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The Americanization of the Jews

Robert M. Seltzer
Norman J. Cohen
Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 486
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    The Americanization of the Jews
    Book Description:

    How did Judaism, a religion so often defined by its minority status, attain equal footing in the trinity of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism that now dominates modern American religious life?THE AMERICANIZATION OF THE JEWS seeks out the effects of this evolution on both Jews in America and an America with Jews. Although English, French, and Dutch Jewries are usually considered the principal forerunners of modern Jewry, Jews have lived as long in North America as they have in post- medieval Britain and France and only sixty years less than in Amsterdam. As one of the four especially creative Jewish communities that has helped re-shape and re-formulate modern Judaism, American Judaism is the most complex and least understood. German Jewry is recognized for its contribution to modern Jewish theology and philosophy, Russian and Polish Jewry is known for its secular influence in literature, and Israel clearly offers Judaism a new stance as a homeland. But how does one capture the interplay between America and Judaism?Immigration to America meant that much of Judaism was discarded, and much was retained. Acculturation did not always lead to assimilation: Jewishness was honed as an independent variable in the motivations of many of its American adherents- -and has remained so, even though Jewish institutions, ideologies, and even Jewish values have been reshaped by America to such an degree that many Jews of the past might not recognize as Jewish some of what constitutes American Jewishness. This collection of essays explores the paradoxes that abound in the America/Judaism relationship, focusing on such specific issues as Jews and American politics in the twentieth century, the adaptation of Jewish religious life to the American environment, the contributions and impact of the women's movement, and commentaries on the Jewish future in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8880-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    Norman J. Cohen

    The aim of this book is to assess the current state of American Jewish life, drawing on the research and thinking of scholars from a variety of disciplines and diverse points of view. The groundwork was laid at a conference entitled “American Jews: Dreams and Realities,” held in New York City in the spring of 1991. Cosponsored by the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and the Joseph and Ceil Mazer Institute for Research and Advanced Study of Judaica of the Graduate School of the City University of New York, the three-day gathering took place at the Brookdale campus...

  4. Contributors
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: The Ironies of American Jewish History
    (pp. 1-16)
    Robert M. Seltzer

    Jewish history is singular, not least because of its incongruities. The migrations, invasions, defeats, and myriad other crises of the ancient Israelites, a small people that was among the least of the kingdoms, became the matrix of the cosmic historiography that came to dominate Europe, North Africa, and western Asia after late antiquity. Not exceptionally distinguished in art, technology, or warfare, the Jewish impact flowed from a handful of surviving oracles, hymns, legal codes, and tales of ancestors and from an abiding drive to metabolize the symbolic forms of nearby cultures according to an obsession that only the God of...

  6. PART ONE Imagining America
    • CHAPTER 2 The View from the Old World: German-Jewish Perspectives
      (pp. 19-40)
      Steven M. Lowenstein

      The topic of German-Jewish perceptions of America is a subject about which little that is specific has been written. Much greater interest has been shown in immigration from Germany, the Americanization of the immigrants once they arrived, and, to a lesser extent, the attitudes of American Jews of German background toward their former homeland. The attitude toward America of those Jews who remained behind, however, has received relatively little scholarly attention.

      Much of the material for this essay, especially that concerning the nineteenth century, comes from the Jewish newspapers printed in Germany. Although these documents tell us what information was...

    • CHAPTER 3 The View from the Old World: East European Jewish Perspectives
      (pp. 41-59)
      Jacob Kabakoff

      It has long been recognized that the bulk of the East European Jewish immigrants consisted of the masses of Jewish folk, rather than the elite. This immigration, which swelled from the relatively small influx of the late 1860s and 1870s to the gigantic proportions of the years immediately preceding World War I, was unparalleled in Jewish history in the scale and rapidity of resettlement.

      It was increasing economic and legal pressures that made America appealing as a haven to the oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe, but there were additional factors as well that affected the decision of the Jewish masses...

    • CHAPTER 4 Jewish Writers on the New Diaspora
      (pp. 60-78)
      Ruth R. Wisse

      “Twilight in Southern California,” a 1953 short story by Daniel Fuchs, describes a small poolside gathering on a Saturday afternoon. The scene is typical California, but the characters don’t sit comfortably in their setting:

      The novelty business was shot to pieces; the whole bottom had dropped out of the market. Mr. Honti, who manufactured the gadgets and gewgaws, was going through terrible financial troubles, dunned and driven on all sides, everything crashing down on his head, and Morley felt this was no time to run out on him. Morley Finch was a young physician who had opened a practice in...

