Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America


This new cultural history of Jewish life and identity in the United States after World War II focuses on the process of upward mobility. Rachel Kranson challenges the common notion that most American Jews unambivalently celebrated their generally strong growth in economic status and social acceptance during the booming postwar era. In fact, a significant number of Jewish religious, artistic, and intellectual leaders worried about the ascent of large numbers of Jews into the American middle class.

Kranson reveals that many Jews were deeply concerned that their lives--affected by rapidly changing political pressures, gender roles, and religious practices--were becoming dangerously disconnected from authentic Jewish values. She uncovers how Jewish leaders delivered jeremiads that warned affluent Jews of hypocrisy and associated "good" Jews with poverty, even at times romanticizing life in America's immigrant slums and Europe's impoverished shtetls. Jewish leaders, while not trying to hinder economic development, thus cemented an ongoing identification with the Jewish heritage of poverty and marginality as a crucial element in an American Jewish ethos.


In a 1954 article for Commentary magazine, Sylvia Rothchild, writing under the pseudonym Evelyn Rossman, expressed her dissatisfaction with synagogue services in postwar America. “If the service reminded me of the little shul [synagogue] my father went to, I was sad because I remembered how shabby and poor it was,” she complained. “If I found a wealthy Conservative or Reform temple I sat there like a stranger thinking how insincere and hypocritical it all was. Weren’t all good Jews supposed to be poor?”

Sylvia Rothchild herself represented one of the many American Jews who, by the postwar period, had left behind economically unstable childhoods and entered the swelling ranks of America’s middle class. Born on January 4, 1923, to Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Romania, she grew up in the densely Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Before the birth of her first child in 1948, she and her husband, chemist Seymour Rothchild, moved to a spacious, single-family home in Sharon, Massachusetts, an affluent suburb of Boston. There, she witnessed the establishment of her adopted town’s synagogues and religious schools, all funded by the growing group of upwardly mobile Jews who chose to live in leafy, suburban Sharon instead of the urban enclaves in which they had been raised.

By 1951, Rothchild started publishing essays and short stories in American Jewish periodicals such as Commentary, Hadassah, and Moment, and her first novel, Sunshine and Salt, appeared in 1964. Uneasiness about her new life among the middle class surfaced as a prominent theme throughout her work. While she acknowledged the appeal of the space, greenery, and quiet she had never known growing up in the city, she also suffered an acute sense of loss . . .

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