The Modern American Jewish Experience The search for an identity has been a prominent theme throughout history. Peoples have attempted to define themselves through religion, nationalism, and social class. Yet as the world modernizes, changing demographics and societal transformations have made it increasingly difficult to define "a people." Probably the best way to identify a group is by recognizing its accomplishments and the challenges it faces. The modern American Jewish experience has taken a radical turn from its earlier European counterpart. American Jews have become activists and leaders in national and international Jewish affairs while at the same time they have attempted to create a balance between religion, heritage, and Americanism in their own lives.
Although Jewish culture and tradition flowered in Europe for many centuries, the Jews of Europe never became leaders in affairs within their own countries. European Jews typically were the only large minority group and often were persecuted, despite the fact that they did not maintain a high profile. As Jews began to immigrate to the United States in increasingly large numbers in the late 1800's, they discovered that their social situation in the new country was very different than it had been in Europe. In America, the Jewish population was only one minority group among many, including Irish, Germans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and others. In the United States, there was little or no threat of pogroms or unfair laws that restricted Jews. Without the yoke of persecution, the new immigrants were able to take their place among politicians, artists, philanthropists, and scientists, without being afraid of divulging their religion. It was during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that American Jews started to become active in cultural and commercial Jewish affairs. As discussed in Heritage: The Golden Land, Jews began to establish institutions such as Yiddish newspapers, the Educational Alliance, and the Anti-Defamation League to help support others within the national Jewish community. In Isaac Singer's story, "A Wedding in Brownsville," Dr. Solomon Margolis was a quintessential American Jewish activist of his time; he was a "board member of a Jewish scholastic society; he had become co-editor of an academic Jewish quarterly" (Singer, 39). He provided support to fellow Jews by treating "rabbis, refugees, and Jewish writers without charge, supplying them with medicines and, if necessary, a hospital bed" (Singer, 39). The Jewish community created numerous support groups, bringing together people from the same town in Europe (so-called "landsmen"), such as the Senciminer Society from "A Wedding in Brownsville." By supporting one another and creating groups to protect their interests, American Jews were able to create a safer, more stable environment than the one they had left behind in Europe.
American Jews not only began to become active in national affairs, they became leaders in the international Jewish community as well. As the Zionist movement gathered strength during the early part of the twentieth century, American Jews began to create Zionist groups that were at the forefront in the push for a Jewish state. Some of these groups, such as Hadassah and the Jewish National Fund, are still in existence today. However, not all Jews were in favor of the creation of a Jewish state. These mostly strictly observant Jews felt threatened that Israel would become a secular country, built by secular, "Jewish goyim" (Potok, 199). Many anti-Zionists, such as Reb Saunders in Chaim Potok's The Chosen, were zealously active in their efforts to counter the secular Zionist groups. Reb Saunders "organized some of the Hasidic rebbes in the neighborhood into a group called The League for a Religious Eretz Yisroel. Its aims were clear: no Jewish homeland without the Torah at its center; therefore, no Jewish homeland until the coming of Messiah" (Potok, 235). Yet despite the considerable counter-movement, Zionist fever in America continued to grow unabated. Men like Dr. Solomon Margolis ("A Wedding in Brownsville") joined Zionist committees, and even more zealous men such as Mr. Malter (The Chosen) spent mammoth amounts of time devoted to running meetings, organizing rallies, and making speeches. The commitment of such individuals had a significant impact on the Jewish population, which was apparent in the mass rallies taking place across the country. In The Chosen, Chaim Potok writes about a rally at Madison Square Garden. It ".had been packed, and two thousand people had stood on the street outside, listening to the speeches over loudspeakers. The police had blocked off the street; the crowd's response to the speeches. had been overwhelming" (Potok, 230). American Jews not only become politically involved in Israel's affairs, they became philanthropists and activists on behalf of Jews worldwide as well. Influential organizations such as the Lauder Foundation and the Joint Distribution Committee (both Jewish organizations that are still active today) brought services to Jewish families worldwide. They helped to rebuild destroyed European Jewish communities after the Holocaust and to keep them alive during the dangerous years of Communist rule. By the mid-twentieth century, the American Jewish community had established a reputation as the international leader of Jewish affairs.
One of the most daunting obstacles that new immigrants faced when coming to America was the unwritten societal requirement that they assimilate into American culture. For some minority groups, this task was easier than it was for others. The controversial issue of becoming American was one of the first causes of the division of the American Jewish community. Many Jews felt that they had to find a more American expression of their Judaism, so they began to "integrate Jewish traditions" (Heritage). As discussed in Heritage: The Golden Land, the Reform Movement was started in 1885 to allow Jews to become more "American." Yet not all Jews were enthusiastic about the movement to assimilate into American society. There were those, like Dr. Margolis ("A Wedding in Brownsville"), who felt that "Jewish laws and customs were completely distorted; men who had no regard for Jewishness wore skullcaps; and the reverend rabbis and cantors aped the Christian ministers" (Singer, 39). These nay-sayers were usually the more traditional Jews, such as the strictly Orthodox ("Haredi") and the Hasidic. These groups preferred to maintain their own culture and traditions by living together with people of their own kind. Yet, in time, the desire to become American grew in strength among these groups as well, especially during the Second World War. This period of cultural assimilation created the sentiment that "an inter-league baseball victory had come to take on only a shade less significance that a top grade in Talmud, for it was an unquestioned mark of one's Americanism, and to be counted a loyal American had become increasingly important to us during these last years of the war" (Potok, 6). American Jews were drafted into the American army, which is the situation in which Sheldon Grossbart finds himself in "Defender of the Faith," by Philip Roth. Although Grossbart uses his Judaism as a tool to manipulate his position in the army, he still has to face the conflicting opinions of Captain Barrett. The Captain makes it very clear that he beleives that a solider in the army is an American, first and foremost - his religion comes second. Grossbart, although he does not really believe what he says, represents the opinions of many American Jews of the period when he argues that his Judaism needs to be accommodated. Yet there were Jews during that period, such as Sergeant Marx, who would have sided with the opinions of Captain Barrett. The balance between Americanization and religion has continued to be a controversial issue to this very day, and the struggle for that balance has come to define the modern American Jew.
During the past two hundred years, American Jews have moved from an inward-looking to an outward-looking people. This fundamental change has caused much controversy within the community over the dangers or benefits of assimilation to American Jewry. Even Jewish politics have been subject to change: over the past few years, the majority of Jews have moved from the Democratic voting constituent to the Republican in response to the current crisis in Israel. The definition of American Jewry will modify as disagreements about change, assimilation, and politics within the community continue in the coming years.