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Lessons in Assimilation

August 2003
Lessons in Assimilation


Seinfeld, the popular TV sitcom, is as big an icon of American pop culture as can be. Jerry Seinfeld, its creator and star, is a Jewish American. So are eccentric entertainer Woody Allen, singer and actress Barbara Streisand, filmmaker Steven Spielberg, CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer, Senator Joe Lieberman ?the list goes on.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine American history without the movies of Samuel Goldwyn, the music of Leonard Bernstein, the magic of Harry Houdini, the theater of Arthur Miller, the science of Albert Einstein, the medicine of Jonas Salk, the financial savvy of Bernard Baruch, or the business savvy of Levi Strauss!

With Jewish Americans having made such a mark on all facets of American life, it is hard to think of them as an ethnic community. Add to it their Caucasian looks, and one could argue they are more mainstream than not. But dig just a little bit deeper, and their ethnicity becomes apparent. Certainly there was a time when they were every bit so as Asians are today. Their distinct language, customs, and food, their steadfastness to the orthodox Jewish heritage, and their social enclaves had set them apart from the Anglo Saxon mainstream.

It could be argued that they had faced even worse hardship towards assimilation, than have other ethnic groups. The ugly shades of persecution and anti-Semitism had chased them into the new country as well. They were isolated and ostracized as a minority.

It is therefore impossible not to be moved by the courage, persistence and patience of this community in its rise to incredible heights. Despite the odds, Jewish Americans have not only carved their own niche, but have also provided America some of its greatest icons.

A community that pulled itself by its bootstraps

It all began when 23 Sephardic Jews from Brazil showed up at New Amsterdam, New York in 1654 to seek refuge from persecution; but they soon found that they still had their work cut out for them on the new shores. The American dream remained just outside their grasp, as they were prevented from getting into certain professions, doing business, holding public offices, serving in the military, or even praying in a designated area or in a synagogue.

Their immigration was a slow process and a century later only the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Newport could boast of major Jewish communities that were well established. It was from the first half of the 19th century that the larger immigration occurred, when German Jews and later Jews from Russia and Poland immigrated in large numbers. They were not business tycoons then. Indeed, just like some of the Indian immigrants of recent times, the earlier Jews had humble beginnings in America: driving cabs, cleaning motels, shop keeping, and working in factories.

Gradually, through their grit and determination, these immigrants went on to start some of the most successful businesses in America, many of which still exist. Today the Jewish community stands at 6 million and its culture has influenced all areas of the American mainstream.

Whether because of the scars of holocaust, or otherwise, what sets Jewish Americans apart amongst ethnic communities is their initiatives in outreach, both towards the mainstream and towards other ethnic communities. Thanks to such efforts across the nation, they have carved deep roots and enriched the fabric of cosmopolitan life.

Georgia's 100,000-strong Jewish community is no different. Recognizing the need ? which only magnified after September 11 - for various ethnic communities to meet, mingle, and unite to form a powerful voice, the Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) took initiatives towards such outreach. Just before thanksgiving 2002, they hosted a free screening of a film, "What's Cooking," by British Indian Gurinder Chadha. The film was an insightful look at the cultural, familial and social issues that four families of varied backgrounds (African American, Latino, Jewish, and Vietnamese) struggle with, as they celebrate Thanksgiving. The message - that even in diversity we are bound by the common thread of similar concerns, fears and hopes - affected the multi-ethnic audience deeply.

The result of this successful screening was the formation of Georgia Interethnic Coalition in January 2003. Its goals were to build bridges amongst the various communities, create a better understanding of each others' culture and values, and to bring issues of common interest before policymakers. It is thanks to such initiatives that the Jewish community, though far smaller than the Hispanic or Black communities, for instance, has emerged as a leader and a role model in outreach work.

The fabric of Jewish life in America

What propels the Jewish Americans to such outreach? What are the experiences, triumphs and challenges that make the unique fabric of their life? What lessons can we learn from their American experience?

Sherry Frank, the director of the 55-year-old, 2000-member strong Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), is a native Atlantan, born and brought up in the city. She recalls growing up in a community of about 10,000 Jews and about three or four synagogues. Today the community is 100,000 strong with 36 synagogues. Each Jewish community that migrated into Atlanta brought with them their own distinct identity, such as Russian, German, or Polish; but they remained bound together by their common Jewish roots.

In Atlanta, even when the numbers were small, Jews quickly reached out to the mainstream. As early as 1969, Sam Massell became the first Jewish mayor of the city.

Though the first generation did not like their kids to be totally assimilated they did pick the areas of education and other intellectual pursuits that would help in their children's growth. A member of the community recalled seeing a large number of Asians in the Atlanta Youth Symphony this year, and observed that a few years ago it would have been mostly Jewish. The community has also been at the forefront of education and equality for women. Even in those days, college educated Jewish women were common.

Sherry has seen the community grow tremendously. Its leaders have stepped forward and worked hard to develop significant services and organizations to serve the community. "Our members, holding political and business offices, represent the breadth and depth of the (larger) community. Atlanta is a Mecca for immigrant communities. It is dynamic, entrepreneurial and accepting of diversity. It is truly a city too busy to hate. There is less prejudice and more pluralism, and inclusiveness. I have worked for 20 years in Black-Jewish relations and I find there is more willingness between the two to build bridges, compared to similar communities elsewhere."

