Commentary Magazine

Explaining American Jews

The paperback edition of “Our Crowd,” Stephen Birmingham's book about the Jewish banking families of New York, sold 550,000 copies in a single week not long ago. In three months, the paperback edition of The Chosen, Chaim Potok's best-selling novel about two yeshiva boys in Williamsburg, went through three printings for a total of 900,000 copies. Sam Levenson's autobiographical Everything But Money reportedly sold over 850,000 copies in its first three months of paperback publication. In this decade only cookbooks (in the long run) and middlebrow pornography (in the short run) apparently sell better than Jewish books. Before The Chosen, there was The Fixer, and, before that, Herzog. The 60's are also the decade of Herbert Tarr's chaplain and Noah Gordon's rabbi, of Isaac Bashevis Singer and, to go from dybbuk to detective, Harry Kemelman.

Robert Gutwillig, of New American Library, rioted some years ago that publishers appeared to be “taking dead aim at the Jewish audience.” This was not, he felt, “a healthy situation for American readers or writers, let alone publishers.” Healthy or not, however, it is a situation which raises certain questions. What exactly is this “Jewish audience” at whom the publishers are “taking dead aim”? Are the “Jewish” books that emerge with such rapidity from the presses written and produced mainly to make money? Or are they written out of love, conviction, or commitment and published in response to a serious need?

I have before me three such books, all of them new. Perhaps they can shed light on these questions. All three are about American Jews today, yet they could not be more dissimilar. Each author brings to the subject his own intellectual baggage, his own sense of what it is to be a Jew, and each writes on a different level for a different audience.


Jewish Americans: Three Generations in a Jewish Community, by Sidney Goldstein and Calvin Goldscheider,1 is what used to be called a highbrow book. It is the first in a planned series about ethnic groups in American life which Professor Milton M. Gordon, the general editor of the series, hopes will aid the American public “to understand more fully what it means to live in a multi-ethnic society.” Prentice-Hall set itself a somewhat more modest goal for Jewish Americans; according to the jacket blurb: “In addition to its importance to professionals in sociology and the academic pursuits, this book forms a valuable reference work for professionals in Jewish education, community work, and the clergy.”

Both authors are sociologist-demographers, Goldstein at Brown and Goldscheider at Berkeley, who have chosen to combine professional interest and Jewish commitment. In 1963 they conducted a study of the Jewish population of Providence, Rhode Island, on behalf of the local Jewish community organization. Nearly 5,000 Jews, about one quarter of the whole Jewish population, were interviewed and the usual demographic and socio-economic data gathered. In addition, questions were asked about Jewish affiliation, membership in synagogues, attendance at services, home observance, Jewish education, and the use of Yiddish. Jewish Americans reanalyzes those data in terms of generation change, from immigrant through second generation (native born of foreign parents), to third generation (native born of native parents). The authors hope that this “longitudinal” approach to the data, disclosing changes and the direction of further change, will compensate for the regrettable fact that Providence is not a particularly characteristic Jewish community.

Goldstein and Goldscheider tell us, in many tables and in prose admirably clear for sociologists though too arid for my taste, largely what we already know. Most Jews are native born and about half of these are third generation. Third-generation Jews are better educated, are more likely to hold higher-status occupations and to live (owning their own homes) in the newer urban or suburban areas than their immigrant grandparents. The Jewish family still remains more stable than the non-Jewish one, with a smaller proportion of people divorced, separated, or married more than once. A slightly higher rate of divorce is found among the more acculturated—suburbanites, the better educated, Reform Jews. Intermarriage is more frequent among the third generation than among the immigrant generation, but the rate of conversion to Judaism by the non-Jewish partner is higher among the third generation than the second.

Nearly all identify themselves religiously. (Jewish ideological secularism is dead.) In a finding that will astonish no one, the study shows the immigrant generation to be largely Orthodox, the second generation largely Conservative, and the third generation increasingly Reform. Synagogue membership reflects religious self-identification. Synagogue attendance and home observance have declined from immigrant through third generation so precipitously that one might think they had been outlawed. Though 10—15 per cent of all three generations never attend services at all, and about 25 per cent go only for the High Holy Days, about 40 per cent—and this finding is surprising—go four to eleven times a year. The specific practices with strong adherence are those involving children, where the ritual is family oriented, and where there is strong community pressure, Jewish and non-Jewish, for conformity. Finally, though the trend toward secularization—from Orthodoxy to Reform—is strongest among more educated Jews, it is not necessarily assimilatory, out of the Jewish community or beyond its reach.


