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Speaking of Jews

Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity

Lila Corwin Berman
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Speaking of Jews
    Book Description:

    Lila Corwin Berman asks why, over the course of the twentieth century, American Jews became increasingly fascinated, even obsessed, with explaining themselves to their non-Jewish neighbors. What she discovers is that language itself became a crucial tool for Jewish group survival and integration into American life. Berman investigates a wide range of sources—radio and television broadcasts, bestselling books, sociological studies, debates about Jewish marriage and intermarriage, Jewish missionary work, and more—to reveal how rabbis, intellectuals, and others created a seemingly endless array of explanations about why Jews were indispensable to American life. Even as the content of these explanations developed and shifted over time, the very project of self-explanation would become a core element of Jewishness in the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94370-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction: Presenting Jews to America
    (pp. 1-10)

    Maybe you, reading these words, were the only Jew in your elementary school class, and maybe around Chanukah time, your mother would come in with a large shopping bag full of the wax-covered menorah from home, candles, plastic dreidels, and five pounds of potatoes. You would sit close to her, but not too close, as she explained what Chanukah was and why Jews celebrated it. And then you helped pass out dreidels and grate potatoes as your mom heated the oil in the electric frying pan. Or perhaps you grew up the child of immigrants who did not speak English...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Spiritual Missions after the Great War: The Reform Movement and the Jewish Chautauqua Society
    (pp. 11-33)

    Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler planned to travel to Cincinnati in April 1919. There, in the cradle of American Reform Judaism, the eminent seventy-six-year-old rabbi hoped to persuade his colleagues to return to their long-forgotten missionary task. Illness dashed his hopes. Instead of striding to the front of the hall and delivering his pronouncement to the rabbis gathered for their annual conference, he asked his friend Samuel Schulman to read his paper, “The Mission of Israel and Its Application to Modern Times.”¹

    “At no time and in no country,” Kohler wrote, “has the opportunity come to the Jew to again mount the...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Ghetto and Beyond: The Rising Authority of American Jewish Social Science in Interwar America
    (pp. 34-52)

    Louis Wirth had done very little to endear himself to the organized Jewish community. The sociologist had argued in his first book that Jews were perennial ghetto-dwellers. Whether or not the places they lived were walled in reality, he wrote, the mentality Jews carried with them was one of insularity. At the time of the book’s publication in 1928, and for many years after, Jewish leaders were cool to Wirth’s conclusions, and as a secular intellectual married to a non-Jewish woman and immersed in the non-Jewish academic world, Wirth was hardly a likely candidate to lead or advise the Jewish...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Sacred and Sociological Dilemma of Jewish Intermarriage
    (pp. 53-72)

    On a Friday evening in late 1939, a Reform rabbi spoke to his Chicago congregation about intermarriage. “All observers of Jewish life in this country,” he informed them, “know very well that in recent years there has been a decided increase in the number of intermarriages.”¹ The reason, according to the rabbi, was simple: Jews fled into the arms of non-Jews to escape potential antisemitism and to assimilate. When it came to explaining why these marriages were a problem, the rabbi had a clear answer as well. Intermarriage, he explained, was a “sociological problem,” an act that went against the...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Serving the Public Good and Serving God in 1940s America
    (pp. 73-92)

    In 1943, with war raging across the oceans, President Roosevelt wrote a letter of praise marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Jewish Chautauqua Society: “Even during these trying days of national emergency, through your academic program of spreading knowledge about the Jew and his background, your society will continue to give due weight to the need for enlightenment on the best that every minority people may have to offer toward our unified American ideal.”¹ The ease with which FDR categorized Jews as a “minority people,” not a religious people or a separate race, indicated the growing sway of sociological definitions...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Constructing an Ethnic America: Oscar Handlin, Nathan Glazer, and Post–World War II Social Research
    (pp. 93-118)

    In 1954, as Jews attended dinner parties, parades, and museum exhibits to commemorate three hundred years of Jewish life in the United States, a group of Jewish intellectuals marked the tercentenary the way they knew best: with a conference.¹ Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset convened the proceedings by asking a simple question: “Why [are] there so many Jewish sociologists and so few sociologists of the Jews?”² Even the late Louis Wirth, whom Lipset noted was “unique among leading American sociologists in writing a book about the Jews,” never seriously returned to the subject after publishingThe Ghetto.³ Answering his own question,...

  11. CHAPTER 6 What Is a Jew? Missionaries, Outreach, and the Cold War Ethnic Challenge
    (pp. 119-142)

    In March 1958, the Kertzer family sat down for a Passover seder. A couple of inquisitive guests joined them, but every American with a television was invited to celebrate the spring holiday with the family. For loyal viewers, this may have even been their second seder with the Kertzers, who the year before had opened their Long Island home toThe Tonight Showcrew. And the most devoted viewers would have already known some of the family members, especially the father, Rabbi Morris Kertzer, quite well. Starting in the early 1950s, he had appeared periodically on television, sometimes with his...

  12. CHAPTER 7 A Jewish Marilyn Monroe and the Civil-Rights-Era Crisis in Jewish Self-Presentation
    (pp. 143-167)

    Years after the fact, Norman Mailer wrote that theirs had been a union between the “great American brain” and the “great American body.”¹ The brain, Arthur Miller, was Jewish, gawky, and bespectacled. The body, Marilyn Monroe, was beautiful, blonde, and not Jewish. And then in the summer of 1956, moments before her marriage to Miller, she converted. For a time, the American body was Jewish.

    For Jews invested in explaining themselves to non-Jews, a Jewish Marilyn Monroe symbolized just how successful—perhaps too successful their efforts had been. Jewish literary critic Leslie Fiedler, commenting on Miller and Monroe’s marriage, said...

  13. Conclusion: Speaking of Jews
    (pp. 168-174)

    Arthur Miller stood in the front of the cavernous sanctuary in the spring of 1994. His old friend Robert Goldburg had invited the playwright to give a sermon for Shabbat HaGadol—the “Great Sabbath” that occurs on the Saturday before the start of Passover. Mishkan Israel, once located in a red brick building trimmed with terra-cotta in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, now sprawled long and low on a ridge in suburban Hamden.¹ In his talk that day, Miller spoke about the tenacity of the group’s hold on the individual, even in a modern liberal state like America. “We used to...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 175-234)
  15. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 235-252)
  16. Index
    (pp. 253-266)