Last week I taught my American literature students a work written in the late eighteenth century. Letters from an American Farmer was written over the span of time that turned the British Colonies into the United States of America. The author, bearer of the unwieldy name J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, led an unsettled and adventurous life, moving through dangerous places and times. His work, which is partly autobiographical, purports to be a series of letters from an American farmer to a British aristocrat describing the British colonial enterprise and how the new conditions of the New World have created a new man—an American. The work abounds with characters from the time: the farmer’s Quaker wife, speaking with characteristic “thees” and “thous,” the untamed frontiersmen, the prosperous farmers, the Native Americans whose way of life both threatens and beckons. Nothing, you would say, that is relevant to anything in today’s world, and certainly nothing that relates to our Jewish world — nothing, that is, which is relevant to anything but the breaking news headlines in today’s Jewish newspapers.
One of the big stories here in Israel, and in American Jewish circles, concerns an ad campaign created by the Israeli Immigration and Absorption Ministry to convince Israeli expatriates—yordim, in Hebrew — to return home. The heart of the campaign is the threat of the loss of Israeli identity. Your American children, the ads suggest, won’t know what Chanukah means, will forget to call Daddy Abba, will not remain Israeli. Your non-Israeli partner won’t understand why you lit a candle and cried on Remembrance Day.
The Ministry hoped that their unabashedly emotional campaign would bring the expatriates back to Israel. What they did not expect was the anger it would arouse in American Jewry. Furious analysts and bloggers denounced the suggestion that American children or partners of Israelis cannot distinguish between Christmas and Chanukah or identify with Israel’s sadness on Remembrance Day. Although the Immigration Ministry defended the campaign, Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled it as a response to American criticism.
J. Hector de St. John de Crevecoeur might have been puzzled by all the brouhaha about the implications of the campaign. Wasn’t this exactly what he had described more than two centuries ago?
Everybody was too busy making money to have much time or energy left over for religious matters.
In Letters to an American Farmer, de Crevecoeur specifically explains how in America national and religious identity disappears within one generation. America was a large, unexplored country, without Europe’s social or political tradition of hierarchy. What this meant was that a man could come, claim land, clear it, and begin to work for himself and his family.
The Europe these immigrants had left behind had long been roiling with religious turbulence. Catholics, Protestants, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Puritans, Quakers, all the Christian sects had for centuries been at odds or at war, trying to convince or convert or jail or kill one another. In America, however, where farms were spread out, members of each sect lived too far from one another to encourage zealotry. Furthermore, everybody was too busy cutting down forests, cultivating fields, taking care of their animals—in short, too busy making money—to have much time or energy left over for religious matters. Within a generation, a sense of national and religious identity would be wiped out and children of one religion would happily marry children of parents who held the opposite beliefs.
The business of America is business, said President Calvin Coolidge almost one hundred years ago, and de Crevecoeur’s New American can certainly be good for business today. The Jerusalem Post recently reported that Amazon’s top selling Chanukah item was a Star of David or a Menorah-shaped Christmas tree topper.
For de Crevecoeur, coming from a world of religious strife and warfare, the disappearance of religious identity was something to be celebrated, and indeed America’s nearly three hundred year tradition of religious freedom is something to be cherished. For American Jewry, though, trying to hold on to a sense of Jewishness that goes back three thousand years, this same freedom creates a threat embedded in the history and culture and literature of America, one that goes much deeper than a 30 second advertisement by an Israeli Ministry.
Whatever the merits of the ad campaign, it is not a message American Jewry should refuse to hear.
American Jewry was uncomfortable hearing from the Israeli Immigration Ministry that within a short space of time Israelis, like all immigrants to the New World, are likely, as de Crevecoeur put it, to be “melted into a new race of men,” losing their Israeli national and Jewish religious identities. This is not, however, a message invented by an Israeli ministry, and whatever the merits of the ad campaign for yordim, it is not a message American Jewry should refuse to hear. Anger at the messenger will not change the message.
If American Jews don’t want to listen to their Israeli cousins, they can read this early work of American literature to understand that American assimilation is the dark side of American economic opportunity and religious freedom, and that in fighting to keep a Jewish identity they are fighting against a tradition that goes deeply into the American psyche. For Jews in America who care about keeping and transmitting their Jewish identity to their children, de Crevecoeur’s words have never been more relevant. For Jews who want to keep their Menorahs off the tops of Christmas trees, de Crevecoeur’s letters from long, long ago should be sounding an anxious alarm.