“To Be a Jew on America’s Terms is Not to Be a Jew at All”: The Jewish Counterculture’s Critique of Middle-Class Affluence
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“To Be a Jew on America’s Terms is Not to Be a Jew at All”:
The Jewish Counterculture’s Critique of Middle-Class Affluence

In 1971, the Baltimore-Washington Union of Jewish Students published a scathing assessment of middle-class, Jewish life in America:

To be a Jew on America’s terms is to go to temple on the High Holy Days for $50 a seat… To be a Jew on America’s terms is to trade in historical and religious ethics of social justice for a $60,000 house in Silver Spring or Stevenson… To be a Jew on America’s terms is to forget 2000 years of oppression because of 20 years of prosperity.

The group summed up their perspective by declaring, “To be a Jew on America’s terms is not to be a Jew at all.”1

The Baltimore-Washington Union of Jewish Students represented one of the many Jewish youth collectives that cropped up in North America beginning in the late 1960s. Largely the products of well-to-do, suburban neighborhoods, these young Jews tried to reinvent American Jewish life in the spirit of the global youth revolt of the late 1960s. Referring to themselves as “Jewish Radicals,” the “New Jewish Left,” the “Jewish movement,” and the “Jewish counterculture,” they challenged the institutions and values of the established American Jewish community. Most pointedly, they rejected the culture of affluence in which they had been raised, and denied the possibility that a middle-class lifestyle could be compatible with an authentically Jewish one.2

The many, loosely organized collectives inspired by the Jewish counterculture included a myriad of residential communes, alternative prayer communities, and political action groups. They advanced a variety of causes, some of which overlapped and some that actually contradicted one another.3 A critique of the middle-class Jewish culture that had been built by the older generation of American Jews served as a common denominator linking together all of these disparate undertakings. Indeed, the “New Jews” often cited the corrosive impact of American prosperity as a primary justification for their activist engagements.4

Within much of the rhetoric of the Jewish counterculture, even causes that did not seem to be connected to the class position of American Jewry became intertwined with the presumed dangers of affluence, underscoring the centrality [End Page 59] of this critique to their activism and worldview. This article examines the ways in which members of the Jewish counterculture articulated their investments in a number of key issues, including the plight of Soviet Jewry, the inclusion of women, gays, and lesbians in American Jewish life, Zionism, and the restructuring of the Jewish religion. On the surface, none of these concerns pertained directly to prosperity or its effects. But when members of the Jewish counterculture interpreted Jewish history and created narratives that explained their activities, they often cited the wealth of American Jewry as not only relevant, but often fundamental to the problems they were trying solve.5

The Jewish counterculture’s ubiquitous critique of affluence points to the complicated relationship that these young Jews had with their relative position of privilege in American society. The middle-class background that so many of them shared, and that hinged on their acceptance as racial whites, placed them on a rather high rung of the American social hierarchy. Those who were male, and those who were heterosexual, held even more advantages. Being Jewish, for arguably the first time in American history, had comparatively little bearing on their economic or social status.

Even so, many of these young Jews did not necessarily, or at least did not always, feel like part of the elite. They shared a religious and cultural heritage that the wider American culture rarely seemed to value, or even acknowledge. Moreover, they were keenly aware of the history of antisemitism in the United States and the recent genocide of Jews in Europe; indeed, a minority of American Jews in their cohort were the children of Holocaust survivors, and some had been born in displaced person’s camps. Aviva Cantor Zuckoff, an outspoken leader of the Jewish Liberation Project, represented the point of view of many Jewish...