Commentary Magazine


America's Jews, by Marshall Sklare

In the New World

America’s Jews.
by Marshall Sklare.
Random House. 234 pp. $6.95

The United States, it has often been noted, was the first society in history to have been founded consciously as a nation, its own history, in effect, being the evolution of the social processes that forged national unity. Moreover, as these things go, America’s history spans but a moment in time, lacking the centuries-old accretions of traditions and tensions—social, political, economic, religious, and cultural—that mark European polities. There is a further distinction. Brief as American history may be, in its entirety it belongs to only a part of its citizenry—to the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, to be precise. For America is preponderantly a nation of immigrants and in the main has only part-time heirs, so to speak, of its past. At the time of the Civil War the American population numbered some 31 million, but in the period between 1865, when the war ended, and 1925, when the restrictive immigration laws went into effect, America took in over 32 million immigrants—which is to say that close to half of the present-day U.S. population, the descendants of the immigrant masses, have no direct ancestral memories or family traditions that trace back to the Civil War.

The children of the immigrants learned about America’s past from teachers and from books and not as part of inherited family traditions. Thus were they assimilated into the American ethos, the process of assimilation itself becoming a factor in American history. The history of America which the immigrants and their children might themselves recount was, in all likelihood, not the history they had learned at school, but that of their own acculturation, of the immigrant struggles and adjustments and accommodations which form the very center of the American historical experience.

It is this experience as it affects American Jews that Marshall Sklare has undertaken to describe in his latest book, America’s Jews. The focus of the work is on Jewish identity—its private and public faces, its normal and pathological aspects, the formal and informal means through which it is transmitted and reinforced. From this central investigation Sklare proceeds to an exploration of American Jews in relation to the two basic forces acting upon them: the influences of world Jewry, past and present, and the countervailing influences of America, Christian, secular, and pluralist. The result is sociological topography of a very high order, comprising an imaginative mapping of the American Jewish experience in all its facets.

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Sklare uses the term “Jewish identity” to signify the Jew’s acceptance of his Jewishness and of his sense of belonging to the Jewish group. In America, Jewishness is a matter of personal choice, in contrast to most pre-war European states where Jews became members at birth of a legally-constituted and officially-defined Jewish community having governmental status. A Jew could take his leave from such a community only by submitting a formal petition to the municipality; upon approval, the petitioner was then classified as a “nonbeliever.” In Poland, where the Ministry of Religion did not recognize “nonbelievers” as a category, the only effective way of withdrawing from the Jewish group was through conversion. But America, as they say, is different. Here group membership is considered strictly a private matter and nonidentification with the Jewish group involves no communal penalty or public sanction since it requires no public declaration of disaffiliation (as in Weimar Germany, for instance, where the local Jewish communities, informed by the municipality of Jewish withdrawals, used to publish notices in the newspapers under the heading “Austritte aus dem Judentum”). Nevertheless, as Sklare hastens to point out, even though in America the state is neutral on the matter of group identity, the decision to be or not to be a Jew (or a member of any other minority group) is not entirely a matter of individual choice; for the choice must be legitimated not only by the individual’s own group, but also by the larger society. The discrepancies between self-definition and external legitimation are often at painful variance—as witness the case of those black Jews who are full-fledged Jews by all the criteria of rabbinic law, yet are rejected as such by most American Jews and are regarded simply as blacks by society at large.

Given this situation, where the decision of Jewish affiliation is a personal and voluntary one, the extraordinary thing is that the overwhelming majority of America’s Jews do in fact identify themselves as such and, for the most part, try to give shape and substance to that identity. The most common form which this takes is organized religion, though religious observance, as we all know, is not practiced too scrupulously.

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Secularization, as Sklare explains, has made greater inroads in Judaism than among other religions in America, and this is due to the special nature of the Jewish sacred system which, more than any other, encompasses almost the entire round of diurnal activity. But even before the mass immigration to America, secularization, abetted by urbanization and industrialization, had begun to invade traditional Jewish society and to chip away at the traditional patterns of faith. In America the process was hastened by an eagerness to acculturate to American society. Thus, many Jewish observances came to be seen, in Sklare’s phrase, as “disharmonious with the environment”; the Judaism practiced in the Old World underwent a series of adjustments to accord with the American situation, where, as Sklare indicates, the Jew “is guided by a new personalism rather than by an old prescriptionism.” (He is quick to note, however, that the personalism in question is not all that individualistic, but is determined by the prevailing environment.) Speculating on why some observances have been retained and others dropped, Sklare concludes that the highest degree of retention occurs when a ritual “is capable of effective redefinition in modern times,” when it “does not demand social isolation or the adoption of a unique life style,” when it “accords with the religious culture of the larger community while providing a ‘Jewish’ alternative when such is felt to be needed,” and when it “is centered on the child.”

