Academic journal article American Jewish History

American Jews and the European Gaze

Academic journal article American Jewish History

American Jews and the European Gaze

Article excerpt

Recall the description in Alfred Kazin's New York Jew of his meeting Hannah Arendt, depicted by the characteristically lyrical Kazin in terms both sensual and intellectually obsequious. What he finds in her, as he sees it, is a true European, an authentic intellectual grounded in substantive things of the mind who mastered Augustine in the original, while he in his adolescence picked through translations in Brownsville's soda shops:

   Hannah never stopped thinking. What she thought about was uprooting
   in every sense: starting with the uprooting of whole peoples that
   had washed up on the West Side this specialist in St. Augustine, had
   turned her life into a voracious political inquiry. How did it
   happen? How had it all happened? How had this modern age happened?
   ... She had been brought up in a genteel upper-middle-class Jewish
   family in Koningsberg. She had studied with Bultmann! Dibelius!
   Heidegger! Husserl! Jaspers! She had written her doctoral thesis at
   Heidelberg on Augustine's conception of love! ... She lived her
   thought, and thought dominated her life." (1)

Told in many different ways, the contrast between a culturally vacuous, at least impaired, American Jewry and its European antecedents is much a part of the modern Jewish historical imagination. Kazin's awe at Arendt's gravitas is, in this respect, a piece of a much larger story. It is a story made of stark, sometimes undeniably accurate, but also not infrequently absurdly exaggerated juxtapositions of old and new, holy and profane, hoary and, simply, silly. The cultural chasm separating European Jewish culture from that of America is summed up in the minds of many, it would seem, as the difference between Vilna's Shulhof and Rodeo Drive.

To be sure, no disjuncture was--at least, in demographic terms--as profound in modern Jewish history. Beginning with the massive migrations of the turn of the century, mostly from Eastern Europe to the United States, followed after the Second World War by the flight of much of the remnant that survived its horrors, there occurred a fundamental, irreversible population shift from Europe to the west and also to Israel. Earlier widely discussed regional differences (between Polish and Lithuanian Jews, or Budapest and small-town provincial Jews) now receded, shorn of their apparent significance. Beyond Sephardic Jewry, at any rate, the one salient historical difference that remained, that distinguished most powerfully the immediate past from the present, was between Europe and America. No feature in the contemporary Jewish imagination--not even the promise of Israel--has loomed quite so large.

This was a past widely viewed as defined by tragedy, by pogroms (at least in the eastern reaches of Europe in imperial Russia), and the word pogrom has come to constitute a singularly influential explanatory tool. But no less powerful, arguably, is the belief that this past was replete with incomparable scholarly distinction, a voracious, widespread intellectual hunger that was lost as Jews were transplanted across the Atlantic. The distance, culturally speaking, between Europe and America tends to be rendered immeasurably greater; vaster than the mere Atlantic. A by-product was Kazin's obsequiousness, his sense of diminution in the presence of true, real learning, itself a reflection, too, of an immeasurably more widespread, longstanding American inferiority when confronted with the incomparable solidity and cultivation of Europe.

This is meant as no more, to be sure, than a snapshot of popular presumptions regarding the differences between the European and American Jewish worlds in modernity, but the work of historians has, to a degree, reinforced, if unwittingly, these overly stark juxtapositions. Jewish historians of Europe, with few exceptions, don't quite know what to do with American Jewish history. The continent's vastness and its freedom, the relative absence or, at least, the muting of passions so pertinent elsewhere, the assimilatory allure of American social life, and the apparent mediocrity of its Jewish intellectual achievements before the twentieth century: these perceptions, some no doubt distorted, have contributed toward rendering the history of America's Jews marginal in the larger frame of modern Jewish historiography. …

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