Commentary Magazine


The Transformation of the Jews, by Calvin Goldscheider and Alan Zuckerman

Modernity & the Jews

The Transformation of the Jews.
by Calvin Goldscheider and Alan Zuckerman.
University of Chicago Press. 279 pp. $24.95.

The Bible characterizes the Jews as “a people that dwells apart,” but Calvin Goldscheider and Alan Zuckerman will have none of that. As social scientists engaged in the study of Jewish life, they take it for granted that Jewish existence is shaped by the exact same forces that shape group life in general. Moreover, they insist that conditions prevailing in the larger society play the key role in defining even the internal Jewish situation. Working from these premises, Goldscheider and Zuckerman here put forward a full-scale revisionist analysis of the “effects of modernization on Jews.”

By any measure, the changes that have occurred to Jews in the modern period are monumental. One thinks immediately of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, events marking, respectively, the eclipse pf European Jewry and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty after a hiatus of nearly two millennia. Hardly any less important is the emergence of the United States as a great center of Jewish life, containing the largest Jewish population in the world. And Goldscheider and Zuckerman point to the following “staggering alterations” as well:

. . . Religious denominations have appeared bringing Jewish prayers in a variety of languages and theologies in diverse modes of thought. . . . Jewish political movements have formed espousing socialist, Zionist, religious, and ethnic ideologies. . . . Jews have migrated across the globe. . . . From filling traditional roles as middlemen, merchants, and artisans, Jews moved into the salaried and professional classes. . . .

How is one to come to grips with the modern Jewish experience? Goldscheider and Zuckerman forcefully argue that it will not do to treat the various elements in isolation. Rather, they maintain, a mode of analysis is needed that will encompass the whole of the Jewish engagement with modernity. Their chosen instrument for this purpose is the concept of modernization itself, the “master theme of contemporary social science.” Applying this theme, they systematically develop comparisons among Jewish communities over time and space. Indeed, in this regard The Transformation of the Jews is something of a tour de force.

Goldscheider and Zuckerman move as far back into the past as the traditional Jewish society of pre-modern Europe and as far forward into the present as the America and Israel of yesterday’s newspaper headlines; naturally, they also speculate about the future. In their chapter on traditional Jewish society—a ubiquitous phenomenon on the European scene until the French Revolution ushered in the era of Jewish emancipation—they underscore two points: Jewish life was characterized by a high degree of isolation, and there was very extensive overlap among the elements of “family, religion, politics, social status, residence, and economic position.” Needless to say, this made for a close-knit communal existence, with multiple bases for Jewish cohesion.

The whole of the modern Jewish experience, Goldscheider and Zuckerman make clear, represents the inexorable unfolding of a process—sometimes gradual, sometimes swift—by which Jews have been drawn out of their isolation and placed in a brave new world in which Jewish cohesiveness is anything but assured. The actual working out of that process is described by the authors in a series of chapters bearing such revealing titles as “Political Modernization: The Early Transformation of the Jewish Community”; “The Tempo and Intensity of Modernization: Assimilation or Transformation in Western Europe”; “Modernization in Large and Organized Jewish Communities: Comparing East and West Europe”; “Modernization and American Jews: Issues of Quantity and Quality”; and “Immigration and the Emergence of Israeli Society.”

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As Goldscheider and Zuckerman trace the course of the modern Jewish experience, certain key interpretative themes clearly emerge. One, already noted, is that the Jewish situation at every turn is largely a function of conditions prevailing in non-Jewish society; the latter both sets strict limits upon Jewish life and defines its possibilities. Thus, the whole process of Jewish modernization was set in motion when European nations, in the wake of the French Revolution, began to award citizenship to the alien Jews in their midst. Still other examples are Jewish occupational and educational patterns, which have consistently reflected the realities of available opportunities in the larger society.

A second point stressed by Goldscheider and Zuckerman is that modernization is not a completely new start. Rather, the “winds of change work on existing structures as they transform societies and the Jewish communities within them.” Thus, “At any point in time, the characteristics of a Jewish community reflect the traits of an earlier period.”

A third point has to do with the interrelatedness of all aspects of Jewish society and culture under the impact of modernization, which proves as powerful as it does because changes in any one dimension of Jewish life—demographic, economic, political, ideological, etc.—quickly translate into changes in all the others.

Finally, the authors underscore the notion that differences among Jewish communities at given points in time are to be explained by two factors: varying rates of modernization in the surrounding societies, and varying levels of cohesion within the communities themselves. Of course, the two are very much linked, in that an increased measure of Jewish cohesiveness will mitigate the impact of modernization, and vice versa. All this helps to account for the striking differences between the Jewries of Eastern and Western Europe in the 19th century.

