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Persistence and Flexibility

Anthropological Perspectives on the American Jewish Experience

Walter P. Zenner

Publication Year: 1988

Using a variety of anthropological approaches, the authors illustrate how the Jewish identity has persisted in the United States despite great subcultural variation and a wide range of adaptations. Within the various essays, attention is given to both mainstream Jews and to the Hasidim, Yemenites, Indian Sephardim, Soviet Emigres, and “Jews for Jesus.” Institutions such as the family, the school, and the synagogue, are considered through techniques of participation/ observation and in archeological research. Persistence and Flexibility provides a means of viewing the Jewish community through the prism of key events, or rituals, and symbols.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Anthropology and Judaic Studies (discontinued)

Title Page

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pp. ix-x

When I first taught a course on the ethnology of American Jews around 1976, I found it difficult to find adequate readings for my students. There were ample historical works, including some stressing the social dimensions. Sociological studies, based primarily on material derived from questionnaires, and journalistic accounts were...


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1. The Cultural Anthropology of American Jewry

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pp. 3-38

The anthropological study of American Jewry may sound to some like an oxymoron. Are not anthropologists supposed to journey to the remote corners of the earth and brave inhospitable terrain in search of the secrets of cultural life? Jews, by contrast, have been the quintessential urban dwellers, since the coming of the modern...

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pp. 39-41

The rubric, ethnic group, implies a group which is self-identified and which is recognized as an entity by outsiders. In addition, the principle of real or fictional common descent and common destiny are added to this element of labeling to make a group "ethnic." The term, "identity," as used by psychologists suggests that ego sees...

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2. Stigma, Identity and Sephardic-Ashkenazic Relations in Indianapolis

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pp. 43-62

The fate of Jewish identity in the United States has historically represented an important concern of both the American Jewish community itself and of social scientists who have closely observed American ethnic groups during this century. But regardless of popular or social scientific pronouncements about the state of Jewish religiosity...

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3. American Yemenite Jewish Interethnic Strategies

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pp. 63-78

Ethnic identity is, as Bram (1965) and Nagata (1974) point out, like plastic: easily bent and shaped by societal and group ideologies, expectations, and practices. Societies may sortpopulations according to cultural, physiognomic, religious, national, and other criteria, and groups may differentiate themselves from each other by using one...

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4. Jewish in the USSR, Russian in the USA

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pp. 79-95

Several recent examinations into the persistence of ethnic identity have focused on utilitarian, instrumental aspects of maintaining a sense of belonging to ethnic groups (see, inter alia, Bell 1975; Duran 1974; Glazer and Moynihan 1970; Patterson 1975; Shibutani and Kwan 1965). These studies point out that in complex societies, where...

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5. Learning to Be a Part-Time Jew

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pp. 96-116

Caught in the pull of two cultural worlds, the teacher and the student speak in two different languages. Although the student's answer is inappropriate for this lesson at the Jewish afternoon school (or Hebrew School), it is the more meaningful term to both the teacher and the student once they leave class at the end of the...

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6. Integration into the Group and Sacred Uniqueness: Analysis of an Adult Bat Mitzvah

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pp. 117-135

Numerous writers who have examined the relationship of Judaism to the lives of twentieth century Jews have noted the decline in ritual observance and have advanced theories about why some rituals are likely to be retained or emphasized and others neglected. Less attention has been paid to ritual revision or innovation, although...

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pp. 137-141

As a result of modernization, Jewish life was transformed from having a close connection with a communal body in a particular place and ties to similar communities elsewhere to something hard to pin down. Jews can opt out of organized Jewish life, even without formal conversion. They can ignore Jewish institutions. A whole...

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7. A Home Away from Home: Participation in Jewish Immigrant Associations in America

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pp. 143-164

For readers of the New York Yiddish daily, The Day, on January 5, 1939 their newspaper presented an exchange of opinions on the following issue: Should an individual affiliate with a landsmanshaft, or rather with other organizations? The weekly column that regularly featured responses and photographs of "the man on the...

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8. Family, Kinship, and Ethnicity: Strategies for Social Mobility

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pp. 165-182

Kinship plays an important role in both remote, primitive societies and urban-industrial societies. Families may be a source of economic support for their kin and can also perform mediating and socializing functions for their members. Particularly, a kin network can aid in a member's survival and adaptation to urban, complex...

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9. The Hasidim of North America: A Review of the Literature

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pp. 183-207

A burgeoning Hasidic movement electrified Eastern Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century, uncovering what A. J. Heschel called "the ineffable delight of being a Jew" (Heschel 1949:75). Although its original momentum languished after the 1860s, its special place in the modem history of Judaism was firmly established. Ever...

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10. Separatist Orthodoxy's Altitudes Toward Community: The Breuer Community in Germany and America

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pp. 208-222

Samson Raphael Hirsch and his Separatist Orthodox followers have bequeathed two apparently contradictory legacies to later generations. On the one hand, Hirschian Orthodoxy proclaimed a confessionalization of Judaism almost as radical as that of his Reform opponents. For Hirsch, Judaism was primarily a religion, and the...

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11. That Is the Pillar of Rachel's Grave Unto This Day: An Ethnoarchaeological Comparison of Two Jewish Cemeteries in Lincoln, Nebraska

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pp. 223-259

Since biblical times and, indeed, farther back according to archaeological evidence, gravestones have been one way of marking the burial places and honoring the memory of the deceased. In their form and manner of embellishment, gravestones are material symbols of personal identities. Cemeteries thus provide a basis for studying...

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12. Jews and Judaica: Who Owns and Buys What?

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pp. 260-279

In his now classic study, Peddlers and Princes, Clifford Geertz argued that in Modjokuto, a rural Indonesian town he observed, the "traditional market [was] at once an economic institution and a way of life" (1963, p. 30). What went on in the buying and selling was more than merely commercial activity but something "reaching into...


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pp. 281-290


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pp. 291-293


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pp. 295-298

E-ISBN-13: 9781438424798
E-ISBN-10: 1438424795
Print-ISBN-13: 9780887067488
Print-ISBN-10: 0887067484

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 1988

Series Title: SUNY series in Anthropology and Judaic Studies (discontinued)