American Jewry and the Re-Invention of the East European Jewish Past.
Markus Krah argues that during the period between 1940 and 1965, American Jews "constructed a usable East European Jewish past for their present needs" (14), where conflicting visions of Jewish identity in postwar America utilized that past for their own purposes. The ways in which American Jews discussed, presented, cultivated, and imagined the Eastern European past were an important part of the shift "from a mode of integration to particularism" (258). With the ethnic wave of the 1960S and 1970s, "The East European Jewish past served as a basis for a proud distinctiveness" and a "new, particularistic, positive Jewishness" emerged (258-259).
This is a cultural history study that focuses on Jewish elites (intellectuals, journalists, and rabbis, among others). Krah has meticulously culled materials from a wide ideological spectrum as well as from more popular venues, such as the radio show The Eternal Light and the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, which drew wider American Jewish audiences. The first chapter starts with the interwar years, when concentration in second-settlement Jewish neighborhoods "resulted in a thick Jewishness that was more ethnic and secular than religious" (23). That Jewishness, however, was already declining by the 1940s with the beginning of suburbanization. The following chapter examines the attempts by Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich and his colleagues at the recently resettled YIVO not only to preserve materials about the Jewish life in East Europe that the Holocaust had terminated but also to awaken interest in secular Yiddish culture and imbue American Jewry with a holistic vision of Jewishness. Disappointed by the reduction of Jewishness to the religious facets of Judaism in America, one of YIVO's chief scholars, Nathan Reich, bemoaned in 1965 that in Eastern Europe, "Jews and Jewishness formed an integral. That is not the case in America" (58).
Another chapter analyzes the intellectuals who wrote in Commentary magazine and the ways in which they interpreted the past to contemporary readers while maintaining a degree of ambivalence about it. Sociologist Daniel Bell, for example, attacked in 1961 the sentimental depictions of the shtetl that "fail to recall its narrowness of mind, its cruelty" (92). Chapter four is dedicated to the critique of Jewish life by religious thinkers such as Robert Gordis, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Heschel, who perhaps personified more than others the veneration of Old World heritage, warned in 1963, "In forgetting Eastern Europe we dissipate our essence" (107). Chapter five explores how different branches of Judaism developed their own versions of Jewish Eastern Europe to fit Cold War America's definition of religion. The following chapter focuses on Jewish socialists and communists, who were marginalized in postwar America. Their leftism was suspicious in the prevalent anti-communist mood, and their secularism clashed with the period's "affirmation of religion" (144). Like the scholars at YIVO, Jewish socialists elevated Yiddish "to the status of a secular mystique," with some even arguing that Yiddish "was the vessel of all of Jewishness" (160-161).
The last three chapters turn to popular representations of Eastern Europe, such as the ethnographic study Life Is with People (1952) and textbooks used by various Hebrew schools. Increased fascination with Hasidism, heavily informed by Martin Buber's work, led different commentators to see Hasidim as rebels, role model for ethical Judaism, or proto-socialists. Those free-for-all references led scholar Rivkah Schatz-Uffenheimer to write sardonically in 1960 that you can link anything to Hasidism, "if you have enough diligence and yet greater boldness" (204). Krah also looks at other depictions of Eastern Europe, such as Maurice Samuel's The World of Sholem Aleichem (1943), Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg's anthology Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1954), and Isaac Bashevis Singer's "subversive spirituality" (230).
Such a short review does injustice to Krah's panoramic analysis and the scope of his endeavor. Nonetheless, the book features several glaring omissions and misconceptions that undercut its conclusions. The author sometimes presents other scholars' arguments at some length, to the point a reader might erroneously assume it is his own. For instance, Krah discusses the image of the "postwar shtetl," but it remains unclear what he adds to the conclusions of the studies he quotes by Dan Miron, David Roskies, and Jeffrey Shandler. In addition, the book's index is incomplete and leaves out many names that are mentioned in it.
Much more importantly, Krah omits a few key intellectuals who were an essential part of reimagining the Old World. Marie Syrkin co-founded and wrote regularly in the Labor Zionist journal Jewish Frontier (which Krah discusses), yet she is just briefly mentioned as one of the translators in Howe and Greenberg's anthology. Likewise, Bernard Malamud's story "The Jewbird" (1963), which reveals American Jewish ambivalence (if not hostility) toward the Old World heritage and Jewish refugees, is not mentioned. These omissions--coupled with quotes by Heschel about American Jews' detachment from their roots, and by Maurice Samuel (1943) about American Jewishness that includes, at best, saying the Kaddish and "a funny Yiddish word or two" (214)--point to the fact that Krah overemphasizes the significance of the Jewish past for most American Jews. Even when he admits that Fiddler expressed "a symbolic, cultural ethnicity," Krah still insists that American Jews craved a link "between the two parts of their identity, between the old country and the new" (237). Nevertheless, many of the people that he mentions, and some of his own observations, prove that the Old World identity was symbolic, skin-deep, and ephemeral.
Despite its shortcomings, Krah's book makes an important contribution to the study of American Jews of the mid-twentieth century. Students of American Jewish popular culture, literature, education, different branches of American Judaism, and Yiddish culture will certainly find many themes and corollaries in this book that will inform their studies. Furthermore, this study's method of discourse analysis would also be quite fruitful for scholars outside Jewish Studies.
University of Arizona
Gil Ribak is assistant professor in the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona. He is the author of Gentile New York: The Images of Non-Jews among Jewish Immigrants (Rutgers University Press, 2012).
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2019|
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