History matters

Jimmy Bitton

In the 2002 romantic-comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the Greek protagonist Toula Portokalos grumbles that when she was growing up, she knew she was different.

“The other girls were blond and delicate and I was a swarthy six-year-old with sideburns. I so badly wanted to be like the popular girls… all sitting together, talking… eating their Wonder Bread sandwiches.”

Toula grew up in a traditional Greek home, yet felt strong pressure to choose between her heritage  and the collective culture of her Canadian society. She believes a choice is needed because she cannot reconcile her father’s religious and cultural dogmatism and strong sense of Greek particularism with modern western society’s constructed edifice of individuality. To her father’s chagrin, Toula later falls for Ian Miller, a quintessential upper-middle-class white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

Her father struggles to come to terms with the rupture of cultural continuity that Toula’s actions will cause across future generations. For Toula, the impulse to assimilate is equally, if not more intense than the pressure to preserve her culture.

For Diaspora Jews, Toula’s experience is all too familiar. Jews, in staggering numbers, are embracing modern western society at the expense of their own heritage. The recent Pew Research Center report confirms, along with other things, that American Jews are following the same trajectory as many other Americans by eschewing religion. The report paints a grim portrait of Jews in the Diaspora, with intermarriage rates at 58 per cent, and a staggering 71 per cent among non-Orthodox Jews.

Evidently, Jews are abandoning synagogues in increasing numbers. Like Toula, Jews are bombarded by tantalizing suggestions of wealth, relativism and alternative lifestyle choices, while simultaneously being pulled in the opposite direction by a heritage that is perceived as antiquated, and in extreme cases, as some form of neurosis. These push-pull variables make assimilation all the more likely.

While assimilation is a tragic reaction to emancipation, isolation (the extreme opposite of assimilation) is a tragic reaction to assimilation. At his retirement dinner, the former chief rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, recently stated that “those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world” represent a “global danger” to Jews and Judaism.

Unlike isolationism, assimilationism never took root in North America as a full-blown ideology. While not much can be done to encourage integration of Jews who subscribe to an isolationist ideology, much can be done to discourage others from assimilation. Current efforts to address assimilation include strengthening Jewish ties to Israel and outreach programs aimed at bringing Jews closer to Judaism.

A traditional definition of Jewish identity is that Jews are principally Jews by religion. This construal of an “authentic” Jewish identity can leave secular Jews out in the cold. The Pew Report confirms that most Jews (62 per cent) view being Jewish as mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while only 15 per cent view it as mainly a matter of religion.

Currently, secular and purely cultural manifestations of Jewish identity are halfway houses to assimilation. Therefore, putting resources into encouraging Jews to embrace their religious heritage is a valuable and necessary enterprise to curb assimilation. Judaism can offer Jews a sense of belonging, meaning to life and a moral compass to navigate their way in all aspects of life.

Whereas one may or may not choose to embrace religion, history on the other hand, is a fixed and inseparable identity. Jewish history offers narratives that relate most Jews to each other in genealogical ways. History defines a trajectory that can help to construct the essence of a Jewish identity and is an essential ingredient in maintaining identity.

Because history is a fixed designator, it can also induce affinity, deep self-awareness and even loyalty. Simultaneous to this, historical literacy is both leavened and enlivened by its engagement with key contemporary questions. History gives a historical framework that helps Jews contextualize the present in relation to the past, which can translate to a concrete Jewish identity. Learning Jewish history can be a vanguard of Jewish continuity in North America which can encourage Jews not to assimilate while they simultaneously work to integrate.


Jimmy Bitton is head of the history department at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, Kimel Family Education Centre.