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Jewish Self-Definition

Seminararbeit 2003 21 Seiten


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Living in a Pluralistic Society: Immigration, Assimilation, Americanisation and Authenticity

3. The Jewish Perception of Anti-Semitism in the USA and the Concept of Zionism and Redemption, and the Divisions of Judaism

4. Different Jewish Tendencies in the 1960s and 1970s: Polarisation, American- Jews, Jewish- Jews and the Shrinking Middle

5. How to Remain Jewish: Jewish Future and Continuity in America

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography


Assuming an absolute number of 17.5 million Jewish people in the world and 6.9 million of them living in the USA, a discussion of The Jews in America seems indispensable in the context of American Cultural Studies. Jewish identity in this context has been approached in a greater focus with a wider public, political and religious discussion of the question “Who is a Jew?”[1]. This question, which is certainly connected to a difficult answer, became a very important factor, especially for the Jews in the USA during the 20th century. Therefore this paper attempts to analyse the changing Jewish self- definition in the USA during the 20th Century. Although it can or will not answer the complex question, “Who is a Jew?” correctly or in a wider sense completely, it will focus on the development of Jewish continuity and the changes in self-definition in the pluralistic society of the United States during the 20th century.

A short acknowledgement on Jewish self- definition and - identification in general will be provided, before facts referring to assimilation, Americanisation and authenticity are discussed. The starting point for the changing Jewish self-definition, which is connected to the immigration at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century will be analysed in the second part. The Holocaust, the worst genocide of the century, was, especially for the German Jews, a dramatic experience. Besides traumatic feelings, the perception of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in general mainly influenced the Jewish self- definition of American Jews, referring to the concept of Zionism and Redemption as strictly linked to a concept of hostility towards Jews. Considering the strong sense of self- identification and self- definition of the Jewish people will therefore lead to the third part where the influence of the perception of the Holocaust and anti- Semitism on Jewish self- definition is analysed. The following part will refer to the appearance of revolutionary ideas as usually revealed in the development of almost every people, society or religion. In the USA the influence of a pluralistic society opens possibilities to reform Jewishness and Judaism and results in the emergence of two types of Jews in the 60s and 70s that still dominate American Jewry. The discussion of the future of American Jewry with reference to the question “Who will be a Jew?” concerns Jewish continuity in the next decades. Therefore the fifth part focuses on Jewish future and continuity in America including features of Jewish self- definition. The conclusion will not only summarize the main points of the analysis with emphasis on the fact that Jews are not one homogeneous religious group in the pluralistic society of America. It will also give a prediction of the development of the two Jewish trends that result from this discussion.

Before starting with the discussion on immigration, assimilation, Americanisation and authenticity, some features of Jewish self- definition should be mentioned in order to get insight into the Jewish religious tradition since this is important to understand its meaning within Jewishness and Judaism.

When, throughout the Middle Ages, Jews constituted their own communities, a strong sense of self-identification enabled Jewish survival despite repeated persecution and expulsions. Some factors important in Jewish self- definition include the following[2]: There are laws and rituals marking the entrance of children into the community, such as the bar mitzvah, and particular laws and customs for adults, such as the observance of the Sabbath, marriage, divorce, and burial in separate cemeteries. Understanding the religious commands of the Torah, the focus of Jewish worship, the maintenance of Hebrew as a sacred language, and the necessity for all Jews to be familiar with it also belong to the principles of Jewish religion. Jewish observance in this respect also refers to the study of the Talmud, which is written in Aramaic, and the maintenance of a separate calendar to determine the observances. Furthermore, a corresponding emphasis on education in general, a positive attitude towards sexuality, birth, and the availability of divorce encourage the family and community life, which is strictly connected to a strong sense of community responsibility. Although individual communities’ standards might vary, a compassionate attitude allowing the re-entry of Jews forcibly baptized and the unification of all Jewish communities according to the Talmudic precepts is very important to clarify the basic self-definition of Jews, seed of Abraham or the “the chosen people”[3] as they often call themselves.

2. Living in a Pluralistic Society: Immigration, Assimilation, Americanisation and Authenticity

When analysing Jewish community life one will often read that the “Jewish community as a whole is a unique blend of kinship and consent”[4]. Daniel J. Elazar, for example mentions in his article “Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry” that it is

[…] apparent as early as the biblical account of the Jewish people’s origins: a family of tribes becomes a

nation by consenting to the Covenant. It is reflected in subsequent biblical narratives, and postbiblical

Jewish history gave the blend new meaning. The fact that Jews are born Jewish places them in a special

position to begin with, one that more often than not has forced them together for self-protection.4

Considering assimilation and Americanisation, one should know that these phenomena as well as conversion to, or apathy toward Jewish life have almost always been available as options. In the modern era as well as at the beginning of the 20th century these opportunities expanded considerably in every respect. Nevertheless, the active will of many Jews to function as a community remained, although it seems as if Judaic belief is the only link between its members:

The Jewish community in the largest sense is defined as all those people who were born Jews .At the same

time Jews can be fully understood only when they are recognized to be members of a covenantal community

who are linked by a shared destiny and a common pattern of communications, a people whose essential

community of interest and purpose is reflected in a very wide range of organizations. In traditional terms

Judaism itself is essentially a theopolitical phenomenon, a means of seeking salvation by constructing God’s

polity, the proverbial “city upon a hill,” through which the covenantal community takes on meaning and

fulfils its purpose in the divine scheme of things.[5]

Although influenced by the American civilization and the problems of a pluralistic society, “being Jewish” is regarded a whole way of life and not only religious observance. Regarding today’s American Jewry, the American Jewish community is built upon an associational base to a far greater extent than any other in Jewish history. It seems as if it provides more a reflection of a social order that is based on chosen affiliation rather than heritage. But referring to problems of immigration, assimilation and Americanisation, this is a kind of solution to the problems of the “living in a pluralistic society”.