Traditionally, it was the family that was charged with the responsibility of transmitting a sense of Jewish affiliation to the child and of imbuing Jewish values in the young. But most American-Jewish parents, lacking even rudimentary knowledge of Judaism or familiarity with the Jewish past, are not able to fulfill their traditional task. Consequently, they have transformed the functions of certain communal institutions—primarily the synagogue and the school—and given them a surrogate parental role. It is not altogether a discouraging development, for, as Sklare writes, “community persists, because identity persists.” Once having been brought into existence, the community and its institutions operate out of a dynamic of their own, and while serving the need for identity, they also stimulate and foster it.

To be sure, wherever Jews have lived, the synagogue has been the central Jewish institution. In this respect America is not different, yet in America the synagogue has undergone a profound sea-change. In its European habitat, the synagogue was primarily a place of worship and of religious study. In America it vastly expanded its functions to become a communal center as well, thus accommodating the needs and desires of its members to maintain and transmit their Jewish identity.1 The behavior of American Jews indicates that their choice of this religious identity does not necessarily affirm a personal commitment to Judaism, but rather of membership in the Jewish people.

The gaping discrepancy between some of the more egregious Jewish practices and the historic Jewish tradition they are meant to represent is an easy target for adolescent rebels and self-righteous literalists. But the form which Jewish identity has taken, whether one likes it or not, is the heritage of the modernism that Jews have been trying to live with ever since the late 18th century, when the French revolutionary National Assembly reluctantly enfranchised the Jews at the price of membership in their own corporate communities. It is a heritage fraught with paradox. The “enlightened” Jews of the period, who had already begun to abandon religious observance, were the very ones who hastened to accept a religious definition of the Jewish polity in deference to the demands of the modern nation-state. The traditionalist Jews, on the other hand, insisted on a national or ethnic dimension in defining themselves as Jews.

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Self-conscious and sensitive, because for two centuries they were harassed for being both a religious entity and a nationality (and stateless to boot), Jews still tend to forget that this nexus of identity is not an exclusive Jewish property. Even today Northern Ireland and the Indian subcontinent bear out Leopold von Ranke’s observation of a hundred years ago that “in most periods of world history nations were held together by religious ties alone.” Nor could Arab nationalism muster any dynamism without the rallying power of Islam. Yet how many people in Ireland, Bangladesh, Syria, or Egypt fully believe in the teachings of their respective religions? Still, their religious loyalties remain, and it is these that shape and strengthen national identity.

So too with American Jews. The overwhelming majority of Jews in America today—all, except for a handful of unreconstructed secularists—define Jews as members of a religious faith, even if they regard that faith as merely a buttress to communal survival. This is in accordance with the American pattern of pluralism which, as Will Herberg had occasion to write some years ago, is largely defined in religious terms. Efforts to retain a national/ethnic group identity without a religious framework have been singularly unsuccessful. Out of this understanding of America, Marshall Sklare concludes, American Jews have constructed a community which, although it may not hold true to all the particulars of the Jewish tradition, still has set the historic Jewish faith as the cornerstone of its existence.

Written with an insider’s commitment and a scholar’s expertise, America’s Jews succeeds admirably in maintaining objectivity and distance. Without a doubt it is now the best single work we have about American Jews. Still, it is a popular work—to be consumed, so to speak, by college students and a mass Jewish audience. The really definitive sociology of American Jews still needs to be written, and one hopes that Professor Sklare will turn to that task soon.

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Footnotes

1 But not only in America. In the Soviet Union young Jews—totally secularized and totally ignorant of Judaism—congregate outside local synagogues on the festival of Simhat Torah to demonstrate their Jewish affiliation. Their behavior is reminiscent of that of the Jewish secular radicals in Czarist Russia, who returned, after the trauma of the pogroms of 1881, to the Jewish community.

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