Still, the Jews continuously look over their shoulder, having faced their share of prejudice. Lois Frank, who has held various positions with national Jewish organizations, including co-chair of the national advocacy committee at the AJC, recalls being totally excluded when she came to Atlanta University in the ?60s. Being a white Jew in an all Black college was not easy. Even though she believed in, and strongly supported the civil rights movement, she feels she was perhaps too young and not savvy enough at the time to be able to articulate her support.

Many of the negative prejudices against the community according to Elise Eplan, who has been involved with the AJC for 12 years starting in their young adult division, come from the very perception that they are assimilated and wealthy, and hence free from being targeted. "The fact is, the South is still a largely Christian society and one of our major challenges is to live in such a society. Perhaps that is why most Jews live in cities. There is enough diversity in the city for us not to stand out, and when you talk to other minorities you realize they have faced the same thing. You listen with a different set of ears because you have walked in their shoes and they in yours."

The formula for success: working inwards and outwards.

Commenting on the success of the Jews, Dhiru Shah, an Indian American community activist, says that having been persecuted for centuries and around the world, Jews have learnt survival techniques by using their limited manpower with intelligence, foresight, and courage towards their common cause. Their success is also due to organizational skills, unity, powerful public relations, active political participation at every level of the government, and above all, due to the dedicated Jewish volunteer force ready to help when needed.

Both, Sherry and Lois agree. They say the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Federation are the backbones of the community. Between these organizations, not only do they take care of funding and running the cradle-to-grave services for the community, but they also work towards supporting the state of Israel, and towards presenting a unified voice on the Hill.

"We do have differences about issues, just like any other community. In fact, we have a saying ?Two Jews, three synagogues; three Jews, four opinions.' But this is countered by the fact that we are living with an incredible threat to Israel's security, and are also dealing with anti-Semitism. It reminds us that we are vulnerable and our influence on the American political system is dependent on us being a united voice. These threats keep us cohesive. What unites us is much stronger than what divides us," says Sherry.

She also stresses the importance of ethnic minorities working together. Both Sherry and Lois assert that while the Jewish people fight for social justice they also address issues that concern other ethnic groups. "After all when we talk of minorities we do not refer to the Methodists and Catholics, but to Indians, Jews, and the Vietnamese. Jews may look assimilated, but are still not considered mainstream. Our initiatives in taking up the cause of other minorities, benefits us all in the long run."

Elise Eplan adds that earlier, Jews were hesitant to get into politics for the fear of overstepping their bounds, but today they are more outspoken. That is an important transition for a minority; to be able to reach the stage where they feel a part of the system and comfortable enough to have their voices heard. She hopes that the Indian community will also shed their British politeness and speak up on issues that affect them and the minorities at large.

Straddling the assimilation fence

Jewish Americans, not unlike Indian Americans, are also facing an identity crisis; because, increasingly, the younger generation is traveling, relocating, and getting married outside their faith and becoming more and more fused with the mainstream.

The older generation feels that the mainstream culture is very seductive and pervasive, and that it is hard to retain one's ethnic identity. Thanks to the media blitz from all sides, the business and material driven society converts even those who have a different culture or religion, to speak the same language, eat the same food, dress the same way and have the same values as the mainstream.

The increase in interfaith marriages makes this phenomenon of losing its ethnic identity a constant issue for the Jewish community. According to Sherri Frank, in earlier times, Christians had a problem accepting Jews as sons and daughters in-law; but now that is no longer true. Lois Frank says that while she told her four sons that if they married a non-Jew it would mean they have the generosity to love humanity as a whole. Yet, she did ingrain such deep Jewish values in them, and followed so many Jewish traditions at home, that even though she did not say it, she knew they would marry within the fold.

According to Elise, the question the community struggles with constantly is: Should they concentrate on keeping Jews married to Jews, or focus on the ones who marry outside; in the hope of captivating their children and bringing them back to the fold? The only way to retain one's identity, say Elise, Lois and Sherry, is to stay separate from the mainstream. They feel that there is an increasing demand for revival of parochial schools and the traditional structured life that brings one back to one's roots.

Elise adds that the Jewish community is perpetually conducting studies about assimilation and identity. They have found that programs to send the younger generation to Israel helps them get a firsthand understanding of their heritage. They accept, however, that more and more of the younger generation is marrying outside their faith; hence they need to reach out to other communities as well. This would allow the various ethnic groups not only to learn about each other, but also educate the mainstream about who they are and what they stand for.

Lois Frank now believes that it may have been a fear of the unknown that may have prevented her from mingling with the Black students during her college days in Atlanta University. She feels as more and more Jews leave the fold it is very important to get to know other ethnic groups and to communicate with them to understand where they are coming from. "We don't have to agree on everything but when we talk and listen we realize our issues are so similar." She says there are so many unspoken questions that divide communities when they are not answered.

