In December 1978, Anne Roiphe published in The New York Times an article called "Christmas Comes to a Jewish Home." In her fluid and memorable prose, she described her family's custom of creating a Norman Rockwell yuletide. The torrent of fury and abuse this piece brought down on her naive and unsuspecting had so astounded and puzzled her that she resolved to explore the question of Jewish assimilation in general and her feelings about it in particular. The result is this curious grab bag of anecdote, interview, confession, reminiscence and rumination.
Roiphe's complaint is not the one we're used to in American-Jewish writing. It's not that she's Jewish, but that she isn't Jewish enough. We're not in Roth or Malamud country here, no Newark bookkeepers yearning for night school; rather, we're deep in Salinger territory; spiritual discontent among the Fifth Avenue apartments, nursemaids and tony uptown Reform temples. She left Judaism and her Jewishness behind when she became a secular universalist, not to mention a literary intellectual and an analysand, but now she feels the lack of their comforting warmth and wants it back. And like every poor little rich girl in anybody's literature, she wants it on her own terms.
Roiphe uses language so precisely that her title distills exactly what she wants her books to mean. "Without memory" is to indicate her exile from the House of Israel; to be a committed Jew is to be immersed, awash, overwhelmed in memory, to live in and through memory stretching back to Ur of the Chaldees. But why did she choose "generation," when she really speaks only of herself, and of her husband and children in passing? Her own brother, she tells us, is steeped in Yiddihkeit. No, she doesn't mean "generation" in the sense of a specific age group with shared experiences; rather, this is glib journalistic usage from the time of the flower children, when any three disgruntled members of the upper-middle class could proclaim themselves a generation molded by the irresistible (and usually malign) forces of their childhoods.
Still, she knows clearly her reasons for abandoning the fold. To do her justice, the first is a serious theological statement. She cannot forgive God for the Holocaust, cannot worship a God who could permit it to happen. This is sufficient to silence all further discussion. Every Jew must grope alone in the darkness of that mystery that, in the Christian phrase, passed understanding. Though many have chosen the opposite reaction -- to triumph over the butcher by asserting their wholeness as Jews, Roiphe's is also a deeply authentic and legitimate response.
But if this were all, or even most, of her trouble, she would have written a different book. It would have been grave and dignified instead of mostly whiny. Her second reason is that her relatives were prosperous philistines and their religion superficial. It's not clear why she ascribed this failing mainly to Judaism; apparently her broad reading of universal literature missed Sinclair Lewis' portraits of the sort of well-to-do Protestants she emulates. Third, Judaism traditionally favors men over women, a flaw apparently not shared by other major faiths such as Christianity and Islam. Fourth, Jews are tribal and particularistic and care about their own more than about humanity in general; again, unlike the Christians of Ulster, for example, or the New England Protestants who, while erecting the chaste white churches she so admires on country weekends, were systematically excluding her people from schools, clubs, neighborhoods and jobs.
Where has she been all these years? Hasn't she heard that the Conservative and Reform movements have discarded most of the ancient sexism? Doesn't she know that it was largely custom and not religious lay anyway? And why does she assume authentic Jewishness to be inherently incompatible with rationality, social prominence and universalist education? She has mistaken recent, benighted centuries in Poland and Russia for the typical run of Jewish history. In their poverty and cultural isolation, in fact, the East European communities were something of an aberration. In the Greek world, in the Muslim world, throughout much of history, practicing, committed Jews often rose to prosperity and prominence. Maimonides, the great Rambam, was a doctor at least as eminent as Riophe's psychoanalyst husband. He wrote some of the most influential religious commentary in history while serving as court physician to the vizier of Cairo.
But for Roiphe, these objections render Jewish ritual too empty and banal to hold a place in her life. In perfect sincerity she informs us that she can celebrate Christmas without Christ, Easter without the Resurrection, Thanksgiving without the Lord of Harvest. She can't however, bring herself to light a Hannukah candle or make her children a hamentasch without a literal belief in the God of Genesis. If only she were more deeply learned in Judaism, she wails, if only she knew Hebrew or Yiddish, she might return to the warmth of the fold. Surely a Smith graduate with the intellect to write several books, and perseverance to complete psychoanalysis and the vast resources of New York City at her disposal, could find a way back to Judaism if she wanted to. Even Theodor Herzl had a Christmas tree before the Dreyfus trial. But Roiphe seems to have let the teachings of another of her gods slip her mind. As Sarte preached: Every action is a choice, and every choice has its costs. In a word, you can't have everything.