer a guess inspired by Groucho.
discovering just how important it is to have a "club" after
all. The age of the melting pot is over. We are desperate
for genuine rootedness in a community whose wisdom has aged
well and adapted to countless challenges. At the same time,
we are more mobile than ever. Few die in the town or even
region of their birth. Marriages routinely dissolve and
reconstitute themselves, and families grow with little sense
of continuous identity over time. Our autobiographies are
defined as a random sequence of commitments to endlessly
changing, instrumental communities: the school, the
workplace, the neighborhood.
In this setting,
the Torah offers a unique place of rest and nourishment.
Conversion offers entry into collective memories that go to
the foundations of world civilizations. The life of Torah
offers stable, repeated rhythms of day, week, and year that
must be celebrated with others. Isolated individuals find
themselves drawn into a broad network of obligations that
draw them beyond themselves into caring communities.
Just as the
ethnic traits that made Groucho recognizably "Jewish" yet
utterly secular are fading away, a new Jewishness has
emerged. Our converts teach us that it is not "Jewishness,"
but "Judaism" that is the main thing. The thing we take most
for granted - our Jewish heritage - is a prize and a
challenge, a treasure which we are challenged to turn every
which way to find all that is hidden within it.