The Triumph of the Jews

A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today

by Charles E. Silberman
Summit, 458 pp., $19.95

For at least a century, Jews in America have worried about three main issues: their success in establishing themselves in American society; their continuity as a community; and their legitimacy, that is, their justification to themselves of the value of being Jews. Their concerns about worldly success were always connected with the fear of anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews did not have economic effects until the mass immigration of the 1880s. The German Jews who arrived before then had often been subjected to social discrimination, but this didn’t prevent them from doing well in business. Roughly half of the German Jewish immigrants settled in the rapidly expanding cities of the West and South, where their skills as middlemen were welcome.

The situation was quite different for the approximately two million Eastern European Jews who arrived between 1880 and 1914. Their children had great difficulty entering the professions and getting good jobs in many established businesses. These barriers began to break down during and after the Second World War, and by now the economic exclusion of Jews has become rare. It is, therefore, possible to imagine that the clock will now stop, that this success will not undergo any further change, and that the large and seemingly untroubled status of Jews in the American economy can thus be celebrated as the end of a process, an unprecedented achievement in the history of the Jewish diaspora.

The question of the continuity of the Jewish community has been equally troubling, at least to the majority that has continued to prefer being Jewish. Here, too, fear predominated for several generations. Among the intellectuals in the immigrant generation some of the most influential were antireligious universalists of one kind or another. In the next generation, socialism of several kinds, and not Judaism in any form, was the faith of many Jewish writers and political activists. Almost without exception, those who were seriously concerned about the survival of Judaism in America wrote and spoke, during the first half of the twentieth century, as if they were fighting a rear-guard action against inevitable attrition. They were not cheered by the attention that the immigrant generation and its children were paying to bar mitzvah celebrations and Jewish cooking. This was widely regarded as vulgar folk-Jewishness, which might last a while or even for a long time, but could not be regarded as a substitute for the knowledge of sacred texts and adherence to Jewish practices. Even in the heyday of the Catskill resorts, those who enjoyed vacationing at Grossinger’s knew that such a place was neither the heir of the European synagogue nor a substitute for it.

Now, in the third and fourth generations of the descendants of East European immigrants, the popular Jewish culture seems to continue. Far fewer Jews today observe the High Holy Days than their parents did, but many pay dues to synagogues, turn up for the Passover Seder, light candles for Hanukkah, and are overwhelmingly pro-Israel, willing to give and raise money in its behalf. Some assume that “American Jewry”—the Americans who identify themselves as Jews—has become a stable community, one firmly based on the new Judaism. If one believes this, one may even dare to predict that this consolidated community will eventually even acquire a deeper sense of Jewish values. It follows that Jews no longer have cause to feel guilty of deserting their heritage, or to feel somehow inferior to their forebears, who knew the Torah and practiced it.

Taken together, these arguments have a deeper purpose. If American Jews have now achieved lasting, unprecedented success in preserving Judaism in the open society, and if America is now the secure place in which the Jews can be as rich as anyone else—and be widely praised for it—then the deepest question of American Jewish life from its very beginnings, the issue of legitimacy, is solved. American Jewry today can accept itself as it is.

More than that, it can, through its organizational activities, make its wealth legitimate through good deeds. This too has happened before. The German Jews, “our crowd,” had some conscience about their success. The more radical among them, such as Felix Adler and Lillian Wald, insisted on the moral obligation to help the needy whether they were Jewish or not. The more conservative German Jewish leaders worried about poor Jews, especially among the newest immigrants. Similarly, today, the organized efforts of the Jewish community are largely devoted to raising money for Israel. Wealth finds justification because some of it is used to serve ethnic purposes. Those who take the lead in these activities are rewarded with honors in the organized community, as pious Jews used to be honored in the synagogue in recognition of their learning and their high dedication to the love and fear of God. The “giver” and the “activist” are seen as heirs of the scholars and pietists of old.

In summary, this is the argument of Charles Silberman’s A Certain People. He leaves us in no doubt about his intentions. He calls the first section of his book “An American Success Story,” the second “A Jewish Success Story.” Whatever successes and disasters might have happened elsewhere are for him irrelevant. Only in America could a Jew have become president of Dupont and only in America is there a fourth generation of Jews who still attend a Seder. The United States has provided the setting for the climactic moment of the Jewish diaspora—America is, therefore, the best of all possible Jewish worlds.

