Following World War II, America saw a new paradigm for a large percentage of its Jewish citizens. Whereas their forebears struggled with issues of poverty and marginalization, post-war Jews were becoming upwardly mobile, moving to the suburbs and immersing themselves in a middle-class culture with all its accoutrements.
But from 1945 to the mid-sixties, not all Jews were celebrating this new way of life. In fact, some of the most respected leaders of the community, including rabbis and intellectuals, were warning of the compromise and contamination of “authentic” Judaism as a result of affluence.
Rachel Kranson, assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in the University of Pittsburgh’s Religious Studies department, examines the contradictions and complications of this piece of Jewish history in her new book, “Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America” (The University of North Carolina Press).
Kranson spent several years conducting research for “Ambivalent Embrace,” including combing “the entire American Jewish press from 1945 to 1965 at a national level,” as well as examining community newsletters and archival collections of congregations and Jewish organizations, searching for “an article, sermon, or a statement that talked about either the process of upward mobility, that commented on Jewish life or that had something to say about the history of Jewish poverty.”
The topic of her research evolved from an original plan to examine how “Jews were using their leisure time during this period of rapid upward mobility,” focusing on Jewish vacation destinations.
“When I started doing that research what I kept finding — and I didn’t expect to find this — were reports written by Jewish leaders about how these vacations and these other luxuries the middle-class Jews were allowing themselves during the post war years were kind of corrupting American Judaism and compromising American Jews.”
Kranson “became interested in this anxiety and where it came from,” she said, and recognized that she would have to look “beyond Jewish leisure patterns and Jewish vacations and focus more broadly on Jewish responses to upward mobility.”
One of her most intriguing findings was the dual role that the Jewish leaders — including many rabbis — of the time were playing by both enabling and critiquing the Jewish affluence that they said was leading to “inauthenticity.”
“On the one hand, these leaders were the architects of this new middle class Jewish community that was forming in the years after World War II largely in the suburbs,” Kranson explained. “They were the ones who were creating these communities, who were building these expensive Jewish synagogues. They were heavily involved in these building drives, they were enjoying middle class salaries. But on the other hand, they were the fiercest critics of these communities.”
For the most part, those critiques led to no visible change, she said, until the late 1960s and 1970s with the rise of the Jewish counter-culture.
“Young Jews were creating the chavurah as an alternative to the middle-class synagogues that their parents and their teachers and their rabbis kept talking about as being communities that were inauthentic and compromised,” she said. “So, in the late 1960s and 1970s it was the young Jewish counter-culture that said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work, let’s create something else; let’s create the chavurah,’ which is smaller and intimate and not implicated in the middle-class culture as they saw it.”
While the young Jewish counterculture of that time is often portrayed as iconoclastic, Kranson sees another dimension to its efforts.
“When I look at the long history of Jews in the post-war years, I say, wait, were they really iconoclasts? Or were they taking the lessons they learned from their rabbis really seriously. They didn’t invent this idea that the middle-class synagogue was somehow inauthentic and compromised. That was the message their rabbis were relaying to them in their synagogues and the Jewish press for years throughout their childhood.”
Instead, Kranson sees the Jewish counterculture of the day as “dutiful students who took this critique most seriously and decided they wanted to do something about it.”
The concept that poverty is somehow tied to “being a good Jew” remains relevant today in some ways, according to Kranson.
“I still think it exists to a certain extent,” she said. “For example, romanticizing the impoverished culture of the Jewish shtetl still exists. But I’m not quite sure this feeling of middle class Judaism being inauthentic or incapable of nurturing the next generation of American Jews is quite as acute as it was in the 1950s when this middle class Jewish culture was still something very new and untested.”
The new Jewish culture of affluence “has lasted for a while,” Kranson noted. “It’s already proven a certain amount of longevity.”
Yet, Kranson does see contemporary American Jews continuing to identify “with their history of poverty and social marginalization. And, of course, this continues to inform Jewish politics. I think upwards of 70 percent of American Jews continue to vote for liberal candidates and support issues such as progressive taxation even when that doesn’t necessarily serve the economic interests of a good portion of the Jewish community. I see this as coming from a tendency to continue to identify with the history of Jewish poverty and Jewish marginalization.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at