Academic journal article American Jewish History

Reuben Cohen Comes of Age: American Jewish Youth and the Lived Experience of Cultural Pluralism in the 1920s

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Reuben Cohen Comes of Age: American Jewish Youth and the Lived Experience of Cultural Pluralism in the 1920s

Article excerpt

Reuben Cohen, who entered an elite American college during the mid-1920s, was well liked by his professors. One described him as "a finely typical young American collegian," but that was only partially true. (1) For Reuben was part of the first generation of Jewish students in the United States to attend college in significant numbers. (2) Thus, he was not as typical of young collegians as he was of the children of Jewish immigrants, those who found ways to integrate themselves more fully than their parents had into American life while still living with many reminders that being Jewish made them different.

Reuben had grown up in "the home of a business man who was comfortably well off." His immigrant father had shunned Orthodox Judaism and embraced Reform as he became a successful entrepreneur. Predictably, when Reuben's father turned to Reform Judaism, his children followed. Instead of gaining his Jewish education in an Orthodox shul like his father, Reuben attended a "fashionable temple on the Upper West Side" of Manhattan. Still, the Cohen family maintained significant boundaries between themselves and non-Jews. Reuben's parents had only Jewish friends. They insisted that Reuben not attend school on Yom Kippur. Mixing with non-Jews had stark and real limits; for Reuben's mother, the "conception of a Gentile daughter-in-law" remained simply "remote and impossible." Reuben's favorite professor observed that despite the Cohen family's "casual Judaism," Jewishness seemed "profoundly to have shaped the history of Reuben." (3)

In contrast to his home life, the university campus was a place where Reuben found divisions between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds somewhat less pronounced. He contended with prejudice from non-Jewish classmates, but no incident was memorable enough to leave a permanent scar. Surely, he heard tales of discrimination against Jewish students seeking to enter fraternities and social clubs. "But one must not make mountains out of molehills," Reuben thought. "One must not develop a persecution complex" and become what he called "one of the chip-on-the-shoulder Hebrews." (4)

This perspective reflected Reuben's belief that the onus of determining how to express his Jewish identity rested with him alone. Like many of his Jewish peers, he had difficult decisions to make about whether and how to incorporate Jewish religious and cultural interests into his life while in college. During his freshman and sophomore years, he paid this question little mind. The professor who grew closest to him remarked that Reuben entered college without any "self-consciousness" about his Jewish identity. (5) Though he belonged to a nominally Jewish fraternity, it was difficult to tell Reuben apart from other fraternity men on campus. Many of his professors did not even know that Reuben was Jewish, perhaps because being Jewish seemed so unimportant to Reuben himself.

During Reuben's junior year, something changed. He vaguely began to articulate that being Jewish mattered to him, but he grew frustrated because he could not find satisfying ways to express his Jewish identity. As he began to come of age as an independent young man, Reuben felt that his newfound exploration of Jewish heritage conflicted with his modern interests and desires. Rabbis, synagogues, and the Zionist movement disappointed him. He thought that his Jewish peers focused too much on antisemitism at the expense of Judaism and Jewish culture. Although he was determined to embrace his Jewish identity, Reuben flailed in the pursuit. He could find neither a model nor a philosophy to guide him.

If the story of Reuben's search for Jewish selfhood during his college years seems a bit too neat and tidy, it might be because he was a fictional character created by Columbia University philosophy professor Irwin Edman. At the time he invented Reuben Cohen in 1926, the thirty-year-old Edman rarely had strayed far from Columbia. …

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