A Portrait of the American Jewish Community

By Baum, Rob K. | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

A Portrait of the American Jewish Community


Baum, Rob K., Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


A Portrait of the American Jewish Community. Norman Linzer, David J. Schnall, and Jerome A. Chanes, eds. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998. 229 pp.

A Portrait of the American Jewish Community seems at first a contemporary, informed attempt to answer the old-and, for Jews, imperative--question, "What is a Jew?" And in the leading chapter Norman Linzer does project the "changing nature of Jewish identity," with what he calls the postmodern "decline of dissonance," a euphemism for the experience of Jewish difference. The beginning is suggestive of the philosophical treatise on the collapse of modern Jewish identity formulated in such work as Rabbi Michael Goldberg's Why Should Jews Survive? (New York: Oxford, 1998). But the book's carefully detailed chapters on Jewish American federations, social service agencies, urban communities and outreach programs it is actually a resource for social scientists and others working in the areas of modern United States Jewry.

For an anthology, the volume is unusually cohesive; one need not ponder the connections between the title and the book's twelve lucid chapters. More than half of the contributors are themselves involved in Jewish social services-at the management levelgiving the Portrait a kind of groundedness not always found in academic texts. The remaining contributors are known professors working at Jewish universities and yeshivot in the United States and Israel. Yet, the appearance of only one female among fifteen authors is not at all representative of Jewish American society, particularly in regard to Jewish-and non-Jewishwelfare, where women dominate the field as activists, lobbyists, leaders, workers, care-takers, top management, and resource personnel.

That acknowleged, the writers patently desire to be understood by a variety of people not necessarily working in the academy; thus English language is not used as an obstacle to understanding. The same may be said of the sparse Hebrew usage, employed only when the term is generally known, and translated in situ. The book logically moves from the past to the future, with essays on Israel and new Russian Jewish immigrants positioned towards the end. And while the index could have benefited from clearer, more readerfriendly guidelines, making it a more convenient research tool, the chapters do provide what is promised.

This is particularly true with regard to Lawrence Grossman's remarkably comprehensive writing on "Jewish Religion in America," the only chapter to address the Jewish American past. Grossman's work stands out with its descriptive history and (albeit brief) considerations of education, religious observance, feminism, and homosexuality. Symbolically located in the center of the Portrait, this chapter follows the arrival of the Spanish Jews in the Colonies, their first difficulties with the anti-Semitic Peter Stuyvesant, and how they built their small numbers into modern, independent communities. Such a history clarifies why Jews in what is now the United States have, like Jews elsewhere in the world, maintained an air of independence even while integrating and assimilating, and why the proliferation of Jewishgoverned relief organizations has always been deemed an essential element of Jewish American-and for that matter, Gentile American-life.

The book's presumptuously chauvinist title-no part of Central or South America is at issue, nor is all of North America-is indicative of the United States' attitude towards its own powerful centrality, but also of the esteem with which the U.S. Jewish population regards its country. Jews in the United States tend to speak of Judaism as a "way of life" rather than a religion, at once emphasizing the cultural aspects of Judaism and (unconsciously?) de-emphasizing the threat of being part of a "different" religion. They may be the only minority population to place "America" first in their dual identity, considering themselves "American Jews" rather than "Jewish Americans. …

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