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Reconstructing the Old Country: American Jewry in the Post-Holocaust Decades.

Reconstructing the Old Country: American Jewry in the Post-Holocaust Decades. Edited by Eliyana R. Adler and Sheila E. Jelen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2017. 392 pp.

In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, American Jewry confronted the devastation of the once thriving European Jewish society while also facing its new, unexpected position as the world's largest and most stable Jewish community. Reconstructing the Old Country: American Jewry in the Post-Holocaust Decades presents a "panoramic" view of how American Jewry's encounters with the Holocaust defined its role within the global Jewish community, its place in postwar American society, while it also reshaped the contours of American Jewish culture.

Reconstructing the Old Country builds on scholarship working to upend a dominant historical narrative that has presented postwar American Jews as reluctant or unprepared to face the horrors of the Nazi regime. American Jewry's collective memory continues to fuel the notion that a culture of silence persisted around the Holocaust. Adler and Jelen note that scholarship on postwar American Jewry has often reaffirmed this culture of silence, as research on the mid-century American Jewish experience focuses on suburbanization, economic mobility, postwar consumerism, or Judaism's absorption into a Judeo-Christian religious and political culture. In 2009, however, Hasia Diner's We Remember With Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust, 1945-1962 showcased the many ways in which the unspeakable tragedy was, in fact, spoken of, commemorated, and confronted by a growing and diverse American Jewish community. Reconstructing the Old Country expands on this narrative as it illustrates the myriad ways that American Jews waded through the challenges of mourning, commemoration, aiding survivors, remembering, and recreating images of the now lost alte haym.

Far more than an account of memorial efforts and fundraising campaigns for victims--though these stories are there as well--the essays skillfully interrogate how postwar American Jews encountered the Holocaust through three themes: interactions with refugees, literary reimaginings of prewar Jewish Eastern Europe, and political activism. This interdisciplinary collection, including essays from historians, literary scholars, and ethnographers, illuminates the "profound tension in immediate post-war American Jewry, in which American Jews both over-identified and under-identified with their Eastern European brethren" (9). When taken together, these essays show how postwar American Jewry constructed varied, intersecting narratives of both the Holocaust and the world it destroyed as they reckoned with their own Jewish identities.

Reconstructing the Old Country tracks how American Jewry grappled with the Holocaust in both direct and subtle ways. Adler's essay, for instance, explores a memorialization initiative that took shape around the Yizkor Bikhur. These books, created by local landsmandschaftn that had absorbed refugees into their societies, represent the impact of the encounters between earlier immigrants and new refugees in shaping American modes of memorialization. Adler shows how the integration of shtetl maps created by earlier immigrants reimagined the shtetl in which "presence of non-Jews was virtually erased and the chaotic nature of the layout was emphasized." Thus, in reconstituting the physical sites of Eastern European Jewish life, the Yizkor Bikhur "provided at least on paper, a way to return" (80).

This project of reimagining the old world rippled throughout American Jewish life, often in more indirect ways, as well. In Gennady Estraikh's essay, he situates Jewish encounters with the Holocaust within the broader narrative of postwar suburbanization and religious revival when he notes that the "Holocaust was a major factor driving American Jews to turn to religion by joining synagogues" (122). Similarly, the book's third section details how the Holocaust informed the ways in which American Jewry adapted to and integrated contemporary American culture. While suburban Jewish women, like their non-Jewish counterparts, increasingly participated in organizations within suburban religious institutions, Jewish women's mobilization in synagogue sisterhoods, argues Rachel Deblinger in her essay, operated around efforts to send aid to survivors overseas. These campaigns not only fueled synagogue participation but also publicized the stories of survivors and afforded Jewish women a prominent role in postwar anticommunist activism. Indeed, as the collection demonstrates, postwar political activists seized on the Nazi atrocities to shape Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement and in shaping Jewish interpretations of anti-communism policies.

The interdisciplinary approach of this collection successfully challenges the myth of silence by highlighting how efforts to reconstruct, and, in many ways, reimagine what was lost was part and parcel of the postwar American Jewish experience. What is more, this research further complicates the narrative of Americanization by presenting a transnational perspective on the factors that shaped postwar American Jewish culture. And yet, while the diversity of perspectives in this collection strengthens the book's overarching argument, its broad reach, at times, results in an absence of historical context and a clearly articulated connection among the essays. In the introduction, the editors note that there are many "important aspects of the postwar North American Jewish community that receive little to no attention in this volume," and they position the book as a next step in uncovering this historical moment (17). However, this absence renders it difficult to discern how efforts to "reconstruct" the old country in the wake of the Holocaust were part of multiple, intersecting forces, including the coming-of-age of the second and third generation of American Jewish immigrants or the legacy of wartime activism with American Jewish communities. It would have been useful to bookend each section with an introduction and conclusion that would situate these differing studies within the broader trends of American Jewish history and thus draw out the main themes. These critiques notwithstanding, Reconstructing the Old Country is an invaluable and perceptive study that, by showing how silence and engagement are not mutually exclusive, paves the way for future scholarship to interrogate the intersection of American Jewish history, Holocaust studies, and modern Jewish identities.

Tamar Rabinowitz

Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at the National Trust for Historic Preservation
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Author:Rabinowitz, Tamar
Publication:American Jewish History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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