Assessing Assimilation

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Have Jews given up too much to much to make it in America?

By Susan Miron

PORTRAIT OF AMERICAN JEWS: The Last Half of the 20th Century
By Samuel C. Heilman, Gr’73.
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. l90 pp., $30 (cloth), $17.95 (paper).

Has any other group in America been as assiduously studied as Jewish-Americans? Documentation exists on every imaginable front, from Jewish political influence (deftly described and debunked recently in J.J. Goldberg’s Jewish Power) to Jews’ shifting identities and allegiances. The Jewish community and its press have focused relentlessly on the alleged failure of part-time or after-school religious education, alarming rates of intermarriage, and changing patterns of charitable giving, all the result, some claim, of the inexorable pull of assimilation.

In Portrait of American Jews, sociologist Dr. Samuel Heilman (author of the deeply moving The Gate Behind the Wall: A Pilgrimage to Jerusalem) attempts to cover forty-five years of postwar Jewish history in the space of three lectures (delivered in l993 at the University of Washington). Heilman’s overarching concerns are whether America has helped to preserve and protect Jewish life, and if a Jewish future is assured here.

Reiterating data familiar to the point of cliche, he moves chronologically, covering education, family attitudes, residential patterns, and Jewish identity as it was shaped by Americanization and assimilation. He begins in the l950s — sometimes misperceived as a lull between storms. In fact, he writes, it was full of its own tempests, such as the l954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, whose aim was a fuller integration of blacks and whites. Yet, in l954, Heilman writes, this still “meant giving blacks (and others) a chance to be assimilated into white Christian America,” the melting pot actually “a chance to be white, Protestant-like, and middle class.”

The l950s has been derisively characterized as the era of the “Jewish Edifice Complex” for the billion dollars raised and spent building a thousand new (mostly suburban) synagogues. Despite this surge of construction, Heilman points out that, “unlike their immigrant forebears, [Jews] no longer felt they were being their truest selves inside the confines of an exclusively Jewish institution like the synagogue.”

He describes the fifties as a time when everyone knew about the Holocaust but no one wanted to discuss it, and when suburbanized parents “made it possible for their children to be at home in America, even if that meant they were no longer in touch with their Jewishness.” To Heilman (and many other experts on Jewish life) the myopia that kept Jews, preoccupied with “making it” in America, from looking at or making plans for the future of Jewish life made this era a “fool’s paradise.”

The author discusses the floundering role of part-time Jewish education, and the cultural lag between what Jewish education in America offered and what Jewish life in America required. To many Jewish adolescents, he claims, it seemed that their parents were “hypocritically forcing something on their children that they themselves had already abandoned.”

The increasingly bipolar character of American Jewry has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s — when many people shifted overwhelmingly toward less Jewish commitment, while a tiny minority wanted “much more, a richer Jewish life than had ever been part of American history,” Heilman writes.
Unsurprisingly, the religiously enthusiastic minority’s influence did not lead to “a mass renaissance of enhanced Jewish involvement and identity,” although in the l960s, younger Jews, unabashed by “being noisy about Jewishness,” began to desire a more invigorated Jewish life. Heilman traces the new visibility of the so-called modern Orthodox to the late sixties, when what he calls “unmeltable ethnics” expressing open pride in their cultural difference allowed more Orthodox Jews to feel that to be “actively and hence distinctively Jewish was to be quintessentially American.” Yet, the majority of Jews remained what Heilman calls “heritage Jews,” whose “high pride and minimal involvement Judaism” and often, political liberalism, seemed to many an ideal way to be an American.

Heilman’s most lucid observations deflate a number of widely held myths about the success and growth of Orthodox Jews, “the most intensively Jewish people within the American Jewish universe.” He illustrates the high costs of being Orthodox in America, adding ironically that the tremendous success of the Orthodox institution building has been the very source of its undoing.

As for the putative success of the Orthodox day schools, “the crucial pipeline that nourishes Orthodox life,” Heilman explains that these schools are, more than ever, emphasizing secular achievements over Jewish studies. Jews who look to the Orthodox “to serve as a kind of insurance policy for Judaism in America,” Heilman warns, had better realize that the Orthodox themselves are in a period of distress, and are having a tough time merely taking care of their own needs. “If the Orthodox in America are in trouble,” Mr. Heilman wonders, “are not all Jews in trouble?”
Although intermarriage is no longer seen by all Jewish communal leaders as “a recipe for disaster” leading to the end of the Jewish people, when Jewish heritage becomes indistinguishable from other ethnic heritages, Heilman concludes, it may well “prove to be devastating for the cultural integrity of the Jewish people.”

