Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Decline and Rise of Secular Judaism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Decline and Rise of Secular Judaism

Article excerpt

in his 1782 book Letters from an American Farmer, John de Crèvecoeur asked the most famous and important question in American history: "What then is the American, this new man?" The authentic American leaves behind him "all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds." The American "entertains new ideas, and forms new opinions." Crèvecoeur was enthusiastic about this new man whose "labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world."

Mark Twain, Henry James, and other of our greatest writers have contrasted American innocence, newness, and freedom with European sophistication, corruption, and fatigue. Our most famous folk hero, the cowboy, continually strikes out for the west, rejecting everything to the east, including Europe. Our language values change over tradition. To be a go-getter is better than to be a stick-in-the-mud. While British politicians stand for office, American politicians run for office. Twentieth-century politicians emphasized their break with tradition by naming their programs the New Nationalism, the New Freedom, the New Deal, and the New Frontier.

It is not surprising that some American Jews should reject much of their past and develop new forms of Jewish identity. The issue of identity is more problematic for them than for other Americans, since there is no agreement among Jews as to what is authentically Jewish or even who can be considered a Jew.

Do Jews comprise a religion, a race, an ethnic group, a nationality, or a cultural community with its own values, languages, and customs? Should people with a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother be considered Jews, as the Reform movement has declared, or is being Jewish dependent on matrilineal descent, as Conservative and Orthodox Jews believe? And what does Jewishness involve, when, as many have noted, the label "Jewish" is given to people of Jewish descent who have become entirely secular or assimilated or even deny being Jewish?

America, the land of the self-made man, is also the land of the self-made Jew. While American Jews have not generally thought of themselves as a chosen people, as this would hardly be the way to make friends and influence people, they certainly have been a choosing people when it came to defining their ethnic and religious identity. A United States senator named Cohen could choose not to identify as a Jew, while a black Jew named Greenberg could become the police chief of Charleston, South Carolina.

In America, Judaism was transmuted into a religious persuasion that could be modified, as one wag put it, at the drop of a hat (or skullcap). Jews became adept at selecting those aspects of Judaism and Jewishness that harmonized with their identity as modern Americans. The most popular of these did not interfere with their acculturation, did not make them conspicuous, and were attuned to democratic values.

In keeping with that development, the key element in the ethnic and religious identity of some Jews during the 1950s and 1960s was their support for the civil rights movement. They pointed to the murdered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner as models, even though Goodman denied that he was motivated by anything Jewish and Schwerner disowned even being Jewish, preferring to call himself simply a human being. For still other Jews, Jewish identity has revolved around such secular causes as lobbying for Israel, fund-raising for Jewish communal institutions, fighting anti-Semitism, and venerating the victims of the Holocaust.

It is the various choices Jews have made that most interest historians, sociologists, demographers, and other onlookers. The historian Jenna Weissman Joselit, for example, in her fascinating 1994 book The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950, emphasized the penchant of American Jews to invent and then reinvent Jewish identity. …

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