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L . " . lilUULmimilam J|. -' . IiiE dlmiLlII IOidigld]ll HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, APRIL 10, 2009 PAGE 17A New book probes how 20th-century Jewish leaders marketed their faith By Adam Kirsch NEW YORK (Nextbook) "Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Cre- ation of an American Public Identity," the innovative and deeply researched new book by Lila Corwin Berman, put me in mind of an old joke about elephants. As the story goes. scientists from around the world were gathering at a conference to present their research on elephants. The German delegate's paper was titled "An Introduction to a Bibliogriphy on the Classifica- tion of Elephants;" the French delegate's, "The Love Life of the Elephant;" the American's. "Hunting Elephants for Fun and Profit." Finally came the Jewish scientist; his paper was called "The Elephant and the Jewish Problem.'" There is no longer, thank goodness, a"Jewish problem," in quite the same overwhelm- ing sense that there was for Europe, an Jews in the 19th century. But the tendency of Jews in any field to be preoc- cupied with Jewish problems, in the plural, has not quite disappeared. And in the mid- 20th century, Berman argues, it was sociology the new academic field devoted to the scientific study of social groups and problems that found itself summoned to address the big question facing American Jewry: How were Jews, a tradi- tionally closed group, to define themselves in the open society of the United States? The most. popular answer, from the 1930s through the 1960s, was that Jews were neither believers in Judaism nor members of the Jewish people, as they had long con- sidered themselves in Europe, but simply a social group no different from the many other ethno-religious communities living side by side in the United States. When the pioneering sociologist Oscar Handlin published his study of Ameri- can Jewish life. "Adventure in Freedom," one critic jibed that "with very little change it could just as well pass as the story of the Greeks in America or the Italians or the Swedes." This was "intended to disparage Handlin's efforts," Berman writes, "yet for Han- dlin the reviewer hit precisely on the strength of the book: its universal implications." In America, the Jews could finally be what they had never been in the old world: a normal peo.ple. One strand of Berman's study, then, is concerned with the way leading Jewish sociologists developed and popularized this understand- ing of what she calls "so- ciological Jewishness." What was sociological Jewishness? Well, for one thing, it was not a matter of keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, praying and other religious practices. While America's Orthodox Jews continued to define themselves religiously in the new world, Berman's focus is on the better-established, more publicly engaged Reform movement, which had long since jettisoned most of the mitzvot. Berman delves into a num- ber of obscure butwell*chosen archives--from the Jewish Chautauqua Society to the Reform movement's Com- mittee on the Preparation of a Manual for the Instruction of Pmselytes--to show that in the 1920s, the Reform rab- binate was struggling to find a coherentway to define Judaism in the eyes of gentiles and, by implication, in the minds of Jews themselves. Many rabbis were drawn to the notion of "missionary Judaism;" notthat Judaism should actively seek proselytes, which was never a realistic option, but that Jews themselves were obliged to spread the values of social jus- tice and ethical monotheism in a divine mission to the world. In the words of Rabbi Samu- el Goldenson of Pittsburgh, "I say that to the extent in which we incorporate the conscious- ness of God in our businesses, in our human relationships, in the things we say, the things we feel, the things we do, to that extent we are missionaries." This was an anodyne, de- liberately inoffensive way of restating the ancient notion of Jewish chosenness. The problem was that, as Berman delicately puts it, it did nothing to "articulate the elements of Jewishness that continued to distinguish Jews from non- Jews." It turned Judaism into a watery Protestantismbereft of scripture, ritual and theology. Many rabbis Berman quotes insisted that the essence of Judaism was democracy, an appealing notion to Americans but hardly a historically ac- curate one. Into this barren ground. in the 1930s came the fertile language of sociology, which proposed that Jews were not primarily followers of a faith but members of a community, with distinctive folkways and habits. "The professions Jews en- A look back at 50 years of'Achshav' Gabriel Moked, editor of 'Achshav." By Jenna Hanson JERUSALEM (NEXT- BOOK) Nearly 50 years ago, during Passover of 1959, the first issue of the Israeli literaryjournal"Achshav"was published. "Achshav" ("Now") was the brainchild of an elite group of Hebrew University literature studentswho dreamt of creating an influential liter- ary review. Among them were the young poets Yehuda Ami- chai and Natan Zach. as well as founding editors Baruch Chefetz and Gabriel Moked. At 32 years old. Amichai was the eldest of this group of close friends, who at the time were all relatively unknown. Today, as"Achshav" celebrates its jubilee year, Moked, now 74 and a philosophy professor at Ben-Gurion University, still speaks of his lifelong project with a youthful spark. "We represented the mod- ernism and the existentialism of the first generation of the State of Israel's literature and culture, and we wanted to cre- ate something thatwould be of central importance in Israeli culture," he says. Sharp and meticulous, the veteran editor's speech is peppered with "isms" and Matan Radi "ists." But despite his tough demeanor and obvious intel- lect, Moked is also blanketed by a kind of sadness. Over the years, "Achshav" undoubtedly has been the premier journal of its kind in Israel, as well as the platform upon which many of Israel's great poets and writers made their debuts. The journal con- tinues to receive thousands of submissions everyyear, each of which Moked himself takes the time to read and consider. He has identified potential time and again, with Amichai, Zach. David Avidan. Yona Wallach. Dahlia Ravikovitch. Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua" being only a few of the many writ- ers who began their literary journeys on the pages under his purview. Moked, who calls himself a "literary cowboy," has also managed to butt heads with nearly every literary figure in Israel. He filled the first issue with controversial criticisms of the celebrated poet Natan Alterman, and has since mired himself and his journal in decades-long battles with other journals, editors and writers battles that have diminished the journal's in- fluence, even as it may have increased Moked's own noto- riety. Bitterly, he claims that he has been "boycotted" by the literature departments of every Israeli university. Though deliberately not tied to any political party,"Achshav" was criticized by the rightwing as destroying fiational values and by the left as promoting socialist Zionism. "The first issue received ter- rible criticism, bt it was very widely discussed. That gave us a lot of exposure," Moked says wistfully. "Those were wonderful days." The name "Achshav" comes from the title of Amichai's book "Now and in Other Days," which was published shortly before the journal's founding. "Natan Zach and I sat in a Tel Aviv pub drinking beer and trying to think of a name for the journal," Moked remem- bers. "The book came up in our conversation, and sud- denly at the exact same time, we both jumped off our stools. "Achshav" means that we deal with the here and now, but that our present also includes the biography of our past and anticipations of our future." The journal, which Moked still edits, also represented the literary meeting point between Israelis of Ashkenazi and Miz- rahi origin, with its founders and early contributors coming from avariety of backgrounds. While Moked believes his journal is still the most im- portant literary review in the country, he accepts that it is no longer at the center of Israeli cultural dialogue. He laments the cultural changes that have occurred in Israel over the years and scorns those things that he sees as having usurped "Achshav's" rote--things like rampant materialism and real- ity television. "We were a part of the birth of a new literary generation-- Israel's founding literary gen- eration." he says. "We did not know that one daythis country would turn into a place where people would only be interested in money." "Achshav" began with a circulation of 2,000, and after surges and slumps along the way, has returned to this mod- est number. Each year, Moked and his colleagues publish one extensive journal and three smaller cultural review magazines. Narrower in scope than the annual journal and largely reliant on young writers and critics, these magazines seem to represent an attempt to reformulate "Achshav" in accordance with the interests of young readers. Consistent with Moked's tendency to go against the grain, the most recent issue featured a strong critique of David Grossman's new novel "Until the End of the Land," taking- issue with the quality of his writing and character development. The journal's historical importance is uncontested in Israeli. literary circles, but it's hard not to wonder whether-- like so many literary publica- tions around the world it really has much influence outside its niche. "People today feed on widely published material. They look for instant sensory stimula- tion, and not for the kind of quality found in "Achshav,"" Moked admits. But he says he isn't worried. "As long as I am around," Moked says, "Achshav" will continue to be an important part of Israel's literary scene." Jenna Hanson is a freelance writer and photographer in Jerusalem. She has a master's degree in conflict resolution from Hebrew University. Re- printed from, a new read on Jewish culture. tered, the family relation- ships they developed, the neighborhoods they lived in. the languages they spoke, and the social activities they participated in: None of these were defined solely through religion or ethics, yet all of them were part of Jewish life in the United States," Berman explains. Sociology had so much to say "on the Jewish question in part because so many important sociologists were Jews. Louis Wirth, whose 1928 book "The Ghetto" was the first major study of American Jewish life, sought to sever the very term ghetto from its Jewish origins. "The Jews drift into the ghetto," he wrote, "for the same reasons that the Ital- ians live in Little Sicily, the Negroes in the black belt and the Chinese in Chinatown." YetWirthheld out the liberal hope that all these groups could eventually emerge from their strongholds and join the mainstream of American life much as Wirth himself, who emigrated from Germany as a child, managed to become a professorat the University of Chicago. The life experiences of Oscar Handlin and Nathan Glazer similarly informed their sanguine views of America's "ethnic pattern:" Being Jewish, they held, was not in rivalry with beingAmerican but away of being American. just like being Italian or Irish. Berman goes on to show that what the sociologists of- fered, the official Jewish com- munity was more than happy to embrace. For rabbis and Jewish educators, "sociologi- cal Jewishness" came as the perfect answer to the problem of how to define Judaism in America. It was not an exclu- sive or clannish peoplehood, nor was it an unpopular and suspect religion: it was simply the group Jews happened to belong to, their particular route to Americanness. "By the World War II era," she writes, "sociological Jew- ishness had become the cen- tral framework through which Jews translated themselves to the United States." Berman writes about Rabbi Morris Kertzer, a telegenic World War II veteran, who allowed "The Tonight Show" to broadcast his family's seder in 1958. Such quasi- anthropological displays, he believed, "normalized the fact of Judaism" in the eyes of non-Jews. Yet sociological Jewishness. like missionary Judaism before it, had its inner contradictions, which eventually became un- avoidable. What, for instance, could a rabbi say to discour- age a Jew from marrying a non-Jew? For awhile, rabbis could rely on some influential, but dubi- ous; studies which promised that spouses from different religious groups were doomed to disharmony. But as more Jews moved to the suburbs and entered the universities, and as the civil rights movement began to challenge America's taboos on "miscegenation," this sort of faux-scientific ban on intermarriage became less and less credible. Young Jews in the 1960s be- gan to conclude, in the words of one Conservative rabbi, that "their parents are simply prejudiced against gentiles." And indeed, if Jewishness was simply a social fact, what prescriptive power could it have? Who would put loyalty to a mere ethnic group above the call of the heart? Sociology, Berman con- cludes, could tell Jews what they were. but in the end it could not tell them why it mattered. Adam Kirsch is the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a new bi- ography in Nextbook's Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from, a new read on Jewish culture. 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