The Future of Our Youth in This Country and Assimilation, By Dr. Chaim Zhitlovsky
The assimilation period in our history began one hundred and fifty years ago. It came into being as a result of the conviction of progressive thinking Jews of that time, that the only correct answer to the Jewish Problem is assimilation. “We have to cease to exist as a separate national ‘unit’, as children of a separate Jewish people. We have to become part and parcel of the peoples among whom we live; we have to become the children of another people, then the persecutions against us will cease. At the very most, we shall remain as a separate religious community”.
It is this assimilation that we permitted to penetrate in our midst, which acts just at present like a swift devastating current. Generation after generation is carried away by this current and becomes separated from us. But assimilation, as a remedy against anti-Semitism, is bankrupt. And this is most poignantly demonstrated precisely in that land, in Germany, where it first originated as an answer to the Jewish problem, and as a prophesy about the future of our people.
It appears that not only is assimilation no remedy against anti-Semitism, but that the contrary is true. Assimilation is that very force which strengthens anti-Semitism and makes it more cruel towards us than at any previous time. Assimilation and anti-Semitism go hand in hand nowadays. More than once have I compared them to two knives sharpening one another. The more pronounced the assimilation tendencies on our part, the stronger the pressure is against is to dislodge us from our economic positions as well as from cultural life and creative effort, in which our youngest generations have participated. In Germany, the non-Jewish world has directly completed this expulsion and maiming process. In the other countries the same kind of maiming process goes on, in some places more and in some places less vehemently; in some places with greater, and in some places with lesser cruelty.
It is clear, therefore, that the primary condition for a successful struggle against anti-Semitism is the most valiant struggle against assimilation. We must cease to consider ourselves as children of another people. We must again become one-hundred percent of ourself, and not just any kind of percentage of any other people.
But in this very struggle, which the historical process of our own people as well as the course of world events forces upon us, we encounter one of the greatest difficulties, - namely, the will and the entire psychologic make-up of the generations who were raised during the period of assimilation on whom after all depends the future of our people here in this country. Our youth is being carried away by the assimilation current, and does not even contemplate ever returning to us. No matter as to what dangerous abyss this assimilation current will carry us, an abyss in which we may disappear forever, we cannot help ourselves. Such is our destiny. This is how we deluded ourselves into thinking and believing. And it is this delusion which robs us of every bit of energy and renders us powerless in this struggle.
But, we thus fall into two great errors. First, it is not true that the abyss will swallow us, just as it manifestly did not do so in Germany. Even though, over there in Germany we were already swallowed up in it, we were vomited up and thrown out on the Jewish shore, battered up, injured, robbed of our economic means of existence, and our human esteem deeply insulted and degraded. The second error we commit is when we believe that the psychologic make-up of our youth cannot be changed. On the contrary, it is commencing to undergo that metamorphosis before our very eyes. It is to this very situation that I want to draw your attention now. I shall not exhaust this subject in its entire depth, but only touch upon it, and then only to the extent which can point the way for us as to how we, ourselves, could influence and bring a complete change in the attitude of our youth to the problem of our national rebirth.
It is just in recent times that there commenced to appear new spiritual processes among the better types of our thoroughly assimilated youth, something of which I, myself, am no little informed. This very element, is experiencing now a remarkable spiritual commotion as regards with their Jewishness.
They always knew that they were Jews, and they never before denied this fact, whenever they were asked about it. But, this was for them a mere incidental fact that was not tied up with any queries: - a fact, so to say, without a “Well, what about it?” What difference does it make whether one has one kind of a nose, or another kind of nose; one set of eyes, or another kind of eyes? Who is concerned about it? What is there to devote ones thoughts to? To be a Jew, is just like living in a certain city, or in a certain section, a mere matter of course. Having been brought up in the American educational institutions, in the public schools, high schools, colleges, and universities, most of them did not turn out to be cosmopolitans who are not aware of any kind of national feeling. Just the contrary, they have absorbed a certain national pride, not a Jewish nationalism, however, but an American. They were proud of the fact that they are children of the American people. Pray, understand me, proud not only as children of the American land, proud not only as citizens of the American republic, but specifically as children of the American people, of its language and of its culture. English is their national language; the English culture their national culture. And what other meaning is there to being a child of a people, if not the living together with the people in its cultural sphere and in its language? Washington and Lincoln, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, and newer leaders and spirits of the American literature – these were the leaders of their people. At any rate they had a definite national orientation, that indicated to them their national place in the human family.
