Editor's Introduction

By Dinnerstein, Leonard | Shofar, October 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

Editor's Introduction


Dinnerstein, Leonard, Shofar


Editor's Introduction

Until the 1970s serious and scholarly articles about Jews, as well as their activities and experiences, could be found primarily in specifically Jewish periodicals like the Menorah Journal, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, American Jewish Archives, Chicago Jewish Forum, Commentary, and Midstream. Mainstream American academic publications rarely included scholarly pieces about Jews and their academic pursuits. During the last third of the twentieth century, however, a confluence of circumstances at home and abroad aroused an interest in the history and culture of American minority groups in general, and Jews in particular.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s stimulated a desire on the part of both "white ethnics" and a variety of scholars to explore their own backgrounds. Then, in 1973, Congress stamped its approval of multiculturalism by financing studies of different American groups at all levels of education. As a result of the legislation, and the so-called politically correct currents floating throughout the United States, ethnic studies programs at every educational level proliferated.

For Jews, many of whom had spent the previous half-century trying to become "American" so that they would be accepted in mainstream society, this development brought a welcome change. Some of their children, who had been raised as "Americans," with barely any Judaic instruction except the preparation for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, gradually embraced the religious aspects of their heritage and soon declined to eat in their parents' homes. The parents, in turn, found that their children had taken on aspects of a life that they had tried to ignore.

Moreover, the Six Day War in Israel, in June 1967, both frightened and mobilized Jews throughout the world. Money poured into Jewish appeals with unprecedented alacrity. And when the Israelis won a major victory, Jews throughout the world beamed. In the aftermath of the Six Day War, Israel emerged as a focal point of identity for many Jews.

As a result, the combination of a new focus on ethnicity in the United States and the Six Day War inspired large numbers of Jews to preserve crucial aspects of their heritage that had either been fading away or minimized in their quest to melt into the dominant culture. Survival of Israel and Holocaust remembrance then became the twin pillars of Jewish concerns. At the same time, however, a much smaller group of scholars, influenced by changes within their own disciplines, began to explore aspects of Jewish culture that had heretofore been considered unworthy of publication in mainstream professional journals. In literature and history different aspects of ethnic culture seemed worthy of discussing. And Jewish scholars also looked into hitherto unexplored areas. No longer was there any need to focus exclusively on Jewish "contributions" to America, praise famous Jewish philanthropists, or minimize the existence of antisemitism. In other words, as historian Deborah Dash Moore emphasized a quarter of a century ago, Jews were fully "at home in America," and free to behave and engage in activities that had already been embraced by members of the dominant culture.

As a result of the transformation of the United States from an Anglo-dominated society to one that accepted multiculturalism and its consequences, people of all backgrounds found that they were not alone in pursuing their own cultural heritage. Henceforth, one accepted the culture of the United States but no longer hid or diminished one's own background. So, in the past thirty or so years, studies about Italians, Norwegians, Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanic Americans have proliferated. And within this group there have also been noteworthy contributions about American Jews, their histories and their interests.

In this collection, Jews' engagement with the United States is discussed in a variety of settings. Problems with discomfort and dual identities, antisemitism in athletics, new themes in literature, minor players in music, contributions of cartoonists, and even criminality are examined.

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Editor's Introduction
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