Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

By Rachel Kranson | Go to book overview

SIX
From Generation to Generation:
The Jewish Counterculture’s Critique of Affluence

In 1971 the Baltimore-Washington Union of Jewish Students published the following scathing assessment of Jewish life in America: “To be a Jew on America’s terms is to go to temple on the High Holy Days for $50 a seat…. To be a Jew on America’s terms is to trade in historical and religious ethics of social justice for a $60,000 house in Silver Spring or Stevenson…. To be a Jew on America’s terms is to forget 2000 years of oppression because of 20 years of prosperity.” The final words of this advertisement, printed in all capital letters to emphasize its importance, summed up their perspective: “TO BE A JEW ON AMERICA’S TERMS IS NOT TO BE A JEW AT ALL.”1

The Baltimore-Washington Union of Jewish students represented one of the many Jewish youth collectives that began to crop up in North America beginning in the late 1960s. Largely the products of middle-class, suburban, Jewish neighborhoods, these young Jews tried to reinvent American Jewish life in the spirit of the global youth revolt of the late 1960s. Referring to themselves as “Jewish Radicals,” the “New Jewish Left,” the “Jewish movement,” and the “Jewish counterculture,” they rejected the culture of affluence in which they had been raised and denied the possibility that a middle-class lifestyle could be compatible with an authentically Jewish one.2

The many, loosely organized collectives inspired by the Jewish counterculture included a myriad of residential communes, alternative prayer communities, and political action groups. They advanced a variety of causes, some of which overlapped, and some that actually contradicted one another.3 The common denominator linking together all of these disparate undertakings, however, was a pointed critique of the middle-class Jewish culture that had been instituted by the older generation of American Jews. Indeed, the “New

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