It is instructive to list the subjects that Charles Silberman avoids in making this case. He is bold enough to talk about Jewish crime in the immigrant generation, as one of the forms of upward mobility; he does not bring himself to discuss Jewish communism, which was, until the 1950s, one of the major expressions of Jewish idealism. The trial and death of the Rosenbergs, for example, is simply not mentioned. Accused of being only two of a circle of leftist Jews who were loyal to the Soviet Union, they were prosecuted and defended mainly by Jews and were sentenced to death by a Jewish Judge. The controversy over whether they were victims of fears of anti-Semitism or martyrs by choice to the cause of communism has been conducted in large part by Jews. Any serious assessment of contemporary American Jewish life cannot avoid this drama, whatever its meaning. For Silberman to have dealt with it, however, would have involved him in a question that he must avoid if he is to sustain the thesis of his book. He cannot allow his readers to start considering the evidence for the proposition that Jews, at least some significant elements among them, have had other things on their minds than making successful lives for themselves in the American suburbs.

Silberman cites the contribution of Jews for the last several generations to art and literature in America as further proof of the rise of Jews to a place in society, but he mutes the fact that most of the Jewish writers and artists worth mentioning have been critical of conventional bourgeois America and American Jewish values. The dominant tradition of the modern Jewish intelligentsia, since Spinoza, and certainly since Marx and Freud, has been to express its Jewishness by standing apart from society and asking secular, prophetic questions about justice and morality. This is not to be confused with the alien feelings of immigrants who could hardly wait to “make it” in America, or even with some continuing sense of displacement felt by their children in a still anti-Semitic country. The young Jews who were so prominent in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and the 1960s, and those who tried to end the war in Vietnam in the 1970s, are as much a part of the American Jewish culture as the members of Jewish country clubs, but they hardly appear in Silberman’s book.

Silberman disagrees with an essay I wrote in 1963 about assimilation. The rate of intermarriage of Jews in the United States was then one in twelve. I predicted that it would rise, as their grandchildren began to marry, to one in three. I suggested then, and later, that the American Jewish community was in danger of gradually disappearing. Silberman deplores such forebodings. Against them, he cites his impressions from his own talks with American Jews—mainly activists in Jewish organizations, it appears—and he draws on two recent statistical studies of American Jewish life.

Silberman admits that one out of four Jews now marries a partner who was not born Jewish, but he insists that this figure has now stabilized and is perhaps decreasing. To support this view he cites as typical the rate of intermarriage in Boston, where it is estimated at under 20 percent; but he does not find equally or more significant the 39 percent rate of intermarriage in Los Angeles, the second largest Jewish community in the US. But the truth about most statistical estimates of the behavior of American Jews is that they are based on limited samples, are of varying reliability, and are subject, as Silberman himself tells us, to widely different interpretations. The most famous, the Jewish population study of 1971, in which the largest number of American Jews were surveyed, was inconclusive. The two principal authors each arrived at a different estimate of intermarriage from the same statistics. The US Census Bureau does not ask about religious affiliation. In Canada, however, where the government compiles such information, the rate of Jewish intermarriage has already risen to over 20 percent in a community that is more than a generation closer to its European origins than the Jews of the United States. What cannot be doubted about most such marriages is that the children they produce, even if the originally non-Jewish parent converts, have, on the whole, a less secure sense of their Jewishness than the children of marriages in which both partners were born Jews. Silberman’s conviction that intermarriage is probably strengthening the American Jewish community, or, at the very least, that it is a matter of no consequence for group survival, is simply unbelievable.

In recounting his impressions of Jewish attitudes, Silberman has much to say about the young Jews who are returning in some fashion to the established Jewish community, but we hear very little from him about an equally significant number who have turned to teachers such as Ram Dass, himself of Jewish origin, in search of enlightenment. Silberman makes much of the Jewish Studies courses in American colleges and universities. I have taught such courses for twenty-five years, at Columbia and, now, at Dartmouth, and I have not observed that a rebirth of Jewish consciousness has become pervasive. On the campuses I know well, I find that roughly 10 or 15 percent of the Jewish students, many of them children of Holocaust survivors (and thus different from their third-and fourth-generation peers), have become more intensely Jewish. But most Jewish students are less involved in Jewish life than college students were a generation ago. Ask any Hillel director anywhere in the country, as I have asked many of them in recent years, and he will tell you that the number of Jewish students who do not want to be considered as Jews is at least as large as the faithful minority that turns up fairly regularly at the campus Hillel House. The High Holy Days have become everywhere on campus a demonstration of active Jewish identity; thousands come to services, but thousands more go to class.