    • CHAPTER 5 Movies in America as Paradigms of Accommodation
      (pp. 79-94)
      Stephen J. Whitfield

      Let us begin, as aTimemagazine cover story portraying the most successful director of all time begins, when “all is darkness—as dark as a minute to midnight on the first day of creation, as dark as a movie house just before the feature starts. Then the movement begins, a tracking shot down the birth canal of a hallway, toward the mystery. Suddenly, light! A bright room filled with old men in beards and black hats: sages, perhaps, from another world. At the far end of the room, on a raised platform, is a blazing red light. The senses...

  7. PART TWO Jews and the American Liberal Tradition
    • CHAPTER 6 From Equality to Liberty: The Changing Political Culture of American Jews
      (pp. 97-118)
      Henry L. Feingold

      Today, when the qualities that once differentiated Jews from other Americans have all but vanished, the distinctive political culture of Jews persists. They continue to be liberal, though no longer the most liberal group in the electorate. Today’s brand of Jewish liberalism would hardly be recognizable to the immigrant generation. Liberalism is a dynamic, constantly evolving phenomenon. Survey research, which has become the preferred way of determining how liberal Jews are, merely presents a snapshot of its contemporary contours. Such research can tell us little of how Jewish liberalism evolved to become what it is today. Not only the persistence...

    • CHAPTER 7 Will Herberg’s Path from Marxism to Judaism: A Case Study in the Transformation of Jewish Belief
      (pp. 119-132)
      David G. Dalin

      The sociologist and theologian Will Herberg was an exemplary instance of the shift in Jewish ideological attitudes between the 1920s and 1940s: the waning fervor of Jewish socialism and a concomitant growth in political realism, a sharpened sense of the limitations of radical change, a heightened desire to return to traditional spiritual moorings. In his writings Herberg popularized the sociological “law” that what the second generation (of an immigrant group) wants to forget, the third generation wants to recover; the children search for the ethnic and religious heritage that had been hastily discarded in their parents’ Americanization. Herberg himself was...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Anomalous Liberalism of American Jews
      (pp. 133-143)
      Nathan Glazer

      A recent study of religion in America tells us what we all know: that Jews are the most liberal religious group in the country. They have the smallest number of persons declaring themselves Republicans and the largest number declaring themselves Democrats. More detailed analysis would undoubtedly also reveal the great anomaly of Jewish liberalism, one that has been evident in studies for forty years: political allegiance in the United States is affected most strongly by economic status—but Jews break the pattern. The most prosperous of all religious groups, they are also the most liberal, by the use of the...

    • CHAPTER 9 Liberalism, Judaism, and American Jews: A Response
      (pp. 144-148)
      Jerold S. Auerbach

      I am troubled by the reliance upon liberalism as a valid measure of the American Jewish experience or the broader currents of Jewish history. The identification of Jews with the American liberal tradition was not foreordained. It was, to be sure, one of the formative encounters in American Jewish history, but it is necessary to emphasize the contingent nature of this relationship. Before American Jews were political liberals—before, that is, World War I—they were political conservatives, without any sense that they were unfaithful to Jewish norms. Any assumption that “the distinctive political culture” of Jews is liberalism, traceable...

  8. PART THREE Zionism in an American Setting
    • CHAPTER 10 Zionism and American Politics
      (pp. 151-164)
      Melvin I. Urofsky

      “If I forget thee, O Zion” has been a pious incantation of the Jewish people for over two millennia. For most of that time, it has had a venerable religions meaning; Jews would continue to remember Zion, and their God would remember them, ultimately delivering them out of the bondage of exile and returning them to the land promised to their fathers. Human beings alone could do nothing to bring about this deliverance; God, at the chosen time, would accomplish the miracle.

      In the nineteenth century many traditional Jewish assumptions were altered. The emancipation process initiated by the French National...

    • CHAPTER 11 Spiritual Zionists and Jewish Sovereignty
      (pp. 165-192)
      Arthur A. Goren

      In a seminal essay, “The Americanization of Zionism, 1880–1930,” Ben Halpern compared two strands of Zionism.¹ One, secular and political, associated with Louis Brandeis, came to dominate the American Zionist scene. But in fact, the other, cultural and spiritual, Halpern claimed, was the more “thoroughly American variant of Zionism.” It “succeeded most fully in impressing its stamp upon American Jewry at large.” It was led by a group of “rabbinical Zionists around the Jewish Theological Seminary, beginning with their ally Judah Magnes and culminating in the fully developed theories of Mordecai Kaplan. Their religious revision of the ideas of...

    • CHAPTER 12 Zion in the Mind of the American Rabbinate during the 1940s
      (pp. 193-212)
      David Ellenson

      Jews often say that America is different: conditions and contexts that have marked Jewish life in other times and places have been absent here or have been reconfigured in unique ways. Thus, the American Jewish experience is singular because a strong commitment to Enlightenment, liberal ideals, the relative weakness of antisemitism, the absence of a medieval corporate past, and the high degree of separation between religion and the state have all combined to make this country an extraordinary locus for Jewish life.¹

      In the early twentieth century, this distinctiveness manifested itself among American Jews in the rapid diminution of the...

