American Jewry Between the Wars

Today, Jews in the United States of America live as they have lived in no other country in the history of Jewish exile. The Golden Age of Spain, which was another period of great Jewish prosperity, pales into insignificance in comparison to Jews in the United States.

In America, equality before the law is almost complete. Overt government anti-Semitism is almost non-existent. Covert, snide, bigoted anti-Semitism – which exists, even very strongly in certain parts of the country – nevertheless is not comparable to what it once was. Through education and drive, Jews have been able to raise themselves in terms of wealth and influence in society. Even a religious Jew can function in American society almost at any position today. Generally speaking, observance of all the commandments of the Torah is not an impediment to success either as a professional or in a mercantile sense.

We tend to think that it was always this way. The truth is that this is a recent phenomenon.

Sabbath Observance

When Jews came to the United States in large numbers in the 1880s, and then in successive waves in the early 1900s through the 1920s, they found themselves at the bottom of the pile, so to speak. They came into a desperate economic situation. They came into a land with great bigotry and discrimination. It was not the overt anti-Semitism of the Russian czars nor of the Polish peasants, but it was open anti-Semitism in the form of jokes, slurs, name-calling, being beaten up on the street, not being able to get jobs, inability to enroll in certain universities, enter certain clubs or engage in certain types of businesses.

This is vital in order to understand the reaction of American Jews to many things that went on in world Jewry, even until the 1950s. It was shaped by the circumstances of the society in which they lived as much as how they wanted to be. The microcosm of this metamorphosis from a Jewry that was traditional if not fully committed to full observance is the institution of the Sabbath.

When Jews came to the United States, a six day workweek, if not a seven day workweek, was mandatory. Therefore, when Jews who had been Sabbath-observant in the Old Country came to New York they came under tremendous pressure to give it up.

There were many, many Jews who could not withstand that pressure. They had families to feed and literally nothing to eat. Therefore, the Sabbath-observing Jew rapidly became a minority among American Jews.

The progression that began with Sabbath disloyalty easily and almost invariably led to disloyalty to Judaism in general. It did not happen overnight. But eventually that is what happened — and happens. The Sabbath is the cornerstone of the Jewish faith. That is why we measure a Jew’s level of religious observance first and foremost by whether or not his is a Sabbath observer.

The vast majority of Jews that came from Europe had been observant Jews with a rich Jewish tradition. How did it all fall apart – and fall apart so quickly and dramatically? The first factor was the economic issue. The economic pressures were so severe and enormous that the vast majority of immigrants could not resist them.

The Melting Pot

A second factor was the Melting Pot principle that the United States was built upon. In that model a person would come as a German, Irish, Italian, Pole, Jew, etc. but leave as an American. And being American meant that everything else would be discarded.

For decades, the public school system was built on the Melting Pot principle. The job of the public school teacher was to take the immigrant child or the child of immigrants and detach that child from his culture, from his home — and make him an American. Even in public schools with an almost total Jewish population, where practically all the teachers were Jewish, the children were required to do things like sing Christmas carols and participate in Halloween. Failure to do so was un-American, and the teachers bought into that.

The pressure of the Melting Pot caused the children of immigrants to discard, to a great extent, any reservoir of attachment that they may have had left to the Jewish religion and customs. Old-time Jews with European accents were viewed as anachronisms, out of step with reality, never amounting to anything, etc. The children were embarrassed that they had such “greeners” as their fathers and mothers. That embarrassment was what the public school system accomplished. “You don’t want to be like your father, a common laborer who can’t speak proper English. You want to go to college and make something of yourself.”

Under this pressure, Jews threw out the baby with the bathwater. Everything about their Jewishness went. They were able to realize the assimilatory dream of the Melting Pot. Of course, it was not only this way with Jews but other ethnicities and cultures as well.

The public school system firmly believed that the key to the solution of all personal and national problems lay in education. The problems of society resulted from the fact that it was not educated. Education was the panacea. With a college degree a person could become a professor or a professional. It was the stepping stone to making it in the American society.

No group embraced that idea to the extent that the Jewish community did. That was based, naturally, on the history of the Jewish people – “the people of the book” — and their dedication to learning and respect for knowledge.

Of course, part of the shock of the Holocaust is that the Germans were the most educated people. To happen from the people of Goethe and Schiller and in the country epitomizing the highest standards of culture and art was hard to digest. It still is hard to digest. It knocks a tremendous hole in the theory that if only people were educated the world would be at peace; that our problems stem from ignorance and lack of education. Before the Holocaust, it was a much more convincing argument.

