Tag Archives: Judaism

Israel Zangwill’s “The Melting Pot”

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.

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Ramadan etiquette?

I encountered an etiquette issue yesterday which for me, at least, was a first: Should you eat in front of someone who’s fasting during Ramadan?

The situation arose because I was at a luncheon being held as part of the Study of the U.S. Institutes, a State Department-sponsored program that brings foreign scholars to the US to learn, in this case, about religion in American society. I found myself seated next to two Muslim scholars. Because of the Ramadan fast, they weren’t partaking of the luncheon, but they were sitting with me because I was supposed to be fielding questions they had about American religion.

As soon as I realized that they weren’t eating, and why, I didn’t feel comfortable eating while we talked–so I just talked. Eventually a server started removing untouched salad plates. I told him to leave mine–I’d eat it later. At that point, my conversation partners urged me to go ahead and eat. So I took some bites of salad and drank a little bit, but I left the main plate alone when it arrived. The server brought it to me boxed, actually, unsolicited.

After a while, the Muslims in the group left to attend Friday prayers at a local masjid, at which point I ate my boxed-up meal while chatting with folks who had remained behind.

A different religion-and-food etiquette question that’s poked at me periodically for a few years: Was it wrong of me to order an entree with bacon when I was taken out to eat on the tab of a Jewish studies seminar I used to work for?

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Klingon for Pesach

So I’ve been trying to think what ProjectilePluralism-ish topic I could post about in honor of Pesach–and just now I saw the following exchange on my Facebook wall. I’m copy-and-pasting the comments but omitting names to protect the light-minded.


Qapla’! In case you are invited to a Klingon seder tomorrow night, here is the first of the Four Questions restored to its proper Klingon: Chay’ raMmey latlh pIm ramvam?

Next question: how to modify the scansion to fit the Mah Nishtana melody.

Just add some extra syllables. You can add “qoH,” meaning “[you] fool” as an interjection at any point. I would add it at the end and repeat “ramvam qoH” twice. Note that “latIh” is two syllables, “LAT-IH.”

Major life regrets: I never got my dad to translate the four questions into Hindi for me.

Sadly, Klingon will not be spoken at tonight’s Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Memorial, since contacts with extraterrestrials are regarded as occultist and demonic!

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Ash Wednesday in a diverse society

Two days ago, I met my husband for a noon-hour Ash Wednesday service at the Episcopal church close to campus. I told him about an exchange I’d had after one of my morning classes with a student who was already wearing an ash cross on his forehead. We’ve been discussing in class how heavily invested 19th-century American Protestants were in setting themselves over against Catholics as a self-defining Other (with attendant difficulties for American Catholics). My student told me that he found himself thinking about that history when his pastor announced that he would be conducting an Ash Wednesday service: this is, evidently, a Low Church group, so there was some rumbling in the congregation about observing such a “Catholic” tradition.

After the service, my husband dropped me back off at campus. I headed quickly for my office so I could wash the cross off my forehead: I wasn’t comfortable wearing it on my professional turf. I wouldn’t have been thrilled about parading around in public with an ash cross anyway, but I was particularly uncomfortable walking around a state university that way in my role as professor. One church I used to get ashed in, back in grad school, had the custom of wiping the cross off during communion. Their argument was that it didn’t make much sense to go walking around “ashed” after having just listened to a Gospel reading about not performing your piety to be seen of others.

It occurred to me that Ash Wednesday is one of the few Western Christian practices that, as an American, I have to “squeeze” into my work day. The school calendar is set up in this country to give me Sundays off. Christmas is not just a national holiday but a federal one. When I was in North Carolina, my state university actually gave us Good Friday off (under the guise of “Spring Holiday”). Even certain saints’ days have been absorbed into the cultural calendar: St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, All Hallows Eve. Easter and Lent are a little trickier, culturally, because they’re based on a lunar rather than a solar calendar, so you don’t automatically know what date they’ll come up on this year. On the other hand, Mardi Gras and Easter are observed “commercially,” so they still leave a big cultural footprint, even if that footprint isn’t always planted on the same day of the calendar.

It’s different, of course, if you’re Eastern Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, in which case you regularly face the problem of having to keep track of where your lunar holidays fall in relation to America’s Western Christian solar calendar, most likely without the mnemonic benefit of having those holidays observed in the “seasonal” aisle of your supermarket. As my husband and I were walking pass the Hillel Center on the way to the car, I thought: The minor inconvenience I faced today of having to squeeze an Ash Wednesday service into my lunch hour is a little taste of what my Orthodox Jewish colleague goes through with all of his religious holidays.