As for Jewish education, more Jewish children now than in the past get a Jewish education. (This is largely because Jewish girls now go to Hebrew or Sunday schools. Jewish education—studying Torah—once used to be a male prerogative; girls were just supposed to learn how to keep a Jewish home.) Second-generation Jews had less Jewish education than their parents, but their children have more than they. Furthermore, the quality of third-generation Jewish education may be better than that of the earlier generation.

The authors conclude that while today's Jews may be less Jewish than their grandparents in the traditional ways of Jewish expression, they remain Jewish in different modes, adjusting themselves to America and trying to create a balance between being Jewish and being American. The new form of religious expression among third-generation American Jews, the authors say, “reflects the acceptance of external symbols that identify the Jew as Jew in conformity with the patterns of religious identification stressed by the larger American community.”

In sum, Goldstein and Gold-scheider have given Prentice-Hall a useful, informative book to market among the people who need it. In their own modest way, the book, and ultimately the series it introduces, attest to the widespread acceptance today of the realities of group differences and of intergroup relations. It is fitting that the first book in the series should be about Jews, since they practically invented intergroup relations as a subject.


A more buoyant treatment of the American Jewish community is Judd L. Teller's Strangers and Natives: The Evolution of the American Jew from, 1921 to the Present 2 Part reminiscence, part history—a kind of participant-observer journalism—the book undertakes to tell how the immigrant Yiddish-speaking masses became affluent, acculturated, self-assured elites. Teller himself, a trilingual journalist (English, Yiddish, Hebrew) who has written frequently about Jews and Jewish affairs, is a product of that transformation, having come to the United States from Poland as a child.

Teller tells his story not by generations, but by periods: immigrant (1920—1930), transitional (1930—1948), and acculturated (1948—1967). He writes mainly about New York, somewhat more representative of the Jewish experience than Providence. What he lacks in formal structure and orderliness, he makes up for in animation and vividness. This is a book with the breath of life in it.

Teller begins with the old East Side and the tensions between the yahudim, the German Jews, and the yidn, the East European Jews.3 He continues with a multitude of anecdotes, vignettes, sketches about the immigrant Yiddish press and theater, about writers, orators, ideologues, and radicals. Teller then shifts to Orthodox customs and characters, from which he veers to a portrayal of Jewish occupations, especially odd ones. From the trivial he moves to the serious and recalls the oppressive decade of the 20's—anti-Semitism and discrimination in the United States and worse troubles in Poland, Russia, and Palestine. I enjoyed this omnium-gatherum approach.

In his middle section, “Catastrophe and Triumph,” Teller chronicles the decline of the yahudim, the emergence of second-generation Jews in the entertainment world and in fiction, the rearrangement and deployment of rabbinic and congregational strength from old Orthodox to Reform, Conservative, and neo-Orthodox. When he confronts the rise of Nazi Germany and the failure of America and America's Jewish leadership, his narrative takes on intensity and passion. This was an era cursed by unprecedented problems, and a mediocre Jewish leadership unable to cope with them. That is how Teller sees it; I think he is right for the most part. His version of the struggle for Palestine, internal Zionist politics, and the roles of Peter Bergson, Ben Hecht, and the Irgun in putting the story on the front pages of the American press is not the whole story. But since Teller is not presuming here to write history, we must be satisfied, despite its limitations, with his passionate eyewitness account.


As he enters on the third period, “The Native and His Ancestors,” Tellers starts cool. He describes suburban Jewry, new Jewish occupations, the congregational life of the Jewish community, the place of Jewish writers in American literature, and finally, politics, anti-Semitism, and intergroup relations—Jewish-Catholic and Jewish-Negro. Despite the upbeat tone of much of this section—the will to be Jewish persists, Jews have become more confident in their validity as Americans and in their right to be Jews—Teller, discussing relations between Jews and Negroes, closes with a warning of a possible “catastrophic crisis”: “The Jew has been the traditional scapegoat in the struggle between an oppressed Christian minority and an oppressor Christian majority. In the past the differences between Christians were ethnic or denominational, in America today they are racial.”

