Role Models or Foils for American Jews? the Eternal Light, Displaced Persons, and the Construction of Jewishness in Mid-Twentieth-Century America

By Krah, Markus | American Jewish History, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Role Models or Foils for American Jews? the Eternal Light, Displaced Persons, and the Construction of Jewishness in Mid-Twentieth-Century America


Krah, Markus, American Jewish History


In the late 1940s, the widely broadcast radio program The Eternal Light touted its topics and mission in a small red brochure. It promised "a story from the Jewish heritage--a story of today," that would appeal to many American Jews because it offered "a message of faith--(and) of hope." Moreover, the brochure promised the program would be relevant to "the current scene" but also would provide reminders about the "experiences of yesterday." "Jews in America--Jews in Poland, Palestine, Germany--D.P.s" (Jews languishing in Europe's refugee camps) all came under its purview. The brochure further assured readers that they would hear "a message of warmth and love about an ancient and a modern people devoted to God, builders of civilization." Finally, it claimed that the program was "heard by 6,000,000 Christians and Jews every Sunday over a nationwide NBC network." (2) These few lines summarized the program's ambitious goal: to present Judaism as a time-tested, universal cultural resource with profound relevance to both Jews and non-Jews in present-day America.

The promotional brochure reflected both the spirit of the program, produced by Conservative Judaism's flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York, and key themes the program addressed in the postwar years. Through innovative, twenty-five-minute radio dramas, the show explained Judaism's basic religious concepts, emphasizing its ethical message of compassion and justice, retold biblical and Talmudic stories, and recounted pivotal events in Jewish history, such as the expulsion from Spain and the felicitous American Jewish experience. The program targeted both a Jewish and a non-Jewish audience, aiming, in the words of JTS president Louis Finkelstein, "to explain Judaism to the American public and to give Jews a better appreciation of their own heritage." (3) Listener comments preserved by JTS suggest that it achieved the desired effects, at least for some of its audience: "I am a prouder and happier Jew after each performance," one of these listeners stated. Another echoed: "My Christian friends listen to it, too, and I'm sure that it gives them the best insight into the why's [sic] and wherefor's [sic] of our race." (4)

These whys and wherefores of American Jewry were much in flux in the postwar period. Many scholars have explained that a broad swath of the country's Jews in that era sought acceptance as Americans by their new suburban middle-class neighbors, but also hoped to maintain a personally meaningful sense of their Jewishness. (5) The balance between integration and distinctiveness was a key concern to American Jews and a key theme of The Eternal Light. It underlay the questions pondered by American Jews in the years after World War II and the Holocaust. On the one hand, NBC's suggestion for a Jewish counterpart to the existing Christian radio programs presaged what sociologist Will Herberg, a decade later, would describe: Judaism--the religion of about 3.5 percent of the American population in the 1940s--had been accepted as a national faith. On the other hand, he noted that despite their new-found social acceptance there was a feeling of "perplexity and restlessness" among American Jews, who asked: "Was this all there was to Judaism after all?" (6) "We ... are very much in need of spiritual guidance," a listener from Lyndonville, Vt., admitted in a letter to The Eternal Light. (7) The program aspired to provide such guidance. It emerged as an important voice in an era marked by confusion about what it meant to be Jewish in America and in a transformed Jewish world. From 1944 on, it addressed two distinct, yet related concerns. It sought to teach non-Jews about Judaism (and thus legitimize the Jews' role in the mainstream of American society); and it responded to the perception among Jews that Jewishness, in order to be meaningful, had to be more than a label denoting membership in a social group

The Eternal Light's answer to the question of meaningful Jewishness, and by extension, to the larger question of Jewish integration and distinctiveness in America, was intricately tied to the reality of the post-Holocaust Jewish world and to the way the program interpreted both the Holocaust and the Jewish polity in Palestine/Israel. …

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