Ambiva­lent Embrace: Jew­ish Upward Mobil­i­ty in Post­war America

Rachel Kran­son
  • Review
By – January 24, 2018

Ambiva­lent Embrace: Jew­ish Upward Mobil­i­ty in Post­war Amer­i­ca by Rachel Kran­son | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

In the decades after World War II, pover­ty among Amer­i­can Jews vir­tu­al­ly dis­ap­peared except among the elder­ly, immi­grants, sin­gle moth­ers, and mem­bers of very insu­lar Ortho­dox groups. Jews have been proud of their upward eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty, and it is one of the rea­sons that, accord­ing to research con­duct­ed by the Pew Insti­tute, they have become one of America’s most admired eth­nic and reli­gious groups. In Ambiva­lent Embrace, how­ev­er, Rachel Kran­son con­sid­ers the fears of Amer­i­can Jews who believed afflu­ence threat­ened Judaism and Jewishness.

Kranson’s live­ly and inter­est­ing book exam­ines the numer­ous jere­mi­ads of rab­bis, Zion­ists, Yid­dishists, polit­i­cal rad­i­cals, fem­i­nists, mem­bers of the coun­ter­cul­ture, and aca­d­e­mi­cians and intel­lec­tu­als who claimed that Jews had made a bad bar­gain by exchang­ing their polit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism, reli­gios­i­ty, and cul­tur­al rich­ness for the bland­ness, mate­ri­al­ism, con­for­mi­ty, and polit­i­cal con­ser­vatism of the pros­per­ous soci­ety of sub­ur­bia. These crit­ics of afflu­ence argued that Jew­ish iden­ti­ty flour­ished only under con­di­tions of exclu­sion, iso­la­tion, mar­gin­al­i­ty, and pover­ty — and in such places as the shtetls of East­ern Europe, the immi­grant neigh­bor­hoods of America’s cities (par­tic­u­lar­ly the Low­er East Side of New York City) and Israel dur­ing its ear­ly years. Fid­dler on the Roof and books such as Leon Uris’s Exo­dus, Irv­ing Howe’s The World of Our Fathers, and The Jew­ish Cat­a­logue roman­ti­cized these locales, depict­ing them as abodes of ide­al­ism and book­ish­ness in which the needs of the down­cast were prioritized.

As Kran­son notes, the major sym­bol for what ailed Amer­i­can Jew­ry was the mod­ern sub­ur­ban syn­a­gogue; its detrac­tors felt that it raised super­fi­cial­i­ty and vul­gar­i­ty to an art form. Par­tic­u­lar­ly egre­gious was the lav­ish man­ner in which life­cy­cle events were cel­e­brat­ed. Kran­son men­tions one bar mitz­vah cel­e­bra­tion that includ­ed a three-ring cir­cus with a live ele­phant, and anoth­er in which the cater­er released a slew of para­keets to the amaze­ment of onlookers.

One of the most impor­tant ques­tions raised by Kranson’s book, and one that she does not dwell on, involves the sig­nif­i­cance of these ani­mad­ver­sions on Amer­i­can afflu­ence. In its con­clu­sion she states that the Jews of the post­war decades acute­ly felt the incon­gruity between their self-image as out­siders and their new­found sta­tus as white, mid­dle-class, even priv­i­leged insid­ers.” But how wide­spread was this ambiva­lence and where did it lead? These cri­tiques of Amer­i­can pros­per­i­ty did not seem to be tak­en seri­ous­ly by most Jews. They cer­tain­ly did not slow down their ascent up the social and eco­nom­ic lad­der, nor did many young Jews adopt a work­ing-class iden­ti­ty in the urban neigh­bor­hoods from which their par­ents and grand­par­ents had fled. Amer­i­can Jew­ry, as revealed in the week­ly wed­ding announce­ments in the Sun­day New York Times, has remained a social­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly elite sec­tor of America.

But per­haps, as Kran­son implies, the attacks on wealth were nev­er meant to be tak­en lit­er­al­ly. Warn­ings about the dan­gers of afflu­ence were nev­er trans­lat­ed into con­crete change, but on the cog­ni­tive lev­el they did help Jews define their iden­ti­ty and dis­tin­guish them­selves from oth­er Amer­i­cans. And, judg­ing from their phil­an­thropy and vot­ing pat­terns, America’s Jews still do not seem to be com­plete­ly com­fort­able in their affluence.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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