  9. PART FOUR Traditional Religion in an American Setting
    • CHAPTER 13 The Evolution of the American Synagogue
      (pp. 215-229)
      Jonathan D. Sarna

      The idea that ours is an “evolving” American Jewish community seems, at first glance, self-evident. A closer look, however, discloses that the word “evolving” is cognate to “evolution,” a controversial term in modern culture that most of the time is used all too loosely. “Evolution” has meant different things to different people, and each meaning is ideologically freighted.

      According to Raymond Williams, the word “evolution” derives from a Latin forerunner meaning “to unroll,” as in “unrolling a book.” Used in this sense, “evolution” impliesinherentdevelopment, the unrolling of something that already exists. In the nineteenth century, particularly under the...

    • CHAPTER 14 Consensus Building and Conflict over Creating the Young People’s Synagogue of the Lower East Side
      (pp. 230-246)
      Jeffrey S. Gurock

      It was a moment of both satisfaction and expectation for Elias L. Solomon when, on February 3, 1904, he rose at a public meeting of the New York Board of Jewish Ministers to report on the activities of the Jewish Endeavor Society (JES). Just two days earlier, “the movement for the erection of a Young People’s synagogue on the lower East Side” had taken a major stride forward when a conference that he had chaired, organized by the Endeavorers, had unanimously resolved “that the service they desired was an orthodox one, with the sermon and some prayers in English, and...

    • CHAPTER 15 Jewish in Dishes: Kashrut in the New World
      (pp. 247-264)
      Jenna Weissman Joselit

      Recently, the front page of a well-regarded metropolitan newspaper, theNew York Observer, carried a headline that read, “Many Jews in the City Forgo Temple; Rabbi Says Zabar’s Does the Job.” Explaining that Jewish New Yorkers do not feel they have to go to synagogue to express their Jewishness, the article acknowledged that “in New York City, Zabar’s [the renowned Upper West Side food emporium] does that job for you.” Nominally about synagogue attendance, the article underscored the relationship between food and identity characteristic of American Jews.¹

      Whether reference is made to “kitchen,” “culinary,” or “gastronomic Judaism,” the notion that...

  10. PART FIVE The Impact of the Women’s Movement
    • CHAPTER 16 Feminism and American Reform Judaism
      (pp. 267-283)
      Ellen M. Umansky

      Over 150 years ago in Germany, a group of “like thinking, progressive rabbis” convened a series of conferences through which the ideology of the nascent Reform movement began to take shape.¹ Among the issues discussed was the role of women in Jewish religious life. At the Breslau conference of 1846, a commission appointed to reevaluate women’s traditional roles in the light of modernity recommended that “the rabbinical conference declare woman to be entitled to the same religious rights and subject to the same religious duties as man.”² Although no formal vote was taken, neither were any objections voiced to David...

    • CHAPTER 17 Ezrat Nashim and the Emergence of a New Jewish Feminism
      (pp. 284-295)
      Paula E. Hyman

      It is all the more difficult to address a contemporary phenomenon in historical terms when the historian in question has been a participant in the process she seeks to analyze. I am an engaged participant-observer of American Jewish feminism, and my reflections are the interpretation of a historian sensitive to feminist theory but, like most historians, eclectic in method and approach.

      American Jewish feminism is about twenty years old. Its pioneers were largely well-educated young women deeply influenced by general feminist currents of the time. American feminism both provided evidence of the subordination of women in patriarchal cultures and championed...

    • CHAPTER 18 Conservative Judaism: The Ethical Challenge of Feminist Change
      (pp. 296-308)
      Judith Hauptman

      Jewish feminism has made American Judaism of the 1990s dramatically different from that of the 1960s.¹ Over the last few decades, women have become fully integrated into the religious life of the community. For the first time, they count as full-fledged members of a prayer quorum, read from the Torah in public, and assume such leadership roles as rabbi, cantor, and synagogue officer.

      Why have American Jews, unlike most others around the world, welcomed Jewish feminism so warmly? Elsewhere, most notably in Israel, Jewish feminism has not captured the public imagination. The success of the Jewish feminist movement in the...

  11. PART SIX Three Modes of Religiosity
    • CHAPTER 19 The Ninth Siyum Ha-Shas: A Case Study in Orthodox Contra-Acculturation
      (pp. 311-338)
      Samuel C. Heilman

      An issue underlying much of the Jewish experience in the New World has been whether acculturation can be accomplished without assimilation.¹ In America, religion and state are separate, and systematic or state-sanctioned exclusion absent, giving minorities like the Jews opportunities to enter the mainstream. American Jews for the most part embraced these opportunities to become part of their host culture, which, in spite of some practical obstacles, stood open in principle to their full participation. To what extent could they enter the mainstream without giving up their separate identity as Jews? To be sure, this issue was, by the nineteenth...

