Growing Up in Santa Rosa
I think part of the impulse for urban middle class young Jews to assimilate comes from the attractiveness of WASP's. They are nice-looking, dress well, speak unaccented English, go to good schools, have good taste, money, and most of all, they are generally somewhat reserved and have good manners. The schtetl manners, culture, and religion of the Jews seemed dowdy and foolish by comparison. We see that envy and longing even among the WASP's themselves. What else is F. Scott Fitzgerald all about in "Great Gatsby" and "Tender is the Night" if not the dazzle of the upper class?
But I grew up on a chicken farm outside Santa Rosa. The relevant author there was Steinbeck and "Grapes of Wrath". The Okies and Arkies of the Dust Bowl emigration didn't vanish when the novel and the Depression ended. They and their children were still living in, among other places, Santa Rosa in the 1950's. It was they I grew up among. The WASP's were ignorant bigoted peasants, unpleasant and generally not too bright. It was unexceptional for our neighbors to get in fights, do poorly in school, to speak with a barely-literate twang, enlist in the army after high school or get pregnant and drop out, aspire to become car mechanics.
The Jewish chicken farmers were communists or other kinds of socialists, well-read, mostly European intellectuals or at least with intellectual pretensions. Their children, my generation, were expected to go to good universities and generally did. As the chicken business collapsed at the end of the Korean War all were equally poor, so it was a true difference of social class, not of economic class.
I had never thought of it before but ut was then that I internalized the notion that what was Jewish was generally better than what was not. While no one was particularly religious, we were all definitely conscious of being Jewish.
When I grew up and become conscious of WASP's, I thought of them as the East Coast Elite, as exotic as Zulus, not as objects of emulation.
These were also the years in which Israel was founded. For a few capital C Communists, Zionism was just more nationalism. But for most in Santa Rosa the creation of Israel was a continuation of the fight against, and victory over, fascism. After the war, as socialism became less important, Zionism became more important.
And that explains the odd contradiction I have lived with and often noticed but never thought through until now. I am conscious of being a Jew, I am devoted to Israel, but am only perfunctorily observant. I had not until now understood why that was. I am a pure product of my upbringing.