- Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America
Ken Koltun-Fromm's fascinating account of American Jewish thinkers' engagement with material culture explores a subject largely commanded by social historians, such as Jenna Joselit, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and others. Koltun-Fromm's approach is eclectic and sequentially explores Mordecai Kaplan, Edward Bernays, Joshua Liebman, Erich Fromm, Joseph Soloveitchik, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Anzia Yezierska, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and Bernard Malamud, plus photographic evidence from the magazine Lilith, Arnold Eagle's 1935 photographs of Orthodox Jews, and the 1927, 1953, and 1980 versions of The Jazz Singer.
Koltun-Fromm happily eschews his title's promise to generalize about "Jewish thought in America." Instead, chapters focus on individual Jewish intellectuals, magazines, artists, and actors. They are sometimes compared and contrasted, but Koltun-Fromm rightly doesn't claim to have identified a "Jewish" [End Page 161] approach to modern American material culture. The generally happy result is a freedom to explore case studies that work toward a cumulative effect but not a premature synthetic argument.
Koltun-Fromm examines six different expressions of materiality confronted by American Jewish thinkers—self, past, place, presence, narrative, and gaze.
Granted that reactions probably say as much about the reader as about the author's achievement, I found myself especially fascinated by Koltun-Fromm's accounts of the material past (focusing on Bernays, Liebman, and Fromm), material place (on Soloveitchik), and material presence (on Heschel).
Koltun-Fromm brings Bernays, Liebman, and Fromm into a thoroughly unintended dialogue on the diasporic past and Sigmund Freud's dolorous accounts of inevitable childhood trauma. Koltun-Fromm argues that Bernays sought to use an awareness of modern advertising principles to "decoupl[e] the individual from the herd" and "curb the impact" of the authority of the past (p. 70). Joshua Liebman's famous, or infamous, Peace of Mind (1946) criticized the depressive Freud and agnostic as well as atheistic secularism to stress the value of religion and an optimistic psychology as more powerful ways of grappling with the trauma of World War II and the modern desire for self-fulfillment. And Kolton-Fromm explains how Fromm used his postwar Yale lectures, published as Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950,) to develop a radical humanism that could overcome the debilitating material past.
Koltun-Fromm praises Joseph Soloveitchik's success in providing the intellectual mechanism through which "urban space" could be viewed "as a site of religious transformation, where the dirty, contaminated, and profane could become clean, pure, and sacred" (p. 109). He stresses the success of Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man (1944) in confronting the challenge of material place and stresses how "positioning Soloveitchik's thought within material culture and urban terrain . . . moves his philosophy away from theological or ideological concerns, and instead situates it within an urban culture" (p. 116).
Koltun-Fromm describes Abraham Heschel's The Earth is the Lord's (1950) and The Sabbath (1951) as "the most insightful contributions by an American Jewish thinker to the conflicting dimensions of material identity" (p. 142). Insightfully, he "read[s] Heschel against Heschel" and draws contrasts to Heschel's best-known works, Man is Not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1955). Together, they expose the timeless dilemma for Heschel and others of escaping the idolatry of things while appreciating God's creations, including the material creations of God's own children. The discussion is rich in insight and the book's outstanding essay.
Compression causes problems with two chapters. Complex plot summaries overwhelm interpretive points in the "material narrative" chapter that [End Page 162] treats Yezierska, Roth, Ozick, and Malamud. The triple subjects in the chapter on the "material gaze"—the three versions of The Jazz Singer, cover illustrations for Lilith magazine, and Arnold Eagle's 1935 photographs of New York City Orthodox Jews, also force too much analytical attenuation of each discussion. Koltun-Fromm writes compellingly about Eagle, but too briefly.
A greater concentration on Eagle alone would have required dropping either the Lilith or The Jazz Singer segments, maybe both, but would have allowed more words to...