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Linzer, et al. A Portrait of the American Jewish Community


A Portrait of the American Jewish Community.

Linzer, Norman, David J. Schnall and Jerome A. Chanes, eds. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998. 240 p., $59.95, hardcover. ISBN: 0275960226.

Painting a New Picture of American Jewry

Rob K. Baum

<1> A Portrait of the American Jewish Community seems at first a contemporary, informed attempt to answer the old-and, for Jews, imperative-question, "What is a Jew?" And in the leading chapter Norman Linzer does project the "changing nature of Jewish identity," with what he calls the postmodern "decline of dissonance," a euphemism for the experience of Jewish difference. The beginning is suggestive of the philosophical treatise on the collapse of modern Jewish identity formulated in such work as Rabbi Michael Goldberg's Why Should Jews Survive? (NY: Oxford, 1998). But the book's carefully detailed chapters on Jewish American federations, social service agencies, urban communities and outreach programs it is actually a resource for social scientists and others working in the areas of modern United States Jewry.

<2> For an anthology the volume is unusually cohesive; one need not ponder the connections between the title and the book's twelve lucid chapters. More than half of the contributors are themselves involved in Jewish social services-at the management level-giving the Portrait a kind of groundedness not always found in academic texts. The remaining contributors are known professors working at Jewish universities and yeshivot in the United States and Israel. Yet, the appearance of only one female among fifteen authors is not at all representative of Jewish American society, particularly in regard to Jewish-and non-Jewish-welfare, where women dominate the field as activists, lobbyists, leaders, workers, care-takers, top management and resource personnel. That acknowledged, the writers are inclusive and sympathetic in issues involving Jewish women, and the particularities of modern Jewish life. They patently desire to be understood by a variety of people not necessarily working in the academy; thus English language is not used as an obstacle to understanding. The same may be said of the sparse Hebrew usage, employed only when a term is generally known, and still translated. The book logically moves from the past to the future with essays on Israel and new Russian Jewish immigrants positioned towards the end. And while the index could have benefited from clearer, more reader-friendly guidelines, making it a more convenient research tool, the chapters do provide what is promised.

<3> This is particularly true with regard to Lawrence Grossman's remarkably comprehensive writing on "Jewish Religion in America," the only chapter to address the Jewish American past. Grossman's work stands out with its descriptive history and concise considerations of education, religious observance, feminism, and homosexuality. Symbolically located in the centre of the Portrait, this chapter follows the arrival of the Spanish Jews in the Colonies, their first difficulties with the anti-Semitic Peter Stuyvesant, and how they built their small numbers into modern, independent communities. Such a history clarifies why Jews in the U.S. have, like Jews elsewhere in the world, maintained an air of independence even while integrating and assimilating, and why the proliferation of Jewish-governed relief organisations has always been deemed an essential element of Jewish American - and for that matter, Gentile American - life.

<4> The book's presumptuously chauvinist title - no part of Central or South America is at issue, nor is all of North America - is indicative of the United States' attitude towards its own powerful centrality, but also of the esteem with which the U.S. Jewish population regards its country. Jews in the U.S. tend to speak of Judaism as a "way of life" rather than a religion, at once emphasizing the cultural aspects of Judaism and (unconsciously?) de-emphasizing the threat of being part of a "different" religion. They may be the only minority population to place "America" first in their dual identity, considering themselves "American Jews" rather than "Jewish Americans." That conceit, observed in this review, is emblematic of the gravest problem facing the macro-Jewish community: assimilation itself.

<4> Assimilation is, ironically, a marker of the success of the American Jewish people, particularly in the wake of recent anti-Semitism (that is, recent by Jewish historical standards: in 2003 Jews celebrate 5743 years of peoplehood). Recent catastrophes include the response of Americans to Jewish refugees from the Shoah, the Rosenberg trial, and the McCarthy "witch hunt;" although many would like to casually forget these events (and the Portrait rarely mentions them), they remain proof of modern American anti-Semitism. One cannot forget, for instance, that President Roosevelt turned away boatloads of Jewish emigres fleeing the Nazi terror, returning them to certain death in Hitler's cauldron; that the Rosenbergs' conviction was injudicious and clearly motivated by bigotry; that McCarthy's hysterical attack on "Reds" targeted a large segment of the Jewish population which at that time dominated the entertainment industry, or believed its survival lay in the even more assimilationist rhetoric of Communism.

<5> Many of the chapters seem to react against, or on behalf of, the alarming but by now known statistic of a 52% (elsewhere 51-57%) rate of Jewish intermarriage. This magic number, representing the achievement of the American Dream, as it points towards the gradual dispersion and demise of the American Jewish community. The authors creatively respond to the issue of American Jewish identity by locating "Jewishness" in a variety of sites beyond the finite locus of the Jewish body. The book's editors posit that the American Jew now more commonly defines itself not by a Jewish mother but by the birth of Jewish children - that is, children raised with Jewish principles. This issue is of grave importance to modern Jewish women, whose genetic relationship to halacha (the Jewish legal system) has been a cornerstone of Jewish and Judaic transmission, making Jewish women essential to Judaism. And if Jewishness can be transmitted without its historical and halachic definition, then is Jewishness itself still being transmitted, or some other populist form of identification? [1 ]

<6> Separate chapters calculate the "challenge" and affects of Jewish immigration upon religious American Jews. Mark Handelman examines the immigration of the Soviet Jews in particular, whose Jewish identity was compromised by the dictates of fifty years of Communism; elucidating the implications to the oft-mentioned census, Jeffrey Gurock softens the bite of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, released in Spring 1991 by the Council of Jewish Federations from a sample of 2,500 U.S. Jewish households. Gurock counters the large numbers of Jews cited as having "married out" or into "mixed marriages" with a fresh analysis of the survey's assumptions and failures. For example, he asserts that the difference between the rural and urban rate of intermarriage was overlooked, that the rate is probably closer to that of the 1960 census (between 25-30%), and that the "saturation level" has already been reached. What Gurock himself overlooks is the gender dichotomy of our mixed marriages - the percentage of Jewish women who in "marrying out" export Judaism, actually bringing "in" males as heads of Jewish families. By comparison, Jewish men who marry "out" are likely to end their Jewish lineage.

