With no apologies to Adam Sandler's Hanukkah Song, Sam Freedman had a nice column last Saturday on the perennial tribal question of whether Willy Loman, the title figure in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (now in revival on Broadway), is Jewish. Willy is portrayed without religious or ethnic markers, and Miller early on insisted he was just an American everyman.
But as some critics have insisted since the play's opening in 1949, there seems to be something Jewish about this sad victim of the American Capitalist Dream, and toward the end of his life, Miller describe the Lomans as "Jews light-years away from religion or a community that might have fostered Jewish identity." They were thus left "on the sidewalk side of the glass looking in at the clean well-lighted place."
But failure to satisfy the bitch goddess was only one of assimilation's discontents in mid-twentieth-century Jewish literature. In 1952, Modern Library brought out an edition of What Makes Sammy Run, Budd Schulberg's 1941 bestseller about an unsavory Jewish immigrant son named Sammy Glick, who claws his way from the Lower East Side to the top of the movie industry. In a freshly written introduction, Schulberg answered the novel's titular question.
What made Sammy run? "In throwing over the ways of his father without learning any sense of obligation to the Judeo-Christian-democratic pattern, he had nothing except naked self-interest to guide himself."
These days, of course, those who appeal to Judeo-Christian values tend to be apologists for American capitalism. Take, for example, Rabbi Aryeh Spero, the conservative commentator whose Caucus for America is "dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the historic American civilization." Earlier this year, Spero wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
More than any other nation, the United States was founded on broad themes of morality rooted in a specific religious perspective. We call this the Judeo-Christian ethos, and within it resides a ringing endorsement of capitalism as a moral endeavor.
Reading that, Sammy Glick would have laughed. Willy Loman would have cried.