But this national orientation, commenced to be rather shaky recently. At the very threshold of the colleges and universities there rand out in their ears a call and a warning, that was beyond their understanding. They were made to feel that even though they may be the children of the American country, citizens of the American state, they are not children of the American people; that the Washingtons and Whitmans are not theirs, that Jews are children of the Jewish people, and because of that they cannot, for example, belong to the American fraternities and sororities, and that they must form such organizations of their own.
This they did because of the sheer necessity, with a heavy heart, but in their mind there sprang up the wonderment and the question, “Well, we are Jews – children of a certain definite people. What is it that makes us the children of this people?” And a great unrest troubled their souls.
Later, when they entered upon the vicissitudes of life, and at every turn commenced to feel that invisible barrier, which separates the Jew from the non-Jew, this unrest increased. By this time it became clear to them that to be a Jew is no matter of indifference, but that it carries with it a rather difficult and painful “Well, what about it”. But which one? To this they had no answer. The training which they received did not prepare them for such a situation, did not furnish them the proper guide to help them orient themselves on their life-path, as children of a Jewish people. The more simple souls among them attempted to stifle this restlessness within themselves, to snuff out within themselves the great problem of their Jewishness. They commenced to silence it, to deny its existence, to hide behind various non-Jewish names, frequently as in New York, to convert themselves, and then to convert themselves once more in order to be able, in case it is demanded of them, to answer to the question about their religion, that they are, let us say Catholic, and to the ticklish question – “what their previous religion was”, they should be able to say “Protestant”.
These simple souls lost their entire moral support in life, but even to them it became clear, that their non-Jewishness is built on a falsehood, on a direct lie and deceit, and this lie corroded their souls.
The better natures, however, could not live with an inner lie. If to be a Jew is a fact which has a meaning in life and has certain consequences, then there is nothing else to do but accept the fact and to bear it with pride. If we are children of the Jewish people, we should not only not conceal this fact from anybody, but on the contrary flaunt it in anyone’s face – “I am a Jew and am proud of it”!!! This is the attitude that produced in literature such Jewish-English writers as the Ludwig Lewisohns and the Waldo Franks. There commenced to take form a new national orientation, the orientation towards one’s own Jewish people. But, not everybody could find satisfaction in such a solution. To be a child of a people means to live with the people, with the life of the people, to share in the creativeness of the people, or to enjoy the fruits of its creativeness; to interest oneself with the people’s suffering and problems. That means in the last analysis, to sit with the people at its own loom and be one with it, with the people’s own culture and its own language.
Our youth working at the American loom, even when it feels itself being pushed out, continues to weave on and maintain the culture of the American people, with every word that it conceives, speaks or writes. Of what avail is the proud outcry that dins in many non-Jewish and also Jewish ears, “I am a Jew and am proud of it”? In this outcry can be heard, if not a direct lie, then at least that internal contradiction “I am a child of the Jewish people, and therefore, I sit at a strange loom and weave a culture and language, which is strange to my people, the which is scattered the world over.”
It is this inner contradiction which drives a considerable portion of the earnest Americanized youth to join the Zionist movement, It is true that Zionism constitutes a national-Jewish orientation, and binds the youth with the Jewish people, with its historical lot, with its hopes for the future. But, can present day  Zionism silence that restlessness, chase away that lie, and explain away that contradiction which we have indicated above?
Zionism binds the assimilated youth with the Jewish people, but only in its thinking process, not in its real tangible life; and not with the present living Jewish people does this union take place, but with the ancient Jewish people of the past, and with the people of the future, which has yet to arise in Palestine. This is not a normal national orientation, for which yearns the soul of that Jewish assimilated youth, which is being thrown out of its assimilatory positions both culturally and economically.
A normal, healthy, and wholesome national orientation is a union not with a people of a far away dim past, or of a nebulous future. This consists of a union with the present living people, with its great masses everywhere over the entire world, with its language, its suffering, and its cultural creations. The present Zionism, with its flirtation with the language of assimilation in this country, with its eyes strained not towards the lot of the great Jewish masses in the countries they live in, but only towards that portion of the people which lives nationally in Palestine, cannot inspire that normal national consciousness which a child of a normal people possesses.
Our youth is not contemplating going to Palestine, and is in need of another kind of union with the Jewish people, in order to feel itself as a child of that people and live its life and with its problems.
