My favorite new show is The Americans on FX. If this doesn’t ring a bell, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (Kevin from Brothers and Sisters) are Elizabeth and Philip Jennings: KGB spies embedded in Washington, D.C. in 1981. They are married (to each other), have two teenage children, jobs as travel agents, and seemingly normal American lives. Except for, you know, being Russian—sorry, Soviet spies running around trying to subvert America. The series opens as newly-elected Reagan begins to raise the stakes in the Cold War, plus their new next-door is an FBI agent rooting out embedded Soviet agents.
All of this provides tension enough for today’s cable television, except that with Philip and Elizabeth, the stakes are higher and with a twist. Previously thrust together only to aid in the destruction of America, they have fallen in love. Furthermore, they have children who are being raised as Americans. Not only do we watch Elizabeth seduce information out of U.S.political figures (“faithfulness” is a relative term when it comes to married spies), we then turn around and watch her dismay over buying her daughter Paige’s first bra. Philip too must make time for planting a bug in the Secretary of State’s house in between shoe shopping with Paige and driveway-hockey with his son, Henry. Thus, The Americans is about two people struggling with what it means to be “American.”
This idea of being a “real American” has become a common political catchphrase, but it is not an unfamiliar struggle to American Jews – we call it assimilation. Our ancestors who first arrived on these shores faced innumerable physical obstacles in getting here, only to be confronted with new psychological struggles once settled. They had to learn a new language, economic, political, and social system – essentially becoming different people. We see Philip and Elizabeth deal with this when they first arrive. They have already been trained on how to act American, but once they arrive here we see them utterly lost and uncomfortable in these terribly unfamiliar surroundings.
The added complication of Elizabeth and Philip and countless Jewish immigrants is children. First generation American children go to school in America, grow up speaking English and learning our history. They are immersed in the culture from birth, whereas the adults must adapt or be left behind. Where the Jennings’ and Jewish immigrants’ stories diverge, however, is that Elizabeth and Philip cannot, by the definition of their mission, retain any vestiges of their old self. The same is not true for Jewish Americans, but that doesn’t make the issue less complicated.
Jewish American children want watch the same movies, go to the same schools, have the same jobs, not to mention eat the same foods as their non-Jewish counterparts, and most of us have all received some kind of backlash from our parents because of this. Go out on a Friday night or have Shabbat dinner? Miss school on Yom Kippur? Don’t eat that bacon! Dance recital or Hebrew school? Not to mention inter-marriage. Assimilation always has and always will be an integral struggle of American Jews. Elizabeth and Philip have a similar struggle with their American children, even if their disagreement is over whether the Soviet Union is a pillar of evil, or if the demon is America. We want Elizabeth and Philip to realize American culture–pierced ears, shopping malls, training bras and all–is the way to go, because we are, after all, Americans. But do we want the same things for ourselves and American Jews? If Elizabeth and Philip turn themselves over, it means the downfall of Communism. If we do the same, what does it mean for American Judaism?
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