Be Like Us, and You Will Become One of Us: The Jew Store and the Double Bind

Sander L. Gilman’s Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews offers an in-depth, theoretical view on Jewish assimilation into American culture, shedding perspective on particular areas where Jews struggled to maintain an old identity, while simultaneously trying to establish a new one in a culture where Jews were seen as insignificant, or powerless, or different, or—the Other. In a world viewing Jews as outsiders, Jews sacrificed personal values, attitudes and social structures to seek the dominant group’s acceptance and equality, thus falling victim to what Gilman identifies as “Jewish self-hatred”—a label for a specific mode of self-abnegation that has existed among Jews throughout their history (pg. 2).

Because of the unrecognized presence of self-hatred, Gilman says the Others—or Jews—hear answers to their problems arising from their fantasies: become like us—abandon your differences—and you may be one with us. But this first step, Gilman says, implies accepting one’s own difference (pg. 3). And leads to a classic double bind situation—an unresolved dilemma or situation where one, or in this case a whole group (Jews), receives conflicting messages. Gilman points out that Jews who accept their own difference and attempt identification with the dominant, determining group recognize the flaw within themselves. But striving for identification with the dominant group only distances acceptability, for the closer Jews become to being the same, the more acceptance by the dominant group recedes. Equality can never be achieved (pgs. 3-4).

Stella Suberman introduces the idea of the double bind into her memoir The Jew Store to depict her own family’s struggle and tale of Jewish assimilation into American culture. Suberman uses the concept of the double bind to recall and illustrate gritty and raw, but relatable, real-life experiences, happenings and situations of her family. And although double binds are intricately woven into the individual perspectives of each character within the family, no character carries on the burden of the double bind more so than Reba Bronson, mother of the Bronson family who, as a traditional Jewish woman, takes on the traditional female Jewish role as caretaker and protector of the family, especially over her children, and thereby confronts the double bind.

The trials and tests of Reba’s traditional Jewish values, in terms of a double bind, hit a peak in increased painfulness for Reba when her son’s bar mitzvah comes into question, with whether or not he would have one. Although the Bronson family didn’t partake in most traditional Jewish ways, having left them by the wayside with the move to Gentile Concordia, Reba was adamant that her son have a bar mitzvah: “He’s a Jewish boy, and a Jewish boy has to have a bar mitzvah” (pg. 220). When her husband protests, Reba responds by saying that sacrifices had to be made, and that they had to be good Jewish parents, and that they had to do right (pg. 220). Although the question of the bar mitzvah, itself, did not stir the presence of a double bind, the fact there was no Jewish synagogue in the town where the family was located did. For Reba, this meant sending her son back up north to live with her family and partake in Hebrew lessons in New York City for an extended period of time. Mr. Bronson was against his son’s going away:

“Tell me, Reba, is it right that a bar mitzvah should break a little boy’s heart? And his mother’s and father’s, too? The little one will have a hard time remembering she’s got a brother by the time he comes back” (220).

This unresolved dilemma left Reba struggling with conflicting messages and solutions. She wants the best for her son, for him to indulge in and partake of his Jewish culture. But he did not having the opportunity to do so in Concordia. The only way for him to do this was to leave the family and live up north with his traditional Jewish grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. Reba knew that her son’s departure would disconnection him from the family. It would never be the same:

My mother couldn’t understand this fine point. Of course she wanted Joey to go, but of course she didn’t want him to go (pg. 220).

Although Reba ultimately did make the decision to send her son off to New York, she ended up with a negative outcome: losing her son in the long run. Once her son experienced Jewish culture in New York, he never wanted to leave to return to Concordia. Reba experienced rewards in pushing and immersing her son in her Jewish culture, but she also felt the costs with him leaving and never desiring to return to a place where there was nothing tying or binding him to that culture—with him leaving her and the rest of the family.

