- Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity
In a 1952 Look magazine article, Rabbi Morris Kertzer addressed the perennial question "What is a Jew?" While writing for the magazine's wide American audience, Kertzer resisted identifying "who is a Jew" in favor of focusing on the qualities that define Jews, characteristics that included belief but, more importantly, shared communal traits and traditions. Kertzer, who allowed television cameras to document his Passover seder to demonstrate that Americans could participate in and witness Jewish rituals in Jewish homes, exemplifies the role of the many mid-twentieth-century rabbis and intellectuals who narrated Jewishness to Jews and non-Jews alike. In Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity, Lila Corwin Berman traces the conscious efforts of Jewish communal leaders to explain and define Jews to Jewish and non-Jewish Americans to cement Jewish survival in the United States. From the end of World War I through the civil rights era, she argues, these rabbis and intellectuals worked out and revised "a public language of Jewishness …[that] enabled Jewish leaders to define Jews as indispensable to the United States" (2).
The Reform rabbinate's interwar educational outreach activities, which they deemed "missionary," instigated a decades-long effort to explain Judaism to their co-religionists and to non-Jewish Americans. Rather than proselytize conversion to Judaism, these well-traveled clergy attempted to convert [End Page 81] non-Jewish Americans to acceptance of Jews and Jews to self-acceptance as American Jews. Lectures on college campuses, often initiated and coordinated by the Jewish Chautauqua Society, provided opportunities to equate Jewish beliefs with American democracy while de-emphasizing Jewish distinctiveness. These rabbinical outreach efforts to university audiences paralleled and complemented the rise of social science and attempts to use its tools to study Jews within the 1930s academy. As Corwin documents, scholars such as Louis Wirth, Morris Raphael Cohen, and Salo Baron wrote about Jewish communities with the express purpose of illuminating larger, more universal trends in arenas such as immigration, assimilation, and social acceptance. By legitimating Jews as the subject of studies of Americans, these researchers helped lay Jewish leaders and rabbis develop a nonreligious language of American Jewishness.
"Sociological Jewishness," a term Berman quietly introduces in chapter two, served as the central description of and prescription for American Jewish life as articulated by Reform, and then Conservative, rabbis with the help of prominent Jewish intellectuals. In this view, Jewishness captured the mid-twentieth-century demographic, educational, religious, and ethnic characteristics of the American Jewish community. As a sociological entity, Jewishness could express a functional argument for Jewish survival: because Jews comprised a necessary and useful element of American society, the nation could not thrive without this group, and therefore America needed Jews as much as Jews needed America. Despite dissenters such as Milton Steinberg and Abraham Joshua Heschel, who resisted this logic in favor of reinvigorating spirituality and faith among acculturating American Jews, the primacy of the social scientific explanation grew in the early postwar years.
The concept of Jews as an ethnic group, as articulated by historian Oscar Handlin and sociologist Nathan Glazer, explained how Jews could and should remain distinct while participating and contributing to a country fueled by difference. While emphasizing ethnicity masked internal difference and non-conformity, it allowed mid-century Jewish intellectuals to assert a universal pattern that aligned Jews with other white ethnic groups. Even as other scholars disputed Handlin and Glazer's argument, noting structural inequalities and uneven ethnic experiences, the force of sociological Jewishness held until reality interfered. Sociological Jewishness "helped create a uniquely American vocabulary of difference" (117) that balanced specificity and universality, but as Corwin points out, it also failed to make Jewishness meaningful, accessible, and learnable. As rabbis reached out to non-Jews and unaffiliated Jews through magazines, books, radio, and, increasingly, television during the 1950s, they struggled to articulate what distinguished Jews from non-Jews.