To the Editor:
With regard to the article by Arnold W. Green on “Why Americans Feel Insecure,” in the July issue, we must agree that the Jew is not alone in being rootless and “alienated” in the modem world and that we are all more or less in the same situation. But the reasons put forward by Mr. Green as to why this is so seem to me neither quite realistic nor accurate historically. Take for example his statement that the basic family tradition preserved in the West down to recent decades was “patriarchal, rural-familistic,” and one with which “the person lived out his life, rooted to the land and to a way of life that encompassed all his activities.” Though it is true that we have now become a predominantly urban rather than rural dwelling population, it is hardly true to say that the people of America, except for a few areas in the South perhaps and to some less degree in New England, were ever “rooted to the soil.” Insofar as we are a nation of peasants, it is of up-rooted peasants. In the early 19th century, as described by Carl Russell Fish in The Rise of the Common Man, for example, we see the beginnings not only of the great waves of immigration but also of the tendency of the native born to shift their homes from one part of America to another. Under these conditions the “intimate association among a small group of life-long relatives and friends” was perhaps not much more common than it is today.
By 1830, instead of folk enjoying the “slow, stable rhythm of family life on the farm,” most visitors to America saw us as a nation of hustlers and bustlers, stark individualists out for their own profit, with sentimental attachments to the ideas of liberty and justice for all but with very low ethical standards in actual practice. It is true that family life as a whole was more stable then than now. De Tocqueville pays a tribute to the American family and to the extent to which “natural ties” of affection rather than “social ties” of tradition and property kept it together. But the point I should like to make is that the individual striving for material success is not a new thing in American life. This, and romantic love, less vulgarized than at present and more closely bound to the conception of monogamous marriages, have long been outstanding features of American life. If the average American now begins to feel lost, it is not because these tendencies have developed but simply that they are now much less practical ideals than formerly. The decrease of optimism in the growing realization that our wonderfully expansive economy is coming to a close has been powerfully intensified by the advent of the atomic bomb, which has destroyed our former profound sense of security and shaken our great faith in material progress. The great increases in divorces has shaken the faith in romantic love as the fundamental basis for family life.
If the Protestant American is at the moment in a worse mental condition than the Jew, it is, it seems, because having enjoyed a much more secure position, he has had farther to fall. The Jew is at home in the urban secularized world. He has been nurtured in the conception that life is a struggle, and in that sense he is certainly more at home in the world today than the ordinary American. Insofar as he has cherished the tradition that intellectual and moral rather than material power are the solution of the world’s problems, he is better rooted in reality than those whose faith has been founded on the values of a purely acquisitive society. Yet is must be conceded that the real disabilities which the Jew still suffers, added to the insecurities which we all suffer as inhabitants of the world, do put an extra burden upon him.
Margaret Park Redfield
To the Editor:
I am grateful to Arnold W. Green for his excellent analysis of the psycho-social stresses at work in America today (“Why Americans Feel Insecure,” July 1948). However in his remarks on where Jews fit into the picture, he missed at least one important point: namely, that Judaism is essentially a group and family religion, and forces that tend to atomize the family hit Judaism particularly hard.
One can be a good Christian in a monastery or even in a hermit’s cave, but can you preside at a Passover seder without a wife to prepare the meal or a small son to ask the questions? The Church, with its emphasis on personal salvation, opens its doors daily to the troubled soul who comes alone to pray or to light a candle. But the landmarks of Judaism—the Passover, the sukkoth, the Sabbath kiddush, the dietary laws—are built inextricably into family situations.
The New Testament speaks of turning sons against fathers, thereby declaring the Gospel’s ability to live with the family or without it. The evangelist exhorts individual sinners or groups of individual sinners. But Judaism since the extinction of the Essenes—has made no corresponding provision for atomism; the Jew must have a minyan even to confess his sins.
A young Christian who goes to a strange city in search of a job may even turn to his ancestral faith as a family substitute. But the Jew who leaves home must put his religion into mothballs and go forth naked. You can have a family without Judaism, but Judaism without a family is as absurd a proposition as the grin without the Cheshire cat.
Thus there are reasons why the forces Mr. Green describes may make a special target of organized Judaism.
Secondly, Mr. Green’s suggestion that Jews have had more time than Protestants to get used to urban situations requires some qualification. The East European grandfather of the average American Jew lived not in a metropolis but in a small town or village whose culture was dominated by the surrounding rural population. His trade or business was usually a family business; the grocery manned by an entire family, all of whom live upstairs or in the rear, may still be found in America’s older Jewish neighborhoods . . . .