Silberman seems to have talked to many leaders of the various federations of Jewish charitable organizations. These represent today about 45 percent of American Jewry, the part that belongs to the organized Jewish community. As Silberman barely mentions, there is substantial evidence that these numbers have been dropping. A decade or so ago the consensus among Jewish leaders, based on surveys by Jewish organizations, was that something over half of American Jews belonged to such organizations. Silberman accounts for this apparent decline by arguing at several points that younger Jews tend to “join” after marriage or, at the latest, when they have children. Therefore the statistical drop in membership is more apparent than real. I do not believe this theory. Silberman writes that he has talked with many rabbis, but they do not seem to be the ones I have known during forty years as a rabbi. The more thoughtful among them, including some of those who are prominent in the supposedly reviving Orthodox community, could have told him that they contemplate the Jewishness of the third and fourth generations with more bleakness than hope. Practically every rabbi knows dozens of Jews who have hardly any Jewish life at all except perhaps at funerals. More important, a Jewish life that is passive before the birth of children tends to become passive again after the bar mitzvah or bas mitzvah ceremonies are over.

Silberman could even have documented such concerns about the Jewish community from the very statistics that he quotes to bolster his case. He makes considerable use of a study commissioned by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, directed by Steven M. Cohen and Paul Ritterband, which will be published in 1986 as Family, Community, and Identity: The Jews of Greater New York. In their draft text, Cohen and Ritterband argue, along with Silberman, for the view that a new kind of American Jewish survivalism has now appeared: practically all American Jews, they find, now care about Israel and Soviet Jews while, at the same time, relatively few obey the dietary laws or follow other traditional practices. The most persuasive interpretation of such statistical evidence was made, I think, by Donald Feldstein, the former executive vice-president of the American Jewish Committee. In 1984, in a pamphlet commissioned by the American Jewish Congress,1 he gave a much less sanguine account of recent trends toward Jewish activism:

One group, the smaller, will be more Jewishly educated, more involved in Jewish matters. The other group, the larger, will be largely uneducated Jewishly, less involved, and less identified and dependent upon their stores of Jewish “capital” for their survival as Jews. They will be vulnerable to being lost from the Jewish people, but still Jewish enough to have their attention captured in a crisis, and to be worked on towards winning over their sons and daughters to the other group.

The fundamental issue, as Cohen and Ritterband acknowledge more clearly than Silberman does, is how one chooses to interpret the statistical surveys. No doubt the fewer than 10 percent of American Jews who live with the “thou shalt nots” of the religious tradition are far more securely tied to their Jewishness. The rest have for the most part worked out a version of Jewishness that is pleasant for them and acceptable to gentiles (You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s rye bread); but they do not recognize the force of biblical injunction as a presence in their lives. This is not the faith of prophets and martyrs.

Two questions that should be asked are whether the new Jewishness is unprecedented, as Cohen, Ritterband, and Silberman would have it, and whether it has staying power. The two questions are in fact interrelated. If contemporary American Jewishness, of the kind that these writers describe, is indeed a new phenomenon in modern Jewish experience, then it might be argued that its future is unpredictable, and that this unprecedented community might enjoy a future all its own.

The truth is that the same kinds of claims have been made before, and the results are known. During the French Revolution, when the Jews were first emancipated in Europe, the first group to be given equality were the Sephardim of southern France. After their representatives returned from Paris in February 1790 bearing the decree that gave them equality, the leaders of the community met and disbanded as a separate entity. They then reorganized themselves at that very same meeting as a “committee for welfare.” The prosperous Jews of Bordeaux had for the most part ceased believing in the Jewish God, but they continued to worry about poor Jews, at home and in other parts of Europe. Three generations later, at least half the descendants of the Jews who had been in Bordeaux before the Revolution had left the Jewish community.

Another striking example occurred in the United States. By the turn of the century, the German Jews, “our crowd,” were into their second and third generations. Their relationship to the synagogue, even at its most reformed, was vestigial and sentimental, and, as I noted above, they expressed their Jewishness through deeds of charity. These were the founders of the federations of Jewish philanthropy throughout the country and of many Jewish hospitals. They supported the American Jewish Committee in order to protect Jewish rights at home and the Joint Distribution Committee in order to help Jews in Europe. Today one could not fill the boards of directors of either organization with the descendants of its founders. Many of their great-grandchildren simply do not want to be considered as Jews.

