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  • The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity
  • Noam Pianko (bio)
The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity. By Daniel Greene. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. xi + 261.

The search for an early essay by Mordecai Kaplan in graduate school led me to discover the Menorah Journal for the first time. When I finally [End Page 88] located the print volumes of the journal, I was shocked by the contributors listed in the table of contents of the magazine. In addition to regular articles by Kaplan, the list of contributors included many of the most influential American Jewish voices of early twentieth century, including Horace Kallen, Solomon Schechter, Israel Zangwill, and Louis Brandeis. In addition to figures familiar to me from Jewish history were important public intellectuals I did not expect to find in a journal of Jewish thought. For instance, the magazine featured pieces from thinkers ranging from the American philosopher John Dewey to the British internationalist Sir Alfred Zimmern. Interested in learning more about this hub for Jewish life and thought during a crucial period in the history of American Jewish life, I searched for a monograph about the Menorah Journal. Other than a few articles, no book-length study existed.

Daniel Greene’s monograph The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity addresses this absence in American Jewish historiography. Greene, the director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library, makes two important contributions in this book. First, the author traces the history of the Menorah Association from its origins as a student group at Harvard University in 1906 to the peak of the Menorah Association’s influence on campus life and communal conversations in the 1920s and 1930s. Greene’s well-researched account illuminates the experiences of several children of Eastern European immigrants trying to find their place at Harvard (as well as other leading universities) and their efforts to build an intellectual and organizational basis for a new generation of American Jews. Their vision of Jewish identity reminds readers that the identification of Judaism as an American religion was not an inevitable outcome of the American Jewish experience. The Menorah Journal writers sought concepts of collectivity and Jewish identity that highlighted attributes later eclipsed in American Jewish discourse, such as Hebrew culture, nationality, and even race. For these secular intellectuals, Jewish membership had more to do with descent and culture than religious belief or practice. As a result, their journal focused on art, culture, politics, and current events.

Second, Greene identifies a shared agenda among many of the Menorah Journal contributors. The founders of the journal, especially Horace Kallen, attempted to define models of American pluralism that supported cultural and social diversity. This claim drastically expands the relevance of the Menorah phenomenon from an internal conversation about Jewish identity to a mainstream discussion of what it means to be American. The book thus contributes to an emerging approach to American Jewish history that David Hollinger describes as the shift [End Page 89] from communalist to dispersionist narratives. Kallen and many of his fellow Menorah Journal writers, Greene correctly argues, did not draw a distinction between their intellectual production as Jews and Americans. Scholars interested in figures such as Kallen tend to make a distinction between Jewish intellectuals as Jews and public thinkers who happen to be Jewish. This false dichotomy prevents a holistic appreciation for the rich relationship between Jewish and mainstream American concerns. Instead of portraying the Menorah Journal as a communal space for negotiating internal questions of Jewish identity, Greene demonstrates that the journal actively engaged American public culture and introduced cultural pluralism into the vocabulary of identity in the United States.

The challenge with linking the origins of cultural pluralism to Jewish intellectuals, specifically Horace Kallen, is the negative legacy of this paradigm. The scholarly understanding of cultural pluralism rests heavily on the assessment of Kallen’s definition of membership as descent-based. Post-ethnic debates about diversity have shifted the basis of solidarity from descent to consent. Greene briefly acknowledges this in the book. However, a more direct...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 88-90
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-20
Open Access
No
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