Jews in Second Place

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June 25 1996 3:30 AM

Jews in Second Place

When Asian-Americans become the "new Jews," what happens to the Jews?

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In the past, when this fate has befallen the reigning ethnic group in American society, the group's standard response has been to redefine merit. It's not academic performance (or whatever the prevailing measure of the moment was) after all! It's something else, which we happen to possess in greater measure than the upstart group. Jews know all too well what the alternate form of merit that we didn't have used to be: a certain ease, refinement, and grace. This may be what has led today's generation of Jewish parents to athleticize our children. We want them to have what Alex Portnoy longed for: a deeper sort of American comfort and success than SAT scores and music lessons can provide.

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But Jews are not alone in having this thought. Recently, I've been interviewing Asian-Americans for a book on meritocracy in America. A sentiment that emerges consistently is that meritocracy ends on graduation day, and that afterward, Asians start to fall behind because they don't have quite the right cultural style for getting ahead: too passive, not hail-fellow-well-met enough. So, in many of the Asian-American families I met, a certain Saturday ritual has developed. After breakfast, mom takes the children off to the juku for the day, and dad goes to his golf lesson.

The final irony is that golf and tennis are perceived by the Asian-Americans not as aspects of an ethos adapted from the British landowning classes (which is the way Jews used to perceive them), but as stuff that Jews know how to do. The sense of power and ease and comfort that the playing field symbolizes is now, to non-Jews, a Jewish trait. The wheel of assimilation turns inexorably: Scratching out an existence is phase one, maniacal studying is phase two, sports is phase three. Watch out for Asian-American hockey players in about 20 years.

Nicholas Lemann is national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author, most recently, of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (Knopf). He is now at work on a history of meritocracy in the United States.

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