Will American Judaism be so transformed that it becomes a meaningless mutation of all that preceded it? Why are so many ardent Jews making aliya (emigrating) to Israel rather than building a future here? Heilman’s provocative questions about the future of American Jewry yield no unequivocal answers, but his questions seem exactly those worth asking.

SUSAN MIRON, CW’72, writes and reviews for a variety of publications, most frequently on East and Central Euopean literature, Israeli literature, and Jewish thought and culture. She is married to BURTON FINE, C’51.

A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

By Janet Byron, C’86.
New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996. 352 pp., $15.95.
This state-by-state guide is the first and only travel book to country music attractions and curiosities, large and small. Byron logged more than 20,000 miles and months on the road to find country music attractions — from major music centers such as Nashville and Austin to back roads and small towns — in more than thirty states and selected sites in Canada. The guide covers birthplaces, halls of fame, music shows, and other country music highlights, and includes quotes and anecdotes from performers, staff, and fans, as well as musicians’ recollections of their hometowns.

Edited by Thomas P. Riggio and James L.W. West III.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. 298 pp., $38.50.
Theodore Dreiser was invited to Moscow in 1927 for a week-long observance of the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. He requested, and was granted, permission to make an extended tour of Russia, which this diary, previously unpublished, records. Dreiser’s journals provide a firsthand account of life in the USSR during the 1920s, and include his impressions of the country along with his interactions and dialogues with prominent Russians such as Nikolai Bukharin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Konstantin Stanislavsky. West is Distinguished Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University; Riggio is a professor of English at the University of Connecticut and serves as general editor of the University of Pennsylvania Dreiser Edition, one of an ongoing series of volumes that provide scholarly texts of Dreiser’s private papers.

BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED: A Spiritual Guide to Putting Down Roots.
By Randy Robinson Kafka, C’80, Ed’81.
Hudson, Mass.: Swift River Publishing, 1996. 61 pp., $12.00 (+ $2.40 shipping).
This book, handbound in colorful threads, offers practical and inspirational advice on developing a sense of belonging. Kafka draws on insights from the Jewish wisdom teachings of Pirkei Avot, as well as on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. The volume is currently available by mail order only, at Swift River Publishing, P.O. Box 771, Hudson, MA 01749.

TWIN ‘TOONS: Cartoons About Twins.
By Nancy Bea Miller, C’86.
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.: Laugh Lines Press, 1996. 64 pp., $7.95 (available through direct order: 1-800-356-9315).
A former cartoonist for The Daily Pennsylvanian, Miller began drawing cartoons on being the mother of twins after the birth of her sons as a way of “keeping myself from going crazy.” The collection covers the experience of mothering twins from the ultrasound through “double-duty labor pains” to the crazy comments people make (“Are they fraternal or maternal?”).

Dialogues with Sikh Militants.

By Cynthia Keppley Mahmood.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. $39.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
Listening to the voices of people who experience political violence — either as victims or perpetrators — allows new insights into both the sources of violent conflict and the possibilities for its resolution. Reaching beyond such labels as “fundamentalism” and “terrorism,” Mahmood, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maine, Orono, details the complexity of political violence within the human experience. The book draws extensively on the author’s interviews and conversations with Sikh militants — in which they explain their aspirations, fears, beliefs, and actions — interwoven with an understanding of India’s Khalistan movement in particular, and of contemporary political conflict in general. Mahmood provides the theoretical and methodological tools for understanding the politics of violence, along with a responsible approach to the difficult issues raised by militancy and violence in the context of nation and freedom.

By Marian Myerson, GEE’71, G’84.
Boston and London: Artech House, 1996. 226 pp., $69.00.
This book, aimed at software managers, developers, and practitioners, shows how applying risk management to each stage of the software engineering model can help the development process run on time and within budget. The author identifies potential risks associated with software development and explains how to establish an effective risk management program, along with detailing the six steps involved in applying the process. Myerson is a computer/software engineer, technical writer, and consulting editor of computer manuals, reports, and textbooks.


By David R. Shearer, G’83, Gr’88.
Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997. 263pp., $42.50 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
This institutional history reexamines the origins of the Stalinist state in the late 1920s and early 1930s to show that a centralized, state-controlled economic system was not the inevitable by-product of socialist industrialization, but the intentionally conceived political creation of Stalinist leaders. Dr. Shearer, an associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, draws on information from recently opened archives to argue that attempts by the state’s trading organizations to combine rapid industrialization with social democracy in the creation of a prosperous economic community were squashed by the radical reforms Stalinist officials introduced. The paradoxical outcome, as the author concludes, was a loss of control, resulting in an overly centralized system that became subject to periodic economic crises.

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