In the section on this era, too, Teller is critical of Jewish leaders, charging a failure of communication between the majority of American Jews and the established organizations that are supposed to speak for them or represent their interests. His bleak pessimism about Negro-Jewish relations seems justified to me. For one thing, some Jews and Jewish groups have so completely identified themselves with the Negro cause that they have neglected to notice that right and justice are not always all on one side. For another, after a quarter of a century during which it was considered gauche if (nothing more) to be openly anti-Semitic, nowadays Negroes are making anti-Semitism salonfähig.

Teller's book is a Jewish insider's book. Dedicated all his life to Jewish service, Teller obviously wrote out of a wish to evoke that intensely exciting period of American Jewish history in which he himself took part, to tell it like it was (Ranke put it more elegantly—wie es eigent-lich gewesen). Will this book be a big money-maker? Does Delacorte expect it to be? The book, its author, and its potential audience converge at the Midcult level. Considering that Jewish educational attainment is high, Jews are more likely candidates for Midcult than for Masscult books and that may augur well for Teller. I hope so.


Our third specimen, James Yaffe's The American Jews,4 is closer to Mass than to Midcult. Yaffe, a novelist of modest accomplishment, has even more modest credentials for a book about American Jews. He attended a Reform Sunday School for five years, where, by his own admission, the teachers failed to teach him “the meaning of those oddly-shaped Hebrew letters.” Unlike Teller, an insider in Jewish life, Yaffe is an outsider who put his book together mostly with information skewed and distorted from interviews with 200 Jewish insiders. (A Navaho family, the old joke went, consisted of a father, mother, children, and an anthropologist. How soon before every Jewish family has an interviewer of its own?)

Yaffe sets out to explain what he sees as “deep contradictions within the American Jew,” by which he means the conflict between assimilation and the preservation of Jewish identity. He begins with a bit of history, a description of how anti-Semitism accounts for the ambiguity of Jewish attitudes toward gentiles and gentile society. The next part, “Praying,” consists of his notions about how Jews are organized as a religious community. In part three, “Joining,” he surveys the other Jewish organizations (fund-raising, philanthropic, Zionist and anti-Zionist, communal and social), and in part four, “Living,” he takes on Jewish socio-economic status, educational attainment and occupational success, social characteristics, family life, and politics. In all of this, what he doesn't get wrong, he makes boring.

Besides not knowing “those oddly-shaped Hebrew letters,” Yaffe is innocent of Jewish history, customs, and traditions, and none of his two hundred informants appears to have introduced him to the mysteries of Judaism as practiced in the synagogue. He thinks the Torah is read daily in the synagogue (it is read Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and holidays); he thinks a man given an aliyah reads the Torah himself (he recites a blessing at the reading); Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he says, come “about a week apart” (he loses three of the Ten Penitential Days); he thinks the Talmud is a book (it is a shelf of books); he thinks a large number of Jews affiliate with more than one synagogue (Jews may be rich, but not that rich); the artist, he says, is “almost always” a mystic, but the Orthodox Jew “almost never” (I recommend to him Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism); he thinks Orthodox ladies join the Pioneer Women (not likely; it is a secularist, Labor Zionist organization). In a chapter on rabbis, Yaffe informs us: “There are no female rabbis.” This reminds me, naggingly, of the German Jew who came here to study American Jewish life. After a while, he wrote back home: “There are many Jewish hospitals in America, but the Jews do not have to go to them.”


Such mistakes and misreadings (and there are many more) no doubt could have been corrected, had Yaffe or his editor bothered, but nothing, I fear, could have been done about his misunderstandings of events and trends. The real trouble with Yaffe is that he is a modern man, ca. 1923 or 1878. He has gone to college and he knows that Judaism, especially in its Orthodox modes, is absurd. He is as up-to-date and as enlightened as Nikita Khrushchev who, in earlier, happier days, instructed his astronauts to try to locate paradise in outer space. At the very time that opium or an equivalent contemporary hallucinogen has become the religion of the elites, Yaffe still believes that religion is the opiate of the masses. Apart from his conviction that Judaism is merely backwardness and superstition, Yaffe dislikes it for its divisiveness. Religion separates people and groups from each other, and prevents them from uniting in a universal togetherness.

