Introduction, The Jewish 1968 and its Legacies
Sensing that 1968 was a critical, but underexplored, turning point in the reenvisioning and reimagining of Jewish life in the United States, we organized a conference on "The Jewish 1968 and its Legacies." Fifteen scholars gathered at Stanford University on February 15–16, 2015, to discuss the impact of that pivotal year on American Jewish historiography, feminism, Zionism, politics, and religion.
We argued that 1968 marked a turning point in the development of American Jewish culture, politics, and religion; we called it "the Jewish 1968" in order to reference both that iconic year of worldwide youth protest, and the particular Jewish dimensions of it. We were especially interested in the ways in which both the year 1968 and the era of which it was a part launched the unraveling of the Jewish liberal consensus identified by historian Arthur Goren in his article "A Golden Decade for American Jews: 1945–1955."1 Though his article has been challenged on the grounds that the period was more complex and somewhat less golden than he claimed, it nevertheless laid out a strong case for a public consensus about American Jewish life in the decade following World War II.2 We suggested that American Jewish baby boomer activists, who were deeply involved with various aspects of Jewish life, were among the most important catalysts for those changes.3 They created a surge of activity that set into motion innovations that, over subsequent decades, transformed Jewish life. These activists did not create ideas, activities, and organizations as a systematic program. Nor was the American counterculture, which they embraced, uniform and coherent.4 Rather, their innovations came from a fertile engagement [End Page 1] between the counterculture with which they deeply identified, and the Jewish milieus in which they grew up. The era's complex politics, psychology, sexuality, theology, and spiritual practices all shaped how they reimagined their Jewish lives, communities, and cultures.
We were mindful that many historians view 1967, because of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War that June, as a crucial turning point in Jewish history with different significance for the various Jewish communities of the world. Its importance for American Jews is often associated with moving Zionism to the center of American Jewish life and a new, emergent expression of Jewish identity linked to Jewish nationalism. We wanted to explore the significance of 1968 as a marker of the emergence of a Jewish youth movement that was built on the rejection of the dominant formulations of Jewish life by the postwar generation. How, if at all, did the global youth revolution also significantly change Jewish life? While debates persist among historians about the precise impact of all of the events that lined up in 1968, most would nevertheless agree it constituted a watershed, as young activists and radicals challenged the power and authority of many global powers, leading to both political and cultural repression and change.5
Zionism was one of the conference's most important examples. Following the Six-Day War, Zionism became central to Jewish life in the United States, but in complex and contradictory ways. On one extreme, Radical Zionists revived the Marxist tradition in Zionism through the lens of the New Left. Its place in Zionist history is often overlooked, if not forgotten, but it was a powerful force for Jewish activists and the emergence of the peace movement. On the opposite end, the Jewish Defense League (JDL) merged the right-wing nationalism of Revisionist Zionism with the styles and postures of Black Power. That fusion was deeply disturbing, but also remarkably compelling to many young Americans. Although most rejected his political program, JDL's charismatic leader Meir Kahane's evocation of "identity politics" and "ethnic pride," resonated powerfully in this era. We were interested in exploring [End Page 2] the ways that these expressions of Zionism emerged and developed in light of the youth movement.6
With respect to religion, young Jews experimented with and participated in the larger turn to spirituality among American youth. Sometimes subsumed under the label of "Renewal," the new Jewish spirituality of that era was, in fact, far more complex. The rise of havurot and other alternative forms of Jewish religious community were often associated with New Left politics. Hasidism became influential during this time as well, either as an inspiration for suppressed forms of religious ideas and practices, or as a movement to join. The alignment of resurgent interest in religious tradition and the influence of feminism helped to foster the growth of Jewish feminism, which emerged, in part, out of the New York Havurah.7 As the same time, secularism reemerged more forcefully than at any time since World War II.
