Friday, March 8, 2013

Reconsidering Gay & Jewish Success

Successful Minorities

Some minorities are more successful than others; there are many reasons put forward for this, some controversial, some popular. Some clues might be found in what all successful minority cultures share as a means to stay productive and to maintain their longevity. George Jochnowitz offers some noteworthy insights as to what two well-known minorities share: "Neither Jews nor homosexuals are dangerous. If there are many of them in the arts and the professions, that is a plus, not a minus. They are probably more law-abiding than the population at large, except, of course, where it is against the law to be gay or Jewish. It is simply not true that Jews are more likely than others to be dishonest businesspeople."

by George Jochnowitz

Comparing Jews to homosexuals is like comparing apples and oranges—it is an enjoyable game and may lead to interesting insights. Apples and oranges may be compared for sweetness, acidity, weight per unit volume, ease of peeling, etc. Jews and homosexuals are comparable because they are unpopular minorities. There is at least one way, however, in which the comparisons are not analogous: an orange can never be an apple, but a Jew may turn out to be a fruit.

There is nothing especially surprising about the unpopularity of a minority. Xenophobia is a ubiquitous human phenomenon. People dislike those who differ from them in religion, ethnicity, accent, class, age, politics, and even taste. It would be odd if homosexuals and Jews were not disliked. As it happens, dislike is too mild a word. Homophobia and anti-Semitism are among the great hatreds of all time. Members of both groups, during certain periods, have been killed simply for being what they are. Even in good times, they are accused of clannishness and flaunting their differences when they stick with their own, and are considered dishonest and even insidious when they try to be like the majority.

It is much easier for Jews and gays to pass than it is for blacks, but passing is not the same as changing one’s status. Gays who lead exclusively heterosexual lives know that inside, they are still fags or dykes. Karl Marx was a baptized Lutheran as well as an atheist, but everyone thought of him and thinks of him as a Jew. For both Jews and gays, conversion is possible and sometimes quite practical. One may change one’s belief, affiliation, and way of life. But to oneself and the enemy (and there are so many enemies) the change is irrelevant. It may even be used as an argument to justify prejudice: They are everywhere. You don’t know who they are. They control everything.

Jews and gays do not control everything. On of the striking similarities they share is that they have a great deal of influence but very little power—a sure formula for disaster. In recent years, both have become more powerful through organization and boldness. If either Jews or gays had been as militant in 1944 as they are today, the United States would have bombed the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz.

Pianists are frequently gay; violinists are often Jews. Homosexuals and Jews seem to be overrepresented in the arts, show business, the garment industry, the university, and to judge by the shops in gay neighborhoods, in retail trades. Both groups do well in school and at their jobs, yet both are particularly subject to doubt and depression.

Much has been written about the reasons for Jewish success. Let me add my own theory. Jews do well for the same reason that male homosexuals do: they have escaped the subculture of adolescent men. Jews, like gay men, are successful because they are not macho.

Young males are dangerous. They are responsible for much more than their share of auto accidents, crimes of violence, and anti-social behavior in general. Peer-group pressure, especially among the lower classes, leads young men to be ashamed of their intellectual and artistic abilities. Sensitivity and original thinking are condemned as effeminate. In extreme cases, the peer group demands senseless acts of courage—in the suburbs, cars are usually involved; in the slums, crime may be the way to prove one’s manhood. More often, the subculture is relatively benign. Yet even then, it works against expressing one’s feelings and developing one’s thoughts.

Gay young men are not likely to adopt the mores of male subcultures, which enforce their rules by calling deviants “fag.” Homosexuality, evidence suggests, is determined long before the teen years. Even before a gay boy learns he is a homosexual, he knows he is somehow different. He does not feel at ease with tough males, and the feeling is mutual.

Among Jews, the traditional roles for men and women have worked to the advantage of both women and men. Women, more often than in most traditional societies, were bread-winners. This was especially true when their husbands were scholars. Study of the Bible and Talmud was restricted to men: thus it was never considered effeminate to spend one’s time talking, reading, and thinking. Maleness was not equated with toughness. The way to be macho was to be skillful at explicating a text. This was so despite the fact that only a small minority of Jews were full-time scholars. Talmud study hardly survived among secular Jews. There is no direct connection between the scholarship of traditional Jews and the fact that secular Jews do well in school. The link is an indirect one: Jews did not and do not think that real men were supposed to be insensitive and stupid. This attitude has remained and has kept many Jewish men—not all—from adopting the values of the male adolescent subculture.

When Jewish women went to work to support their scholar husbands, they probably considered it oppressive rather than liberating, and with good reason. It was oppressive. Since there were few full-time scholars, there were few wives of such scholars. Nevertheless, women were shown to be capable. They did not need men to bring home the bacon—uh, the pastrami. Ironically, the sharply divided sex roles of a traditional society equipped Jewish women and Jewish men to cope with the changing, complex structures of contemporary America.

Neither Jews nor homosexuals are dangerous. If there are many of them in the arts and the professions, that is a plus, not a minus. They are probably more law-abiding than the population at large, except, of course, where it is against the law to be gay or Jewish. It is simply not true that Jews are more likely than others to be dishonest businesspeople. Many Jews don’t even like business and typically abandon their family enterprises to go into the professions. Nor is it true that homosexuals can tempt heterosexual youths into following a gay life style. Homosexuality is not appealing to those who are not inclined that way.

Despite the fact that many gays and Jews succeed economically and intellectually, and despite the fact that they are more readily accepted than before, they remain marginal groups. No one was ever raised to be a homosexual. People who realize they are gay must either fight their own natures or live unconventional lives or both. Jews, unlike gays, may have been raised to be Jews. Yet every Jew, like every gay, must make a decision about how to reconcile the value of the larger society with the contrary needs of the particular in one’s own life. A personal crisis involving a conflict between one’s essence and the surrounding culture can be a radicalizing experience. It is not surprising that Jews and gays are disproportionately involved in leftist activity.

Ironically, leftist activism can help Jews and gays only in a bourgeois democracy. Democratic states have been quite hostile to minorities, yet such societies are committed in theory to pluralism. When the minorities organize to improve their positions, they have the professed values of the state on their side. As marginal groups gain in power, they gain respectability as well. As society grows more democratic in practice, people begin to understand and believe the theory of pluralism.

All societies that claim to be radical are either Marxist-Leninist or Islamic fundamentalist. They are totalitarian because they attempt to change and therefore control human nature. Dictatorships are terrible places for Jews and gays. They have to be. Whether or not Castro and Ahmadinejad are personally homophobes or anti-Semites, Iran and Cuba have to oppress Jews and gays. A regime that exists in order to propagate a political or religious belief suppresses all deviation. On the other hand, a state that accepts diversity is strengthened as diversity becomes accepted. It follows that just as democracy is good for Jews and gays, Jews and gays are good for democracy.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at


Copyright ©2013. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This essay appeared in The Blessed Human Race: Essays on Reconsideration. It is republished here with the permission of the author.