The historic evidence suggests, contrary to Silberman and to the sociologists whom he quotes (and who quote him in turn), that activism can work as a substitute for faith for no more than one or two generations. The causes of Israel, of Jewish social service, and of antidefamation clearly seem to serve the same purpose today and ultimately the result seems likely to be the same. Silberman cites the rise in Jewish charitable contributions as evidence of a Jewish revival. It is true that the money raised by Jewish charities has risen in dollar amounts, but the number of givers is static at best, or, more probably, declining. Such statistics are known to the Jewish federations, but are not much talked about. Sources in the national office of the United Jewish Appeal have recently revealed, however, that the organization estimates that no rise in income will take place during the next few years and some of its officials fear that receipts will drop before the year 2000. Silberman himself mentions that the Jewish fund-raising establishment is perturbed by the increasing prominence of the “big givers” on the boards of museums and symphony orchestras. They are making princely gifts to these institutions because status in American life is much more easily bought by contributing to them than to Jewish charities. These facts should have caused even the optimistic Silberman to wonder whether the American open society is the place where Jewish loyalty is solidly secure.

The momentum of ethnic Jewishness that Silberman describes cannot last, in my view, for reasons that I suggested a few years ago in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. I was, I wrote, plagued by a nightmare about American Jewry: the day might come when Israel would strike oil, and thus no longer be dependent on money from abroad; on that day, the Arabs might make peace, and so Israel would no longer need a lobby in Washington; the Soviet Union might open its doors wide for all Jews who wanted to leave; and anti-Semitism in America would disappear. At that point, the Jewish activism that Charles Silberman, along with Cohen and Ritterband, suggests is the basis for a new American Judaism, would have to disband. Even if the Jewish charitable organizations tried to continue (like the March of Dimes after the cure for polio was found), the attempt would fail. The “new Jewishness” thus seems to me founded on two very questionable, even frightening, assumptions: that peace will never come in the Middle East, or, at the very least, that Israel’s situation will never become that of a normally independent nation; and secondly, that successive generations of the Jewish bourgeoisie will not find other causes to engage their attention.

Charles Silberman’s most hopeful assertion is that the Jewishness that he has described is moving toward religious and cultural revival. He claims that what is happening now in America is unprecedented. This, too, seems to me untrue: every post-emancipation Jewish community, even as it moved from faith to activism to large-scale assimilation, has cast up some remarkable leaders and thinkers who have returned at the last moment to their Jewish origins. Among the German Jews in America Ludwig Lewisohn was such a figure, although his audience consisted of the most recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. The same was true in Germany in the early years of the century; although they had the help of the popular sage Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Gershom Scholem persuaded very few of their German Jewish contemporaries to take part in the revival of Jewish learning they hoped for. They found their allies among Eastern Europeans who had been brought up on traditional Judaism. What is different about America is both the size of the American Jewish community—and, at least in Silberman’s view, the unique hospitality of America to ethnic variation. He simply rejects out of hand the possibility that this unique hospitality makes relatively painless assimilation an even easier choice for many Jews than the choice to engage in separatist activism within the Jewish community.

The issues raised by Charles Silberman’s book turn on the question of what it is to be authentically Jewish. From the beginning of Jewish history there have been those who have wanted to be at ease with themselves and with their neighbors. Destroying idols is an unpleasant and usually dangerous activity, as Abraham once discovered. Silberman claims, and plausibly so, that his approach was influenced by the views of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the leader of the Reconstructionist movement. Although he does not mention him, I find his views are also close to those of the philosopher Horace Kallen. Both arrived in the US during the 1880s as the children of East European immigrants. In the early years of the century they defined their own idea of “cultural pluralism.” They set themselves against the idea of America as a “melting pot,” wanting Jews to find a niche as equals, not simply in the day-to-day contest for fair treatment but in creating American history itself. The climactic statement of this view was Oscar Handlin’s assertion, in his book The Uprooted, in 1952 that American history is in fact the story of a country constructed through the efforts of immigrants. Handlin, in effect, confirmed that the great hope of Kallen and Kaplan was becoming a reality—that those who came from Minsk and Prague in the 1880s could now be regarded as just as legitimate in America as those who came from England during the 1620s.

