North American Jewish Studies
Hundert has subtitled this series "the academy reports to the
community," which put me in mind of Franz Kafka‘s powerful story,
"Report to an Academy." In truth, more appropriate than the ape‘s
report is a "Far Side" cartoon that pictures a turbanned man
standing at a booth with a sign above him, "Gnus for Sale," and a
clump of gnus lined up behind him. A man approaches the booth and the owner
offers, "We‘ve got good gnus and bad gnus." Such, in a nutshell, is
the state of North American Jewish studies today. When I agreed over a year
ago to speak on the subject, I thought to myself: do I give the good news or
do I tell the bad news? Although pessimism does not come naturally to me, I have
sustained high levels of frustration for close to two decades as Jewish
studies has grown and flourished in the
First, during 1997 several universities advertised for and even hired
historians of American Jews. This suggested to me that attitudes were
changing. Second, in May of 1998 I went to visit a prestigious but relatively
young university to consult on its efforts to establish a program in Jewish
studies. When our three person committee that included an anthropologist and a
physicist recommended that the initial appointment to build the program be an
American Jewish historian, we received an enthusiastic response. Third, in
June I attended the first conference on Canadian Jewish Studies held in
As of 1998, the Foundation for five years has been granting awards in
Jewish scholarship to complement its longer-standing awards in the arts. In
1997, it honored its second historian of American Jews: Naomi Cohen. The
following year the foundation recognized the accomplishments of Arthur Aryeh
Goren, also an American Jewish historian. So why should I be so excited about
such an event? For several reasons. The choice of Goren indicated that
historical scholarship on American Jews has attained equal footing with
scholarship on other periods of Jewish history. To decide to honor one or two
American Jewish historians might be a fluke, or a token -especially since the
first honoree, Jacob Rader Marcus, was then approaching his 100th year and
was a founder of American Jewish historical studies and the second honoree
was the first woman to be recognized for scholarly achievements. To repeat
the honor a second year in a row augurs the utter legitimacy of the field
within the world of Jewish studies. The ceremony itself also manifested that
American Jewish history had come of age. I was asked to speak about Goren‘s
achievements. Although I never studied with him, I am part of the next
generation of historians and my work builds quite consciously upon his books
and articles. So my presence revealed the emergence of a critical chain of
scholarship required for any field or discipline. In short, there exists a
viable historiography of American Jews. What cheered me even more, however,
were remarks given at the dinner by a young scholar, a recipient of one of
the Foundation‘s dissertation scholarships. Her field of specialization is
Jewish intellectual life in 19th century
This is the good news. I might sum up the bad news with a brief conversation
I had with a young historian of American women at a conference on religion in
I am inclined, at this moment, to accentuate the positive, as the Cole Porter lyric goes. The old news may still be with us but the new news is exciting. American Jewish historians have won half of the battle for legitimacy. I think the changing attitude toward studying the North American Jewish past among Jewish historians in part reflects the caliber of historical scholarship produced in the last two decades. When I entered graduate school, most writing on American Jews lagged behind other scholarship on Jews or on Americans except in the areas of immigration and labor history. Today, American Jewish history not only moves in stride with trends in historical studies--whether this be in terms of integrating gender or queer studies or cultural studies approaches (not to mention the popular race and class questions)--but it also occasionally stands at the cutting edge. I am thinking here, particularly, about research about religion and its configuration, the intersection of public and private cultures, the study of gendered representations of Jews, as well as marginality, memory (especially in the area of autobiography and memoir) and diasporic consciousness. No field, of course, stands for long on the cutting edge since scholarship is always moving, but often American Jewish historical writing expresses a dynamism that is fresh. Some of it comes from young scholars entering the field, some from the interest of established scholars who cross over to do research (although there are problems with crossover scholars) or from social scientists (especially anthropologists) who now find historical questions and research methods intriguing. The latter case particularly pays tribute to the richness of the field. For many years historians turned first to sociology, then to anthropology, and then to literary studies for theoretical sophistication; now such scholars turn to history to invigorate their research.
Let me just offer a couple of examples of recent books that stand either on or very close to that cutting edge in the ways that they integrate innovative methodology with rich historical research. This list is only meant to be exemplary, and not exclusive. Like most of us here, I don‘t succeed in reading all of the new books that appear or even all of the good ones on my must-read list. If I have left out a particular favorite, please forgive me.
