Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity
By Lila Corwin Berman
University of California,
266 pages, $55 (hardcover),
$22.95 (paperback)

As a promising young scholar at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1910s, Louis Finkelstein was close to its president, the eminent and elderly Rabbi Solomon Schechter. They were walking together in Manhattan one day when Schechter stopped at a newsstand to check the latest World Series scores.

“Can you play baseball?” he asked the shy rabbinical student.

“No,” Finkelstein admitted.

“Unless you can play baseball,” the old man told him, “you’ll never get to be a rabbi in America.”

Finkelstein—who would go on to become not only the president and chancellor of the seminary but also the most prominent figure in American Conservative Judaism—never did take up baseball. But he took Schechter’s point: successful Jewish leadership in 20th-century America would require the ability to communicate not just within the Jewish community but also to, and in the idiom of, the much larger non-Jewish culture surrounding it. Increasingly, Jewish thinkers would feel it necessary to explain Jewishness to non-Jews, both to demystify Jews and to establish their similarity to other Americans, as well as to show that Jewish distinctiveness was actually good for America and its way of life.

In Speaking of Jews, Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history and religion at Penn State, investigates the ways in which American Jews over much of the past century explained Jewish life to their non-Jewish compatriots. They did so in books and magazines, on radio and television, in public speeches and academic conferences. Some of them promoted a “missionary Judaism,” in which the role of Jews was to uplift and enlighten the world by sharing the liberal values and moral wisdom of Jewish tradition.

Many more embraced what Berman calls “sociological Jewishness”—the idea that Jews were best understood as just another American ethnic group, one of many in the United States, each with its own foods and customs and neighborhoods. Along the way, rabbis, academics, and other Jewish intellectuals wrestled with questions of intermarriage and conversion, with how best to explain—or elide—the differences between -Judaism and Christianity, and with reconciling the tension between the universal message of Judaism and its indelible connection to a particular people.

From early in the 20th century, writes Berman, Reform and Conservative rabbis were convinced that religion could be used to promote greater acceptance of Jews in the United States. Through organizations like the Jewish Chautauqua Society, they traveled to American colleges, speaking to predominantly Christian audiences about Jewish history, religion, and culture. At a time when racial discrimination was rife—and when Jews were commonly thought of as a biologically inferior race—liberal rabbis believed that a broader knowledge of Jews and Judaism “could help steer American social and political policy onto a path of greater tolerance.” It was a conviction that would grow even more urgent with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and the destruction of European Jewry during World War II.

Thus rabbis worked to link Judaism to Americanism—to prove “that America needed Jews as much as Jews needed America,” in Berman’s words, and to depict Jewish teachings as a bulwark of democracy. This could, at times, be taken to extremes. At the University of Iowa in June 1935, one visiting rabbi informed students that the Talmud and the U.S. Constitution were similar in form and content—a claim that would have bemused James Madison no less than Rabbi Akiva. But other presentations casting Jewishness as part and parcel of America’s democratic experiment were more sophisticated and proved more influential. “The novel notion that the United States was a Judeo-Christian nation,” Berman observes,

and that democracy sprung from Judeo-Christian values, was in many ways hatched at the conferences that Conservative leaders came to organize in the 1940s. . . . The widespread acceptance that the United States was—and had always been—a Judeo-Christian nation connected American political stability to the ongoing survival of Jewishness.           

Finkelstein, who took over the leadership of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1940, was in the forefront of those who portrayed Judaism as integral to the nation’s moral and democratic character. His effectiveness is suggested by the editorial ovation that appeared in the New York Times in 1942 to mark the school’s 55th anniversary. “As long as the doors of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and like institutions speaking for the brotherhood of man remain open,” the Times enthused, “our democratic traditions and ideals cannot be destroyed.”

Two years later, Finkelstein and the seminary launched The Eternal Light, a half-hour radio (and later television) series broadcast on NBC with the goal of explaining Jews and Judaism to as wide an audience as possible. In its heyday, The Eternal Light reached an audience of more than 5 million listeners, Jewish and non-Jewish. A message it repeatedly underscored was that Jews and Judaism reinforced America’s civic values. When Time ran a major story on the state of American Judaism in 1951, it put Rabbi Finkelstein on its cover, together with a ner tamid, the “eternal light” that can be found in every synagogue.

Finkelstein’s was only one of many voices in the chorus explaining American Jews to non-Jewish Americans, and Berman profiles several of the others. There was the early sociologist Louis Wirth, who argued in his 1928 study The Ghetto that Jewish immigrants, like other ethnic minorities, found it difficult to break free of traditional cultural traits and attitudes. Oscar Handlin, a renowned social historian, believed that anti-Semitism was unlikely to flourish in the “inhospitable soil” of American liberalism. Rabbi Morris Kertzer, a chaplain in the U.S. Army who saw action in Italy and France during World War II, wrote “What Is a Jew?” for Look magazine in 1952—an article that was reprinted in Reader’s Digest, then expanded into a bestselling book. Nathan Glazer, a socialist turned social scientist, enlisted in the project of Jewish -self-explanation via the pages of Commentary,1 which was launched in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee, Berman writes, “to harness intellectual energies to the project of Jewish survival.”

