Jews in Second Place

articles
June 25 1996 3:30 AM

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.

At the front end of the American meritocratic machine, Asians are replacing Jews as the No. 1 group. They are winning the science prizes and scholarships. Jews, meanwhile, at our moment of maximum triumph at the back end of the meritocracy, the midlife, top-job end, are discovering sports and the virtues of being well-rounded. Which is cause and which is effect here is an open question. But as Asians become America's new Jews, Jews are becoming ... Episcopalians.

The one extracurricular venue where I run into a lot of Asian-Americans is a Very Serious music school in Scarsdale, the suburban town in the New York area that (because of its famous school system) has the most name-brand appeal for transferred Japanese executives. Music is a form of extracurricular activity that Mrs. Portnoys approve of, and the atmosphere at this school would be familiar to earlier generations of American Jews. In the lobby, children waiting for music lessons bend over their homework, mom perched at their shoulder. Musical exercises drift through the air, along with snatches of conversation about AP courses, recommendations, test prep, tracking, and nursery-school admissions.

The hockey ethos is to be elaborately casual and gruff about competitive achievement: Outstanding performance gets you a little slap on the helmet, a good-natured insult. At the music school they take the straightforward approach. At my younger son's first piano lesson, his teacher, Mrs. Sun, explained the rules. "Every week, Theo, at the end of the lesson, I give you stamps," she said. "If you're a good boy, I give you one stamp. If you're a very good boy, I give you two stamps. And if you're a very, very good boy, I give you three stamps! Then, every time you get 25 stamps, I give you a statue of a great composer." Watching 7-year-old Theo take this in, I could see that he was hooked. Ancient imperatives had kicked in. When he hit 25 stamps for the first time, Mrs. Sun gave him a plastic statuette of Mozart. "Do you know how old he was when he composed his first piece of music, Theo?" A look of rapt anticipation from Theo. "Four years old! Three years younger than you." Theo, get to work.

My mother grew up in New Jersey, not too far from Philip Roth. I was raised on the story of her crushing disappointment over being only the salutatorian of her class at Perth Amboy High School, when she had been valedictorian of her junior high school class. Her father, a small-town pediatrician, had somehow gone to medical school without having gone to college, or possibly even (here we begin to slip into the realm of Marquez-like fable) finishing high school. Every relative in my grandparents' generation seems to have graduated from high school at some improbable age like 14 or 12. Then, for the most part, at least as the story was received by the young me, life turned disappointing. Why? Because school is the only part of American society that's fair. Afterward, a vast, subtle conspiracy arranges to hold you back in favor of those more advantaged by birth.

Even by my school days, the academic hunger had begun to wane. By now, it is barely producing a pulse, except among Jews who are within one generation of the immigration cycle. Jews have not become notable as academic underachievers. But something is gone: That old intense and generalized academic commitment, linked to sociological ambition, is no longer a defining cultural characteristic of the group.

What has replaced it is a cultural insider's sort of academic preoccupation: a task-specific, in-the-know concern with successfully negotiating the key junctures--mainly, college admission. Jews are now successful people who want to move the levers of the system (levers whose location we're quite familiar with) so as to ensure that our children will be as successful as we are. This is quite different from being yearning, not-successful-enough people who hope, rather than know for sure, that study will generate dramatic upward mobility for our children.

Jews' new second-place status in the strivers' hierarchy is most noticeable in places with good public school systems like Westchester County, N.Y., (where I live) and the San Gabriel Valley, outside of Los Angeles. The same is true of super-meritocratic public educational institutions like Lowell High School in San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley, and Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School in New York, which are all now Asian-plurality.

By contrast, the Asian presence is noticeably less, and the Jewish presence noticeably more, in private schools. In these, no matter how great the meritocratic pretenses, the contest is always less completely open than it is in public institutions. Just at the moment when Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have presidents named Rudenstine, Levin, and Shapiro, those institutions are widely suspected of having informal ceilings on Asian admissions, of the kind that were imposed on Jews two generations ago.

Asian achievement is highest in areas like science and classical music, where there is no advantage from familiarity with the culture. This also once was true of Jews (why do you think my grandfather become a doctor?) but isn't any more. Several years ago, Asian-American groups in California successfully lobbied to keep an essay section out of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It's impossible to imagine organized Jewry caring.

In his famous 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, British sociologist Michael Young proposed the following formula: IQ plus effort equals merit. Young, like many theorists of meritocracy, assumed that ethnicity would become a nonissue (should be nonissue) under such a system. Instead, it's an overwhelming issue. Accounting for ethnicity, you might amend Young this way (to the extent that "merit" and academic performance are the same thing): an ethnic group's long-term cultural orientation to education, plus its level of sociological ambition in American society at the moment, will equal its members' merit. The cultural connection seems so obvious that it amazes me how often ethnic differences in the meritocracy are explained in terms of genes.

By these standards, Asian-Americans today have two advantages over Jews. They have a lower average income, and so are more motivated. And most back-home Asian cultures rival or surpass Jewish culture in their reverence for study. Therefore Jews are going to have to get used to being No. 2.

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.

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.