April 15, 2010

Ethnic Cultures in America

Posted in Italy at 5:13 am by chavalah

Ethnic Americans attempt to feed an army with the amount of food they prepare for one family get-together.

My cousin recently sent a bunch of us this video, an 8-minute excerpt from a documentary on Italian Americans. She sent it out of a sense of nostalgia, as the narrator documented my father’s generation’s experience of growing up in New York in the mid-20th century.

As a “half” Italian, “half” Jew, though one generation removed, I was struck by the double entendre. 😛 I’ve read, watched and researched several clips about Jews living on the Lower East Side, and with a few minor tweaks (“borscht and kugel” for “antipasto and stuffed artichokes,” “Shabbos” for “Mass,”) this, too, could have been a film about them.

But the narrator was very firm in his assessment: “We were the Italians. Everybody else, the Irish, Germans, Polish, Jewish, they were The Americanas.” Is this correct? Did “the ethnics” keep themselves so separate that they considered each other “the [bland] Americanas?” I can’t help thinking here that the Italian Americans were novices at keeping themselves separate. (Maybe a little over-zealous in this case.) The Jews, on the other hand, were old pros at it.

Because to back things up here, let’s get one thing straight. The Jews WERE Italians. The Jews WERE Irish. (Or Russian and German in my case…read European.) Except that the Europeans didn’t see them that way, because the Jews were “different.” They held onto different customs and different languages (in large part because of the centuries of persecution they faced,) and of course, they were a different religion. A religion conveniently scape-goated as being “the enemy” of Christianity.

So the Catholic Italians and Irish come to the largely Protestant America, and they become like Jews. 😛 Culture, as well as religion, becomes important to them, because they pick up differences on how they live their lives outside of church as well. The closer you were to your country of origin, the more “different” you were from the massive melting pot of people who’d arrived 200 years prior. However, the closer you move towards “Americanization,” read: learning English and going to an American university for a good job, the more assimilated you become. For American Jews, we had to grow used to another form of “persecution”—namely, getting so lost in this country where you could be anything that you choose to lose contact with the tribe. Italian Americans (both in my family and in this clip,) also question gravitating away from roots, whether it means the loss of Italian language, family, or high-calorie meals. 😛

But the best (and hardest) part about being from an interfaith family is realizing that you don’t have to let go of ethnicity just because your parents go in another direction. Even if you’re not “just one thing,” it doesn’t mean you have to be “just nothing.”

Growing up, I was indoctrinated with a far more positive message than the “woe to our roots” sobs from above. My father had a lot of respect when our mother raised us Jewish, and his interest has grown as I’ve explored Judaism on my own. And my mother has eagerly adopted Italian American culture as her own, from the large families to the gooey, wonderful food, to the appreciation for the art, history and language. Hailing from the Midwest herself (talk about growing up in the heart of “the Americanas,”) I think she relishes this chance to feel connected to the stereotypically “ethnic” past that she did not experience.

And by the way, though we may be spout off about our specific ethnicities, the prevalence of Jewish/Catholic marriages is rather high. Personally, I think this speaks to our similarities.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] or ethnic diversity, because my father lived that life in New York/New Jersey and, as previously blogged about, the majority of American Jews did as well. I can’t speak to the sequels, as I never really got […]


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