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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 407-415

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Beyond Ambivalence: (Re)imagining Jewish American Culture; Or, "Isn't that the way the old assimilated story goes?"

Michael P. Kramer

In Search of American Jewish Culture. By Stephen J. Whitfield. Hanover, New Hampshire and London: University Press of New England, 1999. xvi + 307 pp.
Jewish Life and American Culture. By Sylvia Barack Fishman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. xviii + 242 pp.

Writing about Jewish American culture in the mid-80s, Stephen Whitfield refused to be "animated by anxiety, or fear, or a mood of crisis." 1 His attitude has changed. "Both as a percentage and as sheer numbers," he writes, "American Jewry has been declining of late, a tendency that shows every sign of continuing" (p. xi). More important, he believes, it is deteriorating qualitatively as well. He thinks, in fact, that American Jews have reached the end of an era. So he offers his newest study as a kind of Magnalia Iudaeorum Americana, as a way of recapturing the "belle époque" of extraordinary Jewish cultural achievement, particularly in the performing arts--the long fertile period that spanned the last century and produced (for instance) the musicals of Rodgers and Hart, Lerner and Loewe, and Stephen Sondheim; the dramas of Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller; the music of Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, and Beverly Sills; the songs of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Bob Dylan. If American Jewry shall live anywhere, he seems to be saying, it shall live in this history.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is more sanguine about the changing condition of contemporary American Jews. Building upon the Council of Jewish Federation's landmark (and controversial) 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, she argues that Jews are not so much in decline as they are "relocating the boundaries of American Jewish ethnic identity" (p. 1). Indeed, she believes that a new social-psychological paradigm is emerging. She calls it "coalescence," finds it everywhere (in statistical studies, [End Page 407] in interviews and focus groups, and in contemporary literature and film) and thinks, not only that it is an extraordinary socio-cultural achievement in and of itself, but that it may hold the promise for the renewal of American Jewish culture. If American Jewry will survive, in other words, it will survive through coalescence.

So construed, these two studies recapitulate what readers of this journal are no doubt familiar with as the assimilationist-transformationist debate. Which is to say that Whitfield and Fishman would respond differently to Steven Cohen's path breaking, titular question, American Assimilation or Jewish Renewal?. 2 At the same time, they basically agree that the conditions of American Jewish life are changing and even see eye to eye about the nature of the change. Gone, they each tell us, are the ambivalent American Jews of Charles Liebman's classic study, those prototypical Jews who find themselves caught between "the desire for acceptance by the gentile society and the attraction of non-Jewish values and attitudes" on one hand and "the desire for group identity and survival as a distinct community" on the other. 3 Not that the desires have dissipated: it's just that they are no longer seen as incompatible, or even different. Nowadays, Whitfield writes, "the boundaries between Jews and others have mostly been obliterated" (p. 224). And not only the external boundaries: as Fishman explains, "internal aspects of Americaness and Jewishness--the contents of liberal American and Jewish cultures--appear to many American Jews as almost identical" (p. 179). American Jews not only want it all but see no reason why they can't go out and get it. Rabbis and community leaders may wring their hands and gnash their teeth, but, by all accounts, Jews in increasing numbers are simply taking for granted what their parents and grandparents shuddered to consider: according to the latest American Jewish Committee survey, for instance, not only has the number of intermarriages continued to rise, but the overwhelming majority of American...


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