Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry

Article excerpt

by Samuel G. Freedman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. 397 pp. $26.00.

Although in most other lands acceptance of Jews lasted for relatively short periods, throughout American history Jews have had a home in this country. Only between the ends of World Wars I and II (approximately 1919-1945) did Jews seriously worry about the pervasiveness of American antisemitism. Some Jews even feared that what was happening in Hitler's Germany could also occur in the United States. At the end of the Second World War, however, American attitudes began to change, and in 1955 historian Oscar Handlin wrote that the position of Jews in the United States was far better than anyone could have possibly imagined only two decades earlier. By the 1970s laws and customs had evolved so that educational, employment, and social barriers (except for exclusive country clubs) had all but disappeared. One still finds animosity amongst disgruntled members of minority groups, skinheads, and religious fanatics. But these groups constitute a small minority of the American population. According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 1998 about 12 percent of the population harbored strong negative feelings about Jews.

Now that acceptance is no longer a significant issue in the United States, Samuel Freedman informs us that the greatest problem for American Jews is the attitudes and prejudices of other Jews. Through personal observation, extensive interviews, and use of secondary sources, he has concluded that the biggest divide within American Jewry stems from differences in behavior and belief. From Great Neck to Jerusalem he has witnessed "the struggle that pits secularist against believer, denomination against denomination, gender against gender, liberal against conservative, traditionalist against modernist within each branch. It is a struggle being waged on issues ranging from conversion standards to the peace process [in Israel], from land use to the role of women in worship. It is a struggle that has torn asunder families, communities, and congregations".

His narrative then takes us from a Jewish summer camp in the Catskills to orthodox congregations in Jacksonville, Florida, Denver, and Los Angeles. There are discussions of Jewish secularists, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Conservadox Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews, and ultra Orthodox Jews. It seems that most of them find difficulty living with Jews whose religious practices differ significantly from their own. Should the ultra Orthodox dictate who is and who is not a Jew? Should Reform Jews and Jewish secularists try to keep Orthodox institutions from expanding in their communities? Should women be granted the same rights and privileges as men in synagogues and temples? These topics dominate Freedman's analyses, and they seem to plague many individual Jews as well. Some Jews want to assimilate into, while others want to accommodate to, the dominant culture.

Since the late 1960s when the Six Day War in Israel gave Jews the world over a great sense of confidence and belonging, there has been a much more positive attitude about being Jewish. In the United States the war coincided with the great changes of the decade and ethnicity soon became chic. People wore pins indicating their pride in being Italian or Polish. Michael Novak wrote a book (The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics) praising Slavs and Greeks. In 1973 the federal government passed legislation encouraging celebrations of one's ethnic heritage. And a number of Jews raised in secular homes suddenly decided that they would be more comfortable living a more observant life.

Although it is unlikely that observant Jews constitute even 10 percent of the American Jewish population, they receive disproportionate attention in the media. …

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