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  • The Menorah Idea: From Religion to Culture, from Race to Ethnicity
  • Seth Korelitz (bio)

While American Jews had organized ethnic institutions as early as the second decade of the nineteenth century, they had no concept of ethnicity with which to accompany those institutions. The idea of ethnicity, as it is understood today, did not come into being until American Jews began to realize that there was something unique about the Jews which was not necessarily tied to their religion. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as they created the idea of “Jewish culture,” American Jews also created the possibility to think of themselves as a cultural, or ethnic, group.

The idea of Jewish culture, however, did not evolve directly or simply. For one thing, many people at the turn of the century thought of “culture” in its humanistic sense as the arts in general, or as a quest for refinement and human perfection either on the individual or social level; the anthropological definition of culture was still in its formative stage. Not until 1871 did Edward B. Tylor, a pioneer in this young field, give what is now the kernel of the anthropological definition of culture: a group’s “whole way of life, material, intellectual, and spiritual.” 1 Although this definition became a cornerstone for turn-of-the-century American Jewish thought, the idea of Jewish culture did not reach that position without modifications, debate, and dissent.

When Raymond Williams began his now-classic study, Culture and Society, he realized that the interrelated nature of the many ideas which converged around “culture” made it impossible to adequately define the idea without reference to a long list of what he called “keywords.” 2 The idea of culture in an American Jewish context is no less complex and necessitates looking at a set of “Jewish keywords.” Some American Jews at this time used “culture” to refer to the new, anthropological definition of community while others substituted different terms for the same concept: “Hebraism,” “cultural pluralism,” and even “mission” and “Zionism” were used in place of “culture” to define the true identity of [End Page 75] the Jewish community. 3 The most fruitful source for studying the evolution of the idea of Jewish culture in this period is the Menorah Journal, which declared on its masthead a commitment to “Jewish culture and ideas.” 4

The creation of a Jewish journal devoted to “culture” is significant, for what the Menorah meant by “culture” from its founding in 1915 until 1924 also sheds light on a whole complex of American Jewry’s beliefs and ideals in the early twentieth century. Most contributors on “culture” to the Menorah shared an understanding of Jewish culture as a remedy to assimilation, racism, or both. In this process of defining Jews as possessors of a unique culture, the Menorah Journal helped lay the foundation for a new understanding of the identity of the American Jewish community.

The Journal was an immediate success from its inception, attracting contributions from the leading thinkers of the American Jewish community as well as from important gentiles and was widely read, especially by the Jewish community. 5 For a few years after 1925, the Journal identified itself as a leftist publication, but by 1930 it had already begun its long decline, finally ceasing publication in 1962. For the years 1915 to 1924, however, when it was still widely read and before it expressed a particular political ideology, Menorah represents an ideal source for studying the discussion of “culture” by the American Jewish community. 6

Part of what makes the Journal so suited for studying the idea of [End Page 76] culture is its role in a turn-of-the-century revival among American Jews. 7 Facing many crises, particularly anti-Semitism and assimilation, American Jews created new institutions and debated existing ideologies in a quest to save American Jewry. The leading actors in this revival—many of whom were also contributors to the Journal—looked to the idea of culture as a means of reviving American Jewry. 8

Among the contributors to the Menorah who championed the idea of Jewish culture, however, there was often disagreement as to what that term...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 75-100
Launched on MUSE
1997-03-01
Open Access
No
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