Meet the “New Jews,” Same As the Old Jews

In The Jerusalem Post two weeks ago, Larry Derfner wrote about how both of his friend’s sons are marrying children of Asian immigrants. Part elegy, part rant, the piece explores why “old-fashioned, secular unrich” Jews like his friend’s sons are coupling with Asian women rather than Jewish ones.

His answer?

The simplest reason … is that both couples met at UCLA, a gigantic university loaded with Jewish and Asian students. The less simple reason is that my friend’s two sons received an old-fashioned, secular, unrich Jewish upbringing in America, and for people like them, there aren’t many American Jews of similar background and outlook to marry anymore. For people like them, there are more opportunities to find suitable spouses among Asians and other studious, hard-working, family-oriented American immigrants than there are among American Jews.

The American Jewish community is no longer the same as it was 40 years ago. For Derfner, that’s a shame.

When people say Asians are America’s “new Jews,” they mean Asians are the new American immigrant success story, the new super-achievers. Yet they’re the new Jews in another way, too. They have something that mainstream American Jewry used to have, but lost after living in America so long: Humility. That heimishe quality.

My friend’s sons still have it because their parents are a throwback to a better time for American Jewry – the middle of the 20th century, when there were millions of Jews who didn’t practice the religion yet were identifiably Jewish. That’s because they were no more than a generation away from the traditional Jewish communities of (mainly Eastern) Europe, they lived in close-knit, secular, unrich American Jewish neighborhoods, and they had what I think of as a Jewish sensibility. They were sensitive, earnest, warm, funny and somewhat driven. They had close families and friendships. There was nothing sleek, or smug, or high and mighty about them.

Back then, my friend’s sons probably would have found secular Jewish brides who came from homes not unlike their own – where the grandparents were Yiddish-speaking storekeepers, where the parents were college-educated civil service professionals – a middle-class, secular Jewish home where education and hard work were prized, and conspicuous consumption was for puffed-up jerks.

But now, according to Derfner, it’s all shot to hell. American Jews are obsessed with wealth and display it ostentatiously. Humility, hard work, education? Forget it. Now the only Jews who retain these values en masse are the Orthodox. But for staunchly secular Jews like Derfner, religiosity is not an option.

Derfner’s argument certainly is provocative–who ever expected to read an anti-inmarriage essay from a secular (dove-ish) Zionist? But his provocation rests on the liberal use of stereotypes, some of which are nearly antisemitic. When he speaks of “these shallow, starry-eyed, spoiled, smug young American Jews,” is he not regurgitating a tired Jewish American Princess archtype, minus the politically incorrect gendered qualities? When he talks of Asians as “good, kind, hard-working, smart, modest and loyal,” is he not perpetuating a common, albeit positive, stereotype of Asians?

Ultimately, Derfner is less interested in the intermarriage debate than he is in the state of American Jewry. I don’t think he genuinely encourages Jews to marry Asians instead of Jews–his real target is the conspicuous consumption and declining educational and work expectations of American Jews. A fact-based essay that tackles those issues–that I’d like to see.

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