This collection of essays explores changes among American Jews in their self-understanding during the last half of the 20th century.
Written by scholars who grew up after World War II and the Holocaust who participated in political struggles in the 1960s and 1970s and who articulated many of the formative concepts of modern Jewish studies, this anthology provides a window into an era of social change. These men and women are among the leading scholars of Jewish history, society and culture.
The volume is organized around contested themes in American Jewish life: the Holocaust and World War II, religious pluralism and authenticity, intermarriage and Jewish continuity. Thus, it offers one of the few opportunities for students to learn about these debates from participant scholars.
The book includes a dozen photographs of contemporary Jewish experience in the United States by acclaimed Jewish photographer Bill Aron. Like the scholars of the essays, Aron participated in struggles within the Jewish community and the Jewish counterculture in the 1970s and 1980s. His images reflect shifting perspectives toward spirituality, community, feminism, and memory culture.
The essays reflect several layers of identity politics. On one level, they interrogate the recent past of American Jews, starting with their experiences of World War II. Without the flourishing of identity politics and the white ethnic revival, many questions about American Jewish history might never have been explored. Those who adopted identity politics often saw Jews as an ethnic group in the United States, one connected both to other Americans and to Jews throughout the world and in the past. On another level, these essays express ideas nourished in universities during the turbulent 1970s and 1980s. Those years marked the expansion of Jewish studies as a field in the United States and the establishment of American Jewish studies as an area of specialization. Taken together they reveal the varied sources of American Jewish studies. Finally, one must note that in many cases these essays anticipate major books on the subject. Reading them now reveals how ideas took shape within the political pressures of the moment.
These articles teach us not only about their subject but also about how issues were framed and debated during what might be called our fin de siecle, the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first. The authors of these articles include several, most notably Arthur Green, Alvin Rosenfield, and the late Egon Mayer, who collectively could be thought of as the founding fathers of this new generation of Jewish scholars. Green in theology, Rosenfield in literature, and Mayer in sociology influenced younger academics such as Arnold Eisen. A slightly different relationship exists among the historians. Several come to their subject though the study of American history, including Hasia Diner, Stephen Whitfield, and Jonathan Sarna, while others approach through the portal of Jewish history, such as Paula Hyman and Jeffrey Gurock.
Cover photograph courtesy of Bill Aron