Kallen was an entirely secular Jew who disliked religion. Kaplan was a rabbi who moved away from Orthodoxy to “reconstruct” Judaism as ethnic loyalty and practical ethics. Both of them, however, denied with great vehemence the fundamental religious doctrine the Jews have held about themselves, that they are “a chosen people” who must fulfill unique God-given obligations. If Jews were to be defined as one of the many groups that were trying to be at home in America, then the claim of any of these communities to be carrying out a special, divinely appointed mission has to be modified or abandoned. This position implied a deep religious reform for American Jews, one far more fundamental than the Reform Judaism of the earlier German Jewish immigrants, who abandoned the Jewish rituals for the sake of Western respectability but who continued to conceive themselves as having theological claims to be “a chosen people.”

Kallen and Kaplan, for all the differences between them, essentially asserted that being Jewish was to be defined in America less according to the light of the past than as a description of what Jews were doing together as a community. There was no reason to be Jewish out of theological guilt or to continue to cower before the God who had thundered on Sinai. Jews in the open society would remain Jews only because their activities together could be more moving and more morally and aesthetically satisfying to the individual Jew than any other way of life that might be available. Kallen and Kaplan were both political liberals and even flirted with socialism. (Kallen was a progressive and Kaplan sympathized with Labor Zionism.) They largely appealed to their own generation, the children of immigrants who wanted to find a solid place in American middle-class society. Kallen and Kaplan did not abandon classic Jewish religion in order to substitute for it the kind of political and cultural radicalism that would put them and their disciples outside the American social structure.

Silberman has now written a book which essentially asserts that the dream of Kaplan and Kallen has come true. Whether or not the organized Jewish life Silberman describes as stable and flourishing turns out to be a transient phenomenon, as I have argued it probably will, we must ask a deeper question: Is this Judaism? The authority of Mordecai M. Kaplan and Horace Kallen will not help and not only because the Orthodox rabbis become angry at the very mention of their names. The liberal American rabbis, both Conservative and Reform—the rabbis who lead four fifths of the American Jews belonging to synagogues—essentially follow Kaplan in practice while they overwhelmingly reject his theology. They insist on affirming the doctrine of the “chosen people,” the central concept Kaplan wanted to replace. Whether these rabbis can produce a cogent theological defense of their view is not the point here. What is important is that their rejection of Kaplan on this question is a way of asserting that Jews are different. Apart from this, what remains of Jewish ethnic difference “beyond the melting pot,” to use the phrase of Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan? As Silberman describes that difference, it hardly seems one worth suffering for or even that it will cause much inconvenience.

When Silberman considers the concept of the Jews as “chosen,” he defines it as a feeling of being somewhat on the margins of society, a feeling that acts as a stimulus to success. He gives no hint that the Jews he describes as undergoing a “revival” have any sense of the deep religious meaning of “chosenness” as the source of moral and social conscience. What Silberman cannot see is that authentic Jewish teaching has always demanded a willingness to stand apart, to risk being contrary. I suggest that Mrs. Portnoy, even as she is happy in her house in suburban New Jersey, and probably now also in West Palm Beach, knows this to be true. She remembers from her childhood that her mother or her grandmother told her that “you should remember to be good to Jews,” but she also heard, over and over again, that “the other person is also a human being,” and that “a Jew is different; he does not do such things.” This is the source of the lasting Jewish political liberalism in America. The neoconservatives are right: if Jews really feel themselves to be like all other Americans, as “haves” they ought to turn to the right wing in their politics. No doubt, as I recently argued in these pages, there is a component of enlightened self-interest in Jewish liberalism, a concern to avoid the animosity of the poor and the black.2 This, for Silberman, entirely explains the Jewish vote for the Democrats in recent elections. What he misses in his characteristic concentration on the tactics of success is the echo of a unique moral sensibility, a willingness to act in disregard of economic interest when the cause seems just.

Sophie Portnoy and her son Alexander, if he has now found a place within the Jewish fund-raising establishment, will probably read Charles Silberman’s book with some pleasure, for it assures them that all is well with them, and that they deserve unqualified admiration. And yet, after Mrs. Portnoy has savored this pastry, I believe she will feel vaguely hungry, perhaps for the truth. Judaism is neither authentic, nor can it survive, if it amounts to no more than a triumph of adjustment to suburban life. In all of its authentic versions, even at its most secular, Judaism is the faith of those who are dissatisfied with the society around them and have a critical sense of the hollowness of worldly success—and only through such people can Judaism survive, or have reason for survival.

  1. 1

    The American Jewish Community in the 21st Century: A Projection.”

  2. 2

    See “Reagan and the Jews,” NYR, January 31, 1985.