In the last part of his book, cruelly called “Dying?,” Yaffe pontificates that so long as Judaism's “universal ethical values” are preserved, there is no real justification for the survival of Judaism. Commending the Jew and gentile who intermarry (“Who else has taken more seriously than they the central idea of monotheism, that all human beings are the children of one God and are equal in His sight?”), Yaffe predicts that young Jews today will move toward a synthesis of Judaism and Christianity, a consummation he devoutly desires. Yet his great messianic vision seems to deflate to a kind of Rotarian Unitarianism, with his intermarried couples joyfully celebrating Passover and Christmas with the appropriate meals.

A few Jews are, to be sure, doing exactly what Yaffe admires. Some years ago, in Indianapolis, a retired Reform rabbi and a Methodist minister officiated at a wedding ceremony held in a nonsectarian chapel. Last summer the granddaughter of a Yiddish-speaking socialist and Workman's Circle member was married to a non-Jew by (another) retired Reform rabbi, while the benediction was pronounced by a Congregational minister. Then there was the case of a couple that was married first by a Reform rabbi in a Jewish center and then by a Congregational minister in a church. Perhaps these odd syncretic (or promiscuous) ceremonies are intended only to please or appease parents or grandparents; perhaps they are meant to be the religion of the future.

Unlike Yaffe, I do not believe such ceremonies or philosophies will create a new universalistic breed of man. America is not any different from Germany, Hungary, Poland, or Russia in the historic progression of unresisted assimilation: Jewish→secular→universalist→Christian. Recently the granddaughter of a prominent American Jewish labor leader was married to a non-Jew. The grandparental background was Jewish secular, socialist-labor, universalist, but the wedding ceremony, described as nondenominational, was conducted by an Archbishop of the Old Catholic Church in America. How universalist can you get?

Yaffe's anti-traditionalism is, of course, part of a long Jewish tradition of anti-tradition, molded by Jews who believed that Judaism thwarted their emancipation, obstructed the road to modernity, brotherhood, and universalism. Much of modern Jewish history can be told by such case-records. Just lately, Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jew, described the same process in The Liberation of the Jew. He felt imprisoned in his Tunisian ghetto (Jewish, not Negro), alien to French (Christian) culture, yet too modern to believe in Judaism. Neither Arab nor Frenchman, he was a reluctant Jew, who regarded Jewishness as entirely external, imposed by the oppression of a hostile world. In search of an authentic Jewish identity, Memmi found a way out of his dilemma. Assimilation, he felt, must be considered a legitimate way out for anyone who desires it, but he himself opted for Jewish identity through Israel. The existence of a Jewish nation, he believes (along Koestlerian lines), at last permits the disappearance of Jewishness.

When reading Memmi, I was struck by another kind of universality—the universality of the Jewish encounter with modernity. Now Yaffe is doing something of the same kind, though less thoughtfully and without that poignancy or inner disquietude which authentic tension between survival and assimilation would generate. When Yaffe argues for “new forms and rituals” which will bring people “closer to their fellow-men and which will encourage their drive toward being themselves,” I am a little skeptical. This somewhat doctrinaire plea for assimilation seems artificial to me. Marshall Sklare, distinguishing between the American Jewish experience and the European, once remarked that in America we have had no assimilationist Jews, only assimilated ones. Reality, in other words, has superseded ideology. Yaffe, I suspect, is not really an ideologue of assimilation, though he is assimilated. His philosophy is more likely a synthetic product created to give to his book “significance.”


In this decade, some Jewish books—brash, vulgar, or simple-minded—have been highly successful: Leon Uris's Exodus, for instance, Max Dimont's Jews, God, and History, and Noah Gordon's The Rabbi. But Yaffe differs from these writers in one basic respect. Uris, Dimont, and Gordon appealed to Jewish pride, glorying in and glorifying the Jew; Yaffe's book is grounded in ignorance and self-hate. If, then, The American Jews should find a larger audience than, say, Teller's Strangers and Natives, we will have learned something about the nature of the public which buys Jewish books in America today.


1 Prentice-Hall, 274 pp., $5.95 (cloth); $3.50 (paper).

2 Delacorte, 308 pp., $6.95.

3 Yahudim is a corruption of the Hebrew yehudim, “Jews.” German Jews used to define themselves not as Juden, but as yehudim, in the sense of “Hebrews.” It is likely that Russian Jews, mimicking German pronunciation, broadened the first syllable to “ya,” and thus yahudim became a contemptuous term for German Jews. Yidn, Yiddish for “Jews,” was used by East Europeans to distinguish themselves from yahudim.

4 Random House, 338 pp., $7.95.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest