Opinion

The True Success Story of Jews in the 20th Century

Israel exists thanks to America’s liberal Jews, and not vice versa

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfeffermann on 'Transparent.'

I started to watch “Transparent” out of interest in the LGBT issues that the television series deals with. The father of the family, Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), comes out of the closet as a transgender woman named Maura, and the plot focuses largely on how the family copes with the process he undergoes. Maura isn’t the only queer character in the series. The oldest sibling, Sarah, leaves her husband and moves in with a woman, and the youngest, Alexandra, or Ali, is captivated by a lecturer at university and has a passionate affair with her.

Nevertheless, as the episodes roll on, it becomes clear that beside the LGBT theme, there’s another subject at the heart of the series: Jewishness. The Pfeffermans are a West Coast Reform-liberal Jewish family. Their dialogues are punctuated with Yiddishisms, and the plot moves between alternative Havdalah ceremonies and spats during the Passover seder. “Transparent” is perhaps the most Jewish television series ever produced in America – even more than “Seinfeld,” where the Jewish identity was more implicit and completely cultural. In fact, “Transparent,” in the perceptive comment by the lesbian, Jewish philosopher Judith Butler, is “much better on Jewish life than it is on trans life.”

But what kind of Jewishness is this? The Jewish customs depicted in the series have only the most tenuous connection to those we’re familiar with in Orthodox-nationalist Israel. No water is drunk in the fast-breaking meal following Yom Kippur, as an expression of solidarity with drought victims in California; Mexican food is eaten in the Havdalah rite; and the seder is conducted on an ocean cruise to the sounds of a song by Alanis Morissette. Nor is the connection between the LGBT theme and Jewishness random. “Transparent” portrays a Jewish world that has completely adopted the feminist and queer agenda. Not only as a tolerable phenomenon but as a central element of identity.

To an Israeli viewer who was raised with a Zionist education, the Jewishness of “Transparent” comes across as an odd phenomenon: the religion of an exotic tribe of ultraliberal queers who eat tacos on Saturday night. But actually, it’s we in Israel who are the odd ones. We are the provincials, and the Pfefferman family is the center. It will not be an exaggeration to say that “Transparent” is an up-to-date portrait of the Jewish people, circa 2017.

In this connection, we can also mention Raquel, the partner of Josh, the son, and a Reform rabbi at the local temple. With her knitted kippa, Raquel could easily be a member of the Women of the Wall group. We need to remember all this against the backdrop of the widening gap – dramatically revealed in recent weeks – between Israel and liberal American Jewry. It’s easy to be swept up by the propaganda of Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett and to think that Israel is the center of Jewishness today, while the liberal Americans are just a pain in the neck. But that’s a biased picture. Even though there are nearly seven million Jews in Israel, it’s American Jewry that concentrates the meaningful Jewish cultural, economic and political clout in our world.

The early 20th-century Jewish historian Simon Dubnow described the Jewish people’s historical trajectory as a movement between a number of centers. “In every period,” he wrote, “the dispersed Jewish people had a cultural center that stood above the other centers of Judaism and influenced them.” The first center, he maintained, was in the Land of Israel, followed by Babylon, Spain in the Golden Age and then Ashkenaz – Germany and Poland. There were of course other Jewish communities, too, but in each period, it was the center that set the tone.

Jewish laborers in New York in the 19th century.
Lewis Hine / The New York Public

Dubnow himself became a kind of martyr to his own concept. He refused to immigrate to Palestine, and was murdered by the Nazis at a killing site in Latvia. Zionist historians took this as proof that his approach to history led to catastrophe, and that the key to the Jews surviving even and flourishing is national resurgence in the Land of Israel. But it bears repeating that the true success story of Jews in the 20th century is not the Jews of Israel but the Jews of the United States. They are the leading and active force in present-day Jewry.

Dubnow’s notion of “migrating centers” portrays Jewish history differently from the approach of conventional Zionism. It’s not a story about an unfortunate people that was exiled from its land and is fated to live in the doleful Diaspora until its return to that land; instead, it’s the success story of an “am olam,” a people of the world, that moved between various centers, from the East to the West. Each such center also imitated its immediate predecessor. German Jewry looked toward the Golden Age in Spain and saw that period as a role model; and the Jewish institutions in the United States were established in large part by rabbis and leaders of German Jewry. As for the Land of Israel, it was viewed primarily through a symbolic prism.

From Portnoy to Shoshanna

The contemporary historian Yuri Slezkine wrote in his 2006 book “The Jewish Century,” that America was the promised land in which the Jews were able to fulfill themselves most strikingly. The Jews, he points out, are the richest of all the religious groups in the United States, the most educated among Americans and the most dominant in the media world relative to their size. In contrast, he maintains, Israel is an anachronistic phenomenon that recalls the Soviet Union in its last two decades of existence. The reason Israel is even accorded legitimacy lies in the “substantial influence wielded by American Jews, whose Jewishness and possibly Americanness seemed to depend on Israel’s continued chosenness.” Israel is, all told, a frontline outpost of American Jewry, one manifestation of its tremendous success.

The Zionist purveyors of taste always viewed America’s Jews with a certain revulsion. The kabbala scholar Gershom Scholem found the depiction of the neurotic title character in Philip Roth’s novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” disgusting. The book’s portrait of the Jew would “warm the heart of a Goebbels,” he wrote. Woody Allen’s characters engendered similar responses, and, more recently, so has the Shoshanna character (Zosia Mamet) in the television series “Girls.” Basically, though, this stems from feelings of inferiority.

This is not meant as an idealization of Diaspora existence; it’s simply a description of the balance of forces. At any given moment, the State of Israel exists thanks to America’s liberal Jews, and not vice versa. And “Transparent” should be included in any new collection of classics of “the Jewish Bookshelf” to be brought out.