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  • The New Filiopietism, or Toward a New History of Jewish Immigration to America*
  • Eli Lederhendler (bio)

Pioneered by such mid-twentieth-century historians and social scientists as Rudolf Glanz, Jacob Lestchinsky, Elias Tcherikower, Oscar Handlin, and Moses Rischin, by economists Arcadius Kahan and Simon Kuznets, and memorably enshrined in the world of letters by Irving Howe, for over fifty years the reexamination of the East European Jewish migration to America has developed into a relatively well endowed field. This is only fitting, as it was the East European stream that transformed American Jewry from its once modest size of some 250,000 to the largest Jewish diaspora community in the world, over 5.5 million strong at its peak in the second half of the twentieth century.

The historical significance of that transformation remains self-evident, as witness the constant output of new studies related to the subject. Yet, I am prompted to raise some critical questions about the social and historiographical contexts in which immigration history and Jewish ethnic history have been nurtured over the past generation. It is my contention that these contexts have, in the main, encouraged the emergence of what I will call "the new filiopietism"—a brand of boosterism akin to the earliest endeavors in the writing of American Jewish history more than a century ago. The following brief analysis represents the preliminary foreground of a new study of the Jewish immigrant experience that I have undertaken, to be called, "The Luftmensch and the Laborer: Work, Class and Social Capital in the Americanization of Jewish Immigrants (1881–1929)."

Immigrants generally, and members of minority religious, racial, and cultural descent groups in particular, did elicit a degree of academic attention from the turn of the century through the 1920s,1 but a new [End Page 1] wave of interest began in earnest in the racially fraught decade of the 1960s, famously heralded by the publication of Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan's study of ethnic and racial groups in New York City, Beyond the Melting Pot (1963). The renewed scholarly interest took its cue from the urban scene, where religion, class, and race were intertwined with ethnic group relations. By the next decade, the swelling of new immigration into the United States, mainly from Asian and Latin American countries, ensured a continued lively discourse on the subject of immigrants, minorities, and Americanization.

In the newer, more critical intellectual climate, immigrant groups were rediscovered as having comprised, at least potentially, a volatile "other," or alternative America. Standing at the junction between their foreign status and their sought-for re-integration as non-foreigners, they appeared to exemplify a liminal moment in American life in which change—rather than stasis—was an inherent and welcome aspect of social existence.

These minority-group "others" became both victims and heroes in the rewriting of the American past. Victims, because their lot was typically difficult, insofar as their ways (appearance, language, manner) were not normative and, hence, were never truly "obliged" by the larger society. Victims, too, in that they sought ways to accommodate the dictates of the majority, thus allowing the majority to set the rules of accommodation. Heroes, finally, because the historians of race and ethnicity elevated the stories of their lives from the mundane and nitty-gritty daily grind to something like a portent for America itself. They became an emblem for those who valorized difference, change, and struggle over the pieties enshrined as native virtues during the Cold War: consensus, continuity, and unity. Thus, they were the basis of a counter-narrative in which the consensual national self-image could be exposed as a deception.2 The immigrant bulked large in this morality play as someone who appeared willing, even eager, to be taken in by the national cult, but in the end was not deceived, and whose progeny (grouped under their respective, hyphenated ethnic labels) were better positioned to champion and savor their distinctiveness. [End Page 2]

Ethnic historians, therefore, have tended to point critically at the reception accorded alien newcomers as well as native-born "others" by the rest of American society, in the process placing the dynamics and performance of "strangeness" at the...


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