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American As Apple Pie

A new book probes how 20th-century Jewish leaders marketed their faith.

Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity, the innovative and deeply researched new book by Lila Corwin Berman, put me in mind of an old joke about elephants. As the story goes, scientists from around the world were gathering at a conference to present their research on elephants. The German delegate's paper was titled "An Introduction to a Bibliography on the Classification of Elephants"; the French delegate's, "The Love Life of the Elephant"; the American's, "Hunting Elephants for Fun and Profit." Finally came the Jewish scientist; his paper was called "The Elephant and the Jewish Problem."

There is no longer, thank goodness, a "Jewish problem," in quite the same overwhelming sense that there was for European Jews in the 19th century. But the tendency of Jews in any field to be preoccupied with Jewish problems, in the plural, has not quite disappeared. And in the mid-20th century, Berman argues, it was sociology--the new academic field devoted to the scientific study of social groups and problems--that found itself summoned to address the big question facing American Jewry. How were Jews, a traditionally closed group, to define themselves in the open society of the United States?

The most popular answer, from the 1930s through the 1960s, was that Jews were neither believers in Judaism nor members of the Jewish people, as they had long considered themselves in Europe, but simply a social group--no different from the many other ethno-religious communities living side by side in the United States. When the pioneering sociologist Oscar Handlin published his study of American Jewish life, Adventure in Freedom, one critic jibed that "with very little change it could just as well pass as the story of the Greeks in America or the Italians or the Swedes." This was "intended to disparage Handlin's efforts," Berman writes, "yet for Handlin the reviewer hit precisely on the strength of the book: its universal implications." In America, the Jews could finally be what they had never been in the old world: a normal people

One strand of Berman's study, then, is concerned with the way leading Jewish sociologists developed and popularized this understanding of what she calls "sociological Jewishness." What was sociological Jewishness? Well, for one thing, it was not a matter of keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, praying, and other religious practices. While America's Orthodox Jews continued to define themselves religiously in the new world, Berman's focus is on the better-established, more publicly engaged Reform movement, which had long since jettisoned most of the mitzvot.

Berman delves into a number of obscure but well-chosen archives--from the Jewish Chautauqua Society to the Reform Movement's Committee on the Preparation of a Manual for the Instruction of Proselytes--to show that, in the 1920s, the Reform rabbinate was struggling to find a coherent way to define Judaism in the eyes of gentiles--and, by implication, in the minds of Jews themselves. Many rabbis were drawn to the notion of "missionary Judaism": not that Judaism should actively seek proselytes, which was never a realistic option, but that Jews themselves were obliged to spread the values of social justice and ethical monotheism, in a divine mission to the world. In the words of Rabbi Samuel Goldenson of Pittsburgh: "I say that to the extent in which we incorporate the consciousness of God in our businesses, in our human relationships, in the things we say, the things we feel, the things we do, to that extent we are missionaries."

This was an anodyne, deliberately inoffensive way of restating the ancient notion of Jewish chosenness. The problem was that, as Berman delicately puts it, it did nothing to "articulate the elements of Jewishness that continued to distinguish Jews from non-Jews." It turned Judaism into a watery Protestantism, bereft of scripture, ritual, and theology. Many rabbis Berman quotes insisted that the essence of Judaism was democracy, an appealing notion to Americans but hardly a historically accurate one.

Into this barren ground, in the 1930s, came the fertile language of sociology, which proposed that Jews were not primarily followers of a faith but members of a community, with distinctive folkways and habits. "The professions Jews entered, the family relationships they developed, the neighborhoods they lived in, the languages they spoke, and the social activities they participated in: none of these were defined solely through religion or ethics, yet all of them were part of Jewish life in the United States," Berman explains.

Sociology had so much to say on the Jewish question in part because so many important sociologists were Jews. Louis Wirth, whose 1928 book The Ghetto was the first major study of American Jewish life, sought to sever the very term ghetto from its Jewish origins. "The Jews drift into the ghetto," he wrote, "for the same reasons that the Italians live in Little Sicily, the Negroes in the black belt, and the Chinese in Chinatown." Yet he held out the liberal hope that all these groups could eventually emerge from their strongholds and join the mainstream of American life--much as Wirth himself, who immigrated from Germany as a child, managed to become a professor at the University of Chicago. The life experiences of Oscar Handlin and Nathan Glazer similarly informed their sanguine views of America's "ethnic pattern": being Jewish, they held, was not in rivalry with being American, but a way of being American, just like being Italian or Irish.

Berman goes on to show that what the sociologists offered, the official Jewish community was more than happy to embrace. For rabbis and Jewish educators, "sociological Jewishness" came as the perfect answer to the problem of how to define Judaism in America. It was not an exclusive or clannish peoplehood, nor was it an unpopular and suspect religion; it was simply the group Jews happened to belong to, their particular route to Americanness. "By the World War II era," she writes, "sociological Jewishness had become the central framework through which Jews translated themselves to the United States." Berman writes about Rabbi Morris Kertzer, a telegenic World War II veteran, who allowed The Tonight Show to broadcast his family's Seder in 1958: such quasi-anthropological displays, he believed, "normalized the fact of Judaism" in the eyes of non-Jews.

Yet sociological Jewishness, like missionary Judaism before it, had its inner contradictions, which eventually became unavoidable. What, for instance, could a rabbi say to discourage a Jew from marrying a non-Jew? For a while, rabbis could rely on some influential, but dubious, studies which promised that spouses from different religious groups were doomed to disharmony. But as more Jews moved to the suburbs and entered the universities, and as the civil rights movement began to challenge America's taboos on "miscegenation," this sort of faux-scientific ban on intermarriage became less and less credible. Young Jews in the 1960s began to conclude, in the words of one Conservative rabbi, that "their parents are simply prejudiced against gentiles." And indeed, if Jewishness was simply a social fact, what prescriptive power could it have? Who would put loyalty to a mere ethnic group above the call of the heart? Sociology, Berman concludes, could tell Jews what they were; but in the end, it could not tell them why it mattered. 

Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article originally appeared in Nextbook.