- New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58
Jeffrey Melnick wrote recently in a review in American Quarterly, the journal of American studies, that the study of American Jewish history follows two courses. The first, written by an "old guard," imagines Jewish culture in a way akin to area studies. A "new guard" imagines that the "social construction of reality" matters as much as, if not more than, "the march of history," and hence writes about American Jews in the context of the United States.1
Some of the scholars that Melnick included among the "new guard" might be there by default rather than intention. Michael Rogin's work on Jews and blackface, for example, or Karen Brodkin's on Jews and whiteness, both sought to understand the dynamic of white privilege in the United States. Nevertheless, their work engaged Jewish history, culture, and politics and was highly regarded by scholars of American culture, though often criticized by scholars of American Jewish history. In truth, the books were often historically sloppy and shared with the entire whiteness studies movement a focus on race or race and class that tended to ignore (far less so in Brodkin's case) how Jews themselves experienced the complex matters of identity. Nevertheless, both Rogin and Brodkin brought Jews into a scholarly conversation from which they were usually excluded, and as a result complicated that conversation.
While "area studies" versus "social construction" does not strike me as the most accurate or compelling way to think about recent work in American Jewish history, Melnick has a point. The integration of the study of American Jews into the study of America through the lens of cultural representation is an interesting turn for the field.
Sherry Ortner's New Jersey Dreaming is surely another example of a book that will inadvertently find itself entering into conversations about American Jews. Ortner's interest in American Jews was the result of her decision to learn about mobility by studying what happened to her own 1958 graduating class from Weequahic High School in New Jersey, 83 percent of whom were Jews. She learned that her classmates experienced substantial upward mobility. One way or another the tale she told came, [End Page 426] in large part, to be about the experiences of a group of American Jews born during World War II. And Ortner clearly became convinced during her research that the impact of their Jewishness on that mobility was something that required understanding.
Like other "new guard" scholars who have located Jews within their analysis of American society, Ortner is both exceptionally interesting and on occasions painfully limited in her understanding of American Jewish experience. She comes to the task as a distinguished anthropologist who has written extensively about the Sherpas of Nepal. She is a founder of feminist anthropology and has for her career been a key thinker about the nature of culture and its relationship to social structure. In New Jersey Dreaming she has written an important and genuinely innovative book in which she struggles admirably with all the complexities of the study of social class during "late capitalism" and makes a real contribution to the anthropological study of American society. Her research is informed by important debates about class, its existence, its historical importance, and the forms it has taken over the past half century. She carefully operationalizes these debates into straightforward but nevertheless very useful techniques for studying social class in the United States.
Ortner begins by establishing the class origins of her cohort. Her research was based on both survey data and interviews. She was able to locate a huge percentage of the still-living 292 members of the class of 1958 and worked prodigiously to find and interview about a third of them. Based on this research, she was able to establish that 27 percent of her classmates hailed from the business/professional class, 44 percent from the middle class, and 29 percent from the working class (p. 30). She learned that more than half...