“I married a Jew” in the Atlantic Magazine

Reading a 1939 article published in the Atlantic called “I married a Jew,” I was struck by how similar the complaints about Jews in 1939 are to the complaints about Jews today. The article was written by an anonymous German American woman who married a Jewish man. Clearly it would be considered antisemitic hate speech today, and it never would be published.

The Jewish refusal to accept any criticism:

However, in our discussions, it is always I who must choose the more tactful way, for Ben, poor darling, still has the Jewish hypersensitivity toward all criticism of his race, for which he and his people are not to be blamed. In the beginning he couldn’t take it at all, though he loudly proclaimed that he invited argument, that he wanted to learn the Christian point of view in order to understand more clearly the century-old friction between the two groups.

All right, we would have at it. He would start by saying there was this and that about the Christians that he never could stomach. I would agree with him or condone the matter as the case might be, then point out a few Jewish traits that have irritated Gentiles. The moment I did that, he began to look like a crushed and visual embodiment of the ‘Eli, Eli.’ The least word against anything Jewish he took as a personal criticism of himself. ‘Ben, dear,’ I told him, ‘when you attack the prevalence of crime in America, do you suppose I think that you are implying that I am myself a criminal?’ It took some little time to drive this point home. But then up shot another one. Every criticism of Jewry was a vaunting of Christian superiority. ‘In their hearts most Christians think of us as “dirty Jews,”‘ he mourned.
And I had to comfort him: ‘Ben, if I say the English are too smug, the Germans too clumsy and pig-headed, the French too material, does that mean that I see no good in them at all, that I call them “dirty English” or “dirty French” or “dirty Germans”?’ That too, took time to penetrate.

There’s the fact that where Jews are well represented in atheist and secular movements, and they are quick to point out the supposed irrationality of the Christian religion, they will not apply this same radical critique to Judaism:

Again, I must tread softly when we talk about religion because, while Ben thinks it perfectly enlightened and proper to ridicule the various aspects of Christian religions, his lips clamp shut when I venture to suggest that Judaism is at least as dogmatic as Catholicism and as jealous of its own, that the Jewish church plays politics quite as much as Rome, wields an international influence equally strong, and, to an avowed agnostic like himself, should present at least as much ritual balderdash—the prohibiting of milk or butter at a meal where meat is eaten, the wearing of prayer shawls and hats by men worshipers at services, the tearful wailing of the cantor, the swaying back and forth of the worshipers at synagogue prayer. No, Ben is not a churchgoer, but instinct says that the Jewish church is of his people and as such should not be ridiculed or criticized.

The Jewish double standard towards when someone’s Jewishness is important:

Ben’s family beams whenever there is mention of such great Jews as Einstein, Epstein, Freud. They nod and smile as if to say, ‘Ah yes, where would the world be today if it had not been for our Jewish greats?’ But never do you hear them speak of Jewish scoundrels or criminals. If you merely mention that So-and-so is a Jew, they suspect you of anti-Semitism.

The Jewish superiority complex:

Often Ben voices the age-old complaint of his race: the Gentiles think they are superior to the Jews. Face to face, they are polite to the Hebrews, take their money, hold jobs in their firms, buy from Jewish stores, eat at the tables of Jewish friends—then turn around to snicker and sneer behind their backs. This is true, I admit it to Ben, terribly true and terribly wrong, and certainly one of the major causes for the centuries-old friction between the two races. But then, conversely, it is also true of the Jews. They, in their turn, think they are immensely superior to the Gentiles. If they did not think so, would they still remain Jews after generations of living among Gentiles? Even Ben frequently lets slip the opinion that Jews are much smarter than Christians. And who among the Jews will deny that, while he also does business with Gentiles, eats at their tables, and calls them friend, he also goes away privately rejoicing in his superiority?

Jewish loyalty:

Here the fencing really becomes fast and furious. ‘What constitutes a first class citizen?’ I ask. The answer, according to Plato, is one who places his country and that country’s interests above his owns. Is that true of the Jew? Barely. Instinctively he desires first the welfare and advancement of his own people. So long as a country gives him a living and lets him alone, he doesn’t much care what happens to it. When things go well, he stays; when things go wrong, he packs up and moves to another country. Where is the Jew who says, ‘My country, right or wrong’?

‘All right,’ says Ben, ‘but can you blame us? Outside of England and America, what country has ever made us feel we could belong?’

