Being Jewish in the USA

jewish americansStudents of American Judaism sometimes become shocked by the statements made by scholar Charles Liebman who pointed out the apparent struggle of Jews to integrate into larger American society while maintaining their distinctive group identity (Liebman, Charles). He argued that Jewish authenticity, traditional culture, and society are being challenged by modernity (Liebman, Charles). No doubt his greatest concern was for the American Jewish community. However, his overall treatment of “Jewish identity” is problematic. His essentialist approach assumes the existence of a common underlying Jewish culture, history, set of values, and practices. In the case of the American Jew, he asserts that maintaining one’s Jewish identity is increasingly a matter of personal choice. Despite his pessimism, Liebman presented his “cult of synthesis” theory, which states that there is nothing incompatible between being a good Jew and a good American, or stated succinctly, between Jewish and American standards of behavior (Liebman, Charles). Rather, being a good American only reinforced one’s commitment to being an upstanding Jew (Liebman, Charles). After studying several Jewish newspapers of the 20th century and considering theories of several great Jewish culture and history scholars, it may be asserted that ousting Jewish traditions and values entirely was not an acceptable option for acculturation, and that most communities sought ways to find unity with their Jewish and American identities.

A professor of American Jewish history, Arthur Goren deals with essays about Jewish communal life in America and how Jews as a minority dealt with what is essentially group survival (Goren, Arthur). There are ten case studies that examine various strategies for maintaining a collective identity while being active in American social life. Goren’s main question was how to assure Jewish group survival within American freedom. There were certain efforts on the part of Jews not only to maintain Jewish identity, but Americanize it and become integrated in American social, economic and political life as well (Goren, Arthur).

Professor Jack Glazier’s book, Dispersing the Ghetto, reveals programs of the Jewish immigrant’s relocation in America during the great wave of immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Glazier, Jack). He reveals some insightful accounts of the economic, political, and social difficulties that arose due to Jewish immigrants clustering in the urban center. The high density of population made Jewish organizations struggle for relocating them in such a way that they became less concentrated; this refers mostly to the Jews of Lower East Side in New York in the 1880s. In the 20th century, nearly every American city with a considerable Jewish population witnessed this sort of housing segregation. Glazier holds a standpoint that “individuals and ethnic groups to which they belong are the best arbiters of what it worthy of preservation and practice within the framework of American life” (Glazier, Jack).

While full rejection of Jewishness in order to completely integrate into American society at large was never an option, Jewish communal leaders constantly sought ways to balance between becoming true American citizens, and maintaining a Jewish belonging. The so-called Reform Judaism movement, which arose in the USA, aimed significant efforts to transform the American Jewish community into an organization accepting to all Jews – less exclusive and less demanding. In his work American Judaism, Nathan Glazer notes the impact of the Reform Judaism movement on Judaism in America. He says that, “By the turn of the century, Reform Judaism was the dominant current of American Jewry and had recreated Jewish identity in congruence with American liberal Protestantism” (Glazer, Nathan). The controversy of the reform of Judaism was indicative of an effort to promote Jewish survival within American freedom.

Glazer, Nathan. American Judaism. Second. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Glazier, Jack. Dispersing the Ghetto: The Relocation of Jewish Immigrants Across America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Goren, Arthur. The Politics and Public Culture of American Jews. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Liebman, Charles. The Ambivalent American Jew: Politics, Religion, and Family in American Jewish Life. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1973.

Sarna, Jonathan. American Judaism. London: Yale University Press, 2004.
“The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture.” Indiana University Press 5, no. 1/2 (Autumn, – Winter, 1999 1998): 52–79.


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