- Judaism, Jewishness, and the Universal Symbols of IdentityRe-Sacralizing the Star of David and the Color Yellow
The purpose of this paper is to analyze socially constructed symbols of Jewish American identity that are produced by members of an elite intelligentsia: two groups of Jewish American authors who write short stories. Our discussion takes issues of identity formation in the Jewish American context and asks what processes act on the formation of a specific Jewish American group identity over time. It identifies the kinds of events that are incorporated into identity formation and institutional practices within the Jewish American community that offer a special way to understand issues of victimization. As evidence of how this process works, this study uses a random sample of 100 short stories written between 1946 and 1995 by Jewish American authors. Intended for consumption by Jewish American readers, these stories describe daily life within the Jewish American community and with surprising regularity bring issues of victimization into the imagined experience of readers. Their presentation of issues of Jewish American identity provides an easily accessible window, making visible the community’s concerns through time. Perhaps more significantly, an analysis of a random sample of these stories allows identification of the strategies used to create ethnic identity when describing daily experiences. More specifically, this study examines how Jewish American short story writers present the Holocaust, victimization, and anti-Semitism as part of the processes of identity formation within the Jewish American community across three time periods: 1946–1956, 1957–1972, and 1973–1995.
For many decades there has been an ongoing discussion and a certain amount of tension in the Jewish American community regarding what it means to be Jewish [End Page 80] and the role of Judaism, as a religion and a culture, in the continuation of the Jewish community. In many social settings where others exclude Jews, the more secularized Jews, who do not practice Judaism, nonetheless remain dependent on the Jewish community and cannot escape being Jewish, no matter how thoroughly they may have assimilated the outlooks and behaviors of the majority culture. This was true in pre-Holocaust Europe, where many nonreligious Jews nonetheless retained not only their socially constructed Jewish identity but also a socially constructed Judaic sense of justice, equality, and compassion for the oppressed. Many secular Jews, in fact, provided leadership for labor unions and left-wing political movements. The same split between Judaism and a socially constructed ethnic Jewishness surfaced as European Jews migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Until social practices began to change in the United States following World War II, housing segregation and ethnic discrimination guaranteed that most secular Jews would retain their Jewish identity. Most also retained a Judaic sense of ethics, stressing equality and championing of the underdog. The vast majority of secularized Jews also married other Jews, which was hardly surprising, given residential segregation and limited access to gentile occupations and institutions. Tensions within the Jewish American community between religious and secular Jews provided an early theme in Jewish American literature.
With more access to non-Jewish neighborhoods, schooling, and jobs after World War II, opportunities for assimilation—including intermarriage with non-Jews—accelerated. Secularized Jews could more easily assimilate, disappearing into the dominant American culture. Discussion of what it meant to be Jewish gained a new intensity, and was reflected in the themes of Jewish American short stories by both well-known and less well-known authors. By this time, however, the terms of discourse had changed.
Jewish American literature of the mid-to-late 1900s represents a break with that which is traditionally Jewish, traditionally religious, and traditionally Talmudic. Historically, Jewish American literature focused on the traditional. This form often embodied what might be called a typical Fiddler on the Roof mentality in which the principal character, Tevye, arranged, with the help of a Yenta (a matchmaker), the lives of his children. In Fiddler on the Roof, that which is traditional is clear. Tevye’s daughters are slated to marry the Jewish men who are chosen for them; they will bear children, keep traditionally Jewish...