Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century

Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century

Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century

Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century


Has America been a place that has preserved and protected Jewish life? Is it a place in which a Jewish future is ensured? Samuel Heilman, long-time observer of American Jewish life, grapples with these questions from a sociologist's perspective. He argues that the same conditions that have allowed Jews to live in relative security since the 1950s have also presented them with a greater challenge than did the adversity and upheaval of earlier years.

The second half of the twentieth century has been a time when American Jews have experienced a minimum of prejudice and almost all domains of life have been accessible to them, but it has also been a time of assimilation, of swelling rates of intermarriage, and of large numbers ignoring their Jewishness completely. Jews have no trouble building synagogues, but they have all sorts of trouble filling them. The quality of Jewish education is perhaps higher than ever before, and the output of Jewish scholarship is overwhelming in its scope and quality, but most American Jews receive a minimum of religious education and can neither read nor comprehend the great corpus of Jewish literature in its Hebrew (or Aramaic) original. This is a time in America when there is no shame in being a Jew, and yet fewer American Jews seem to know what being a Jew means.

How did this come to be? What does it portend for the Jewish future? This book endeavors to answer these questions by examining data gleaned from numerous sociological surveys. Heilman first discusses the decade of the fifties and the American Jewish quest for normalcy and mobility. He then details the polarization of American Jewry into active and passive elements in the sixties and seventies. Finally he looks at the eighties and nineties and the issues of Jewish survival and identity and the question of a Jewish future in America. He also considers generational variation, residential and marital patterns, institutional development (especially with regard to Jewish education), and Jewish political power and influence.

This book is part of a stocktaking that has been occurring among Jews as the century in which their residence in America was firmly established comes to an end. Grounded in empirical detail, it provides a concise yet analytic evaluation of the meaning of the many studies and surveys of the last four and a half decades. Taking a long view of American Jewry, it is one of very few books that build on specific sociological data but get beyond its detail. All those who want to know what it means and has meant to be an American Jew will find this volume of interest.


When Professor Hillel J. Kieval, head of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Washington, first extended to me an invitation to offer the eighteenth annual Samuel and Althea Stroum Lecture in Jewish Studies, I was sincerely honored. To join a list of some of the most distinguished personalities in Jewish studies, including such people as Irving Howe, Yehuda Bauer, Yosef Yerushalmi, Jacob Rader Marcus, Aharon Appelfeld, Robert Alter, Ruth Wisse, Michael Meyer, Michael Fishbane, Moshe Idel, and Paula Hyman--to name but a few--however also filled me with a kind of dread. Those were hard acts to follow, as the many fine volumes to come out of this series attest. To add to my anxiety was the realization that I would be the first sociologist in the series. Sociologists tend to deal with subjects that most people think they know at least as well as the so-called experts.

In his invitation, Professor Kieval, a distinguished historian, suggested that given we were approaching the turn of a century and a millennium, I might offer some sort of review of the contemporary condition of American Jewry. While the coming end of the millennium is not really a benchmark of Jewish significance--"the year of our Lord" 2001 will after all simply be 5761 for the Jews, whose count comes from another God--even among Jews these times nevertheless have aroused an inclination for stocktaking. Undoubtedly, the coming into middle age of the generation born in the post-World War ii era (people like Professor Kieval and me), the palpable sense of a political watershed at the recent end of the cold war that leaves America as the victorious society and land of greatest promise, the profound ferment and change that have marked the last fifty years of Jewish life, as well as the oft-repeated questions about Jewish continuity and what Jewish life will be like in the year 2000, have all . . .

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