‘You are right,’ I reply, ‘and I don’t blame you. I should feel the same if I were Jewish, But what does this prove? That a Jew is, with few exceptions, first a Jew, and second a citizen of the country where he happens to pitch his tent. After two thousand years of living with Gentiles he still retains his identity as a Jew—as an alien, if an alien means one who has not been absorbed into the main stream. It is certainly not a different religion that has kept him alien, nor a prominent nose. There are plenty of Gentiles with prominent noses, and the difference between the Jewish church and, say, the Catholic is no greater than the difference between the Catholic and the Greek Orthodox church. No, what keeps the Jew alien is his alien culture, his alien tradition, his fierce pride in belonging to what he believes a superior race.’

Decades before multiculturalism became dominant you can see why they would want to promote it. This dilemma they faced in 1939 America they no longer face:

‘But look at the matter from the political side,’ I advise Ben. ‘When a Swede or a Chinese settles down in a foreign land, such as the United States, the Swede makes haste to become a thorough American—at any rate he lets his children become thorough Americans; the Chinese, realizing that this is impossible, lives aloofly in Chinatown, minds his own business, and keeps out of American political affairs. The Jew, however, wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Like the Chinese, he clings to his own race, culture, and tradition; he trains his children to cling to these just as tenaciously. Then, like the Swede, he sets out to annex all the privileges of Americanism. He wants to rise to the top of the Gentile social structure, to wield power in Gentile politics of the community, state and nation. He wants to be left alone, but he also wants the country in which he lives to take good care of him. He wants to have full citizenship in that country, yet retain his citizenship in the Jewish nation.

In 1939 she cannot foresee the Holocaust:

Of course we eventually come to Hitler, Ben and I. In the eyes of Ben, as in the eyes of all his people, Hitler stands for the Jewish equivalent of the Antichrist—a little, strutting monster whose sole purpose and pleasure in life is to flog, imprison, impoverish, humiliate, and plague Israel. Few history books trace the path of persecutions against the Jews as they have occurred throughout the ages. They have occurred in ancient Rome, Poland, Russia, Spain, England, and France, usually whenever Jewry becomes too numerous and too powerful, whenever it becomes, in the eyes of Gentiles, a threat, potential or actual, to Gentile supremacy. I try to tell Ben that Hitler is merely writing another page in a history that will continue so long as the status quo between Jews and Gentiles remains—a status that only the willing shoulders of both protagonists can remove.

But it is hard for Ben to take the long view. He looks upon Hitler as something malignantly unique, and it is no use trying to tell him that a hundred years hence the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England, who did the same thing in the thirteenth century—an expulsion that remained in strict effect until the time of Cromwell, because a hundred years hence another country will be having its Jewish problem, unless…

My mother is a White gentile and my father is Jewish. My mother often had similar complaints about my father’s family:

I think—if I can express it—it is the fact that they make no concession to me as a Gentile. They pass that fact over as if it did not exist. They go about their Jewish ways, tales of their Jewish problems, and consider me aloof if I do not enter whole-heartedly into all this and become as one of them. Out of courtesy I try to do as they do when I am among them, but their not reaching out to meet me halfway becomes a strain after a while. The result has been that I cut down my visits to a minimum; and in fairness I pare down my husband’s visits to my own family to the same minimum.

Caring more about religious education for boys than for girls:

For all that, however, before our baby was horn[sic] Ben announced one day that if it were a boy he would like to have it brought up as a Jew. If it were a girl, then I could ‘stuff it full of Christian beliefs.’ And he did not mean this unkindly.

‘But, Ben,’ I asked, ‘why if it is a boy, do you want to make him race-conscious? You do not believe actively in the religion, and you say that most of the Jewish traditions are as unrelated to modern life as those of the ancient Christians.’

‘Well—er,’ he fumbled, ‘well, I was born a Jew, and I went to Hebrew school, and—er—well, I want him to be like me.’

But it eventually turned out that his real wish was to please his mother. What that man wouldn’t do to please his mother! Of all sons, surely the Jews are the best and the most loyal. But when I pointed out to Ben that it was I, the baby’s mother, who would have the upbringing of the child, that what the child learns at its mother’s knee sinks in far deeper than what would be superimposed at Hebrew school, and that I, who am not versed in Judaism, could hardly be expected to teach it to the child—then he gave up on the idea.

Still, at the end of the article, she notes the positive qualities of the Jews:

When one of my husband-hunting girl friends asks me, ‘Do the Jews make good husbands?’ I think of Ben, respecter of women, generous to a fault, kind to every creature, open-minded, witty, sober of habit but gay of manner, imaginative and ambitious, and say with all my heart, ‘The best in the world!’

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