Commentary Magazine


Mr. Gans Replies

To the Editor:

I suppose every sociological study of a Jewish community—or any community—brings forth a letter like Mr. Perlmutter’s. This is no doubt the result of the fact that a community looks different to someone acting within it than it does to an outsider. The outsider, being neutral, talks freely to both sides and hears things that never come to the ears of the community leader.

If Mr. Perlmutter had interviewed close to 50 per cent of the 140 Jewish families then in the village, as I did, he would have discovered that a majority did not want personal involvement, especially in the religious-cultural sphere. At the same time, they accepted Jewish religious education, interpreted in its broadest sense, for their children. The split between adult and child orientation was quite evident.

Perhaps it is in the nature of things, but it is unfortunate that community leaders cannot also see their community to some degree as the sociologist does. The former, overworked as he usually is, and short of time, tends to have most of his contact with other leaders in the community, while the interviewing sociologist can and does talk to other people who make up the community, people who do not organize B’nai B’riths and Hadassahs but who come to meetings when they feel like it. For these people, Chanukah is a major problem. The women I talked to went to the Council meeting with more than a genuine desire to learn about the holiday; they also had to contend with children who wanted Christmas trees and Santa Clauses. Perhaps that is why they purchased $300 worth of Chanukah items.

I am also sorry that Mr. Perlmutter views the study as a series of moral judgments against Park Forest. I attempted to show the life of young Jewish families in an American community as objectively as possible, without moral evaluations.

To comment on some of the points Mr. Perlmutter mentions:

(1) I said nothing about letters of introduction, but spoke about formal introductions and previous acquaintances. My interview material—obtained from two research projects, the second in the non-Jewish community—supports my thesis.

(2) The accusation I quoted was leveled against a group of women from the Council, not the Council itself. However, I should like to contradict Mr. Perlmutter to the extent of saying that the Sunday school-congregation conflict was only secondarily economic. When I was making my study, a group of men wanted to set up a congregation and I was told by one of its leaders that certain people in Park Forest were willing to subsidize heavily the construction of a synagogue. But there was then no community support for a congregation.

(3) Because of the tensions between the various sides, I was asked not to come to the discussion referred to. Interviewing the participants afterwards, including Mr. Perlmutter, it was clear to me that the adult-child orientation split was at the bottom of the conflict. Nobody I talked to ever objected to the Board of Jewish Education curriculum, but they did object to having to continue the Sunday school education of the children at home.

(4) The number of organizations indicates little except that there are people who have organized them. In 1949 Park Forest was no different from other Jewish and non-Jewish communities in that a few people were “active” in organizations, and a handful did the work.

(5) I said nothing about motivating factors, but indicated that the richer Jews joined the Heights congregation, whose dues, I was told by a number of other Park Foresters, were out of reach of the bulk of the residents.

(6) The quote is obviously rather extreme; the rest of my own remarks on the subject presented a more balanced picture.

(7) There was much less disagreement among Catholics and Lutherans, since they are both rather centralized groups. There was as much disagreement among the other Protestant groups about an attempt to set up a community church as in the Jewish community. As I said previously, there was plenty of money available to the Jewish community for building.

(8) As far as I know, Mr. Perlmutter is the only one who has accused me of getting “the ball rolling” on anti-Semitism. If he had been with me on my interviewing, Mr. Perlmutter would have heard the complaints that there was too much talk about anti-Semitism, and would have noted the speed and intensity with which many people answered my questions as to whether there had been any anti-Semitism in Park Forest. This is reported in my article.

It seems to me that the social scientist can make a real contribution to Jewish community leaders by extensive interviewing and objective observation. Such studies would show the tremendous task that faces American Jewish leaders in the next decades. Ignoring facts does not help matters.

Herbert J. Gans
Chicago, Illinois

_____________

 

About the Author