- Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism by Sarah Imhoff
A vibrant scholarship on Jewish women and their gender roles in recent decades has enriched our understanding of American Jewish life. Jewish women were at the forefront of the labor movement in the early twentieth [End Page 448] century and second wave feminism in the latter half of the century, in part because their prescribed gender roles varied from their non-Jewish counterparts. Within Jewish households, for example, it was more acceptable for women to work and for unmarried women, in particular, to have access to the public sphere. But what about American Jewish men? In what ways did their gender roles conform or not to American ideals of masculinity and how did Jewish masculinity shape the American Jewish experience more broadly? Sarah Imhoff rightfully observes that "gender" in the field of American Jewish history has largely equated to the study of women. Her fascinating and meticulously researched book, Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism, provides a much-needed corrective.
Imhoff interweaves two agendas. First, she uncovers the meaning of Jewish masculinity in the early twentieth century. Building on the insights of theorists like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, she maintains that the best way to "understand unarticulated norms is to look at the social margins and unexpected places" (9). Imhoff is careful, however, to note there was never one dominant definition of American Jewish masculinity. She focuses on acculturated Jews who practiced Reform Judaism because they "embodied the norm in the American imagination" and conceived masculinity in marginal locales (5). Imhoff also analyzes how Jewish masculinity was marshalled by acculturated Jews in order to make Judaism into a "good" American religion. Reform Jews sought to cast Judaism as a "good" American religion by claiming it as rational, universal, and democratic as opposed to emotional and superstitious. These gendered philosophical foundations had roots in the Enlightenment. For Judaism to be considered American, it had to conform to this rubric and be "good"—i.e., manly.
The rest of the book examines various "margins" of American Jewish life to see the formation of an American Jewish masculinity at work. The four chapters in Part Two focus on mass immigration and efforts by acculturated Jews to transform Eastern European Jews into manly citizens, mainly in the West. Acculturated Jews championed a masculinity that was courageous, physically healthy, and connected to the land but not aggressive or overtly muscular. This vision of Jewish masculinity mirrored but did not outright replicate dominate norms of a more virile Christian masculinity. Chapter Three examines the short-lived Galveston Movement that sought to settle immigrants out West by bringing them into the United States through a port in Texas. Chapter Four looks at the cultural identification some Jews made with American "Indians," while Chapter Five looks at agricultural communities. The final chapter in this section, one of Imhoff's most astute, analyzes American Zionism. [End Page 449] American Zionists focused less on manly muscular bodies, Imhoff argues, and more on incorporeal traits like courage to show that American Jews fell outside of the feminized diaspora. None of these "marginal" locales were central to the American Jewish experience, but each reveals ways that acculturated Jews attempted to both transform Eastern European Jews into healthy male citizens and construct broader perceptions of American Jewish masculinity.
The final section of Imhoff's book turns to the criminal and abnormal. "If religious educational pamphlets or philanthropic efforts to mold immigrants told listeners how to be good Jewish boy and men," she writes, "conversations about crime told them what not to be" (200). Chapter Seven analyzes the 1908 Bingham affair, when New York City's police commissioner accused Jews of making up half the criminals in the city. Chapter Eight looks at the Leo Frank case in 1913. The final chapter examines the 1924 murder of a fourteen-year-old boy in Chicago by Nathan "Babe" Leopold and Richard "Dickie" Loeb. Jewish crimes were largely "soft"; they involved theft and deceit rather than murder. When they...