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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 124-131



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Beyond The Synagogue Gallery . . . And Beyond

Daniel Soyer


Yaakov Ariel.Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. x + 367 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Karla Goldman. Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. xii + 275 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $36.95.

Judaism's encounter with America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was partly an encounter with the country's particular culture, and partly an encounter with modernity in general. In other places as well, modernity meant the breakdown of the traditional corporate Jewish community and therefore of the stability of Jewish identity. It also brought about the tentative separation of Jewish peoplehood from Jewish religion. In some places, especially in the West, it became possible to be a Jew by religion and a member of the local nation at the same time. Elsewhere, as in Eastern Europe, many Jews forsook the faith of their ancestors, but remained Jews by nationality. In this context, the relative openness of American society offered many enticements for Jews to join the cultural mainstream. More than in most places, the voluntarism of American society made any sort of adherence to the community, or even any sort of Jewish identity, a matter of individual choice.

There was, of course, a price exacted for becoming full members of a predominantly Christian society. Jews had to downplay aspects of Judaism and Jewish culture that set them apart from others and to adhere to broadly defined behavioral norms. Not that all Jews found this so onerous--many were eager to blend in and quickly assimilated the perspective of the surrounding society. Still, those who wished to maintain Judaism in some form were faced with the task of defining the limits of acceptable practice and behavior--both as Jews and as Americans. The question was, how far could Judaism bend to accommodate American norms and still be recognizable as Judaism?

Inevitably, the encounter with America was also an encounter with Protestantism. The two books under consideration here treat very different [End Page 124] aspects of that meeting. In Beyond the Synagogue Gallery, Karla Goldman examines the development of a distinctly American form of Judaism heavily influenced by mainstream Protestant sensibilities. Ever since the colonial period, acculturating American Jews have sought a form of Judaism suited to their surroundings and their aspirations to the American middle class. During the nineteenth century, the period that concerns Goldman, the movement for Reform Judaism provided the solution to mainly German-speaking immigrants from Central Europe and their children. In the twentieth century, the Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and small Reconstructionist streams offered different syntheses to the children of Eastern European immigrants. Goldman contributes to the historiography of American Judaism by showing creatively and persuasively that gender issues have been central to the redefinition of Judaism in America.

Goldman looks at the interaction of what was to become mainstream American Judaism with mainstream middle-class American Protestant culture. Yaakov Ariel, on the other hand, examines the very fringes of Jewish religious identity where it met up with fundamentalist evangelical Protestantism--itself perhaps the most typically American religious expression, yet one increasingly marginal to the sophisticated, middle-class, urban milieu that most acculturating Jews aspired to join. The subjects of his book, Evangelizing the Chosen People, tested the limits of Jewish community and identity. For the most part in the modern era, Jews could remain Jews even when non- or even anti-religious. It was not a contradiction to be a Marxist Jew, for example, when "Jew" denoted affiliation with an ethnic or national community. But what happened when Jews adopted a different religion altogether? And what if that religion was Christianity, with its long difficult relationship to Judaism and its negative associations for most Jews? Significantly, as Ariel shows, his subjects--apostate Jews and evangelical missionaries alike--were divided over how to answer these questions...

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