Contemporary American Judaism

Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 446
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  • Book Info
    Contemporary American Judaism
    Book Description:

    No longer controlled by a handful of institutional leaders based in remote headquarters and rabbinical seminaries, American Judaism is being transformed by the spiritual decisions of tens of thousands of Jews living all over the United States. A pulpit rabbi and himself an American Jew, Dana Evan Kaplan follows this religious individualism from its postwar suburban roots to the hippie revolution of the 1960s and the multiple postmodern identities of today. From Hebrew tattooing to Jewish Buddhist meditation, Kaplan describes the remaking of historical tradition in ways that channel multiple ethnic and national identities.

    While pessimists worry about the vanishing American Jew, Kaplan focuses on creative responses to contemporary spiritual trends that have made a Jewish religious renaissance possible. He believes that the reorientation of American Judaism has been a "bottom up" process, resisted by elites who have reluctantly responded to the demands of the "spiritual marketplace." The American Jewish denominational structure is therefore weakening at the same time that religious experimentation is rising, leading to the innovative approaches supplanting existing institutions. The result is an exciting transformation of what it means to be a religious American Jew in the twenty-first century.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51041-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Rabbi David Ellenson

    Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal offers a much-needed and unique historical perspective on the modern American Jewish landscape. While works such as American Judaism by Jonathan Sarna and Jews of the United States by Hasia Diner provide valuable portraits that cover the panorama of Jewish history in the United States, Dana Kaplan offers a study that focuses on the contemporary state of American Jewish life. His narrative of present-day American Judaism is always placed in an informed historical context and his analysis of developments in American Judaism over the last sixty years is designed to engage the reader. Indeed,...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xxii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxiii-xxx)
  6. Chronology of Events
    (pp. xxxi-xxxiv)
  7. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    American Judaism has changed dramatically since 1945. Until the end of World War II, religion was generally seen as an ascribed part of identity rather than an achieved status. It was ascribed because, like one’s race, it was held to be immutable. A 1955 Gallup poll found that only one in twenty-five Americans had switched from the religion in which they had been raised. This was a negligible number and therefore, for all practical purposes, an American was no more likely to switch his religion than he was to switch his race. But, by the mid-1980s, the Gallup organization found...

  8. 1 A Historical Overview from 1945
    (pp. 7-55)

    Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America on September 8, 1945, four months to the day after the surrender of Nazi Germany. American Jews beamed with pride. Many felt that her crowning symbolized a new level of social acceptance that they had long craved but had seemed elusive. When Myerson went to Atlantic City, New Jersey to compete in the pageant, a Holocaust survivor with concentration camp numbers tattooed on her arm asked her in Yiddish if she was Jewish. When Myerson said that she was, the woman hugged her. “If America chooses a Jewish girl to be Miss America, I...

  9. 2 The Reengagement with Spirituality
    (pp. 56-106)

    Americans see themselves on spiritual journeys. These journeys are fluid and changing, and their spiritual experiences will unfold gradually, leading in all sorts of directions. Journeys have a definitive starting point, and they will eventually have an ending point, but in the decades in between there is the possibility for all sorts of surprises, as individuals explore their spirituality in the context of what is happening in their work and home lives and in their community, the country, and the world. Speaking of the spiritual quest as a journey emphasizes the dynamic aspect of the process. There are many different...

  10. 3 The Rise and Fall of American Jewish Denominationalism
    (pp. 107-160)

    Those who grew up in the fifties, sixties, or seventies saw American Judaism as divided into three major denominations. Whether they were aware of it or not, the tripartite division of American Judaism was typical of American religious organizations. Religious denominations served to reinforce the ideal of religious pluralism that was so important in the construction of American society. The very fact that there were so many different religious denominational groups seemed to be proof that there was no established church in the United States that could enforce its doctrine and practice on others. The denominations provided an institutional structure...