<7> The greatest disparity between Jewish and Gentile social communities is how Jewish welfare groups developed apart from places and bodies of worship. Although rooted in Scriptural mitzvoth (commandments) to care for the needy, sick, widow, orphan, and ger (stranger in our midst), Jewish social services arose as a member response to the need for social, educational and economical assistance and kehillah (community). On the surface, the provenance of service agencies is unimportant. Viewed with respect to modern Jewish community structure, however, an investigation of their simple basis both justifies the Jewish decree to prize "acts above words," and clarifies the proliferation of Jewish and non-denominational-but-Jewish-governed welfare associations (for both Jews and Gentiles) extant at every level of society.

<8> "Jewish agencies today exhibit a great degree of autonomy from religious authority, are largely non-sectarian in intake, and compete in the market place for service contracts," write David J. Schnall and Sheldon E. Gelman (48). The array of disparities defines what many Americans mean when identifying as "Jewish."

<9> Many of the authors point to the importance of tzedakah (translated better as "righteousness" than "charity") in American Jewish life; therefore the Council of Jewish Federations remains a principle feature of American Jewish culture. Joel A. Block discusses a specific program of the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center, showing how interfaith outreach builds the Jewish community while supporting the Talmudic injunction that Jewish identity lies in Jews' endeavours to help others. Yet American Jews, perhaps more than Jews from other lands, have come to identify deeply with other populations, often with precedence over or opposition to Jewish community. It was not at all uncommon to see young American Jews flying to South America to aid stricken populations; it is equally common to find American Jews whose religious locus is environmental and whose sense of tzedakah therefore extends to wild horses, oil-stained beaches, decimated deerherds, or contaminated streams and mountain meadows. These people do not consider themselves un-Jewish; their identifications have "merely" shifted to another, weaker minority unable to adequately defend itself without their aid. Eco-feminism is thus from organizational leadership to grassroots funding a "Jewish" issue.

<10> Populations of disaffected (or re-affiliated) Jews are not addressed. Amid the book's myriad successes, other absences stand out. Like most American "portraits," the book is clearly more concerned with traditional Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) populations, including the preponderance of Russian immigrants, than the various smaller Sephardi (Jews of Spanish and North African descent) populations found in the U.S. The concept of gender in the Jewish American community is almost entirely subsumed in comparisons of Jewish sects and their idiosyncratic responses to specific women's issues. Similarly, although lesbians and gays are mentioned in the several of the chapters, there is no chapter that addresses its different needs or that of other special communities.

<11> The title of Menachem Kellner's article on Diasporic-Israeli relations "After the Assassination" epitomizes the book's presumed audience. It is unnecessary to explain the reference in the title; despite the number of political assassinations in the past ten years, and the book's American provenance, the author clearly refers to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's murder by a young Israeli law student in 1995. M. Kellner's chapter on Jews in Israel is one of the richest in the volume and, despite Israeli Jews' relative newness as a modern entity, it is the sole chapter to represent Jews' "shared" historical experience. It is also the only chapter to utilize Torah (Biblical) references to make its claims, indicating not so much the mind of a theologian (Kellner is the Wolfson Professor of Jewish Thought in Israel) as the way the rebirth of ancient Hebrew - the language of the Old Testament - into present-day speech affects thinking in Israeli culture.

<12> The modern, or postmodern, contradiction between Judaism and Zionism is underplayed, presenting the feeling of American Jewry for Israel as far less complicated than it truly is. Because of American Jews' complex relationship with the State of Israel, the chapter nonetheless belongs in the volume, and exactly where it is situated between chapters on the "problem" of Jewish intermarriage and chapters on new American populations. The location, in fact, of several chapters on Jewish resettlement, internal policy, and Israel fruitfully suggest that the future of American Jewry lies somewhere outside of - or not yet inside - the United States. The resultant portrait is nonetheless of a healthy American Jewish population that answers the question of "What is a Jew?" with social outreach and community welfare programs designed to strengthen and affirm existing Jewish communities' independence. The strategy is not a new one, and has not previously counteracted the startling rate of acculturation and intermarriage, but does reflect both the Jewish attitude towards mitzvoth (deeds) and the American attitude of genuine friendliness towards others. In that sense, the portrait is quite a hopeful one.


[1 ] I am myself a Jewish American, an identity I never separated from my feminist activism. My own family is representative of the realities presented by the Portrait. Half my siblings intermarried (with non-Jewish Americans); depicting the degree to which the "Jewish State" affects Jewish American lives, most of my family members have visited Israel at least once, one member is on the faculty of an Israeli university, and another married an Israeli. Ironically, marriage to an Israeli severed that sibling from what Jewish Americans view as a "religious life" - although it is felt to be more "culturally" Jewish; none of my siblings' children, therefore, have had religious upbringings. Yet each member of my family identifies as a Jew and an American. [^]