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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


American Judaism

The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism by Dana Evan Kaplan (Cambridge Companions to Religion: Cambridge University Press) provides readers with a comprehensive introduction to the most important and interesting historical and contemporary facets of Judaism in America. The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism is a comprehensive survey that attempts to cover Judaism as a religion in the United States rather than Jewishness as an ethnicity in this country. The title of this volume thus requires a word of explanation. In popular usage today, Judaism usually implies a broad sociological approach to the subject of Jewish life and culture, while the term Jewish religion suggests a more specific concern with beliefs and practices that are somehow associated with a supernatural reality. Although this collection uses the more general term in its title, its focus is on American Jewish religious phenomena. It is, however, an appropriate title, I believe, because the volume's essays describe a quite inclusive Jewish religious experience in America. This includes aspects that frequently have been neglected or ignored or are understood as outside the purview of religion by a largely Christian America, which sometimes draws different and more impenetrable boundaries between the sacred and the secular. Understanding the subject in such broad terms, one can see that Jewish religion in America means much more than just religious ritual or belief. Contributors also discuss the sociology, psychology, theology, and history of American Judaism. A number of essays concentrate on the culture of American Judaism, including musical, artistic, and literary expressions.

Perhaps, though, any division between what is and isn't religious in a Jewish context is perpetually negotiable, and this problem of placing barriers gestures to the elusiveness of Jewish identity in general. Nathan Glazer writes in this volume that to characterize present-day "Jewishness" is not an easy task. It is not easy because of the myriad, heterogeneous ways that Jews in America understand their relationship with their religion. Even within the denominational categories of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox, there is great diversity among individuals. Speaking in quite general terms, one can say that most American Jews understand Jewish tradition as cosmopolitan and universalistic. They see Judaism as pragmatic rather than ideological, utilitarian rather than theological, and rational rather than mystical. Many in this group see their practice of Judaism as an all-encompassing pursuit, determining not only religious ritual but also ethical behavior. Another sizable group sees the specifics of Judaism as playing a crucial but more limited role in their lives, believing that their commitment to universal ethical causes derives from their core Judaic values – even if they do not frequently articulate these values in a synagogue or temple. These Jews see liberalism as applied Judaism, identifying Judaism with liberal social causes. However, in recent years, even among this group there has been a pronounced move toward greater ritualism as well. The essays in this collection attempt to analyze various aspects of this American Judaism, a term that – as we shall see – does offer some tentative unity to a religious people with tremendous diversity.

There are a variety of perspectives in the American Jewish community that are reflected in attitudes toward specific questions dealing with personal and communal Jewish identity today, such as patrilineal descent, Outreach, the role of the non-Jew in the synagogue, rabbinic officiation at mixed-marriage ceremonies, the ordainment of women, and gay and lesbian participation in the synagogue. All of these issues are being heatedly debated within and across the different denominations (also referred to as movements, streams, or even wings). In addition to these strictly "religious issues," there are also debates on social and political issues that affect American society as a whole. It is not possible to say that American Judaism has a particular position on abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, or homosexual rights. Many of the denominations have taken official stands on some of these issues, but in most cases there are minorities even within those streams who believe that their religion holds a different view.

The most passionately debated question is whether Judaism can survive in an open American society that has, since the 1950s, become increasingly tolerant toward Jews. Since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) found that American Jews were intermarrying at a rate of 52 percent, there has been a frantic debate in the American Jewish community: Is Judaism in danger of disappearing in the United States? Some of the optimistic contributors to this volume support the transformation argument: Contemporary American Judaism is not vanishing but is rather transforming itself. These individuals believe that it is essential to look at what is happening in a more sophisticated way and not restrict one's perspective to outdated criteria. Many American Jews are creating new ways of "doing Jewish," blending their own traditions with non-Jewish family rituals favored by spouses or embracing a syncretic creation of American culture and Judaism. Because of all of these changes, one must look in new places to find new approaches.

The pessimists feel that the majority of American Jews have lost all interest in Judaism, and many others have only nominal links. These individuals believe that their future as a people is threatened and only a "return to tradition" can reverse the radical decline. These pessimists argue that low levels of synagogue affiliation, high rates of intermarriage, low levels of Jewish literacy, and weak commitments to ritual observance are undermining Jewish continuity.

Another debate centers on the future makeup of the American Jewish community. Some contributors accept the polarization argument that there will be two completely separate Jewish communities in the near future — the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox. The two groups have less in common and have less contact with one another than ever before. They disagree not only on how Judaism should be practiced but also on the very definition of who is a Jew. Without some consensus on such a basic question, the pessimists believe that American Judaism will split into two separate sects. The optimists hope that some common ground can still be found.

So that we can better understand and contextualize these questions and issues that occupy the American Jewish community, this book is divided into two sections.

Part I provides three historical overviews of American Judaism. Eli Faber deals with the period from 1654, when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, up to 1880, when the mass immigration from Eastern Europe was about to begin. Faber reports that some colonial Jews posed for portraits without head coverings, violated the Sabbath laws, and even ate pork, particularly when they were traveling. A small percentage even married out of the faith. Others were highly observant and followed Jewish law scrupulously. The main difference between then and now was that all five synagogues founded before the Revolution followed Orthodox Sephardic custom. How-ever, American Judaism changed dramatically in the years during and immediately after the Civil War. Faber writes that "the impulse to change Judaism in America surged between 1860 and 1870." Reforms were introduced, including mixed seating, the elimination of the head covering for men, and the use of an organ. New prayer books were edited that eliminated certain theological concepts that were now found objectionable.