The unlikeliest Jew to appear in Speaking of Jews has to be Marilyn Monroe, who converted to Judaism on July 1, 1956, just a few hours before marrying the playwright -Arthur Miller in Katonah, New York. (Her conversion certificate, signed by a Reform rabbi and ornamented with a sketch of menorahs and the Ten Commandments, is reproduced in the book.) Their marriage, Norman Mailer would later write, represented the union of the “great American brain” and the “great American body.” It was undoubtedly a testament to the success of the long campaign to explain and normalize Jewishness in America. But what did it say about the social patterns and behaviors that were supposed to be so ingrained in Jewish life and such a sure safeguard of Jewish distinctiveness?

“If a person who seemed so clearly not Jewish—from her appearance to her family history to her place in American popular culture—could become a Jew, then the sociological assumptions about Jewishness were in jeopardy of unraveling,” Berman comments.

If Marilyn Monroe—or Sammy Davis Jr., who converted in 1960—could become Jewish, then Jewishness could no longer be adequately explained as nothing more than membership in a particular ethnic group. Then again, if Jewishness was simply one ingredient in the melting pot of Americanness, why bother to stay Jewish? And why marry Jewish? Monroe may have converted, but intermarriage was beginning to rise, and Marshall Sklare, writing in Commentary a few years later, warned against complacency about “a matter more crucial to Jewish survival than any other.”* Even Look magazine highlighted it in a 1964 article on “The Vanishing American Jew.” Yet if it was wrong to discriminate on the basis of group difference—a fundamental tenet of the postwar liberalism that so many Jews embraced—was it not hypocritical to oppose intermarriage?

“The case for in-marriage, refracted through increasingly popular integrationist ideals, seemed bound to flounder,” Berman writes. This jeopardized Jewish survival, which depends on the maintenance of categorical differences between Jews and non-Jews. For years, “Reform and Conservative rabbis [had] spoke[n] almost exclusively in the language of sociology when it came to defining Jewishness,” but by the 1960s and 1970s many Jews had stopped perceiving any real difference between themselves and non-Jews. “What, then, was the core of Jewish distinctiveness?”

Berman’s answer is that there no longer was any common answer: American Jewishness had become “volitional,” a matter of individual choice. Jews were simply people who chose, for whatever reason, to consider themselves Jewish. You didn’t have to believe in God to be Jewish. You didn’t have to attend a synagogue, or observe Jewish holidays, or have Jewish parents, or marry a Jewish spouse. You didn’t even have to love Levy’s Jewish rye bread.

Jewish identity was now “capacious” enough to accommodate any whim or motivation. That meant, among other things, that rabbis and other Jewish leaders would be able to retain their influence in Jewish life only if they could “popularize Jewishness and make it accessible and appealing.” How might they do so? Berman mentions one writer’s suggestion “that rabbis and parents emphasize -Judaism’s positive attitude toward sex.”

To illustrate the demise of sociological Jewishness, Berman cites an advertisement placed in the New York Times by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York in 1974. Its message was stark: “If You’re Jewish, Chances Are Your Grandchildren Won’t Be.” Berman sees in this an “assumption that in the future a child or grandchild would be able to choose whether or not to be Jewish”—evidence that Jewishness has indeed become “volitional.” Perhaps. But surely the ad’s more unambiguous message was that Judaism without Jewish meaning eventually proves sterile: Jews who don’t see to their children’s Jewish education often end up with grandchildren who don’t see themselves as Jewish.


Speaking of Jews is deeply researched and thoughtfully argued, but missing from it is any treatment of the traditional -Orthodox perspective, which always explained Jewishness in terms of religious belief and practice. Berman notes, reasonably, that -Reform and Conservative rabbis disproportionately predominated in explaining Jewishness to non-Jewish America. But notable Orthodox voices were not entirely absent. For example, Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War, published This Is My God, his lyrical introduction to Jews and Judaism, in 1949.

Orthodox Jews are a small, though rapidly growing, minority within American Jewry. Yet their contribution to Jewish self-explanation has been anything but negligible, especially in recent years. Indeed, in the epilogue to his 2000 book, Jew vs. Jew, the journalist Samuel G. Freedman concluded that

in the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the Orthodox model has triumphed. . . . The portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future . . . is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy, that religion defines Jewish identity. . . . Jewishness as ethnicity, as folk culture, as something separate and divisible from religion, is ceasing to exist in any meaningful way.

But the view that Jewishness is inextricable from transcendent truths and laws stretching back to Sinai never really makes an appearance in Speaking of Jews. There is only one hint of it. In a passage near the book’s end, Berman briefly quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who insisted that Jewishness, if it is not to become irrelevant, must provide “an answer to man’s ultimate questions.”

That answer and those questions are not to be found in sociology or in watered-down explanations equating Judaism with American democracy. Thirty centuries of Jewish life and learning have more to share with the world than the safe and innocuous exposition to which they were so often reduced by well-meaning intellectuals in the 20th century. Jewish destiny has always been rooted in revelation, faith, and law. Subtract them from Jewishness and what remains?


1?“Intermarriage & the Jewish Future,” April 1964

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