Reba again found herself caught in less painful double bind situation when she had to compromise her attitude on an issue towards which she felt strongly: the overworking of children. When Miss Brookie came by her house to persuade her to talk with the management of the shoe factory about working children for long, twelve and fourteen-hour days, Reba was caught in a bind. Having expressed her negative feelings to Miss Brookie before about children working in factories period, let alone for long, strenuous hours, Reba felt obligated as a friend to accompany Miss Brookie to the factory. As a traditional Jewish female, the last thing Reba wanted was for her children not to have an equal opportunity due to working long hours for low wages—or any children, regardless if they were her children, for that matter. Mr. Bronson, however, depended on the shoe factory for his business and needed to stay on good terms with management there. Being Jewish and an outsider as it was, Mr. Bronson needed the factory in order to keep his business afloat, for the Gentiles controlled business in his town. Reba was caught in a double bind:

My mother was of two minds about going with Miss Brookie: “To the bottom of my feet,” as she would say, she wanted to go, but the bottom of her feet were also warning her that we were in business, and how could she go and tell the boss of the factory, the factory that meant everything to the business, that he wasn’t doing right? Miss Brookie might not care if the boss got mad, but my mother had to. (pg. 175)

Reba thought she found a good solution by accompanying Miss Brookie to see the boss of the factory, but forcing herself to keep her mouth shut. When Reba was roped into the heat of the discussion to vouch for Miss Brookie, Reba said nothing. Miss Brookie then no longer saw a loyal companion in Reba, and Reba lost Miss Brookie’s friendship. On the other hand, the business aspect was secure—for the moment.

Reba faced her first, and least painful, double bind in the area of social structure when she was but seventeen years old, after her family had immigrated to America from Russia. Her family lived in a big apartment building in the Bronx, the building mainly occupied by Jewish families. She was sheltered in the ways of the world, only being surrounded in everyday life by a few Gentiles with whom she didn’t speak. And if her home didn’t ease her way into the larger world, her job was an impediment:

Even if she had wanted to be close with her coworkers, all of whom were non-Jewish, there was her secret: at work she was not Jewish. She could not be Jewish if she wanted to keep her job. It was a lesson learned in her first job. My mother worked hard to maintain the fiction of her Jewishlessness. (pg. 32)

Reba struggled with having to mask sharing her journey to America and her assimilation experiences with her coworkers, despite wanting to be included with them, because she wanted to keep her job. She knew being Jewish was a bad thing, and Jews were looked down upon, her coworkers sharing those negative views. Reba said she had to deny herself cordial exchanges with her sister coworkers because she would have thought it not right to talk in a friendly way to girls who spoke so freely against the Jewish people (pg. 33). She faced a double bind in masking her true Jewish identity in order to fit in at work and have the same job opportunities as every non-Jew. If she admitted being Jewish, she would be fired. But if she didn’t admit to being Jewish, she’d be forced to listen to constant ridicule of Jews, eventually leading to a “self-hatred” effect on herself.

Although the entire Bronson family found themselves caught in double bind scenarios through assimilation, struggling to maintain old identity, while simultaneously trying to establish a new one among a culture where Jews were seen as insignificant, or powerless, or different, or the Other, Reba Bronson, particularly, emphasized the significance of the double bind situation. As her life progresses, Reba’s binds become more difficult. Making the decision to send her son to live in New York to partake in his Jewish culture is the hardest bind in which Reba catches herself, since her children are the most important things to her. The ability to support those children and her husband is also greatly important, which is why Reba’s bind with the factory owner is almost as difficult for her to make successful decisions. And even though Reba first becomes familiar with the double bind in younger years, working in the factory, she’s blinded to the severity and impact the scenario will have on the rest of her life—the first taste of her difficulties and a foreshadowing of her future. With all double bind situations combined, Reba is faced with an overall bind: whether she hides her Jewishness or asserts it, she loses. Although her decisions at the time seem justified, they ultimately lead to no good solutions in the long run. If she strives to fit in with the dominant group, she loses her Jewishness. If she strives to maintain her Jewish identity, she yields isolation for herself and her family. The fixed, lingered presence of Reba’s overall double bind continually arising in her life, and her family’s lives, only distances acceptability from the dominant group—an equality and goal that, from the beginning, could never be achieved.

1. Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
2. Suberman, Stella. The Jew Store. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2001.

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