Young Jews, who were central to these efforts, formulated and drew on critiques of the Jewish "establishment" and the liberal mainstream, while maintaining a deep opposition to the Vietnam War, an affinity for campus activism and a rejection of racism. They embraced a complex Jewish particularism and articulated a withering critique of the middle-class Jewish worldview that had emerged so forcefully after World War II. At the same time, many of the political aspirations of those involved in the Jewish 1968 were tested by the changing politics of the New Left, whose anti-Zionism emerged most forcefully in July 1968 at the National Conference for New Politics Conference in Chicago, leaving many Jews who were part of that political movement stranded and isolated.8 The [End Page 3] politics in Israel that grew out of the Occupation led to a similarly demoralizing isolation, but sparked a flourishing of peace work and led to the development of a variety of organizations, including Breira.9
Those engaged in the Jewish 1968, like feminists, New Left participants, Israel activists, and members of other groups, used memory to uncover legacies that had been lost to them. They looked to Yiddish culture, anarchism, socialism, the Yiddish labor movement, early Zionists, and the mystic traditions in Judaism, among sources, to find foremothers and forefathers who promised a different vision for Jewish life. Many of these groups struggled over the authenticity of their claims, accusing others and being accused of nostalgia, invention, and inauthenticity. They embraced particularism and faced the taunt of parochialism, and taunted others with it.10
We looked to "the Jewish 1968" as a turning point because our memory of this period and its legacy complicate our understanding of key issues for American Jewry in the twenty-first century: Zionism, authority, secularism, and religious practice. By taking a new look at that moment in American Jewish history, we hoped to encourage others to participate in a conversation about memory, legacy, and politics, as the effects of 1968 are still very much felt across the contemporary Jewish world.
The three papers that follow address different facets of the concept of a Jewish 1968. Shaul Kelner's article, which is based on his presentation at the conference, raises a valuable oppositional point. Why was 1968 of no particular significance to the American Soviet Jewry movement, when so much of its inspiration appeared to come from other protest movements? Joyce Antler's article, also based on her presentation at the conference, lays out the important place of Jews in American feminism and feminism in the Jewish counterculture. And in their article, Ari Y. Kelman and Janet Bordelon examine how 1968 serves as a fulcrum for shifting Jewish communal attitudes about public and private schooling.
Although all of these authors place the events of 1968 within longer historical narratives, their works all attest to the importance of that fateful year as a political and cultural turning point. These three articles likely represent just the beginning of a growing wave of historical studies in which the Jewish 1968 will feature prominently as a pivotal moment in American Jewish history. [End Page 4]
Ari Y. Kelman is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. He is the author of Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio and a co-author of Sacred Strategies.
Tony Michels (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Riv-Ellen Prell (University of Minnesota)
1. Arthur A. Goren, "A Golden Decade for American Jews: 1945–1955," Studies in Contemporary Jewry 8 (1992): 1–18..
2. See, for example, Riv-Ellen Prell. "Community and the Discourse of Elegy: The Post War Suburban Debate," in Imagining the American Jewish Community, ed. Jack A. Wertheimer (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2007), 67–90..
3. Riv-Ellen Prell, Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989) and Michael E. Staub, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America (New York: Columbia University, 2002), 152–193, are among the works that focus on these groups and this period..
4. Todd Gitlin's reflections on "The Sixties" is one important perspective on the complexity of the era. See Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1993).
5. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties; Mark Kurlansky, 1968, The Year that Rocked the World (New York: Random House, 2005); Michael A. Cohen, American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Jerald E. Podair, The Strike that Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean-Hill Brownsville Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Gerd-Rainer Horn, The Spirit of '68: Rebellion in Western Europe and North America, 1956–1976 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Kristin Ross, May '68 and its Afterlives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Paul Berman, A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996); Sara M. Evans, "Sons, Daughters, and Patriarchy: Gender and the 1968 Generation," American Historical Review 114, no. 2 (April, 2009): 331–347.
6. On Kahane and violence see Shaul Magid, "Meir Kahane and the 'Ethics of Violence'," Journal of Jewish Ethics 1, no. 2 (2015): 231–261. For a classic study of the Jewish Defense League see Janet Dolgin, Jewish Identity and the JDL (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).
7. On American Jewish feminism see Riv-Ellen Prell ed., Women Remaking American Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007); Paula Hyman, "Jewish Feminism," in Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, eds. Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore (New York: Routledge, 1997), 694–698.
8. This conference is remembered in a variety of ways. It was the impetus for feminism when women were denied access to the podium to include women's issues on the agenda, as Joyce Antler's article in this volume describes. Another recent description of that experience is found in Susan Faludi, "Death of a Revolutionary," New Yorker, April 5, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/15/death-of-a-revolutionary. A classic description of the convention is in Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979), 195–199. The Black Caucus and the politics of race were also key at this convention. See Simon Hall, "'On the Tail of the Panther': Black Power and the 1967 Convention of the National Conference for New Politics," Journal of American Studies 37, no. 1 (2003): 59–78. The Jewish leftist exit from the conference is recounted in Staub, Torn at the Roots, 208.
9. Staub, Torn at the Roots, 194–240.
10. For the issue of nostalgia among Jewish baby boomers, see Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).