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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism
  • Marc Lee Raphael
The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism. Edited by Dana Evan Kaplan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 462 pp.

Beginning with three chronological essays covering 1654–1880, 1880–1945, and 1945 "to the present," and continuing with twenty topical (and interdisciplinary) essays exploring subjects such as "the body and sexuality in American Jewish culture" (outstanding), this is a volume, despite (or maybe because of) its randomness, that continually provokes, upsets, teaches, and surprises. I cannot possibly review twenty-three essays in a few hundred words, so I will comment upon the introduction and third chronological essay, both by the editor, and raise some of the same issues I would discuss with many of the other contributors

The book begins with some confusion. The editor attempts to distinguish between "Judaism" and the "Jewish religion" (1). But is not Judaism the Jewish religion? Judaism is not the "sociological approach" but a religion, and while the "Jewish religion" does "suggest a more specific concern with beliefs and practices . . . associated with a supernatural reality" (leaving aside what the editor might mean by "supernatural reality"), the two are one and the same (1). The confusion carries through some of the essays, but usually the other contributors have it right; Judaism is the religion of many Jews, and Jewish is a term for those Jews who may or (more likely) may not be involved in Judaism. The contrast needs to be between Judaism (or, its adjectival form, Judaic) and Jews (or, its adjectival form, Jewish). Without this clarification, the use of these fundamental terms is unclear.

Nineteen-forty-five to the present is dwarfed by the time span of the other two survey essays. And yet, even if one covers only sixty years, the tendency to generalize about American Jews is tempting. The problem with "many American Jews" (61), "many rabbis" and "all Americans" (62), "many Jews" (63), "many congregants" (64), "many young people" (65), "many Jews" (66), "many American Jews" (67), "many American Jews" (68), "many young Jews" (69), "many American Jews" (70), "most other Jews" (71), "most Reform congregations" (72), "many ultra-Orthodox" (74), "most Orthodox leaders" (75) is to constantly cause [End Page 99] the reader to think about the thousands of exceptions, or, to make the statements so general as to be meaningless: "Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all adhered to the 'American way of life'" (61).

The tendency (not the need, I think) to generalize leads to a number of conclusions with which I would take issue:

"The Reform movement grew, which was due in large measure to the joining of many intermarried couples" (4). I suspect this is something an Orthodox rabbi might have said, but it has absolutely no basis in fact in the early post-WWII period.

"Privatized" Judaism (in contrast to the late Marshall Sklare's "ethnic" Judaism) is "familial" and "interpersonal" (thus the popularity of Passover and Chanukah, Kaplan points out) and has become "dominant over ethnic identity" (8, 9). Leaving aside how one can be private, familial, and interpersonal concomitantly, the editor continues this discussion by explaining that those with a privatized Judaism "see themselves as part of the Jewish people" (9). It is not clear how a private Judaism differs from an ethnic Judaism.

"Some congregations . . . developed reputations as 'bar mitzvah factories'" (10). I do not think repeating this common accusation from Jews who choose not to affiliate with synagogues does much to explain post-WWII Jewish life in America. I have attended hundreds of b'nai mitzvah since my own in the mid-1950s, and I have been continually amazed at how well the rabbis (and/or, the cantor) have come to know the young man or young woman.

"A whole generation grew up seeing their suburban parents' Judaism as vapid and pointless" (10). Again, we have the problem with generalizations. Surely there have been a significant number of Jews in the post-WWII generations (how many generations have there been?) who have found the Judaism of their parents meaningful and even joined suburban congregations.

"The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism deliberately avoids breaking down American Judaism into its denominational components" (11). And yet...


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