Jewish Life and American Culture

By A, Martin | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Jewish Life and American Culture


A, Martin, Shofar


by Sylvia Barack Fishman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. 242 pp. $17.95.

The inexorable reach of globalization has profoundly impacted all cultures with its unimaginable novelty. It has challenged the cultural patterns of all Americans who are living at the cusp of global innovation, and understandably therefore among them, the cultural patterns of American Jews. As we Jews well know because of our repetitive historical experience, the challenges of novelty we are facing now must result, as their counterparts in the past with varying degrees of adaptation always have resulted, in one of three generic responses: withdrawal, consisting of a rejection of the new in order to retain the inheritance, itself a product of development, now frozen into its latest state; assimilation, consisting of a rejection of the heritage in the hope, often illusory, of full participation in the new environment; and accommodation, in which various efforts at synthesis of cultural heredity and cultural environment are blended to form some sense of continued identity.

That American Jews are in the process of confronting the transformative characteristics of globalization renders all the more timely the penetrating analyses in Sylvia Barack Fishman's latest work. Her book, the sixth in a series of monographs entitled American Jewish Society in the 1990s, and based on the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990 conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations, focuses on the social psychology of the Jewish community of the United States and its adaptation to the manifold changes in American life. Fundamentally this adaptation moves between two poles, on the one hand that of compartmentalization of the Jewish cultural heritage, in the fullest sense of the concept, and the novelties of American life, which, as the author recognizes, is increasingly influenced by the contributions of Jews, and on the other, a coalescence between the two, at different levels to be sure for both individuals and groups.

For her study, Fishman has marshaled a breathtaking abundance of quantitative and qualitative cultural data covering the most important data of contemporary American Jewish life. Her book is divided into an introductory section, which provides a thorough explanation of her methodology, and eight numbered chapters, each devoted to a major dimension of American Jewish life. These chapters deal with issues such as the coalescence of American and Jewish values; the occupational and educational patterns of American Jews; the varieties of Jewish educational instruction and achievement; the expanded contours of the American Jewish family; American Jewish religious observance within and outside the home; and the implications of the involvement or non-involvement of Jews in Jewish organizations.

Each of these areas embraces a tapestry of interconnected corollary studies that probe into every significant comer of American Jewish life. These studies enable the author to dilate upon such varied issues as the role of coalescence, as witnessed, inter alia, in the conflation of contemporary secular ecological ideology with traditional Jewish beliefs and the incorporation of egalitarianism in Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish practice; Jewish occupational achievement and the consequently changing nature of the Jewish labor force; the role of secular education in the reinforcement of Jewish cohesiveness; the increased political involvement of Jews in American life; the shifting emphases and disparities in Jewish education in various segments of the Jewish community; the modes of self-identification of secularized Jews, often through their participation in Jewish organizations; the increasing significance of women in Jewish education and scholarship, and, in general, the growing influence of women and feminism in American Jewish life; the impact on the Jewish family and community of two-career households, single parent households, abusive households, lesbian and gay households, the rising tides of divorce and intermarriage, the "segmented religious identity" of the children of mixed marriages, and the distinctive needs and lifestyle accommodations of the growing segment of our elderly population. …

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