At the Cutting Edge of Jewish Studies . . .



Biblical Studies
Early Judaism
Jewish Thought
Jewish History
Gender Studies
Jewish Education
North American Studies
Modern Jewish Literature
Israel Studies

McGill Jewish Studies

Contact Us
Dept. of Jewish Studies
3438 rue McTavish
, Quebec
H3A 1X9

Tel: (514) 398-6543
Fax: (514) 398-5158
Email: (jewish)


vertical rule


North American Jewish Studies

by Deborah Dash Moore, Vassar College

Professor Gershon 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 United States. My frustration stems from the pace and direction of that growth, specifically the almost total lack of opportunities despite strong student interest to teach the history of Jews in the U.S. (or what we provincially call American Jewish history, resolutely ignoring both Canada and the rest of the Americas). However, some funny things happened en route to Montreal which made me appreciate the value of not preparing a paper too soon--especially one designed to give an up-to-the minute overview and update of the field.

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 Toronto that was filled with interesting research in a field just coming into its own. Finally, I participated in the biennial scholars conference of the American Jewish Historical Society and discovered exciting new work presented by young scholars. I will share some of these recent directions with you but I want begin my comments with some reflections upon 1998‘s Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards ceremony of the National Foundation in Jewish Culture.

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 Galicia--a far cry from 20th century social history--but she acknowledged how much she had learned from the American Jewish historians. So the event confirmed the integration of American Jewish history into the consciousness of established Jewish scholars as well as early career scholars and it uncovered a process of transmission of learning vital to scholarly endeavor.

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 the United States held in October 1998. When I asked her whether she included religion in her introductory course on American women‘s history, she answered: only in the 19th century. When I pressed further and inquired if she included Jewish women, she replied: no. So what else is new, you might say. True. This is the old story: the challenge of what in the music world is called crossover. How do you get the study of American Jews out of its own arena and into the minds and courses of American historians? In this case, I responded to her with my usual passion and incredulity. Do you mean that with all that has been written you ignore Jewish women? How can that be? Then I bombarded her with book titles, articles and authors. Of course, I probably knew better than she did how it could be. It could be traced charitably back to her own graduate studies where Jews were absent from the syllabus. Or one could go further into a history of Jewish presence and Jewish studies in the academy. But to chart the genealogy of the problem does little to solve it. Hopefully, young scholars will crossover and raise consciousness among their colleagues. They will also need to educate them.

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. New York is just an inexhaustible source of subject matter when you want Jews at the center of an important story. It is irresistible. No matter how many times you go back, there is so much that is new to discover. Certainly this is true for Beth Wenger‘s study of New York Jews during the Depression and Daniel Soyer‘s history of New York City landsmanshaftn. In both cases their material has been covered by historians and yet these new books set a standard of scholarship that far exceeds what previously had been written. Wenger integrates gender into her account, moving effortlessly from public politics in the neighborhood to private family life. Women as well as men figure in her history. She also addresses interpretations of the New Deal promoting the demise of ethnicity through a sensitive analysis of institutional and religious change that emphasizes ethnic resilience. Soyer takes us into the complex inner world of memory culture and completely revises the accepted portrait of landsmanshaftn. Instead of presenting them as a traditionalizing intimate institution, Soyer describes modernizing diverse organizations that mediate the experience of urbanization and diasporic consciousness. Given the kinds of tough research material both historians worked with, they have written extraordinary books: subtle, flexible, compelling.

Ewa Morawska achieves a similar feat with her history of Jews in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, perhaps the antithesis of New York City. An historical sociologist, Morawska compares Johnstown Jews across ethnic and regional boundaries. The comparisons situate Johnstown Jews in the dual world of American Jewish history, among other Americans and other Jews. In addition, Morawska takes the reader on the personal and methodological journey entailed in researching and writing the book. For example, as her understanding of business practices expanded, so did the sophistication of her questions. The book gradually unfolds the many meanings of business: economic, yes, but also ethnic, religious, and personal. Although she does not deal with questions of sexuality, her interest in identity leads her to ask how masculinity and femininity are constructed by Johnstown Jews and what happens to these social constructs when businesses fail, as they often do.

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 United States. She draws upon a pioneering study by Andrew Heinze of consumption and acculturation on the Lower East Side but she paints a less rooted canvas than Heinze. Joselit postulates the life cycle as the core of Jewish identity in the United States and she structures her book around it. The book draws our attention to ordinary objects and the process of sacralizing them. Like all research on previously unattended subjects, it surprises and prompts one to pay attention to neglected aspects of religious behavior. I have found the book a rich source of theorizing on gender, especially on the feminization of American Judaism. Unlike Morawska, Joselit shies away from theory, but her book invites rethinking religious categories, not only of Judaism but also of Christianity.

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 Canada and their strategies of cultural conservation or at Jewish summer camping and its strategies of cultural invention. (Parenthetically I should note that the Catskills and its Jewish culture is also finally getting some attention. A recent book by Phil Brown blends autobiography with social history and seeks to untangle the many threads that produced that summer world of leisure. We may gradually be reaching a level of comfort with the vulgarity of Catskill Jewish culture to allow young scholars to interpret its meanings.) In addition to new subjects, however, several of the best papers revisited old subjects, like Mary Antin‘s famous autobiography for example or the history of Jewish immigration from eastern Europe. But both introduced perspectives previously missing from scholarship on their subjects. In the case of Antin, the young scholar researched the correspondence and original edited draft of the manuscript to uncover the process of self-creation in the autobiography. (She also figured out how Antin had lied about her age, but that‘s another story.) In the case of immigration, the young scholar deliberately adopted a model of diaspora that challenged the centrality of the land of Israel by looking at emigrants from Bialystok to North and South America as well as Israel, comparing each group‘s attitudes toward their homeland in Bialystok.

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 United States has also generated concepts that have organized social knowledge. One of the earliest examples of this comes from the 1920‘s and Louis Wirth‘s study of immigrant Jews in Chicago. Wirth took a term commonly used by journalists to describe areas of Jewish settlement and elaborated a history and sociological paradigm. The "ghetto" entered American scholarship as a modal Jewish form of urban social organization but soon became attached to African Americans as a universal signifier. Jewish scholars may still think of the ghetto in reference to Venice or to Nazi persecution, but for many American scholars the term has transcended its specific Jewish associations.

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 United States. In part it will come from emerging new paradigms of knowledge in which Jews, as actors and scholars, play a significant role.

Please send us your comments and questions!

Bibliography of works cited:

Joyce Antler. The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Phil Brown. Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat‘s Memories of a Great Jewish Resort Area. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Andrew R. Heinze. Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

David A. Hollinger. Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid Twentieth Century American Intellectual History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Paula E. Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, eds. Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Jenna Weissman Joselit. The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950. New York: Hill and Wang,1994.

Pamela S. Nadell. Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women‘s Ordination 1889-1985. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Keren R. McGinity. "The Real Mary Antin: Woman on a Mission in the Promised Land." American Jewish History, 86:3 (September 1998): 285 307.

Ewa Morawska. Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890-1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Annelise Orleck. Common Sense and A Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Riv-Ellen Prell. Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Mark A. Raider. The Emergence of American Zionism. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Daniel Soyer. Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1890-1939. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Stuart Svonkin. Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Beth S. Wenger. New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Louis Wirth. The Ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928. [An edition with a new introduction by Hasia Diner has recently been published by Transaction.]


McGill University

© MCMXCIX Department of Jewish Studies of McGill University.  All Rights Reserved.
Contact Jewish Studies I About this Page I Disclaimer