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  • The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, Vol. 5
  • Marc Dollinger
The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, Vol. 5, edited by Bruce Zuckerman and Jeremy Schoenberg. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press 2007. 142 pp. $25.00.

Zuckerman and Schoenberg's fifth volume of The Jewish Role in American Life, a collection of essays from the University of Southern California's Cas-den Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, explores what the editors call an "investigation of how Jewish culture helped shape modern America and vice versa." As in previous editions, Volume 5 organizes around five themes: politics, values, image, education, and culture.

USC professor Steven J. Ross opens the volume with a politics-centered essay on anti-Fascism, anti-Communism, and antisemitism in pre-World War II Hollywood. Engaging multiple historiographic debates, Ross connects 1930s isolationism, American antisemitism, and a growing American anti-Communism, as well as the import of Hollywood movie makers, arguing that the 1930s were "the Golden Age of Hollywood politics, the decade when movies and movie stars emerged as a major force in the nation's political life." While [End Page 191] Ross credits many of the Jewish moguls for taking strong public stands against the evils of Nazism, he also observes the limited impact those efforts created. Movie producers as well as actors, according to Ross, "quickly discovered that anti-fascist activities elicited anti-Semitic and anti-Communist reactions from fans, censors, and government officials."

Expanding his earlier research on Jews and social science, Andrew R. Heinze, in the second chapter on "values," explores Jews in the humanities after World War II. He acknowledges the well-known humanities association with Jews but wonders whether the work of famous Jewish thinkers, including Thomas Kuhn, Sigmund Freud, Lionel Trilling, and Harold Bloom, "brought anything identifiably Jewish with them into the academic arena." For Heinze, who considered this essay "at best a preface" on the subject, Jews in the humanities faced two powerful trends that diminished Jewish expression: "an overly agrarian, overly Christian perspective on American history and culture; and a perceived, long-standing bias against Hebraic sources, which were often deemed obsolete or provincial." He includes a fascinating section on consensus historians Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Daniel Boorstin, and Oscar Handlin as framers of "a powerful new conception of American society in which those who had once been outsiders became insiders of a vast middle-class citizenry."

Chapter Three, image, includes the transcript of a 2004 lecture delivered at USC by painter R. B. Kitaj as well as a response by UCLA professor David N. Myers. Kitaj, a self-described artist with "Jew-on-the-brain," describes the ambivalence around Jewishness, even as Jews, according to Kitaj, constitute half the art world. Kitaj calls the Jewish question "the central drama of my life" and hypothesizes that "no radical painter has put the Jewish Question so openly to the art of painting since very early Vitebsk Chagall one hundred years ago." His diasporic approach to art intends to "invent a new Judaica for the art of painting, inspired by what amazes and excites me about the Jews, their crazy genius and their discontents and my own history and destiny among them." For Myers, Kitaj represents an unusual artist precisely because of his "Jew-on-the-brain" condition. Reflecting on the kabbalistic themes in Kitaj's work, Myers notes that "Kitaj has mobilized his decades-long interest in Kabbalah to fashion a startling new theological stance" that is "unmistakably Jewish."

In her chapter on education, Riv-Ellen Prell pulls the Jewish summer camp into the mainstream, arguing that this informal Jewish educational setting, less explored in the historiography, "provides clues to understanding some significant changes in American Jewish religious and cultural life that began in the late 1960s." Casting a wide net over the last generation of American [End Page 192] Jewish life, Prell contends that Jewish summer camps redeemed Judaism by encouraging "the recruitment of men and women to the American rabbinate, the appearance of a generation of American graduate students who created the contemporary field of Jewish Studies, alterations of synagogue liturgy and styles...


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