Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



The Jews of the United States
Hasia R. Diner

University of California Press, 2004.
$19.95, £11.95, 437 pp., ISBN-0-520-24848-1


Reviewed by Jean Szlamowicz



Hasia R. Diner is Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg professor of American Jewish History at New York University and has been a leading scholar on the topic for 30 years. Her book is an excellent overview of a vast span of history, about as long as the history of the United States itself. With minute precision, she has gallantly managed the task of addressing American Jewry in historical terms while taking into account the cultural significance of what jewishness is about. When she states in her introduction that “ordinary Jews wanted both to be good Jews and to be full Americans,” she is highlighting the deep undercurrent that informs the whole question—the idea that Jewish identity in America is bound up with national identity. What might seem paradoxical is that as immigrants, the Jews who opted for America were aiming simultaneously at being fully fledged Americans and at an opportunity to—at long last—be free to live as Jews without any hindrance from their surroundings. This means that America could be considered both “open” as a land of opportunity, and self-assertive as a land with a proper identity, albeit one that was in the process of taking shape.

This is a story of movement—America building itself on the basis of XVIIIth century principles and American Jewry building its identity on its own cultural history. As Diner says,

The Jewish women and men of America tested the boundaries of Judaism as they understood it, searching for ways to render the traditional system acceptable to their American sensibilities. […] American Jewry thus took on a character distinctive from that of other Jewries. The mere fact that they created a derivative society, made up of immigrants, rendered the construction of American Jewish identity fluid, negotiable and highly voluntary.

This is as much a book about America as it is about jewishness. It shows how Jews, through migrations, defined jewishness by shedding their former local traditions and by adopting or creating others. It also shows how America interacted with this population in a unique way that has created a specific Ashkenazi culture distinct from its European counterpart. As is clearly reminded in chapter 3 (A Century of migration, 1820-1924), let us not forget that the Jews who were going to America were from different places and had different and sometimes conflicting traditions. American Jewry was thus (re)inventing itself as a historical synthesis. The evolution was a quick one. One generation was all it took to cause radical estrangement from one’s roots. One might read In the beginning (a novel written by Chaim Potok in 1975 situated in the 1920’s) as an illustration of that chasm between generations whose background and relationship with America could be completely at odds.

But prior to that well-known period, Diner is putting the record straight on the early period, starting in 1654 with Sefardic Jews of Portuguese origin. An interesting set of facts concerns the Jewish participation (military or financially) in the American Independence (Chapter 2, Becoming American, 1776-1820), showing early identification with the American cause as well as serving as a badge of loyalty to the new-born nation. Diner also develops the long history of adjustments between communities. Jews were initially less segregated than Catholics, which accounts for a religious tolerance based less on dogma than on political pragmatics. As she mentions, “American religious tolerance flowered out of the soil of necessity.” Indeed, Jews came out of a specific economic universe—the shteltl, basically a fabric of small self-sufficient businesses, which suited the initial context of early XIXth century America. In this respect, they were regarded as a useful force in the shaping of America, which was initially struggling with material needs. That is why “Jews, in essence, served as ‘entrepreneurial proletariat’ in the American system of merchandising.” Economically and culturally significant is the fact that American Jews were also an urban people, as is shown by the patterns of settlements throughout the XIXth century. Jews tended to cluster near the places where they arrived, hence the massive weight of New York (44% of the Jews lived in New York in 1927).

A major shaping element in the way American Judaism evolved is that the political framework of America has been one of religious tolerance, dissociating religious and political power—“religious persuasion should be no barrier to political participation […] Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” [54-55]. This form of political secularity should be compared to the French situation and its relation to citizenship. The consequence for even the religious organization of the Jews has been tremendous—as if contaminated by those democratic surroundings, “American synagogues and other kinds of Jewish communal bodies would function according to the will of the majority rather than the rulings of the clergy. Jewry would be governed by grassroots activism, making it unlike almost all other Jewish communities.” It still holds true today, and synagogue politics may indeed sound like a political party’s as is for instance described in Harry Kemelman’s novel Sunday, the Rabbi Stayed Home. The rise of extra-synagogal institutions proved to be a step toward a definition of Judaism outside of the strict boundaries of the clergy, leading to “a system that operated around a kind of internal Jewish separation of church and state” [66].

