PRINCETON, New Jersey - The day after Chelsea Clinton's marriage to Marc Mezvinsky, the Tikvah Fund's annual seminar opened at Princeton University. There, Prof. David Novak talked about a different era, in which even the son of a former secretary of the treasury, Henry Morgenthau, had trouble getting accepted to that university because he was a Jew. And when he was finally accepted, he was rejected by all the eating clubs, Princeton's equivalent of fraternities - an important part of American student life and the key to social and economic status. Today, a seminar at which Jews discuss how to integrate Jewish thought into the study of the humanities is taken for granted on this campus.
Aside from its religious ramifications, the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding highlights the enormous sociological changes, whose impact can scarcely be overstated, that have taken place here in the decades that culminated in the marriage between a daughter of the group that discriminated against others and a son of a group that was discriminated against. For many Jews, Mezvinsky's acceptance into the bosom of this high-toned WASP family seems to set the final seal on the sociological process that the Jews, and especially Reform Jews, have undergone in America. From now on, the fantasy goes, we are all Mezvinskys.
On the other side, for those who have been fearfully following the process of assimilation and disappearance that the Jewish people has undergone in America, and on other continents, this "culminating event" poured salt on open wounds. Some 90 percent of young Jews, according to recent polls, do not rule out marriage with a non-Jew. And the results are easy to see: Due to intermarriage, the number of Jews in the United States has fallen by more than a quarter since the 1960s.
Only 5 million Jews (a number that includes about 1 million Israelis and immigrants from the former Soviet Union ) live today in the world's second-largest Jewish population center. The numerous intermarriages attest to a desire to shake off the burden that Jewish identity entails - even in its minimalist Reform version - and assimilate into the American melting pot. (Note that the American melting pot is not the same as the American dream. The original American dream allowed people to continue adhering to their own religion and nationality, viewing this as legitimate and even desirable, not something that impedes realization of that dream. )
More than a few Jews, including Reform Jews, were hurt by the inclusion of ancient Jewish symbols, like the breaking of the glass, alongside Christian ones at Saturday's wedding. Rabbi James Ponet, who officiated over this mishmash, displayed radical conformism. That is apparently linked to the dream some Jews have of pleasing the ultimate WASP, and thereby trying to solve the identity problem that lurks deep in the recesses of the Jewish soul. But it seems doubtful that they will find peace and belonging by making like Ionesco's rhinoceroses.
On the other hand, there are a growing number of kippa-wearing Jews on American campuses. And this development evidently does not stem only from the growing strength of the Orthodox movement and its increasing interest in academic studies (a trend also observable in Israel ). Rather, there is a demonstrative element to this behavior, an element of protest. The message is that the Jewish people and Jewish civilization are alive and well, and will continue to exist despite assimilation.
We, they say, are the proof that it is possible to be an integral part of the new American collective without conceding - as the weaker souls among us have - our uniquely Jewish national identity. We do not owe our national identity, and certainly not our religious identity, to America; the Jews have contributed no less, and perhaps even more, to America than America has contributed to the Jews.
Mazel tov, Chelsea and Marc. You are not just symbols.
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