Jews in Second Place
When Asian-Americans become the "new Jews," what happens to the Jews?
Remember the scene in Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint where the newly teen-aged Alex Portnoy goes to a frozen pond in his hometown of Newark to gaze upon gentile girls ice-skating?
So: dusk on the frozen lake of a city park, skating behind the puffy red earmuffs and the fluttering yellow ringlets of a strange shikse teaches me the meaning of the word longing. It is almost more than an angry thirteen-year-old little Jewish Momma's Boy can bear. Forgive the luxuriating, but these are probably the most poignant hours of my life I'm talking about--I learn the meaning of the word longing, I learn the meaning of the word pang.
This scene often involuntarily flitted across my mind during the past winter, when I spent a lot of time watching people glide across expanses of ice on skates. The reason is that my 11-year-old son, also an Alex, was playing in a hockey league. Having grown up in the Deep South, I was entirely innocent of ice matters when I first got into this. At my inaugural hockey-parents' meeting, I realized that I had wandered into a vast and all-encompassing subculture. Two, three, four times a week, we had to drive our children 30, 60, 80 miles to some unheated structure for a practice or a game. Often these were held at 6 o'clock in the morning. South Kent, Conn. West Point, N.Y. Morristown, N.J. We parents would stand at the edge of the rink in a daze drinking Dunkin Donuts coffee and griping that they weren't hustling enough out there.
For Alex Portnoy, athleticism was something alien. It was part of a total package that included not only the golden shiksas but their brothers ("engaging, good-natured, confident, clean, swift, and powerful halfbacks"), their fathers ("men with white hair and deep voices"), their mothers who never whined or hectored, their curtained, fireplaced houses, their small noses, their lack of constant nagging worry--in short, the normalcy and confidence that go along with belonging, with being on the inside.
In the Portnoy household nobody played sports--bodies existed only to generate suffering--and there was only one thing that really went well. That, needless to say, was Alex's performance in school. "Albert Einstein the Second," his mother called him, and thought it may have been embarrassing, he didn't really disagree. By the time Portnoy's Complaint came out, in 1969, it was clear--and this was part of the joke of the ice-skating scene--that people like awkward Alex were going to wind up ahead of the gliding shiksas and their halfback brothers, because they were more book-smart. The goyim were wasting their time with all those sports. What the Jews had was the real ticket. Alex's overwhelming insecurity wouldn't have been so funny if it hadn't been unjustified.
In my many hours standing next to hockey rinks last winter, I sometimes engaged in one of the Jews' secret vices: Jew-counting. All over the ice were little Cohens, little Levys, their names sewed in block letters on the backs of their jerseys. It was amazing how many there were. Occasionally, an entire front line would be Jewish, or even the front line and the defensemen. (Green--is he one? Marks?) The chosen people were tough competitors, too.
In fact, a Portnoy of the present, a kid with his nose pressed up against the window (to borrow the self-description of another ghetto-bred Jewish writer, Theodore H. White) would surely regard these stick-wielding, puck-handling lads as representing full, totally secure membership in the comfortable classes of American society. Some Lysenkoist suburban biological deviation, or else intermarriage, has even given many of the hockey-playing Jewish boys blond hair and even blue eyes.
More to the point, these Jewish kids and their parents have decided to devote endless hours of childhood to an activity with no career payoff. Do you think they're going to 6 a.m. practices for a shot at the National Hockey League? Of course not. They're doing it--mastering hockey, and every conceivable other sport--to promote "growth," "teamwork," "physical fitness," "well-roundedness," "character," and other qualities that may be desirable in a doctor but don't, as a practical matter, help you get into medical school.
What all the hockey-playing Jewish kids in America are not doing, during their hundreds of hours hustling to, on, and from the ice rink, is studying. It's not that they don't study at all, because they do. It's that they don't study with the ferociousness and all-out commitment of people who realize (or who have parents who realize) that outstanding school performance is their one shot at big-time opportunity in America.
Meanwhile, there is another ethnic group in America whose children devote their free time not to hockey but to extra study. In this group, it's common for moms to march into school at the beginning of the year and obtain several months' worth of assignments in advance so their children can get a head start. These parents pressure school systems to be more rigorous and give more homework. This group is Asian-Americans.
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. He is now at work on a history of meritocracy in the United States.