I want to start with several recent histories of that perennial favorite:
New York Jews.
Ewa Morawska achieves a similar feat with her history of Jews in
In the area of religion, probably the most innovative recent study is Jenna
Weissman Joselit‘s history of American Jewish material culture. Joselit is
writing either in step or a step ahead of other scholars of religion in the
A new book by the anthropologist, Riv-Ellen Prell, examines the complex gendered representations constructed by Jewish men and women of each other in their struggle to reach the American middle class. Prell tells what is, in many ways, a depressing story of how Jewish men and women, especially young, unmarried Jewish men and women, have villified each other. Men especially have projected images of Jewish women that represent their fears of the harsh demands produced by the Americanization of gender roles as well as their concern for social and economic mobility. Prell finds powerful antecedents for today‘s stereotype of the "Jewish American Princess," for example, in the turn of-the-century‘s "Ghetto Girl." Who was the "ghetto girl?" She was a young, unmarried, working girl who aspired to middle class status. But how did you become middle class at the turn of the century if you were a woman? The most obvious way to become middle class was to spend money--consume--like other middle-class American women. But achieving middle-class levels of consumption strained immigrant pocketbooks. So, the "ghetto girl" looked to a good marriage to lift her into the middle class. Why should this cause conflict? Because young Jewish men with similar aspirations for middle-class status knew that they had to defer their consumption in order to acquire either the education (say, as a lawyer or doctor) or the capital to enter business. Thus the accepted path to middle-class status for Jewish daughters diverged from the road for Jewish sons because American norms did not sanction women working after marriage. Jewish men and women turned their frustrations and resentment at the cost of American social mobility upon each other, and since men had more ready access to the press, the stereotype of the "ghetto girl" emerged that stigmatized all those young Jewish women who wanted a good match that would give her five rooms and a bath (a luxurious apartment by immigrant standards in comparison to the crowded lower east side tenements with their shared toilet facilities). Prell‘s work stands on the cutting edge of studies of representation because she is the first to look at how gender creates "others" within an ethnic group rather than merely viewing the group as a whole in relation to "non-Jews."
Two recent doctoral theses that quickly became books also provide a glimpse into the substantial growth of historiography on American Jews. Both treat the subject of politics and Jewish political culture. Stuart Svonkin, like Soyer a student of American history, turned to the difficult and controversial field of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement for his dissertation. Svonkin avoids the landmines in part through his rigorous analysis of the institutional culture of Jewish defense organizations and in part through his methodological sophistication in analyzing Jewish politics. His history rewrites standard interpretations of the postwar years. Mark Raider, like Wenger a student of Jewish history, similarly reinterprets American labor Zionism, by focusing on its political culture. Raider and Svonkin approach Jewish politics from different starting points--one located in Jewish and the other in American history--but they produce complementary studies that demonstrate the convergence that has occurred within American Jewish history.
Then there is the burgeoning field of Jewish women‘s history, with enough current scholarship to fill several bookshelves. Much of this writing has focused on individual women, as did the encyclopedia which I edited with Paula Hyman. I think the interest in individuals reflects the contemporary moment and its fascination with life histories, whether as memoir, biography or autobiography. Joyce Antler, an historian known for her skill in biographical writing, turned from American to American Jewish subjects in her recent account of the twentieth century trajectory of American Jewish women. Pamela Nadell similarly focused on extraordinary women, in this case those who sought rabbinical learning and status. Nadell uncovers predecessors to today‘s women rabbis, exploring their aspirations and frustrations. If a feminist perspective fuels the scholarship, as I think it does, it reconstructs our past in vital ways. We need to be reminded of how long and how often Jewish women have struggled for the same rights, only to have the next generation forget the past and repeat the process. By laying the groundwork, these histories offer the promise of letting us move forward to synthetic interpretations, comparative studies, and new approaches to the past.
