The Future of the American Jew

By Mordecai M. Kaplan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BEING A PEOPLE

1
THE SENSE OF PEOPLEHOOD

An awareness of peoplehood, or ethnic consciousness, plays as important a role in the lives of human beings as does the awareness of one's ego, of one's family, and of one's community. The question is, does the sense of peoplehood make for the best interests of the individual in whom it inheres, and of the group which is its object? The answer calls for an examination of the conditions under which the sense of peoplehood functions.

The sense of peoplehood is the awareness which an individual has of being a member of a group that is known, both by its own members and by outsiders, as a people. Neither those within nor those without, as a rule, give much thought to the question of what makes the group into a people. Those within are satisfied with the "we-feeling" -- which they have with regard to all who belong to their people. That "wefeeling" is more inclusive than the "we-feeling" of family, clan or tribe, and yet definitely excludes others who have a like feeling about their own people. Everyone yearns to be a member of some people, and deems it a catastrophe to have no people to which to belong.

Why is it a catastrophe? Because, as human beings, there are two states or conditions we cannot do without. We cannot do without being needed, and without something of which we are proud. This is why we need this we-feeling to embrace a group inclusive enough in time and space, inclusive of a sufficient number of generations to render certain that our being desired or needed is not ephemeral and that all of us, no matter how commonplace, can recall some person, event or achievement we can be proud of. To be sure, one's own family might be of a kind which could provide these two conditions. But it would have to be a very exceptional family, one with an ancient pedigree, and with many a hero and great achievement to its credit. Very few people are that lucky. The average person requires a whole chain of families to be linked together into a social unit, for him to satisfy these essential needs. This is the psychological aspect of peoplehood as a humanizing force in the life of the average individual. If he lacks it, he feels rootless and nameless. The American-Jew is in the awkward position of

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