Insecurity in a Strange Land

Another major factor in Jewish American history is the insecurity Jews felt in the New World. Most Jews today feel very secure in the United States. They are American through and through – from the sports pages to the financial pages. They feel so secure in their American identity that they don’t feel the need to hide their Jewishness. It is a state of mind.

But that is not the way Jews felt even into the 1930s and 1940s. They did not want to appear too Jewish or advocate too loudly for Jewish issues. Even in the midst of the Holocaust, American Jewry did not pursue an agenda that was Jewish; it pursued an agenda that was American. The most visible Jewish Americans, such as reform leader Stephen Wise, were not willing to insist that the United States do anything active to save Jews or even take a stand regarding the extermination of European Jews. Wise and others accepted the rather bland statements of a basically anti-Semitic State Department and president that there was not much to do but continue with the war effort.

Samuel Rosenman, a judge, was Roosevelt’s speechwriter during the war years. When a group of Orthodox Jews approached him about the Holocaust he told them that not only would he not help them get an appointment with Roosevelt, but they shouldn’t even dare bring up the matter with him, saying, “The president is busy with important war matters. We cannot foist this upon him.”

Until the 1940s Jews in office kept a very low profile and were expected not to pursue any Jewish agendas. The non-Jews who sought the Jewish vote got it not based on advocating any Jewish agenda but a socialist one. The change came after the Holocaust.

The Conservative Movement

The Conservative Movement is an exclusively American phenomenon. It is a perfect example of Jews in the American culture adapting to what they saw the American future to be.

It began in1898 in the United States with Solomon Schechter, an Eastern European Jew and Talmudic scholar who went to university and became an expert in Semitics. He decided to make a modern rabbinic seminary in the United States that would combine within it the best of Western culture and skills of the secular world together with a traditional understanding of Jewish sources. He was going to make the all-American rabbi.

The term “Conservative” comes from the movement’s objective to “conserve” Judaism. It believed that traditional Judaism, as it existed throughout the ages, could not exist on the American continent. Indeed, who then could imagine that there would one day be entire communities such as Lakewood, New Jersey, supporting armies of married young men learning Torah full time at the highest levels? Who could imagine that there would be fully Sabbath-observing doctors, lawyers and businessmen? It was unimaginable back then. The only choice then was Reform or nothing. The Conservative movement came to offer an option better than nothing, to “conserve” or “save” whatever could be conserved/saved.

The problem with that is it created a slippery slope. In its first form, the movement conserved 99% of Judaism. As time went on, it compromised more and more.

For a long time it looked like the Conservative Movement was going to completely take over American Jewry. Its central body, the United Synagogue, probably became the leading Jewish body in terms of wealth and power. It had a very popular radio program, publications, large synagogues and even great scholars in its seminary, including the likes of Saul Lieberman and Abraham Joshua Heschel, people who themselves were tradition-oriented and observant.

In the two decades following the Second World War, the Conservative Movement took over perhaps as much as 30% of the Orthodox synagogues in the United States. The Conservative Movement became so strong that its leaders and social scientists predicted that Orthodoxy would disappear in 15 to 20 years, leaving on only the Conservative and Reform movements in the United States – with the Conservative absorbing any lagging traditionalists. Today, social scientists predict just the opposite. The Conservative will disappear – with the Reform absorbing any lagging Conservatives.

Among other things, this demonstrates how the Conservative Movement has moved farther and farther away from tradition. Adapting to the cultural fads of the times has its limits.

All of this together helps explain why American Jewry did very little regarding the situation in Europe as the Second World War approached; why it did not play the role it could possibly have played; why it almost committed suicide religiously in the decades between the wars. It’s as though the Second World War, and the terrible things that happened in it, came to reawaken within American Jewry its personality that it had somehow lost.

The history of American Jewry from 1948 onward is a different history. In some respects it is worse. The rate of intermarriage beforehand was far less than today. Nonetheless, in terms of a vibrant Jewish identity and solidarity with Jews facing persecution across the world it is far stronger than anyone imagined it ever would be.

The turning points were events of the Second World War and the founding of the State of Israel. But the important thing to realize is that Jewish life in today’s United States is not the way it looked into the 1940s. We need to understand that in order to appreciate the lessons involved in this history.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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