- Editor’s Introduction
The four articles in this issue explore a dynamic era for American Jews—the five decades from 1920 to 1970. Each one focuses upon a distinct facet of that time; two explore politics and two assess culture. Taken together, they reveal many of the era’s subtleties.
Jess Olson begins our look at that era by examining the complex and surprising “return” to tradition by the famous Zionist Nathan Birnbaum and the impact his change had on the discussions about religion and politics then engaging American Jews, especially in the American Jewish press. Arriving on a visit to America in 1921 with a delegation from Agudath Israel (an organization that furthered the interests of “Torah true” Jews), Birnbaum became a lightning rod for ongoing debates over the future of Judaism and Jewish life. Birnbaum and the Agudah delegates hoped that their American visit would raise funds for the organization and promote Orthodoxy. By comparing the Agudah’s success in Europe with its “failure to comprehend the complexity of the American scene,” Olson helps us to understand Orthodoxy’s weakness in the early twentieth century as it struggled for a larger place amid the many factions dividing immigrant Jewry.
The years following World War II are often understood to have been marked by a search for peace and prosperity as an American population weary from a war that had been preceded by the Great Depression now sought security and comfort. Art Simon reminds us that in the decade following the war, American Jews continued their older battle against antisemitism in the United States, expanding that fight to the arena of motion pictures. As part of a “broad campaign on behalf of tolerance” that included Hollywood films, the American Jewish Committee also produced “social problem” films. Simon’s analysis of one successful film made in 1947 explains the subtleties of the AJC’s fight against antisemitism amid broader concerns worrying postwar Americans.
By the post-World War II era, so many novels depicted immigrant life at the turn of the twentieth century, and so many literary scholars had assessed those works, that they already constituted a subgenre of American literature and literary studies. Benjamin Pollak explains that one of the most famous authors associated with that genre, Alfred Kazin, opposed both “the representational critiques of naturalist determinism” common among scholars and the “prevailing norms for representing New York’s immigrant quarters” in the novels themselves. More recent scholarly assessments of Kazin’s writing find it “schmaltzy.” Yet, Pollak [End Page vii] shows us that by understanding Kazin’s own ideas about immigrant literature, we can reach a better understanding and a clearer assessment of his life and work.
So many different ethnic groups resided in New York City that, by the 1960’s, the city’s mayor could use visits by foreign dignitaries to help him win local elections. Jeffrey Taffet explores the way Mayor John V. Lindsay, a liberal Republican, used a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to help him win (largely Democratic) Jewish votes in 1969. But, as Taffet shows, using international diplomacy to achieve local political goals could get tricky. Lindsay could not ignore requests by the U.S. State Department to treat foreign leaders well when they visited his city. But neither could he ignore the political repercussions that might ensue if his local constituents did not want their mayor to appear friendly to a visitor they disliked. Taffet’s discussion of Lindsay’s situation not only reveals the mayor’s response to the desires of his Jewish voters, it also shows us the way “Jewish political power operated in New York City” in an era when Jews were “extraordinarily influential.” The mayor understood that most of his city’s Jews strongly supported Zionism and the State of Israel. This article, then, shows a Jewish community that is willing to openly flex its political muscle in a way far different from the more subtle influence at work in the social-problem films of the postwar years that addressed a national audience. The Jewish community Lindsay faced was a sophisticated one long accustomed to political debate and with clear, distinctive priorities.