Lloyd P. Gartner describes the "reshaping" of American Judaism from the late nineteenth century until after World War II. The large-scale Eastern European immigration completely changed American Judaism. Hundreds of small Orthodox synagogues were created in mostly urban neighborhoods. Many people attended Orthodox synagogues because that was what they were comfortable with, but they refused to follow the Halacha strictly, despite the many sermons preached by Orthodox rabbis. Gartner reports that the immigrant congregations reached their peak during the World War I period and then began to decline slowly. New, larger, and more affluent congregations were established. English replaced Yiddish, and American ways replaced European Jewish customs and practices.

In the postwar period, large numbers left the urban neighborhoods for the suburbs. As I describe in my chapter, a Jewish civil religion developed that stressed loyalty to both the United States and to the Jewish people. Levels of anti-Semitism declined, and Jews became fully integrated into American society. They felt a great deal of pressure to express their Jewishness religiously rather than ethnically, and hundreds of suburban synagogues were soon built. The Conservative movement became the largest American Jewish de-nomination, and the Orthodox denomination continued to decline. However, this pattern began to reverse in the 1970s. Orthodoxy began a remarkable revival, spurred on by the missionizing done by the Baal Teshuva movement among other Jews. Lubavitch (also called Chabad) sent emissaries to hundreds of Jewish communities around the country and the world. Among the non-Orthodox, the Reform movement grew, which was due in large measure to the joining of many intermarried couples.

Part II, the bulk of the volume, deals with essential topics in contemporary American Judaism. This Themes and Concepts section is subdivided into Religious Culture and Institutional Practice, Identity and Community, Living in America, and Jewish Art in America. It has essays on religious belief and behavior, structures and institutions, and patterns and stages. Considerable attention is devoted to the Jewish civil religion, Judaism and democracy, and the essence of American Judaism, as protean as it may be. Other writers focus on gender roles, life-cycle rituals, interfaith dialogue, and religious economics. Particularly innovative are the essays that focus on American Judaism broadly conceived. Mark Kligman explains the role that music plays in American Judaism and Matthew Baigell describes the visual arts. Murray Baumgarten talks about "American Midrash," by which he means the new American Jewish literature that focuses on Judaic story lines.

The final essay by Bruce Phillips is a separate subsection entitled "Present and Future Tense: American Judaism in the Twenty-First Century." The volume then concludes with an afterword written by Jonathan Sarna.

There are certain ideas and concepts that are essential for understanding the essays. Let us begin with the two defining events of twentieth-century Jewish history.

Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1926-1948 by Rafael Medoff (Judaic Studies Series: University of Alabama Press) recounts the fascinating and little‑known story of the activists who formed a contro­versial faction of American Jewry during the 1930s and 1940s. These militants­whose leaders included an Academy Award‑winning screenwriter and several future members of the Israeli parliament­bought newspaper advertisements all over the country, actively lobbied Congress, made valuable alliances in Washington, staged dramatic protest rallies, and smuggled guns to the forces fighting in Palestine to establish the state of Israel.

Rafael Medoff shows that the militant Zionists were able to stir America's con­science, alerting it to the horrors of the Holocaust and attracting support from an extraordinary cross‑section of prominent Americans, including comedians Harpo Marx and Carl Reiner; actors Vincent Price, Marlon Brando, and Jane Wyatt; conductor Leonard Bernstein; and rising political stars Jacob Javits and Hubert Humphrey. Medoff also describes the shadowy underground division that smug­gled weapons in caskets to Menachem Begin's underground fighters in Palestine, naming and interviewing for the first time members of this gunrunning network.

Based on years of archival research and interviews and written in a compelling style, Militant Zionism in America docu­ments events that reshaped the American Jewish community, influenced American foreign policy, and contributed to one of the most extraordinary events of modern history: the creation of the state of Israel.

A Jew in America: My Life and a People's Struggle for Identity by Arthur Hertzberg (Harper San Francisco) "I became an American by refusing to assimilate,” writes Arthur Hertzberg in this long-awaited memoir. Throughout his life this world-renowned rabbi, activist, author, historian, public servant, and confidante to the powerful has advocated that a true Jew is not an ethnic Jew who makes central his support for Israel or his fight against anti-Semitism, but rather a person deeply tied to the religion and its principles. Hertzberg traces his own self-discovery, confronting the choices he has made and offering a history of American Jews and their struggle for identity.

In many ways Hertzberg’s life embodies many of the last century’s conflicts and anxieties, identity crises for American Jews. His moving memoir speaks to a new generation, refusing to forget the many levels of experience and the need for living in the spirit of the tradition, not enslaved by its formality. Hertzberg’s scholarship has been a remarkable achievement, this memoir acts not only as a telling summation of a life lived in value but as an introduction to what Hertzberg’s believes is most germane.

Undaunted by controversy, Hertzberg has been the moral conscience of American Jews, taking a stand on all the great issues of our time, from the creation of Israel through the Civil Rights movement to the Vietnam War and the highly fractious world of Jews today both here and abroad. Hertzberg is not willing to cede the great tradition either to religious fundamentalists or to the completely secularized. His life is a window onto the forces that have buffeted and strengthened Jews in our times, and his compelling story is an important portrait of the history and culture of the twentieth century, including his dealings with such luminaries as Golda Meir, Martin Luther King Jr., and Henry Kissinger.

A Jew in America  reflects the richness of the extraordinarily active life of a man of deep knowledge and integrity. Learned in many areas, genuinely interested in other religions, Hertzberg expresses his own faith with a passion and honesty that give his story a singular strength. Written in a clear, engaging style, A Jew in America is a triumph of the human spirit.

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