The late critic and essayist Alfred Kazin, obsessing as usual about being a Jew in America, wrote in one of his private journals of a poignant conversation with a gentile friend.
“Have you always felt like an American?” the friend asked.
“I’ve never felt like an American,” Kazin answered. “Not like you do.”
The line stayed with me when I first read it several years ago, and experience tells me it resonates with millions more in America who aren’t necessarily Jewish but feel marginalized for their own minority status.
This week, I dug out the lines again from the 2011 book “Alfred Kazin’s Journals” (Yale University Press). I was prompted by two powerful TV series airing now as millions of us grind our way through the long hours of isolation and reach for alternatives to the latest coronavirus updates.
“The Plot Against America” — the six-part series based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel and produced for HBO by David Simon and Ed Burns, who brought us “The Wire” — is dark alternative history. It’s America as it might have been had Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt for the 1940 presidency.
Lindbergh, the great aviation hero of 1927, was getting cozy with Adolf Hitler by the late 1930s and urging the United States to stay out of Europe’s battles. The only ones urging American entry into war, Lindbergh was telling real-life “America Firsters,” were “the British and the Jewish.”
In this week’s “Plot Against America” episode, Lindbergh’s become president and the White House has created an Office of American Absorption. Officially, it’s designed to settle Jewish youngsters with gentile families, to see how “real” Americans live their lives.
“So we need to be absorbed yet? We’re not American enough?” asks Alvin Levin (Morgan Spector). His young son’s leaving Jewish Newark, N.J., and headed for a summer on an American Absorption Kentucky farm.
Levin’s questions echoed Alfred Kazin’s remark, years later, about American minorities. Did he feel American?
“Not like you do.”
And there’s another series about a slice of the Jewish-American experience that’s running this week: the four-part Netflix series “Unorthodox.” It’s based on the Deborah Feldman 2012 memoir of the same name, about her escape from the Satmar Chasidic community in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The book stunned me when I read it five years ago, not only for the tight strictures placed on females but on the explanation Feldman got when she asked community elders how a loving God could have allowed the Holocaust to play itself out. It was God’s revenge on the Jews, she was told, for trying to assimilate and become more like the gentiles.
Such a notion is breathtaking, wrong-headed and cruel. It blames mass murder on the victims themselves, as if such slaughter were a legitimate response to people’s simple desire to lead their lives as they wish, and not by someone else’s dictates.
In the television series, the explanation’s softened, and it’s said almost in passing, but the sentiment’s there. And so Esty, played by Israeli actress Shira Haas, flees Williamsburg and its tight-knit Chasidic world. She wants freedom.
America is freedom, no?
“Williamsburg is not America,” she says.
Like Alfred Kazin, she’s never felt American. But this time, it’s not America’s fault, so much as those Jews who willfully exclude themselves from the heart of it.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.