Nevertheless, I am a Jew and as such I am made to understand by Jewish history that I cannot absolutely count on enlightened laws and institutions to protect me and my descendants. I observe the Jewish present closely and actively remember the Jewish past—not only its often heroic suffering but also the high significance of the meaning of Jewish history. I think about it. I read. I try to understand what it may signify to be a Jew who cannot live by the rules of conduct set down over centuries and millennia. I am not, as the phrase goes, an observant Jew, and I doubt that Scholem was wholly orthodox. He was, however, immersed in Jewish mysticism of the sixteenth century, and studied Kabbalism closely, so it is unlikely that he should have been devoid of religious feeling. I, by contrast, am an American Jew whose interests are largely, although not exclusively, secular. There is no way in which my American and modern experience of life could be reconciled with Jewish orthodoxy. So that my ancestors, if they were able to see and judge for themselves, would find me a very strange creature indeed, no less strange than my Catholic, Protestant, or atheistic countrymen. Yet their scandalously weird descendant insists that he is a Jew. And of course he is one. He can’t be held responsible for the linked historical transformations of which he became the odd heir.
more from Saul Bellow at the NYRB here.