Back­ground pho­to by Karim Ghan­tous on Unsplash

Part of what made the research for Post­war Sto­ries: How Books Made Judaism Amer­i­can so much fun to com­plete was that I dis­cov­ered many inter­est­ing books from the 1940s. Because Post­war Sto­ries focus­es on mid­dle­brow” lit­er­a­ture, many of these titles and authors were pop­u­lar in their day, but they are not what aca­d­e­mics tend to focus on or teach today.

Some of these books fit into the genre I cat­e­go­rize in Post­war Sto­ries as anti-anti­semitism nov­els. These were nov­els that attacked Amer­i­can anti­semitism as un-Amer­i­can. Male writ­ers like Arthur Miller and Saul Bel­low also con­tributed to the anti-anti­semitism genre with books such as Miller’s Focus (1946) and Bellow’s The Vic­tim (1947). But the shin­ing star of this genre is Gentleman’s Agree­ment (1947) by Lau­ra Z. Hob­son, whose life turned out to be so fas­ci­nat­ing that I am work­ing on a biog­ra­phy of her some­what sur­pris­ing life story.

Gentleman’s Agree­ment was part­ly inspired by a net­work of anti-anti­semitism nov­el­ists, sev­er­al of whom were women. As I explain in Post­war Sto­ries, Hobson’s dis­cov­ery of oth­er women writ­ers of anti-racist and anti-anti­semitism nov­els dur­ing the 1940s — such as Mar­garet Halsey’s Some of My Best Friends Are Sol­diers (1944) and Col­or Blind (1946) and Gwetha­lyn Graham’s Earth and High Heav­en (1944) — moti­vat­ed her to move for­ward with her own anti-anti­semitism nov­el at a time when even her pub­lish­er, Richard Simon, was skep­ti­cal of the idea. While Simon tried to dis­cour­age Hob­son from writ­ing what would become Gentleman’s Agree­ment, because he didn’t think it was help­ful to write about anti­semitism, Hob­son inter­pret­ed the com­mer­cial suc­cess of oth­er anti-anti­semitism nov­els as evi­dence that there was a mar­ket for the book she was begin­ning to write in 1944.

Anoth­er pop­u­lar anti-anti­semitism nov­el was Waste­land (1946) by the Cleve­land-based Jew­ish writer Jo Sin­clair (under the pen name of Ruth Seid). It’s also known as the first nov­el with a pos­i­tive por­tray­al of a les­bian char­ac­ter. The nov­el includes scenes depict­ing the evolv­ing rela­tion­ship between Jake, a work­ing-class Jew­ish man, and his psy­chi­a­trist. It’s clear, based on the let­ters read­ers wrote to Sin­clair, that these scenes were enor­mous­ly help­ful to those who might not have known what kinds of con­ver­sa­tions were pos­si­ble with a psy­chi­a­trist, or how such treat­ment could help a per­son who was strug­gling with anti­semitism in dai­ly life. In the nov­el, we watch Jake become more com­fort­able with him­self and his Jew­ish fam­i­ly, large­ly through the guid­ance of his doc­tor and sis­ter. Inter­est­ing­ly, as Post­war Sto­ries explains, the Black writer Richard Wright was one of Sinclair’s biggest sup­port­ers. He felt that, with Waste­land, Sin­clair had accom­plished some­thing new and rel­e­vant to all kinds of peo­ple deal­ing with prej­u­dice and discrimination. 

The oth­er cat­e­go­ry of read­ing mate­r­i­al that is cen­tral to my book is the Intro­duc­tion to Judaism” lit­er­a­ture of the 1940s and 1950s. These were mag­a­zine arti­cles and books that explained Jews and Judaism to Amer­i­cans in the imme­di­ate post­war years. Sim­i­lar to the way we saw a surge of read­ing mate­r­i­al and media pre­sen­ta­tions explain­ing Islam after 9/11, WWII also shined a spot­light on a group — Jews — about whom most Amer­i­cans real­ized they knew very lit­tle. After all, this was still a time when many Amer­i­cans had nev­er met a Jew, and even those who did know Jews from work or school usu­al­ly hadn’t observed Jew­ish rit­u­al prac­tices. It was only lat­er in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry that it became more com­mon for non-Jews to attend bar and bat mitz­vahs, Passover seders, Shab­bat din­ners, and even circumcisions.

