Academic journal article Shofar

Further Forward through the Past: Postwar American Jews Reconfigure the East European Tradition in Cultural Terms

Academic journal article Shofar

Further Forward through the Past: Postwar American Jews Reconfigure the East European Tradition in Cultural Terms

Article excerpt

On September 22, 1964, the notion of the Jewish tradition was publicly reinvented in a spectacular way. In the Broadway premiere of the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the leading character Tevye, played by Zero Mostel, offered a broad definition of tradition: "Here in Anatevka we have a tradition for everything-how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes," he said. "For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God." The song, aptly called "Tradition," goes on to define the roles of fathers, mothers, and children within the family and in the social body of a traditional Jewish community. Moreover, it describes the function of the tradition: "Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years."1

The song set the theme for the musical, which quickly became a smash hit, particularly with Jewish audiences, who made for its outsized cultural relevance. Fiddler had 3,242 performances, making it one of the longest-running Broadway shows for years.2 Night after night, its opening song raised the question which this article explores: How did postwar American Jews relate to the religious tradition?

To this question the musical not only provides one of various competing answers that were discussed among postwar American Jews; set in the fictitious Russian shtetl Anatevka, Fiddler also spoke to a phenomenon that is common to the otherwise very different answers: American Jews turned to their Eastern European past, as they looked for the meaning of their Jewishness in their American present. The tradition, defined here as the set of those features of a way of life related to religion, was of particular relevance in this process of reconstruction and reappropriation of Judaism in the religious sense and Jewishness as an ethno-cultural concept.3 After the shock of the Holocaust and in the face of new opportunities in America, American Jews sought to redefine Jewishness grounded in the Jewish tradition and past, but also adequate to the newness of the American present. In this quest, they transformed the tradition in crucial ways that pointed to a cultural concept of Judaism and Jewishness that transcended the narrow concepts of religion.

This article explores this large-scale phenomenon by first looking at the cultural constellation that urged postwar American Jewry to engage with their past and the tradition in new ways. In a second step, it focuses on how contemporary rabbis and other thinkers who were committed to the tradition and to religious concepts of Judaism redefined it in light of the new constellation. This loose group of academics, pulpit rabbis, and writers, some American born, some immigrant, was part of the religious elite of a new generation that, across the denominations, sensed the need for changes to established patterns, particularly of liberal Judaism.4 The article argues that these thinkers' shift toward cultural concepts of Judaism presents a larger pattern in the development of postwar American Jewry. The concluding section places the findings about religious thinkers into the context of a larger postwar American Jewish discourse: secular intellectuals around Commentary and Partisan Review, leftists of various flavors, Yiddishists around the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and other ideological groups publicly debated the nature of Jewishness in relation to the religious tradition.

Much of the debate in the religious segment of American Jewry took place in newly founded journals between the 1940s and 1960s, which form the major source basis of this analysis. The journal Judaism, founded in 1952 and written and read by many rabbis and other religious thinkers, became an important forum for the debate about the way American Jews could and should relate to the Jewish tradition.5 Denominational journals and the writings of individual thinkers, among them the philosophers Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber, form another source base for this study of the postwar American debate about the nature of Judaism and Jewishness. …

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