Introduction: American Jewish Youth, Historical Narratives, and Cultural Change

By Prell, Riv-Ellen | American Jewish History, June 2009 | Go to article overview
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Introduction: American Jewish Youth, Historical Narratives, and Cultural Change


Prell, Riv-Ellen, American Jewish History


In the Fall of 2008 the American Jewish Historical Society, along with a variety of educational institutions, cosponsored a conference titled "Jewish Youth and Cultural Change." (1) Scholars who work on the culture and history of American Jews gathered to think together about how a focus on youth affects the narrative of American Jewish history as well as that of modern Jewish history more broadly.

Youth constitutes a distinct stage of life, encompassing roughly the period from one's late teens through one's twenties, when individuals are making the transition from childhood to adulthood and may act with some autonomy from their parents as they encounter a new set of experiences, such as entering the workforce or college. Using this definition as a framework, the conference sought to raise several issues regarding the utility of "youth" as a category of historical analysis. First, while recognizing that the concept of generation has been critical to the writing of Jewish history, many of the conference presentations suggested that a focus on the shared experiences and concerns of people of a specific age may be more useful. "Youth" is a more precise term than "generation" for our purposes, not only because members of the same generation may differ in age by up to two decades, depending on the age of their mothers when they gave birth, but also because it emphasizes a particular period in the life course. While the experience of youth is certainly differentiated among Jews according to class, gender, and sexuality, and in the larger society according to additional factors such as religion and race, it is too significant a stage of life, as I explain below, for scholars of Jewish culture to ignore.

Secondly, the conference aimed to historicize the category of youth in order to explore how young women and men both shaped and were shaped by particular historical moments. In pursuing this goal, the organizers and participants drew on scholarship that examines the ways in which young men and women negotiated social and structural relationships within historical developments. (2) Placed within a Jewish framework, this line of inquiry raised questions such as: How have young Jews engaged with these forces? How have their political and cultural styles, their ideas and sentiments, their publications, and their organizations reflected their relationships to both the Jewish world and the world of young people? In other words, what has the intersection of "youth" and Jewishness meant in American Jewish history?

Finally, a recurring theme of the conference was that youth is one of a variety of social identities that can be systematically linked to innovation, the challenging of authority, and the transformation of cultural and social traditions. While youth is certainly not always about social rupture or innovation, young men and women are often central to cultural change when it occurs. Jewish cultural change, then, can be understood not only in terms of large social processes, but in relationship to those who are agents of change. Under what circumstances young Jews have challenged Jewish communal structures, undertaken cultural innovations, or participated in social change as Jews are all important research questions that were raised by the conference but remain to be answered by future scholarship. Similarly, the conference brought to the fore the need for greater examination of the discourses about youth in Jewish life that have been ubiquitous throughout Jewish history. The shape they have taken, the concerns they have raised, and the contexts in which they have occurred are all rich avenues for exploration. As this ambitious research agenda makes clear, the study of Jewish youth is synonymous with the study of Jewish life and change, and therefore provides a critical perspective on understanding cultural transformation.

Aside from these overarching questions of analysis and approach, the conference was also inspired by a small but significant group of Jewish historians who have put youth at the center of their scholarship.

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