You are exactly right to notice that the word “God” is absent from my observations about Jewish identity in America. The omission reflects two things: first, as you surmised, the absence of any organized religion in my own upbringing; and second, the fact that many, indeed most, of the Jews I know treat their identity as a matter of ethnicity more than faith. Let me tease out each one.
Although I wasn’t brought up in any particular faith, I do believe in God abstractly: I believe that science and human agency cannot possibly explain all the world’s mystery. And so I respect–frankly, even envy–those like you who have not only the conviction that God exists but also the concrete religious tradition to express the conviction. But this brings me to the second point, which is that relatively few Jews I know have anything like the degree of devotion to Judaism that you have–this, in spite of having been raised just as you would raise your own children: in a Jewish home, with Hebrew school and synagogue, “the weight of Jewish history” behind them. I still don’t know how you propose to reach them.
Of course, this dialogue is not about the future of Judaism; it is about what intermarriage can do to any inheritance, ethnic or religious. “Jewishness” and “Chineseness” are different in the two key respects you point out: One is a faith and the other isn’t; one resides in a fragile demographic remnant while the other has a billion people behind it. But they are alike in this regard: Both, in order to be preserved in America, depend not only on the devotion of the parent but also, increasingly, on the receptiveness of the child.
“All conservatism,” G.K. Chesterton said, “is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone, you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone, you leave it to a torrent of change.” I may have been born a Chinese baby, but it would have taken unremitting reinforcement, by my parents and myself, for me to have remained Chinese. Instead, we left things alone. And a torrent of change washed over me.
I come at this question of cultural continuity, then, as one who has already assimilated; whose assimilation, indeed, began with his parents’ decision not to impose the weight of Chinese history upon him.
What is Chineseness to me? On one level, it is the idiom of my every memory of family life. It is the sound of my father’s bamboo slippers as he climbed up the stairs at night. It is the cadence of conversations with grandparents whom I could comprehend only intermittently. It is the colorful stacks of Chinese newspapers that were all but indecipherable to me. It is the smell of hot oil, ginger, and scallions in a blackened wok. It is the little red envelopes that promised crisp $10 bills every Christmas.
Beyond this, though, I struggle to articulate just what Chineseness means.
History? Well, yes, I am proud to be connected to so great and ancient a civilization. But toward the innumerable Chinese of past and present I feel no particular affinity, no sense of collective identity.
Ethics? We hear a lot of talk now about Confucianism and “Asian values,” but that stuff, to me, is but a rumor. I was never schooled in the Chinese classics, and my childhood was far more laissez faire than what your typical “Confucian” would countenance.
Culture? In college, I made it a point to learn something about Chinese art and history and to restore my spoken and written Mandarin to middle-school levels. But by the time I graduated, that knowledge had already begun to erode again.
My detachment from Chineseness may be, as you suggest, a luxury made possible now by the buffer of a billion others like me. But a distinction is in order here. The “Chinese” in a Chinese-American is something quite different from the “Chinese” in a Chinese. Two trips to China have been enough to remind me of that. I do not regard China as the original source, the mother lode, of my authenticity. I regard it as the place that begot my parents, who migrated to Taiwan as children and to America as near-adults, and who, along every step of every migration, adapted their own views of the world and their own notions of Chineseness.
You might think that mine is a sad tale of loss and disappearance. It is, partly. But it is also, I think, a still-unfinished tale of gain. You might rightly say I am less Chinese than my parents, and more “white”–but I am also, even if residually, more black than they, and more Hispanic, and certainly more Jewish. I speak an American vernacular–and in speaking, I help to rearticulate it. I am not simply some bland blank slate.
It is an awesome, perhaps even terrible, testament to America’s assimilatory might that even Jews–the community of memory par excellence–have begun to forget their faith. But it is my own peculiar faith that America has a great mission of synthesis–and that in fulfilling that mission we should look first not to the lost “world of our fathers” but to the undiscovered world of our children.