Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917–1950 by Naomi Prawer Kadar
Several years back, as a graduate student in history/social studies and education, I participated in an advanced doctoral seminar on Jewish historiography for which I wrote a paper on progressive Jewish schooling on the American scene in the early twentieth century. The professor enjoyed the paper, but "next time," he wrote, "please write a straight history." The comment stung, for it suggested that Jewish educational history is something inferior, insignificant, or uninteresting relative to the hard science of Wissenschaft des Judentums. This type of critique is not unique to Jewish education. Educational historians generally are accustomed to disparagements from some "straight" historians for being light on context, evidence, analysis, or rigor while being heavy on narrow, faddish, and contemporary concerns, insinuating that educational historians are dilettantes who lack the tools, sophistication, and robustness of so-called serious historians. This kind of intradisciplinary sniping can be petty and unproductive, to be sure, but it nonetheless resonated as I read Raising Secular Jews, which was published posthumously.
Kadar, a scholar of Yiddish literature and history, provides an exhaustive review of the aims, contents, rhetorical method, and style of Yiddish magazines written expressly for American Jewish immigrant children who attended Yiddish supplementary schools from the interwar [End Page 161] years through the establishment of the State of Israel and into the heyday of postwar American Jewish adjustment—all historical backdrops that significantly influence her subject matter and thus her analysis of its creation and propagation. The book's most compelling chapter, on how the magazines dealt with the Holocaust in the midst and aftermath of the tragedy (answer: much more frankly than one might imagine), is poignant and eye-opening and makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the impact of the Holocaust on segments of American Jewry at mid-century. Given the book's purported focus on Yiddish schools and their impact on raising secular American Jewish children, we might expect important contributions to American Jewish educational historiography as well.
Kadar dives into historical sources—namely, extracurricular school materials—and contexts—namely, secular Yiddish schools—that have not received sufficient attention by historians of any stripe to date. As Kadar's extensive bibliography underlines, most studies of Yiddish schools in America were done well over a half-century ago, making her secondary sources essentially primary sources themselves. If history is normally told by the victors, then it stands to reason that there has been little interest in secular Yiddish schools, which once numbered in the hundreds but consist of only a handful today. Indeed, policymakers and practitioners normally want to know foremost what the contemporary implications are of educational history, if there are any—an ahistorical perspective that tends to limit the study of the past for its own sake. Kadar clearly is not concerned with this constraint and therefore brings to light sources and subject matter that could easily have been lost to history.
At the same time, Kadar's study might have benefitted from a clearer understanding of the stakes of the intricate relationships among schools, educational materials, schoolchildren, and society at-large. The premise of the book is that Yiddish schools used children's magazines as agents of socialization (if not indoctrination) for children and their parents alike, which was a clever (if not somewhat sinister) method of helping Jewish immigrants adapt to American life while maintaining their affinities for Yiddish language, secular Jewish culture, and radical leftist politics. To demonstrate this point, Kadar takes us on a cover-by-cover, story-by-story, article-by-article, year-by-year examination of the periodicals produced by the four major Yiddish school movements of the time (Farband/Jewish Folk Schools, Sholem Aleichem Schools, Workmen's Circle Schools, Ordn Schools of the International Workers Order), highlighting in minute detail, and with the keen eye of a literary scholar, the meaning of the art, culture, and history the magazines convey.
The trouble is that Kadar makes plenty of claims about the power of Yiddish literature to influence its consumers without giving us any [End Page 162] children's voices or perspectives to corroborate the actual impact of these materials. Her assumption appears to be that children would have viewed and understood the magazines in the sophisticated and nuanced ways that she analyzes them. To cite but one example, she writes of the new cover design of the Kinder zhurnal inaugurated in 1938, "The old cover [a girl on a swing] is replaced by one illustrated with stylized lions, hinds, birds, and deer; decorated with exotic plants; and adorned with fabric-like borders. The transformation is stunning: the message of humanism and individuality seems to recede, to be replaced with an illustration that is more traditional, even to the extent of seeming to honor the biblical injunction against the depiction of the human figure" (37). Kadar's book is replete with similar such descriptions by an adult academic of the meaning of literature and art that was intended for a youthful scholastic audience. While Kadar's thoughtful cultural analysis of the cover art may be spot on, her presumption that children would have picked up on the conceptual shift she describes—or that kids would have given the cover art more than a passing glance to begin with—is not supported by further explication of how the curricular materials actually were used and how they were perceived. That they were designed to convey powerful messages does not mean they made an impression on the children.
In the end, Kadar's book really is not about raising secular Jews; it is about the contents of Yiddish magazines intended for American Jewish children. We learn very little of the magazines' actual educational effects other than the fact that their fervent messages about the value of Yiddish culture and the importance of American Jewish adjustment must have gone mostly unheeded as secular Yiddish culture in America faded into memory.
Benjamin M. Jacobs is a visiting associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University. Along with co-authors Barry Chazan and Robert Chazan, he recently published Cultures and Contexts of Jewish Education (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017).