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  • America, Mordecai Kaplan, and the Postwar Jewish Youth Revolt
  • Riv-Ellen Prell (bio)

Mordecai M. Kaplan noted a particular anxiety in his diary on a December day in 1918 following his consultation with Jacob De Haas, executive secretary of the American Federation of Zionists. He was led to this "inquiry," he wrote, because "my longing for Palestine has been growing in intensity. I actually yearn to settle there with my family." The conversation weighed on Kaplan and created emotional turmoil. "Does this mean," he wrote, "ingratitude to America?" His anxious suspicion of his own ingratitude was deeply rooted in Kaplan's understanding of what, precisely, it meant to him to live in America. His diary entry continued,

To love America is simply to love myself, for it is only in this blessed country that I could have achieved what I most value in myself, relentless honesty of mind. The Jewish people gave me the problem to work on, but only America gave me the means, the leisure, and the freedom to understand the problem.1

Kaplan's internalized American self is more sharply focused by contrasting his diary passage to the opening words of the classic 1912 memoir, The Promised Land, by Mary Antin. She wrote, "I was born. I lived, and I have been made over. Is it not time to write my life's story? [End Page 158] I am just as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell. My life I have still to live; her life ended when mine began."2

Antin's "rebirth," an established convention of the immigrant memoir, is particularly stark in this passage because central to that death was both the annihilation of her Old World Judaism and her rejection of a life constituted as a "hyphenated American." She was a powerful advocate for immigration in the xenophobic decades of the 1910s and 1920s, and she suggested often that European immigrants were themselves "real" Americans whose own journeys mirrored that of the pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower. For Antin, however, the past, and with it Judaism, belonged on the shores of the Old World, and it deserved no haven in the New World.3

Kaplan also reconstituted his self in a New World of transformative possibilities. Like Antin, for Kaplan America was womb and midwife to what he treasured: a critical mind, a vision for a democratic America, and a reenvisioned twentieth-century American Judaism. In America, Kaplan could write, organize, lead, teach, and innovate in freedom as no Jew was able to in the Pale of Settlement where both he and Antin were born.4

In contrast to Antin, however, Kaplan did not have to annihilate Judaism to experience this fusion of self and nation. Kaplan's task was far more complex. He was part of a movement that developed initially in the 1910s and 1920s to envision America in terms that Horace Kallen formulated as "cultural pluralism." It legitimated the diversity of European Americans within the United States and was foundational to the claims for citizenship of African Americans and other minorities as well.5

Judaism as a Civilization provided a rationale for how to create a Jewish civilization within the larger civilization of the United States.6 Kaplan asserted that "no civilization has the right to monopolize the life of its adherent when he cannot find self-fulfillment, or express himself completely through it." Hence, Kaplan advocated what he termed "cultural hyphenisms," the ability to live simultaneously in two civilizations within one nation.7 And yet, his anxiety about ingratitude coupled with his notion of a self that was inseparable from America raises interesting questions about the relationship between the two sides of the hyphen. America loomed very large in defining the Jewish civilization side.

Virtually every generation of American Jews sets about creating such visions. Kaplan, then, serves as a mirror in which to reflect subsequent generations' attempts to shape that very relationship. The Baby Boom (born between 1945 and 1965) constituted the largest cohort of [End Page 159] the native-born children of native-born parents in American Jewish...


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pp. 158-171
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