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

Lila Cor­win Berman
  • Review
By – August 26, 2011
Jew­shave a long his­to­ry of being the oth­er.’ Liv­ing in the Dias­po­ra and dif­fer­ing from the dom­i­nant cul­ture, Jews have adapt­ed a vari­ety of strate­gies to insu­late them­selves from the host cul­ture. Berman pro­vides an excel­lent overview of how Jew­ish lead­ers, pri­mar­i­ly rab­bis and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als, pre­sent­ed Jew­ish life and tra­di­tions in the U.S. from the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry to the present. 

Cre­at­ing a pub­lic lan­guage of Jew­ish­ness, one that car­ried author­i­ty and was dis­sem­i­nat­ed into an Amer­i­can pub­lic sphere,” the major thrust of this dis­course, whether the­o­log­i­cal or root­ed in social sci­ence research, was that Jews were not in fact the oth­er’; we are, instead, the trans­mit­ters of a cul­tur­al lega­cy that was not only con­sis­tent with Amer­i­can val­ues, but had sig­nif­i­cant lessons for Amer­i­cans — in terms of our eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples and prac­tices — as a light unto the nations.’ This strat­e­gy faces new chal­lenges at a time when the bound­aries between Jew and non-Jew are far more per­me­able and eth­nic­i­ty is vol­un­tary and sym­bol­ic. Berman is to be com­mend­ed for inves­ti­gat­ing a dimen­sion of Amer­i­can Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry in a care­ful, schol­ar­ly, but read­able text.

The Sto­ry Behind the Sto­ry: Speak­ing of Jews

By Lila Cor­win Berman

Grow­ing up Jew­ish in Pough­keep­sie, New York, I found it an almost dai­ly task to explain what it meant to be Jew­ish to non-Jews. Had I not kept kosher, I might not have felt the imper­a­tive of self-expla­na­tion so strong­ly. But per­haps I would have: I recall a class­mate in fourth grade, the oth­er Jew in my class, explain­ing that he was remov­ing the bun from his school-lunch pork hot dog because he was Jew­ish and Jews do not eat bread on Passover. What I start­ed to notice, even as a child, was that the way I explained what I did (why I would not eat a cer­tain food, why I was miss­ing school on a par­tic­u­lar day and so on) changed across time and space and that, on some lev­el, those expla­na­tions changed me as well.

My book Speak­ing of Jews emerged from my long­stand­ing inter­est in how dif­fer­ence demands expla­na­tion and how expla­na­tion can reframe dif­fer­ence. I want­ed to under­stand what changed and what remained con­stant about Jews’ pub­lic expla­na­tions of them­selves from the Roar­ing Twen­ties through the Civ­il Rights Move­ment.

I start­ed by think­ing about mar­riage, not the so-called inter­mar­riage cri­sis that demog­ra­phers and Jew­ish lead­ers pro­nounced in the 1970’s, but rather what we might call the inmar­riage cri­sis. How did ear­ly to mid-cen­tu­ry Jews explain the fact that they over­whelm­ing­ly mar­ried oth­er Jews at the same time that many of them agi­tat­ed for greater accep­tance into main­stream Amer­i­can soci­ety? What I found was an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly rich dis­cus­sion about who Jews were and what Amer­i­ca was. And in track­ing that dis­cus­sion through ser­mons, radio address­es, news­pa­per arti­cles, and con­fer­ences, I dis­cov­ered what I term a socialsci­en­tif­ic turn” in how Jews talked about them­selves. As ear­ly as the 1920’s, pub­lic Jew­ish fig­ures grav­i­tat­ed toward the social sci­ences as the prop­er lan­guage to explain what made Jews dif­fer­ent from oth­er Amer­i­cans, for exam­ple, their mar­i­tal pat­terns. But they also employed that same lan­guage to cat­e­go­rize Jew­ish dif­fer­ence as con­so­nant with main­stream Amer­i­can pat­terns, for exam­ple by explain­ing that all Amer­i­cans tend­ed to mar­ry peo­ple who were most sim­i­lar to them.