Con­tra­dict­ing the swirl of neg­a­tive images and ideas about Jews that had been cir­cu­lat­ing in 1920s and 1930s Amer­i­ca, anti-anti­semitism nov­els and Intro­duc­tion to Judaism lit­er­a­ture treat­ed Jew­ish­ness as nor­mal and American.

But these books and arti­cles were not direct­ed only at non-Jews. As the rab­bi-writ­ers of these books and arti­cles under­stood, many Jews had low lev­els of Jew­ish lit­er­a­cy them­selves. They need­ed guides for how to cre­ate mean­ing­ful Jew­ish lives as mod­ern Amer­i­cans. These primers about Judaism includ­ed Mil­ton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism, Philip Bernstein’s What the Jews Believe, Her­man Wouk’s This Is My God, and Life Mag­a­zine arti­cles about Judaism dur­ing the 1950s. Post­war Sto­ries describes the mak­ing of these books and arti­cles: why par­tic­u­lar peo­ple came to write books that served to intro­duce a broad Amer­i­can audi­ence to Judaism. The genre con­tin­ued to flour­ish in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, with authors such as Ani­ta Dia­mant, Rab­bi Irv­ing Green­berg, Rab­bi Joseph Telushkin, and, in more recent years, Sarah Hur­witz (Here All Along, 2019) and Noah Feld­man (To Be A Jew Today, 2024).

Inter­est­ing­ly, unlike the anti-anti­semitism genre, which had a fair share of women authors, the mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Intro­duc­tion to Judaism genre was almost entire­ly writ­ten by men, remind­ing us how much reli­gious author­i­ty still belonged to men in the post­war years.

Both of these gen­res — anti-anti­semitism nov­els and Intro­duc­tion to Judaism lit­er­a­ture — were part of a cul­tur­al era I call the Mid­cen­tu­ry Mid­dle­brow Moment in Amer­i­can Jew­ish Cul­ture, which last­ed from the late 1940s through the end of the 1950s. Many will be famil­iar with the all-star works that grew out of this peri­od, such as The Gold­bergs TV show; the All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly children’s book series; The Diary of Anne Frank as a book, Broad­way play, and film; and movies like Mar­jorie Morn­ingstar and Exo­dus. Like the two gen­res explored in Post­war Sto­ries, many of these mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry books, plays, and films were dif­fer­ent from what came before because of their pre­sen­ta­tion of Judaism as a respectable Amer­i­can reli­gion. As my book notes, we do occa­sion­al­ly see exam­ples of this kind of mid­dle­brow Jew­ish cul­ture before the mid cen­tu­ry — although more often, Jews were being depict­ed as an alien immi­grant group rather than as mem­bers of a respect­ed Amer­i­can reli­gion (e.g., The Jazz Singer). Not until the mid twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry do we find such a con­cen­tra­tion of mid­dle­brow Jew­ish cul­ture that reached a main­stream audience. 

Post­war Sto­ries brings us into that mid­cen­tu­ry world, empha­siz­ing the pow­er of mid­dle­brow lit­er­a­ture to instill pride and pos­i­tive feel­ings in minor­i­ty-group mem­bers, and to help shift Amer­i­cans’ feel­ings about a once-despised peo­ple. Con­tra­dict­ing the swirl of neg­a­tive images and ideas about Jews that had been cir­cu­lat­ing in 1920s and 1930s Amer­i­ca, anti-anti­semitism nov­els and Intro­duc­tion to Judaism lit­er­a­ture treat­ed Jew­ish­ness as nor­mal and Amer­i­can. It sounds sim­ple today, but in its moment, it was rather remarkable.

Rachel Gor­dan is the Samuel Bud” Shorstein fel­low in Amer­i­can Jew­ish Cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da. She received her Ph.D. from Har­vard and her BA from Yale.