In order to understand the problems of Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century towards self- definition, one has to analyse their situation and their development in the United States. This analysis can focus on the aspects of living a life within the framework of the general community, on how to conform to its mores and demands, on what is to do in order to remain different (Jewish), on how to have adjust to American life, on what is happening to American Jews as a result of their integration into the American society, and on to what extent there is a uniqueness of American Jews.

When, after the 1870s and 80s, masses of Polish and Russian Jews arrived in the USA, the “old” German immigrants of the 1820s had already got established in the American society. They had fought themselves out of poor beginnings into an acceptable standard of living. A successful participation in the Civil War opens the way to liberalisation of ways of living. Consequently, Americanisation as the height of assimilation was very likely. The new immigrants also had very poor beginnings. Mostly escaped because of religious reasons, they tried to cultivate their Jewish identity in the New World.

New Americans chose religious affiliation as a vehicle for the preservation of what they wished to preserve

of their heritage because they quickly perceived that the United States was a religiously attuned civilization

and had been so from the beginning. Consequently, religion became the easiest way to identify with the

American way of life while preserving certain customary differences, and to retain an attachment to one’s

ancestral connections in a socially acceptable manner.6

Referring to the concept of “Jewish community as a unique blend of kinship and consent”4, the new immigrants were not merely welcomed with open arms. Nevertheless, both groups intensified Jewish community life together. Most of the new immigrants tried to remain with their original religious ideas. Organizations and synagogues were built up with the help of the older ones. Around the turn of the century, the leading Jewish spokesmen constructed the idea of cultural pluralism to describe the kind of society that Jews were part of in the New World: each immigrant group would retain some of its cultural identity while its members became fully part of the American scene as individuals.7 But when, as a consequence of too many Jewish immigrants anti-Jewish ideas developed, and immigration quotas led to the restriction of the number of Jewish immigrants, Jews felt that America began to close the gates. Anti-Jewish ideas within the American society led to the exclusion of Jews from higher job positions and universities. Fear and class envy as a result of the mass immigration led to the anti- Semitic ideas of the 1920s. Suspicions of conspiracy, or communist take-over, and the Great Depression in the 1930s forced almost all American Jews to assimilate or even to Americanize completely and negotiate their Jewish religious identity. But not only the height of anti-Semitism slopping over from Germany in the 1930s and 40s, but also modernity brought a crisis for Judaism and Jewishness in the religious sense, arising from the general de-emphasis of the religious aspect of life in the Western world as a whole and the thrusting of secular science and politics into the forefront of human concern. Consequently, the breakdown of the corporate structure of Jewish life, partly because of anti-Semitic tendencies, led to the fact that many Jews ceased to observe the Jewish Laws. Right after World War II, when Judaism became a fully legitimate American religion, there were also Jews who studied Jewish Law, or tried to understand its meaning as a vehicle for human fulfilment in order to re-discover their Jewish identity. Elazar describes possibilities of modernity as follows:

Jews as individuals now had access to the wider opportunities of the modern world, and, utilizing skills

developed during centuries of struggle for sheer survival, they rapidly rose to pre-eminent positions in

secular society. Subsequently, however, European society rejected the Jews, turning the welcome of

emancipation into anti-Semitism and, in the twentieth century, genocide. Jews began to abandon Europe in

search of a better life, initially a voluntary process but later made necessary by the events of two world wars.

…During the final two generations of that epoch the Jewish people acted to restore their self-conscious

existence as a body politic, resettling their ancient land and establishing the State of Israel, while at the same

time building a great new Jewish community in the New World. In the process, increasing numbers of Jews

sought to make peace with their Jewish heritage and revive it as a way of life.8

With the upward mobility after the Second World War, Jews had new possibilities. Many of them tried to participate in American life, while preserving their own special interests and Jewish identity. Moving out to the suburbs resulted in using the synagogues and religious institutions as social rather than as religious centers. The religious activities that went on in them tended to be more social than religious in character, since they offered the families the opportunity to come together, and extend their hospitality to friends and business associates. Furthermore, as Jews were expected to mix with other Americans they had to neglect at least partly the observance of the Sabbath and religious festivals. They often found their Saturdays occupied more in general community than in Jewish religious activities, as they became more and more involved in politics, arts, and civil life. Increasingly, they were expected to open up their activities to non-Jews or to expose their internal lives and therefore also to become less obviously Jewish in the religious sense:9


[1] Samuel G. Freedman (1999), Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (New York: Simon &

Schuster Adult Publishing Group), p. 71-80.

[2] The information on the selected general features of Jewish self- definition is based on: Linda Konop, “Jewish

Self- Definition” (2003-09-10). URL: (2003-09-10).

[3] Freedman , Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, p. 1.

[4] Daniel J. Elazar, “Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry”, Assimilation and

Authenticity: The Problem of the American Jewish Community, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2003-09-

10). URL: (2003-09-10).

[5] Daniel J. Elazar, The 1990 Demographic Study: Some Good News; Much Bad News, JCPA (2003-09-10).

URL: (2003-09-10).

6Elazar, Assimilation and Authenticity: The Problem of the American Jewish Community, (2003-09-10).

7 Daniel J. Elazar, Reaching to the American Jewish Community, JCPA (2003-09-10). URL: (2003-09-10).

Elazar, Assimilation and Authenticity: The Problem of the American Jewish Community, (2003-09-10).


ISBN (eBook)
526 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Potsdam – Institute for Anglistics/American Studies
2004 (Juni)
Jewish Self-Definition



Titel: Jewish Self-Definition