I came to find that from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, a lan­guage of soci­o­log­i­cal Jew­ish­ness devel­oped — that is, a way of explain­ing Jew­ish­ness as a social fact that dis­tin­guished Jews from non-Jews but in expect­ed and entire­ly Amer­i­can ways — and that it per­vad­ed count­less realms of Amer­i­can and Jew­ish life. In the ear­ly stages of my research, I had made my way to Har­vard, where I met Oscar Han­dlin, the ven­er­a­ble dean of immi­gra­tion his­to­ry, and Nathan Glaz­er, a soci­ol­o­gist and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al. These two men had helped sculpt an Amer­i­can eth­nic pat­tern,” a his­tor­i­cal­ly and soci­o­log­i­cal­ly informed the­o­ry that all Amer­i­cans had mem­ber­ship in dis­tinc­tive groups but that the dif­fer­ences these groups main­tained from one anoth­er were remark­ably sim­i­lar and made them all part of the Amer­i­can cul­tur­al fab­ric. Their ideas were about re-envi­sion­ing an Amer­i­ca that was open to diver­si­ty. At the same time, both men were deeply and per­son­al­ly com­mit­ted to re-envi­sion­ing Jew­ish­ness in soci­o­log­i­cal terms that not only har­mo­nized with Amer­i­can diver­si­ty but, on some lev­el, epit­o­mized it. 

Echo­ing in my mind as I talked to Han­dlin and Glaz­er were the­words of Mil­ton Stein­berg. A Con­ser­v­a­tive rab­bi who had died at a young age in 1950, Stein­berg had once been attract­ed to soci­o­log­i­cal Jew­ish­ness. Yet as he neared the end of his life, plagued by heart prob­lems, he came to doubt that a soci­o­log­i­cal­ly-inflect­ed Jew­ish­ness could answer the ulti­mate ques­tions that gripped him. He yearned for a Jew­ish­ness that could inform us con­cern­ing the nature of things in a man­ner which we could not derive from any oth­er sci­ence or human dis­ci­pline.” Where were God and tran­scen­dence and eter­ni­ty in a sys­tem that had become so tied to human cat­e­gories? 

Speak­ing of Jews con­cludes that start­ing in the 1960’s soci­o­log­i­cal Jew­ish­ness began to fal­ter as an explana­to­ry mode for Jews. The with­er­ing of soci­o­log­i­cal Jew­ish­ness was not a result of Jews tak­ing Steinberg’s crit­i­cism to heart. Rather, the soci­o­log­i­cal terms of Jew­ish­ness appeared flim­sy as the lived lives of Jews came more and more to resem­ble non-Jews. This is why I write about Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and Arthur Miller’s mar­riage. If a woman who had come to rep­re­sent, as Nor­man Mail­er once wrote, the great Amer­i­can body” could not only love a Jew but also become one, then just how mean­ing­ful was the soci­o­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tion between Jews and non-Jews?

As I fin­ished writ­ing the book, I start­ed a new project research­ing Jews’ migra­tion away from urban Amer­i­ca and their efforts to rec­on­cile their polit­i­cal ideals, espe­cial­ly about race and inte­gra­tion, with their behav­ior. One thing I have found is that post-war Jews felt incred­i­bly anx­ious about leav­ing the city, even as they were seduced by the sub­ur­ban dream. How to explain this anx­i­ety? Could it be that Jews, on the brink of leav­ing urban space, also real­ized that they were leav­ing behind the soci­o­log­i­cal dis­tinc­tions that had gov­erned the gap between Jews and non-Jews, and that had made it seem nat­ur­al and right for Jews to mar­ry oth­er Jews? What would replace soci­o­log­i­cal­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly ground­ed Jew­ish­ness? In recent years, some crit­ics, prone to doom and gloom pro­nounce­ments, have argued that noth­ing, save total assim­i­la­tion, will replace it. Oth­ers have tak­en note of cre­ative efforts to re-ground Jew­ish­ness, in new spir­i­tu­al frame­works, in new notions of com­mu­ni­ty, fam­i­ly, and res­i­den­tial life, or in new com­mit­ments to eth­i­cal ideals.

His­to­ri­ans always have a pass when it comes to ques­tions about the future: this is not what we study. But in the leap of faith it takes to put pen­cil to paper, to com­mit one’s words to a pub­lish­er, to send a book out into the world, we imag­ine a future that might, in some small mea­sure, be shaped by what we write. This is not a mod­est goal, but it is an hon­est one, I think. And so I end, in some sens­es, where I began: with a belief that to explain one­self or one’s com­mu­ni­ty is a gen­er­a­tive and, hope­ful­ly, unend­ing act.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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