As we passed the Hillel Center, my husband asked, “Have you ever been inside?” I haven’t–and I experienced a moment of unease that my husband was about to propose we pop in at that moment for a look. Walking into a synagogue while wearing an ash cross on my forehead would feel even more uncomfortable than wearing it on campus. However pluralistic the folks at Hillel might be, history casts a long, cold shadow.

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Is Halloween halachic? Halal?

As a nod to Halloween, I decided to see what would turn up on Google when I went looking for quick answers to the questions: Does Jewish law permit the celebration of Halloween? What about Islamic law?

The most Google-prominent answer to the question about Jewish law is this essay by Emory professor Michael Broyde. Broyde’s argument, focused on trick-or-treating specifically, is that the custom is pagan and therefore idolatrous in origin, ergo forbidden. Or rather, it’s forbidden for Jews to go trick-or-treating. Broyde believes it’s acceptable for Jews to give candy to trick-or-treaters in order to cultivate good-neighborly relations with Gentiles and avoid “unneeded hatred towards the Jewish people.”

Regarding Islamic law, one of the first hits Google turns up is this article from IslamiCity by Sarah K. Her argument parallels Broyde’s: the holiday is pagan in origin and therefore should not be celebrated.

My Google search for “Halloween halal” also turned up an essay by Yusuf Estes. As I was reading it, I was struck by how much Estes’s rhetoric reminded me of fundamentalist Protestant discourse I’ve seen about Halloween, including use of the word “occult” and concerns about organized Satanism. I began to wonder, in fact, if Islam Newsroom might be a fundamentalist Christian ministry to Muslims posing as an informational website on Islam. Come to find out, Estes is a Christian convert to Islam, reared in Texas, so, um, yeah. That explains it.

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Are Jews a kind of Christian?

A student asked me that question today in my 100-level “intro to American religious” course.  The question caught me off-guard (partly because it came out of the blue; it wasn’t obviously relevant to the topic of discussion for today), so I was brusquer than I should have been in answering it. “No. Judaism is a religion that predates Christianity.” Someone in the back of the room snickered at the question, which I should have intervened in, another regret.

I’ve blogged before about a student–in this same course, in a previous semester–who asked me what a Protestant is. I resisted then, and I’ll resist now, the instinct to wring my hands about religious illiteracy. But what does it mean that at this moment in American history, I have a student (African American, as it happens; is that relevant?) who is unsure about whether or not Judaism is a branch of Christianity?

Does the student’s question arise from exposure to the concept of “Judeo-Christianity,” a concept which has left him with an impression of fundamental unity between Judaism and Christianity? Is the student coming out of a “post-Christian” environment in which Christianity and Judaism are equally unfamiliar to him? Is the student coming from a religious community where at some point he heard Judaism discussed as a kind of heresy, which he’s now trying to translate into less normative terms, i.e., seeing Judaism as a variety of Christianity not approved by his community? He is not, evidently, coming from a background where he was taught to understand the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in supercessionist terms (or if so, he didn’t understand what that meant). Nor, evidently, has he been exposed to “Jews as Christ-killers” rhetoric–or even, it would appear, to rhetoric about Jews as people who “reject Christ.” Or if he was exposed to such rhetoric, it would appear he’s observed something about Jews that has made him question that rhetoric.

Is it a good sign, then, in a way, that contemporary American society can produce an individual who wonders if Jews are a kind of Christian?

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Minhag Amerika

minhagamtpThis afternoon I was preparing a class on Jews in America during the mid-19th century. The Minhag Amerika came up, Isaac Wise’s attempt to create a Jewish prayer book that would, he hoped, unify Jews in the U.S. around a Reform vision of Judaism. The central theme of the course I’m teaching this for is Americanization, with an emphasis on contested notions of what it means to “Americanize.” So the Minhag Amerika works well for asking: What is Wise’s understanding of what it takes to construct an “American” Judaism?

I’d never actually seen the Minhag Amerika, so I popped online and was delighted to discover a scanned version available from Hebrew Union College, just south of me in Cincinnati. I was disappointed, though, to find that the book doesn’t contain some kind of preface by Wise laying out his aims or a rationale for an American siddur.

Click here to see the online version.

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Native Americans as a Lost Tribe: American Jews respond

LINK: Native Americans & Jews: The Lost Tribes Episode, by David Koffman

Someone posted a link to this article a week or so ago at a Mormon-themed Facebook group I belong to. That group was interested in the article because, of course, the Book of Mormon arises from the belief that Native Americans are descended from scattered Israelites. What intrigued me most about the article is its discussion of how American Jews responded to this once widely entertained idea. From Koffman’s conclusion:

Many of the major figures in nineteenth-century American Jewry weighed in–in one manner or another–on the Jewish-Indian controversy. The practical stakes were never high, but the claim–so ubiquitous and so fluid (since it was used for so many different functions by so many different people)–was taken seriously and fretted over by Jewish leaders of very different orientations. The Lost Tribe theory had significant symbolic stakes–for Jews, Christians, and Native Americans. Linking America and its earliest inhabitants with the Bible and its theology, meant staking a claim on America–and championing God’s plan for the New World.