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But what about Jewish cohesion itself? What accounts for variations in the degree of its potency over time and space? Goldscheider and Zuckerman’s own position on this matter is clear-cut: “The level of cohesion reflects the level of communal interaction. The more spheres in which the members of an ethnic group interact frequently and without conflict—residence, work, school, politics, family, social organization—the higher the level of cohesion.” Seen from this vantage point, assimilation denotes a “random pattern of interaction, where Jews are no more likely to interact with each other than with non-Jews.” Maximum cohesion, by contrast, bespeaks a situation in which Jews “interact exclusively and without conflict with other Jews.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Goldscheider and Zuckerman are convinced that modernization allows for a significant degree of Jewish cohesion. They do not, to be sure, deny the obvious: that modernization has taken a fearful toll of the traditional pattern of Jewish existence. Indeed, the bulk of The Transformation of the Jews is given over to a sober reckoning with this very fact. Nonetheless, they argue that modernization also serves to reinforce Jewish cohesion by promoting the development of new modes of Jewish association. Their outstanding example is Israel itself, which is nothing less than a total Jewish society. Yet even in the Diaspora, particularly in the United States, Goldscheider and Zuckerman observe strong associational ties. They state:

Residential clustering and family cohesion remain high among Jews in cities and metropolitan areas. The high rates of migration among young and older Jews do not necessarily obliterate ties to communities of origin or destination. New communities have sprouted and older ones have been invigorated by these migrations. The occupational and educational concentrations of Jews have crystallized and have become their most conspicuous feature. As specific jobs and educational levels of Jews have altered over time, processes of occupational and educational re-concentration have taken place.

According to the authors, even intermarried Jews fit into this picture in a positive way:

Many intermarried Jews take part in Jewish communal life. Many, if not most, have Jewish friends and family connections. Most retain residential, occupational, and educational bonds with other Jews. Many non-Jews married to Jews develop bases of communal contacts and are part of the Jewish community.

All in all, then, as self-declared Jewish “survivalists,” Goldscheider and Zuckerman find they have reason to be upbeat about the future.

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The Transformation of the Jews provides a needed corrective in several areas pertaining to the study of Jewish life. Certainly, it is valuable to be reminded that Jewish communities have never existed in isolation; that outside forces always play a central role in determining the Jewish condition; that all aspects of Jewish society and culture are inextricably linked; that the structural component of Jewish life is of far-reaching significance; and—most importantly—that modernization need not be synonymous with assimilation. Regrettably, however, Goldscheider and Zuckerman, in their revisionist zeal, seriously overstate their case.

One way in which The Transformation of the Jews differs from other studies of the modern Jewish experience is in its complete lack of interest in Jewish ideas and Jewish values. Goldscheider and Zuckerman do touch upon these matters, but only long enough to dismiss them as of no consequence. “For most Jews, most of the time,” they maintain, “ideologies and beliefs justify decisions reached on other grounds.” The conclusions to which this position drives them are sometimes quite absurd. Thus, they write that the rise of Reform Judaism in 19th-century Germany was nothing other than a reflection of “employment problems particular to German [Jewish] university students.” In the same fashion, they assert that Lithuania became a great center of Torah study because of an “absence of alternative opportunities in jobs and education for men.”

So enamored are they of the argument that trends in non-Jewish society are what determine the course of Jewish development that the authors are unwilling even to consider the possibility that some inner dynamic lies at the heart of Jewish historical experience; to them, this smacks of parochialism and special pleading. Yet is it any more objective to maintain that Jewish thought, belief, and value structures count for nothing as dynamic elements in the Jewish situation? Clearly, what is needed is a more balanced perspective, one that gives proper due to both inner and outer sources of change.

The need for balance also applies to Goldscheider and Zuckerman’s upbeat analysis of the current American Jewish situation. The authors have made a signal contribution in pointing out the complexities of Jewish life in the United States, and in rejecting the notion that American Jews are about to disappear. But part of the very complexity of the American Jewish situation has to do with the issue of the quality of Jewish life, and about this Goldscheider and Zuckerman have precious little to say. The reason is simple: their analytical scheme, stressing structural elements, does not permit them to come to grips with the qualitative side of, for example, Jewish religious and cultural expression. Yet without discussing these factors one simply cannot reach an understanding of the American Jewish experience, much less assess its prospects.

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