I’m teaching a course this semester called “Religions of the American Peoples” (an inherited title), which I’m using to explore how religious minorities “become American.” In other words, I want students to think about “American” identity as socially constructed and contested. We’re starting the course with a historical survey of shifting ideas about “American” identity, starting with WASP ideologies of the late 19th century and running up through contemporary debates about multiculturalism.
This past week, I gave students three short selections to read from Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, the 1908 play that made that metaphor famous. There’s a certain quotation from the play that gets widely circulated, but until prepping for this course, I’d never actually read the whole play. It’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story, basically: David, a Russian Jewish emigrant, falls in love with Vera, the exiled revolutionary daughter of a Russian baron–who, in Dickensian fashion, turns out to have led the pogrom that massacred most of David’s family, plus there’s something of a love triangle as a snooty anti-immigrant WASP conspires to win Vera’s affections. David’s uncle Mendel pleads with him not to marry a Gentile, but David rejects that parochial prejudice as unworthy of the melting pot. The play ends with David and Vera united, looking out over the New York harbor toward the Statue of Liberty, while a choir sings “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Really.
The whole play can be read online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. The three short excerpts I prepared for my class (David’s first exposition of the melting pot metaphor, his fight with Mendel about intermarriage, and David’s grand closing speech) are here as a PDF, for colleagues who might want to use this for teaching. As you’ll see, Zangwill’s melting pot has a strong religious dimension along Social Gospel lines. America becomes the Kingdom of God–America becomes the Savior, in fact, beckoning the world’s weary and heavy-laden to come find rest. Also, there’s an interesting struggle between loyalty to “the God of our fathers” versus “the God of our children.” Guess which God wins.