From then on, the political and social basis for Jewish development had been laid. W. D. Robinson’s 1819 pamphlet inviting European Jews to relocate to America was only one of many milestones that paved the way toward migrations that ultimately led to the establishment of a specific cultural experience. This is the object of part two, A Pivotal Century. Extended description of family migrations and several case studies stress the structural factors common to every generation of immigrants. In particular, Diner underscores how the alleged discrepancy between early German migration and later Eastern migration should be qualified.

Diner establishes the history of the religious evolution and the tensions between various versions of Judaism in her chapter entitled “Religious Diversification.” An extension of the religious practice was the development of a service network that catered to the Jewish community as a whole: “communal service came to be the common denominator of American Jewry.” In fact, although it developed outside of a strict religious doctrinal basis it also enabled the poor to have other alternatives than the Christian charitable institutions that aimed at converting the orphans in its care for instance.

Diner mentions some of the cultural forms of Jewish life in America as she discusses briefly the stakes of Jewish education [142-52]. But although she devotes a scant two and a half pages to the Yiddish theatre, she does not really dwell on the specific cultural definition of American yiddishkeit and its import both for America and for Judaism. Similarly the linguistic aspects of “yinglish”—a major aspect of contemporary linguistic creation!—are not part of her focus. This is clearly the main shortcoming of this very rich book—as a historian, she tends to neglect the cultural side, which takes a back seat to the more organizational aspects of Jewish life. It is demonstrated by her chapter entitled “A century of Jewish Politics, 1820-1920,” a convincing and detailed account of the political developments of Jewish life, trying to make sense of Jewish diversity. As a matter of fact, there was no unified consensus on political matters that might enable to discern a specific Jewish political stance. Diner details the main trends concerning landmark themes such as the Jewish press and immigration, the Jews’ response to World War I, to Zionism, communal organizations (National Council of Jewish Women, Kehillah, American Jewish Committee, Hadassah…).

She moves on to what she considers “one of the most momentous periods of Jewish history,” 1924-1948. Indeed, the Holocaust and then the creation of the state of Israel implied major shifts in the Jewish demographics but also in the minds of American Jews. While Jews in America were going through middle-class Americanization, whatever happened in Europe and in the Middle East clearly meant that it was happening outside of their reach, which in a paradoxical way strengthened their consciousness as American Jews. Hence the idea, simultaneously suggested and questioned in chapter 7, of a Golden age for the period 1948-1967. Diner explores the Jews’ support to the Civil Rights Movement as well as the “rifts between blacks and Jews” and the impact of suburbanization on religious Jewish life. Her last chapter is based on the perception that Jews in America may be losing their Jewishness, which

became a matter of minor significance, a mere fact of parentage, perhaps a curiosity, but devoid of personal meaning and making no difference in how they led their lives. […] For many, ‘being Jewish’ ceased to determine with whom they socialized, whom they married, where they resided or how they spent their leisure time. [306]

This is an American recurrence of the old problem of integration and assimilation and Diner shows the specifically American responses to that question. Apart from such cultural questions that have to do with identity, she also evokes a more political aspect, that of the side-effects brought about by the wars of 1967 and 1973 and the ensuing impact on the relationship of the American Jewry with Israel. The development of new rituals, especially in regard to the role of women, is the last theme she tackles.

The conclusion sounds hasty, focusing as it does on minor issues such as the way gay Jews claim inclusion within the Jewish world. Choosing to have ”continuance” as the (almost) last word of the book is hardly very original and avoids a more conceptual view of Judaism (pointing out as a conclusion that definitions of Jewishness have a pronounced “elasticity” is not proving very helpful). Diner is not trying to make a case out of that question, as if she shirked from any idea of a philosophical development. This choice is perfectly respectable in that she eventually succeeds in telling the story of American Jews.
Her account is also very productive in that she gives a lot of possible trails to follow. What she describes eventually is not just a story of successful adaptation—this adapting power could best be described in terms of creation. Just as Judaism reinvented itself and modernized its conceptions in the American context, America was inventing itself. So that any history of the Jews in the United States is also a history of America—it is also, implicitly, a history of modern democracy and how America offered the potential for creation. By this I mean that America as a place, both virginal and fraught with prior European Enlightenment concepts, was not so much an existing entity than a dynamic force created by the adjoining forces of all immigrants. That is why one cannot talk in terms of Jewish immigration as adapting to America—they should rather be conceived as creating an American reality that they are part and parcel of, like Afro-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish, Germans, etc. This historical dialectical phenomenon—where the American Jewry is both creating a new reality and being transformed by it—seems to be the true dynamic that America thrives on.



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.