A new social program threatens America’s Jews, and Mr. Levin goes to Washington.
What is “Just Folks”? It sounds innocent enough to the casual observer: a government program designed to encourage cross-cultural understanding by placing young city kids with host families in rural America for a summer.
But in the upside-down world of a Charles Lindbergh administration in the third chapter of HBO’s The Plot Against America, “Just Folks” is something far more sinister: the first step of an odious scheme to break down the Jewish American family unit and assert fascistic dominance over the “other”. By sending impressionable Jewish teenagers like Sandy Levin far from their roots and encouraging them to embrace a mythic, rose-colored vision of “real America” without acknowledging the extreme bigotry that often undergirds it, the program’s architects, including Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Evelyn Finkel, are creating an impossible standard of assimilation that demands a near-total erasure of Jewish tradition. It’s a testament to the writing skills of series creator David Simon that he was able to preserve this somewhat heady sociological concept in the transition from Phillip Roth’s novel to TV.
At the opening to the third episode, it’s May 1941 and Bengelsdorf is just introducing this project for the first time. This seems to be just the tool to propel him and Evelyn into the upper social circles of the Lindbergh administration, thereby cementing their power as a class of people that history has deemed “court Jews”: the bankers and others who did the king’s bidding in the hopes they would be spared from the kingdom’s purges of their kind.
For the rest of the Levin family, it’s quite a fraught time to take a family vacation to Washington. Especially with Elizabeth hinting to Herman that it might be time for the family to give up on America altogether and find safer harbor in Canada. But this is still Herman’s country, darnit, and he still believes in the American ideal… which in his case means the right to loudly and obnoxiously proclaim your political views in public. So he insists on following through with the trip, anyway, less because it will be a relaxing time for them and more just to prove he can.
This is the key trait that sets Herman apart from the other Jews in the story: his unflagging belief in the way things are supposed to be. Any deviation from that, and he’ll lecture everyone within earshot. Does he need to challenge his own sister-in-law, directly to her face, about the true intentions of “Just Folks”? Does he need to make a performance of their visit to the Lincoln Memorial, accosting strangers who mutter anti-Semitic insults under their breath? Does he need to challenge a burly Lindbergh supporter to his face at a diner, escalating the confrontation until the two men are on the edge of violence?
Of course not. Herman does these things because this is how he understands patriotism, to hell with personal safety. And he’s right that the family has been dealt a grave injustice when the hotel manager throws them out of their room without cause. So long as this is still America, he reasons, he can keep pointing out bigotry and unfairness. But so long as this is still America, he is also putting his own family at unnecessary risk. No ideals can protect you from an angry mob, as he is soon to learn all too well.
The episode concludes with the ignoble end of Alvin’s military service career: a leg gone forever, a wartime sweetheart who leaves him passed out in a hospital bed. Driven by a blind desire to “kill Nazis” at whatever cost, the young man has now cost himself far more than he cost the Nazis. Even in an America ruled by a right-wing paramilitary force, military valor won’t get Alvin very far after fighting in a war his own country wanted no part in.
But the true heartbreaking moment may have occurred earlier, just before storming into battle, when Alvin’s Christian battalion huddled for a final prayer and he realized, perhaps for the first time, how little connection he has to his own faith—a faith he’s put everything on the line for. You could read the moment as the dark side of Jewish American assimilation: the fraying of a long-standing connective tissue to our ancestors. All Lindbergh may have to do is give it a little extra push.
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