  11. 4 Facing the Collapse of the Intermarriage Stigma
    (pp. 161-205)

    “I created the greatest super holiday known to mankind, drawing on the best that Judaism and Christianity have to offer,” explained Seth Cohen, one of the four main characters on Fox network’s The O.C. (Orange County).¹ Cohen, the son of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, came up with a portmanteau for his new holiday—Chrismukkah—as a way of helping interfaith children like himself deal with the “December dilemma.” Chrismukkah joined a growing list of alternate or conglomerated holidays, many of which were first discussed on the Internet and then publicized through a television show. Seinfield, for example,...

  12. 5 Inclusivity as a Social Value
    (pp. 206-257)

    In the winter of 1979, the Jewish Women’s Group at the University of California at Berkeley invited Rebbetzin Hinda Langer from the local Chabad House to speak on women and halacha. In the course of the discussion, the listeners heard Langer mentioning that she thought that while lesbianism was prohibited according to Jewish law, it was a relatively minor transgression, much less serious than eating bread during Passover. The statement—which Langer denies making—was just a side comment and nobody paid too much attention to that particular point at the time. “I only found out that I was being...

  13. 6 Radical Responses to the Suburban Experience
    (pp. 258-298)

    David Ingber spent much of his twenties practicing yoga, tai chi, shiatsu, Reiki, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, gyrotonics, Zen meditation, martial arts, integrative body psychotherapy, and postural integration. He was a spiritual searcher and quasi-religious switcher, a common type in his generation, as described in chapter 2. This was not the way he had been raised. His family prayed at the Great Neck Synagogue and sent Ingber to the Ramaz School, a Modern Orthodox day school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But, by the age of fourteen, he rejected Orthodoxy and spent most of his time bodybuilding. “I was...

  14. 7 The Popularization of Jewish Mystical Outreach
    (pp. 299-330)

    Many Americans believe—correctly, to a large extent—that religion played a greater role in their grandparent’s lives than it does in their own. While they do not want to return to the world of their grandparents—and have to give up all of the technological innovations and the many comforts of modern life—they sense that something important has been lost along the way. They want to affirm that life is sacred and that it should be experienced with the appropriate reverence. Yet they feel a vague disquietude with the current exclusion of the sacred from modern society. Hand...

  15. 8 Herculean Efforts at Synagogue Renewal
    (pp. 331-378)

    In 1985, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) was a struggling historic Conservative congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Despite the fact that it was the original Ashkenazic synagogue in New York and indeed the entire United States, its membership had dwindled to less than eighty family units, and it had trouble forming a minyan, even on Shabbat. But then the congregation hired Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, who had been the leader of the Conservative movement in Argentina, where he had built a rabbinical school, trained an entire generation of South American Conservative leaders, and fought against the political repression...

  16. Conclusion: The Future of Judaism in America
    (pp. 379-386)

    In 1207 BCE, a stone column called the Merneptah Stela was commissioned by the pharaoh of Egypt. The text reads as follows:

    The chiefs are thrown flat and say, “Peace!”

    Not one of them lifts his head among the border enemies.

    Libya is seized,

    Hatti is pacified,

    Gaza is plundered most grievously,

    Ashkelon is brought in,

    Gezer is captured,

    Yanoam is made nonexistent,

    Israel is stripped bare, wholly lacking seed,

    Hurru has become a widow, due to Egypt.

    All lands are together “at peace”:

    Anyone who stirs is cut down,

    By the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Merneptah.¹


  17. Afterword:
    (pp. 387-394)
    Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

    With great pleasure I write this afterword to Dana Evan Kaplan’s Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal. The book is a masterful and sympathetic portrayal of American Judaism in the early years of the twenty-first century. Kaplan understands the difference between what is important and what is not and is able to paint a detailed picture of the Judaism of the future without apologetics but with a lot of color. Kaplan touches on the right points in just the right way. He draws on his exhaustive knowledge as both a scholar and a pulpit rabbi. One of the things that...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 395-420)
  19. Glossary
    (pp. 421-430)
  20. Index
    (pp. 431-446)