The essays in this issue of American Jewish History continue the exploration of what I called in the preceding number of the journal “the great theme of American Jewish history,” namely the defining of American Jewish identity. In that issue Edward S. Shapiro, Betty Roth Young, and Lauren B. Strauss showed how the novelist Herman Wouk, the writer Emma Lazarus, and the magazine Menorah Journal sought to answer the question what it means to be an American Jew. In the current issue Beth S. Wenger, Eric Goldstein, William Toll, and Seth Korelitz further examine how Jews have defined their identity as both American Jews and Jewish Americans. Of the eight persons contributing to these two issues on American Jewish identity, four are young historians just starting out on their scholarly and academic careers, and one already has had a book published by a distinguished American university press. This bodes well for the future of American Jewish history.
Wenger’s “Memory as Identity: The Invention of the Lower East Side” is a stimulating ethnographic survey of how the imagining of the Lower East Side by American Jews during the 1920s and 1930s reflected their own evolving Jewish identity. By the 1920s, she says, the Lower East Side had “ceased to be the center of Jewish population and activity and became instead a primary site of Jewish memory and a physical space for the invention of Jewish identity in America.” It was at this time that the neighborhood began to assume its mythic position in American Jewish memory. Eric Goldstein’s essay ‘“Different Blood Flows in Our Veins’: Race and Jewish Self-Definition in Late Nineteenth Century America,” by contrast, perceptively examines why some Jewish spokesmen during the late nineteenth century saw Jewish identity in racial terms. This was a period of growing intermarriage and assimilation. It was also a time when the dominant thrust in social and biological thought emphasized nature rather than nurture. It is not surprising, therefore, that Jews resorted to racial categories “to define themselves in a changing social landscape, allowing for emotional security and a degree of communal assertiveness while also conforming to American conventions.” Race thinking enabled Jews to balance “the conflicting impulses for communal solidarity and Americanization.”
William Toll’s article on Horace Kallen is an incisive revisionist analysis of the man who coined the term “cultural pluralism.” Although [End Page 1] the son of an Orthodox rabbi, Kallen was a naturalist and a secularist. His great contribution to American Jewish social thought was to provide a rationale for American Jewish identity appropriate for a secular, scientific, and pluralistic era. Kallen, Toll believes, “brought us much closer to understanding how identity must be the outcome of struggle.” Finally, Seth Korelitz’s essay discusses how the Menorah Journal used the concept of “Jewish culture” during the 1920s to combat anti-Semitism and assimilation. This necessarily led the magazine’s contributors, with the exception of Kaufmann Kohler and other spokesmen for Reform Judaism, to emphasize that the distinguishing characteristics of American Jewry were cultural rather than religious or racial. “American Jews,” Korelitz concludes, “were increasingly thinking of themselves as more than just a religious group, and culture helped lead toward the self-recognition of Jews as an ethnic group. . . . the idea of culture expounded in the Journal was a driving force in the ethnicization of American Jews.”