Read more


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God in America: A New Light

v07739acrasA continuing review of the Frontline/American Experience documentary God in America. This post looks at part 4, “A New Light.”

Summary: This episode narrates conflicts between tradition and modernity in Judaism and Protestantism. Act I: Isaac Mayer Wise popularizes Reform Judaism, which appeals to Jews who want an Americanized and modernized form of Jewish identity. Although he hopes to unify American Jews under the banner of Reform, opposition to his reforms precipitates a split in American Judaism. Act II: Charles Augustus Briggs encounters Darwin and historical criticism of the Bible; goes public in calling American Christians to–as with Wise–unify under the banner of modernism; is tried for heresy. The modernist-fundamentalist controversy expands through American Protestantism. Act III: William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow square off in the Scopes trial. Whereas in the 19th century the great religious divide in America was over slavery, from henceforth Americans will be divided between conservatives and liberals.

Likes: I could definitely use this entire episode in my own introductory survey to American religious history; the (admittedly simplified) narrative it tells is basically the narrative I’ve been using. There’s fun, student-friendly drama here: the treyfa banquet, the Scopes trial. With the Scopes trial, we have the advantage of period footage, which shows how nakedly partisan and patronizing the national media’s descriptions of fundamentalism were. (The film doesn’t point critically to that, but it gives me material to.)

I especially like the transnational dimension to this story: In both Wise’s and Briggs’s narratives, the connection to modernizing movements in Germany is highlighted. (Briggs’s story, in fact, begins by locating him visually in Berlin.)

The Scopes segment made a point of framing the issue not as religion vs. science (the latter understood as “secular”) but as conservative Christians vs. liberal Christians. Before getting to Scopes, the documentary introduces us to Bryan as an important politician, a defender of the working classes; that’s good because it prevents him from being reduced to what he became in media coverage of Scopes.

Nice touches of social history, i.e., figures for immigration. (We got the same in episode 2, on Catholic immigration during the antebellum era.)

Dislikes: While I’m willing to use this episode in class (unlike most of episode 3), there are some things that make me grit my teeth a little. It irked me that during the treyfa banquet sequence–which is presented in the documentary as a Jewish equivalent to the Briggs heresy trial or the Scopes trial, i.e., a showdown moment between modernizers and traditionalists–the score was cutesy, whereas when Protestants are grappling over how to make sense of the Bible in relation to the new science, the score is serious and intense. So… when Christians are grappling with modernity, we’re supposed to share their sense of crisis; but when Jews grapple with modernity, that’s funny, cause, you know, it’s about whether or not to eat shrimp, which isn’t really a serious question.

The talking heads’ examples of the problems in the Bible that drove modernists to their conclusions are so simplistic that I have to think an evangelical student watching that part of the documentary would think, “But that’s so easy to answer. What’s the problem?”

Along a similar line, the dramatized confrontation between Bryan and Darrow during the Scopes trial wasn’t quite fair to Bryan, I felt; the filmmakers wanted to make clear why he lost in “public opinion” (meaning: the Northern media), so he had to be played as more inept than he might have been. On the other hand, Bryan does get the last word in a nice little speech that drives home what he saw as the stakes for American society. It’s a poignant moment, but not as compelling as it might have been because it’s understated: I sense the filmmakers don’t want us sympathizing too much with him.

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American Pesach

Today is Easter, but we’re also in the middle of Pesach; so to mix things up, ProjectilePluralism style, let’s focus on the latter. Today’s post in honor of Pesach is a selection from The New American Haggadah, a Reconstructionist publication. Confusingly, there are at least two other publications with the same title, one put together by Jonathan Safran Foer, another by Ken Royal and Lori Royal-Gordon. There appears to be competition to market one’s particular take on the haggadah as the haggadah for American Jews. But I crossed paths with the Reconstructionists’ version first, so let’s put the spotlight on them.

As you read the following, you need to know that in the published book, this paragraph is accompanied by a photo of the Statue of Liberty. I’ve approximated the effect for you with an image “borrowed” from the Internet.

libertyTonight’s festival is dedicated to the dream and the hope of freedom, the dream and the hope that have filled the hearts of humankind from the time our ancestors went forth out of Egypt. Peoples have suffered and nations have struggled to make this dream come true. Now we rededicate ourselves to the struggle for freedom. Though the sacrifice be great and the hardships many, we will not rest until the chains that enslave all peoples are broken.

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