This need the youth sensed more keenly in recent times, after the catastrophic collapse of assimilation in Hitlerized Germany. Hitler struck with his hammer not only over the spines, but also the heads and hearts of the German Jews. His hammer blows echoed in the minds and the hearts of all Jews the world over. Everywhere – one Jewish problem, everywhere one great danger. Everywhere the bankruptcy of the assimilation ideals. Everywhere – the same plight and shame which may fall to the lot of every Jew, even a converted one in the fourth generation. Therefore, everywhere – the strengthening of the orientation towards the universal Jewish people. The same phenomenon occurred among the American Jewish youth.
Fortunately, the creative life forces of our people have brought out in recent times an antidote to assimilation, which, rightfully applied, affords every child of the people the possibility of uniting with the life of the greatest majority of Universal Jewry, with its great masses, with all its parties and tendencies, with all our problems and life’s needs. This expresses itself in the upbuilding of our own universal Jewish culture in the Yiddish language and of our own training system in this language, commencing with kinder-garten and ending, as in Soviet Russia, with the very highest of educational institutions.
The press in Yiddish alone unites spiritually the Yiddish speaking Jews of the entire world. A newspaper published in New York is being read in Warsaw, Johannesburg, Buenos-Aires, and even in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. A drama, written, let us say, in Wilno, is being played over the entire Jewish world. A book, being published in Warsaw, may have its readers everywhere, and everywhere there gushes from the modern Yiddish culture the real tangible Jewish life. Everywhere the greatest problems are being discussed earnestly of a Jewish existence, of the Jewish struggle for a free and secure existence and an unhampered national development. At the same time, the new Jewish cultural sphere in Yiddish is not circumscribed and limited to the narrow confines of Jewish life only. On the contrary, in no other Jewish cultural sphere in any other language are the great problems of the social liberation of the surpassed classes and peoples discussed in such a respectable, purely human manner as it is precisely in the cultural sphere of the Yiddish language.
To join this new cultural sphere, to live oneself out with the consciousness, that in this sphere our own life’s breath prevails, – that is what it means at present to join up with the Jewish people, live its life, endure its sufferings, and rejoice with its triumphs, whenever such rejoicing is possible.
To the extent which our youth can live itself into this spiritual cultural sphere, to that extent, it will be able to unite itself with the life of the people; to that extent it will be able to erect in its own soul a normal national Jewish orientation; to that extent it will be able to silence its present restlessness and rid itself of its internal contradictions; and furthermore, to that extent it will be able to assure for itself a Jewish future, and by that same token assure our national future in this country as well.
And the important thing in connection with this is, that the life of the youth in this new cultural sphere will enrich us with newer and keener forces, will give us new doers and builders, who will together with the entire people be able to discover and pursue those paths which lead to our complete national and social liberation.
A people which loses its youth, is a lost people. In order that our lot in this country should not be the lot of the ten lost tribes, we have to win back our youth. We also have to place it on our bench, at our loom, and teach it to weave our culture in our language. Only then will our youth truly be able to feel that they are children of the Jewish people and be proud of their own national existence.
I wish that you should understand me correctly. I am not raising here the painful language question; what our national language should be, Hebrew or Yiddish or both. I take Yiddish as a fact, the culture in Yiddish as a colossal national preservation force, - no matter what its future lot shall be, when the entire Jewish people will some day live in its own land.
For the present and for the coming few generations, Yiddish is undoubtedly the only remedy, for the cementing of our youth with the life of our people and a means of giving it the possibility of assuring its own Jewish future, and by the same token, - also our entire Jewish future here in this country, inasmuch as it depends on us alone.
However, how to extirpate our youth from the assimilation and bring it back to our people, these are practical problems, difficult, intricate, but still problems to which a solution can be found.
This time I must altogether exclude them from consideration, but all answers must be brought out according to those solutions which have illuminated my path like a guiding star in my entire Jewish activity:
They are: -
The Jewish child belongs to the Jewish people!
The Jewish intelligentsia and all the Jewish creative forces belong to the Jewish people!
Because only when we shall have the children with us, we shall have a future. And only when the Jewish creative forces will first of all create our own culture, we shall again become a normal respectable people, worthy of being a member of equal standing in the family of nations constituting humanity!
The Future of Our Youth in This Country and Assimilation, By Dr. Chaim Zhitlovsky