A New Key: Decorum and the Study of Jews and Judaism

By Prell, Riv-Ellen | American Jewish History, March 2002 | Go to article overview
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A New Key: Decorum and the Study of Jews and Judaism


Prell, Riv-Ellen, American Jewish History


The philosopher Susanne Langer wrote in 1942 that a new key had emerged in philosophy, the study of "the problem of meaning" over "the problem of observation." This new formulation did not happen all at once, according to Langer. Rather, scholars posed new questions and handled problems differently. As a result, and with time, it became apparent that a new "angle of perspective" had emerged. As these frameworks shifted, a whole series of new subject matters and approaches resulted. (1)

I suggest that the 1970s were a critical decade in the emergence of a "new key" in the study of American Jews and Judaism. A growing number of scholars began focusing on the synagogue, prayer, and to some extent ritual. More importantly, these concerns drew scholars to questions about how Jewish identity was constituted, and to explore some of the cultural formulations of that identity. In fields as different as the social sciences and liturgical studies, scholars examined not simply Jewish norms but how Jews lived and prayed. Many of these scholars continued to find the distance between what was normative and what was lived most compelling. For others, documenting, contextualizing and explaining religious life became more pertinent. Though they unquestionably built on the work of a few scholars of the 1950s and 1960s, a more widespread shift was clearly in place by the 1970s.

This same period is one in which American academic disciplinary boundaries became more porous. For example, anthropologists began to look at the study of culture over time and to historicize a subject matter once rooted in a timeless dimension called "the ethnographic present." Historians, in parallel fashion, became interested in culture, ritual, family, and folklore, concepts that for some time had been the terrain of anthropology. The subjects of history and anthropology changed as well. Women, the working classes, slaves, and ordinary people--all became not only a focus of study but subjects acting on their own agency within society. Overall, a more dynamic social and cultural reality occupied scholars, and that contributed to reshaping the study of American Jews.

Leon Jick's Americanization of the Synagogue was written within that new key in Jewish scholarship (2). His book marked an important shift in the study of nineteenth-century German-American Jewry, reflecting changes within the field of American history. For example, he focused on what had often been the purview of the social sciences. He examined how aspirations for social mobility and Americanization shaped Jewish observance. Jick offered a unique perspective in the history of nineteenth-century Jews when he argued that the synagogue had become a site for creating identity, asserting Americanization and maintaining cultural continuity. Perhaps most importantly, Jick rooted the creation of an American Judaism and American Jewish culture in the lives of ordinary Jews. "In the American setting it was precisely these Jewishly `ignorant' laymen who presided over the affairs of the synagogue. Increasingly the institutions that evolved reflected American social customs and Protestant patterns of religious expression." (3)

His analysis of decorum provided an important foundation for the study of American Jews in relationship to Judaism. He linked worship to social experience in general and social class more specifically. In this sense, The Americanization of the Synagogue is profoundly indebted to the sociologist Marshall Sklare's Conservative Judaism, originally published in 1955 and revised in 1972. (4) This work in the sociology of religion was an analysis of the social characteristics of post-war American Jews and the ways in which Judaism's most popular denomination of the time reflected that reality in the synagogue, the rabbinate, and religious education. Jick acknowledged the work in his bibliography, but the book's narrative does not indicate the obvious significance of Sklare's framework for his own.

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