One of the models they use at the High School level, to educate and to be educated, is to have inter-ethnic children's retreats. Recently they had such a retreat of a dozen students each, from both Jewish and Black communities. Children from both groups were allowed to ask questions anonymously, which were then picked out of a hat. Some of the questions that were uncovered in this exercise: Why are Blacks allowed to use the ?N' word among themselves, but others can't call them that? Why do Jews think they are the chosen ones and so great? How is it they are so rich? Why do you think you should get into college just because you are a minority, even when you do not deserve to?

Friendly ties and lessons to be learnt

Nissim Reuben, an Indian Jew raised in Gujarat, went to college both in Tel Aviv and Bombay; and has worked with the Israeli Consulate as their Principal Commercial Officer to help trade relations between India and Israel. Currently a Goldman Fellow at Washington D.C., Reuben, is working closely with both the Indian and Jewish communities. He says that there is already warmth between the two groups.

India's history shows no discrimination against the Jews that had settled there. Rather, it had given them a platform to flourish. The Israeli Jews and the community in United States always had a favorable view of India. Reuben adds that both the communities are mutually compatible professionally, intellectually and in their shared passion for education and close family ties. They both have invested heavily in human resources, and today a lot is being done on the Hill as well as outside to forge strong trilateral ties between Israel, India and U.S.

Reuben feels that for Indian Americans to retain their identity, there is a need to create the kind of presence the Jewish youth organizations have in college campuses. He feels that a program similar to that of Israel where Jewish Americans are encouraged to study in Israeli universities, would help. Similar osmosis between the U.S. and India for the Indian American student would be beneficial. According to him, the love and pride for your native country cannot be attained through family vacations only; but through hands-on personal experience about the country. "That is what will make us proudly retain our identities as we assimilate here."

The Jewish community has been involved in several outreach programs with other communities. The initial connection with the Indian community occurred a few years back, through cordial interactions of Sherry Frank, representing the AJC, with Subash Razdan and the late Purna Ginjupalli, both of who were presiding officers at IACA. This association has been further cemented by formation of the Georgia Interethnic Coalition.

In business too, according to both, Ani Agnihotri, Chairman of Georgia Indo American Chamber of Commerce (GIACC) and Tom Glaser, President of America Israel Chamber of Commerce, the two communities are collaborating in exploring joint ventures. "We already have as a member, an Indian company that has taken Israeli technology to India and is now bringing it to the South," says Glaser. S. P. Reddy, President of GIACC adds, "Both, the Jewish and the Indian community in Atlanta are very strong in the areas of IT, Hospitality, Banking, and other sectors. This collaboration is a natural fit for both the organizations to work closely together."

The officials of the Jewish community, who we spoke to, were unanimously impressed by the speed with which Indian Americans have assimilated and succeeded. Dhiru Shah, however, points out that even though we have probably the highest per capita income in America, we have no political influence. "The Indian American community is divided into many groups, based on religions, languages and political ideologies, and therefore it is unable to project a united front for their causes. In contrast, Jewish Americans remain united in defending the interests of Israel as well as other Jewish interests."

Dhiru and others also stress that we need to be media savvy like the Jews who he believes have a commanding sway over the major news media, the entertainment industry, and the political lobbies. He cites that wealthy and resourceful Jews spend millions on PR projects.

K.K. Vijay, a senior ex-officer at IACA, shared that he had repeatedly urged such a permanent media wing which could be used not only to educate the mainstream about India, its heritage and its culture, but also to address any misrepresentation about India or Indian Americans in the mainstream. He bemoans that this never happened.

Dr Narsi Narsimhan, founder of Indian Professionals Network, further stresses the importance of such proactive PR. Commenting on the Jewish success in this area, he says, "If you had come here in the 1940s, you would have seen Jews being treated as a separate community. They have worked very hard to educate the masses, and we need to emulate that. However, unlike them, we do not have enough think-tanks and research scholars to define our priorities and to give focus to our political activism. We need to elevate our activism beyond fundraising for photo opportunities."

Sherry Frank says she sees so many similarities in the values and goals between the two communities, she is confident that there is a great potential for them to form a successful partnership, and to learn from and inspire each other. "I see Indian Americans as a successful community with tremendous business and intellectual capabilities. I see a partnership of shared values."

Citing the Jews as a role model of political effectiveness, Narsi says, "Jews are still a minority just as Indians are; and unlike Blacks or Hispanics, neither can influence elections through the number of their votes. However, if you see the per capita money spent and efforts extended, the Jewish community has done better than the average American. Similarly, no Indian will be elected on Indian votes alone. We have to run and win as a mainstream candidate. While we may have individual opinions, agenda, and aspirations, we have to, like the Jews, build a good image for our community."

While observing that "our qualifications are not stamped on our forehead, but our race is," Narsi best sums up a vision for the Indian community; a vision which can be achieved by emulating the lessons of assimilation provided by the Jewish Americans: "I want to walk into a restaurant or a shop in a little town in Georgia and be seen as a member of a highly respected community and not just a brown-skinned person who arouses suspicion and questions about his identity. In order to not be perceived as an affluent but self-absorbed community, we need to give back to the mainstream ? just like Jewish Americans have? in abundance."

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