Commentary Magazine


On Equal Terms: Jews in America 1881-1981, by Lucy S. Dawidowicz

Land of Promise

On Equal Terms: Jews in America 1881-1981.
by Lucy S. Dawidowicz.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 194 pp. $12.95.

Lucy S. Dawidowicz first prepared this study for the American Jewish Year Book to mark the hundredth anniversary of the beginnings of Jewish mass migration from Eastern Europe in 1881. For this book, her text has been enlarged and embellished with statistics and a very useful chronology of important events in American Jewish history.

As a narrative, this account reads very smoothly, and an irenic tone—one might almost say, an ecumenical tone—pervades it. This is not hagiography or polemic, glorification or excuse. For one who is not Jewish, albeit an aficionado of the literature of immigration, the story Mrs. Dawidowicz tells is not only informative but—when all is said and done—breathtaking.

Sometimes, it seems, American Jews, involved in scores of intramural controversies, hardly recognize how spectacular their achievement in America has been against the backdrop of history. Most American Jews (like most Catholics) were not quite ready to celebrate their first hundred years in America when the United States was celebrating its bicentennial in 1976. For many of us, arrival in America is still a family memory. And one has to know what history has been like in other places—in Poland and in Russia, in Germany, France, Britain—to grasp the full weight of Mrs. Dawidowicz’s words as she summarizes the American difference:

The United States was the first country in the world to give the Jews political equality and religious liberty, enabling them, as no other nation-state had, fully to exercise their rights as citizens and, at the same time, freely to observe their religion, sustain their traditions, and perpetuate their culture.

The migration to America was the largest single dispersion of the Jews in history, an epic story that has not yet been fully told. To America, in a manner perhaps unknown even to themselves, the Jews brought skills and social habits that equipped them for the unprecedented historical experiment they were about to embark upon. For one thing, as Mrs. Dawidowicz notes, infant mortality was unusually low among Jews. For another, “networking” was a highly developed art. One may wonder if any group in history has perfected such skills of cooperative social life and institution-building. In some sense, the Jews were a democratic people—at least in the sense of forming committees—even before democratic society gave them scope for their abilities.

An additional feature that served the Jews well and to which Mrs. Dawidowicz points is economic—the marked Jewish preference for self-employment. “The Great Depression,” she writes, “halted Jewish mobility, but . . . because so many Jews were self-employed, they seemed to weather economic hardships better than those masses of Americans employed in America’s basic industries.” This habit clearly differentiated Jews from many of the Catholic immigrants of the same period who disproportionately sought industrial work (or Protestant immigrants who flocked to the Midwest to become farmers).

And then there was, underlying their economic behavior, a particularly Jewish orientation to the future. Most Jewish immigrants, even those not socialist (a proportion that has anyway been overstated by, among others, Irving Howe in World of Our Fathers), “subscribed to the secular messianism that the radicals preached: the hope for a better world.” This hope was not disappointed: “As the decade of the 1930’s came to an end, Jews in America had clearly become the most fortunate Jews in the world.”

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“The promise of American democracy and egalitarianism,” Mrs. Dawidowicz writes, “was that any penniless immigrant could make it, that everyone could become part of middle-class America.” There is something of a problem here, a large issue which Mrs. Dawidowicz hardly has space to raise. It has to do with the peculiar conflict that arises in America—for Jews as for others—when the promise of middle-class status is once realized. In focusing as she does on the internal tensions between German and Eastern European Jews, or among the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative movements, or between loyalty to tradition (both ethnic and religious) and the forces of Americanization, Mrs. Dawidowicz overlooks somewhat the spiritual tension that exists between the self-professed values of many Jews and their achieved position in society.

For the fact is that the very promise of life in a commercial republic—that “everyone could become part of middle-class America”—runs at cross purposes with many of our ethnic, religious, and intellectual traditions. To put it starkly, many of us have been brought up to think ill of middle-class life, if not to despise it. To say of someone that he is bourgeois, or has middle-class taste, is no compliment. Thus the abiding cultural contradiction of American life: the promise of the nation is denied by disesteem for its fulfillment.

This is a serious moral and intellectual matter, and one that goes far beyond issues of economic security. I doubt whether Jews, or Christians, in any other age, in any other class, under any other regime, have achieved, in such large numbers, the ordinary graces of civilized life that they have in middle-class America. Among those civilized and civilizing virtues are the arts of tolerance, cooperation, benevolence, fellow-feeling, compromise, sympathy between peoples, and pride in one another’s success. These are the values by which most Americans steer their course, and they are quintessentially middle-class. Yet neither the Jewish nor the Christian religious tradition, nor secular messianism, quite prepares us to celebrate them, and the exercise of denying their connection with the middle class has involved many Jews (and other Americans) in prodigious bouts of self-hatred.

Mrs. Dawidowicz, herself, exemplifies these civilizing values in her book. She is uncommonly sympathetic to Catholics and to Protestants, trying to see things as they must see them. In this way she redeems yet another promise of American democracy, the promise of pluralism or, as she puts it, “the interplay of living cultures.” In her epilogue she cites with approval the church historian Winthrop Hudson, who pointed to the “dual commitments” of a pluralist society, “in which the integrity of different faiths is preserved while adherents of the several traditions engage in open dialogue.” As Hudson went on to note, and as Mrs. Dawidowicz shows convincingly in this little book, “From the long experience of Judaism, Americans of other faiths can learn how this may be done with both grace and integrity.”

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