Let me turn now to a few of the crossover books, and to some discussion of the difficulties involved. Here I will restrict myself to several excellent examples, because I want to speak in favor of the possibilities of crossover, despite its problems. The two books I have in mind are by David Hollinger and Anneliese Orleck. Neither scholar is trained in Jewish history and both approach their study of Jews as part of a larger research agenda. In Hollinger‘s case, Jews join the academy and shape its scientific culture. Since Hollinger is an intellectual historian who has focused upon scientific thought in academia, he writes about Jews. In Orleck‘s case, Jewish women are part of the socialist and communist left and play influential roles in the labor movement. As an historian interested in women and working class politics, Orleck studies Jewish labor leaders. Orleck and Hollinger demonstrate remarkable awareness of the inner ethnic world of the women and men they discuss. These Jews are assimilated but both historians recognize that their secular Jewishness is integral to their identities, politics and culture. The transformative impact that they have on the world derives directly from their Jewish upbringing, its marginality and its morality. Jewish universalism challenges American norms, whether these be those of academic culture or working class politics.
These two books are excellent examples of crossover, where responsible historians do the necessary research for their topics and do not avoid the complexity of studying Jews as integral to American life. Neither scholar reduces Jews to stereotypes or treats Jewish politics and intellectualism as merely instrumental, a means for outsiders to make their way to positions of power and influence. Both books are important, especially Hollinger‘s, because issues of ethnicity and universalism have largely been ignored in histories of the American academy. Orleck reiterates the significance of the Jewish presence in labor and left-wing politics for a generation concerned with women workers and gendered history. (One wonders why the young scholar of American women wasn‘t using this book in her course, but that is another matter.)
Now to the work of some of the young scholars previously mentioned. This
new research explores the unexplored as one might expect, for example,
looking at relatively recent Jewish immigrants to
None of the books or unpublished research mentioned so far, with the
possible exception of Joselit‘s, develop categories of intellectual analysis
derived from Jewish ways of understanding reality. All draw upon models of
interpretation that reflect contemporary historical discussions. However
Jewish historical experience in the
In the area of cultural studies, several specifically Jewish terms have been adopted--we might say that the concepts have crossed over and are now enjoying another life. Cultural studies particularly engages its texts through such organizing frames as diaspora, such tropes as marginality, and such methods as midrash. All of these reference Jews, but diaspora particularly invites the attention of historians. Post-colonial theorists use it to structure historical interpretations of migration away from the uprooting and melting-pot models (both proposed by Jewish historians) toward transnational multidirectional movements of peoples. Although recognition is accorded the Jewish source of the concept, contemporary usage of diaspora possesses a positive valence far from its use within Jewish tradition. Most post-colonial theorists ignore Jews when they analyze diasporas. Jewish historians return the favor and rarely pay attention to the new meanings of the term. This unfortunate condition may, in fact, be changing. The presence of diaspora studies invites reconsideration not only of the great Jewish migrations of the last two centuries but also of ways of understanding relationships between Jews living outside the nation state of Israel with those living within it. I am sanguine about such possibilities because of the relatively close scholarly interchange between Jewish and American historians today.
I began my paper with remarks about my social location, as a critical
preface to understand what I was going to say. In conclusion I want to
reiterate that I am well aware of the dilemma of erasure of Jews represented
by my encounter with the young women‘s historian. But despite her age, I
think she reflects more of an older and fading condition. The future lies
with the engaged and provocative scholarship on North American Jews. I am
confident that, as American Jewish history overcame the biases of Jewish
historians and established its legitimacy, it will similarly convince
American historians to rewrite their narratives of the past. In part this
will come, I think, from the growing field of religious studies, especially
interest in religion in the
Joyce Antler. The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the
Phil Brown. Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat‘s Memories of
a Great Jewish Resort Area.
Andrew R. Heinze. Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants,
Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity.
David A. Hollinger. Science, Jews, and Secular Culture:
Studies in Mid Twentieth Century American Intellectual History. Princeton:
Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore,
eds. Jewish Women in
Jenna Weissman Joselit. The Wonders of
Pamela S. Nadell. Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of
Women‘s Ordination 1889-1985.
Keren R. McGinity. "The Real Mary Antin: Woman on a
Ewa Morawska. Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial
Annelise Orleck. Common Sense and A Little Fire: Women and
Working Class Politics in the
Riv-Ellen Prell. Fighting to Become Americans: Jews,
Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation.
Mark A. Raider. The Emergence of American Zionism.
Daniel Soyer. Jewish Immigrant Associations and American
Stuart Svonkin. Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and
the Fight for Civil Liberties.
Beth S. Wenger.
Louis Wirth. The Ghetto.