Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

By Rachel Kranson | Go to book overview

FOUR
What Kind of Job is That
for a nice Jewish boy?:
Masculinity in an Upwardly Mobile Community

In a popular joke that circulated among American Jews in the late 1950s, three Jewish mothers conferred with one another about their sons’ career choices. One mother proudly stated that her son recently graduated from law school and accepted a job at a prominent law firm for a salary of $12,000 a year. The second mother happily reported that her son owned a flourishing dry goods business that brought in more than $25,000 a year. The third mother retained an embarrassed silence throughout the conversation. Finally, upon the cajoling of her companions, she admitted that her own son entered the rabbinate and earned an annual salary of only $4,500. Her friends exclaimed, “What kind of job is that for a nice Jewish boy?”1

This joke found its audience among a community wrestling with shifting conceptions of masculinity in the wake of the rapid upward mobility that characterized the years after World War II. Though it exaggerated postwar Jews’ actual attitudes toward the rabbinate, the joke played with the growing assumption that a “nice Jewish boy”—that is to say, a Jewish man who dutifully lived up to the expectations of his family and his community—needed to be an upper-middle-class breadwinner. It achieved its humorous effect by intimating that the rabbinate, traditionally a position of prestige for Jewish men, had lost much of its luster in the new, affluent world of American Jews because of its comparatively low earning potential. The joke underscored a widespread perception that postwar Jews had betrayed older and more Jewishly authentic notions of appropriate masculinity as they adopted high earning power as the sole measure of male success.2

The notion that joining the middle class had somehow stifled the lives of Jewish men did not appear only in jokes. Indeed, for many American Jewish

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