Assimilation: Fight it? Accept it?
We asked five contributors to answer the question above in response to this article. Below is Jessi Pollock’s response.
See Adam Moscoe’s response here.
See Jackie Luffman’s response here.
See Joannie Tansky’s response here.
See Rabbi Goldstein’s response here.
Since the results of the Pew survey were published in the New York Times, the issue of assimilation has been discussed among many North American Jewish communities. Ironically, the phenomenon of assimilation has been a prevalent issue for Jewish people for centuries. There have been many opportunities for Jews to integrate into mainstream culture and society in order to evade communal isolation. As such, in the midst of the present-day controversy capturing our attention, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of times when Jews resisted the temptation of assimilation.
Dating back to biblical times and the miraculous story of Chanukah, King Antiochus of Syria forbade Jewish learning in an attempt to eradicate Judaism. Despite the sinister decree, many Jews disobeyed the edict and continued to study Torah and observe Judaism in a vigorous effort to sustain Judaism for future generations. This may be one of the earliest examples of the Jewish people’s profound commitment to Judaism.
Fast-forward to 1481, otherwise known as the Spanish Inquisition. Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sought to preserve Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and ensure the mass conversion or exile of both Muslims and Jews. During this violent time, Jews were absolutely prohibited from engaging in any Jewish learning or practice under fear of fatal punishments by law. Many Spanish Jews, referred to as conversos, publicly underwent a Catholic baptism and conversion while secretly adhering to and practicing Judaism. This heroic dedication to Judaic study and observance must not be forgotten.
The most notorious and more recent display of antisemitic statutes can be found during Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and the subsequent Holocaust. Starting in 1933, his first year in power, antisemitic decrees began to pervade Eastern Europe. These policies did not prevent Jews from keeping their faith. Despite the dire circumstances in ghettos and concentration camps, many adults, comforted by their unwavering spirituality, created makeshift means of preserving their religion and continuing, to the best of their ability, to observe Jewish holidays and customs.
Yet, the question remains: how far have we truly progressed from the reigns of King Antiochus, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Adolf Hitler?
It can be argued, as Gabriel Roth did in his piece written in Slate, that many Jews’ identities have evolved to be less religious and more cultural and tradition-based. However, as a friend recently conveyed to me: it’s not just that Jews have kept traditions; our traditions have kept the Jews. As set out in the above three examples, Jews have experienced serious adversity over the ages where our fate was uncertain. Nevertheless, Jewish determination to survive demonstrates the continuity and enduring nature of Judaism.
Roth suggests, “Jewishness will eventually die out.” No. I agree that assimilation is a threat and concern to Jewish identity and Judaism. However, I am confident that, given our history, the results of the survey will not accelerate our religion’s demise. Rather, it is our history of resisting assimilation that will serve as a beacon to remain as vibrant Jews now and in the future. Any other belief would be a betrayal of our heritage.