    • CHAPTER 20 Americanism and Judaism in the Thought of Mordecai M. Kaplan
      (pp. 339-354)
      Mel Scult

      Mordecai Kaplan was the quintessential ideologue for the second generation of American Jews.¹ His appeal, as well as his significance, were tied to his audience among the children of immigrants, especially in New York City, who spoke English and were beginning to feel at home in America.²

      Pressures on second-generation Jews to integrate into American culture were intense, even though integration was hindered by the increased antisemitism of the Depression era. (To be sure, American antisemitism was less virulent than the European strain.) Total assimilation was a complex course that only a few followed. Most Jews remained poised between two...

    • CHAPTER 21 The American Mission of Abraham Joshua Heschel
      (pp. 355-374)
      Edward K. Kaplan

      Because of his combination of intellectual substance and charisma, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) became a revered and notorious public figure in the United States during the tumultuous 1960s.¹ In 1966Newsweekwrote of him, “To recover the prophetic message of ancient Judaism, Heschel has built up a rich, contemporary Jewish theology that may well be the most significant achievement of modern Jewish thought,” confirming Reinhold Niebuhr’s prediction fifteen years earlier that “he will become a commanding and authoritative voice not only in the Jewish community but in the religious life of America.”²

      Heschel’s unique presence in the United States...

  12. PART SEVEN Surviving as Jews in Twenty-First-Century America
    • CHAPTER 22 Modern Times and Jewish Assimilation
      (pp. 377-394)
      Paul Ritterband

      Sociologists of the Jews have been classified as accommodationists or assimilationists—perhaps more simply and explicitly as optimists or pessimists. I am among the assimilationists-pessimists, not on ideological grounds but on the basis of my reading of the sociodemographic data.

      To be fair to the optimists-accommodationists, we should note at the outset that no modern diaspora Jewish community has produced the quantity of scholarship and intellectual product as has American Jewry. We need only contrast the struggle of the fathers ofJüdische Wissenschaft, who sought unsuccessfully to enter the mainstream of German academic life, with the authors in this volume,...

    • CHAPTER 23 Jewish Continuity over Judaic Content: The Moderately Affiliated American Jew
      (pp. 395-416)
      Steven M. Cohen

      All American Jewry is divisible into three parts.¹ One part consists of those most intensively involved in Jewish life, among whom are the religiously observant and pro-Israel activists. At the other extreme are those who are most peripheral to conventional Jewish life, including many who have married non-Jews. This group engages only in occasional acts of Judaic involvement and maintains relatively few informal links to other Jews and few formal ties to organized Jewry. Between these two groups is situated the vast middle of American Jewry. They are formally affiliated with Jewish institutions, engage in a variety of Judaic practices...

    • CHAPTER 24 From an External to an Internal Agenda
      (pp. 417-435)
      Egon Mayer

      What might American Judaism look like in the twenty-first century? Who will be America’s Jews a generation from now, say in the year 2015? How many Jews will there be? What will be their manner of communal and religious organization? These are but a few of the questions that leap to mind as one tries to imagine the future of American Jewish identification and affiliation in the decades ahead.¹

      In developing a profile of the American Jewish future, several caveats loom large. First, the chastening words of Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud: “From the time that the Temple was destroyed,...

    • CHAPTER 25 Jewish Survival, Antisemitism, and Negotiation with the Tradition
      (pp. 436-450)
      Charles S. Liebman

      The record of social scientists in predicting the future is not a reassuring one. The concluding chapter of my bookDeceptive Imageselaborates on the inadequacies of my profession in this regard.¹ Nevertheless, I am led to offer some thoughts about the future, not out of any conviction that what I predict will come to pass but as a way of exploring the present condition of American Jews as it affects the prospects for their survival.

      I understand Jewish survival in the United States to mean the continued presence in the United States of a group that defines itself as...

    • CHAPTER 26 American Jewry in the Twenty-First Century: Strategies of Faith
      (pp. 451-458)
      Arnold Eisen

      I am not quite sure just how prophetic I am meant to be. The twenty-first century, after all, is almost upon us, and we can presumably hang on tight in the nineties; the end of the next century, especially given the enormous changes that have overtaken us in this one, seems far away indeed—and certainly beyond my meager powers of imagination. With God, for God, concerning God, all things are possible—so how is one possibly to predict them? I have decided to focus on faith and, as a Conservative Jew ever in search of elusive middle ground, I...

  13. Index
    (pp. 459-471)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 472-473)