Domestic virtues: Deborah Dash Moore's: At Home in America and its historiographical context.

Author:Lederhendler, Eli
Position:Critical essay
 
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In the film Crossing Delancey (1988), directed by Joan Micklin Silver, Isabelle ("Izzy") Grossman, the lead female character played by Amy Irving, receives a hat as a gift from her would-be suitor, Sam Posner (Peter Riegert). The hat is from a shop on Delancey Street, just across the street from Sam's modest pickle shop. The hat suits Isabelle to a "T," though she initially reacts with ambivalence to it. When she decides to wear it, after all, her move foreshadows the successful match that will clinch this charmingly romantic movie.

The scene's stagecraft function, alerting the audience to Izzy's potential reconsideration of Sam the pickle man as a datable (indeed, a lovable) guy, is not the only thing that explains the stylish fit. The hat is "right" for Izzy because it externalizes sentiments that are temporarily latent, but that will emerge, implicitly, by the film's end. The hat stands for Izzy's inner Delancey Street, which is to say, the self-affirming (and Jewish-affirming) part of her character. Crossing over to that side of her personality frees her to like herself more and to fulfill the film's anticipated happy end.

The life of the Lower East Side neighborhood, selected for its conventionally symbolic terrain, is depicted as flowing from Isabelle's grandmother's apartment, anchored in her female-dominated coterie of feisty and extroverted companions, and inflected with New York Yiddish accents. These people wear their Jewishness on their sleeve. They are street-smart, hyperverbal, and emotionally overbearing (yes, the screen cliches abound), but winsome nonetheless. In one memorable scene, several elderly women are training to defend themselves on the streets and to be alert to any lurking muggers. Despite its pitfalls and its warts, this semi-domesticated/semi-beleaguered neighborhood is full of homespun virtue, which wins out over the manipulative and predatory character of Izzy's other, workaday world of pretentious bookshop aficionados, delinquent Don Juan bogus writers, exploitive bosses, and the superficial ambitions of the "big city." When Izzy "crosses Delancey," it is not a victory of domesticity over career, but rather a rationale for balancing the self and the "other" in a healthy, egalitarian combination, eminently suited to third-generation sensibilities like those of Izzy's and Sam's.

Joan Micklin Silver's representational universe might appeal to any post-1960s target group, insofar as it touches on the identity politics and community consciousness that altered American culture, including its academic culture. The prevailing themes are clear: generation, ethnicity, gender, and urbanism. Those familiar with Deborah Dash Moore's scholarly work would agree that these points neatly match much of her research agenda over her career and, in particular, her important first monograph on second-generation Jewish New Yorkers, At Home in America (1981).

Still, Moore's work, when seen in relation to a film like Crossing Delancey, stands out for its ability to transcend certain popular conventions. Silver's film resorts to the iconic confines of the Lower East Side, a reliable proxy for the first-generation ethnic experience--and, also, a proxy imagined as accessible (after some self-reflection) to members of the third generation. Silver tacitly elides the intervening second generation, in a kind of cinematic restatement of Marcus Hansen's famous "law" of intergenerational ethnic loss and memory, which dates back to 1935, according to which the second generation typically seeks to assimilate by suppressing first-generational attachments to a foreign land and culture, whereas the third generation is apt to find them interesting and worth preserving. (1) In contrast, Moore's book was devoted precisely to that "missing" second generation. She leapfrogged over the fabled tenement district; placed the immigrant culture firmly into the background; reconstituted her own parental backyard, the second generation, as a viable ethnographic paradigm in its own right; closely considered the street culture and institutional environment typical of many lower-class, lower-middle-class, and solid middle-class Jewish households; and thus answered the need for a new, postimmigration historical ethnography of American diversity.

Readers of At Home in America may see it primarily as a statement about New York City and its role as a benign home for the white ethnic social experience. Reviewers raised questions (provoked by the book's title) such as whether being at home in New York and being in America were at all equivalent concepts, whether the neighborhoods of Dash Moore's urban ethnography were stable platforms for viable communities, given the economic Depression of the 1930s and postwar suburbanization, and whether American Jewish history at large could be adequately extrapolated from this one metropolitan context.

In other writing, Deborah Dash Moore has suggested that her own familiarity with New York's streets, as a child who grew up in the city, primed her early interest in urban social history and in African American history--before her decisive turn toward the Jews. (2) However, with hindsight, and given the subsequent trajectory of her scholarship--notably her work on the Jews of Miami and Los Angeles (To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A., 1994) and on U. S. Jewish veterans of World War II (G. I. Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, 2004)--what emerges most clearly is her preference for second-generation Jews as a focal issue, regardless of their particular regional or local terrain. Thus, although she has revisited the New York terrain on several occasions, (3) her middle-generational focus, I would argue, remains her most outstanding innovative contribution. She helped to redefine Jewish ethnicity in a firmly nonprimordial mode, agreeing with the now-dominant school of thought (preeminently represented by Werner Sollors' "invented" ethnicity), (4) and highlighting the contingent and socially constructed elements of identity formation.

Moore's rehabilitation of the second-generation experience rested, in some crucial respects, on work done by earlier scholars who had explored second-generation adaptations to American life. Their work supplied the conceptual background that helps us to situate At Home In America, and, thus, that work is worth pausing to consider. It is worth remembering, for example, that Oscar Handlin's classic, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People (1951), reiterated Hansen's stance on drastic intergenerational alienation, based on the disparity of experience dividing immigrant parents from their children. Handlin supplied an endorsement of the generational model, but also supplied a thesis against which Moore would state her case. (5) In that same early postwar generation, Will Herberg's Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, an analysis of American religion as a conduit for cross-ethnic integration, cited the waning influence of foreign languages, cultures, ethnic churches, and distinctive folkways. In the second and third generations, he argued, postimmigration Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish Americans expressed an increasing affinity with widely based and consciously American denominations as their highway to an American way of life. (6) Ben Halpern's Zionist analysis of American Jewry at mid-twentieth century, The American Jew: A Zionist Analysis, was the least apt to find a vitally constructive ethnic purpose alive among second-generation American Jews and the most critical of their ethno-religious evasions and compromises. (7) Interestingly, all of these scholars were second-generation American Jews, whereas Moore is a third-generation Jew.

In contrast, Milton Gordon's benchmark book, Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion and National Origins, which focused on the assimilation of ethnic and racial minorities, took a more neutral position that, in effect, anticipated some of Moore's basic approach. Observing that the majority of American Jews at mid-twentieth century were native-born to immigrant parents, Gordon described their culture as strongly oriented toward American middle-class values; yet, he suggested, thorough acculturation had by no means dissolved the Jews as a group. "Communal life and ethnic self-identification flourish within the borders of a group defined as one of the 'three major faiths' of America, while at the same time its members and, to a considerable degree, its institutions, become increasingly indistinguishable, culturally, from the personnel and institutions of the American core society." (8)

A second crucial pathway toward a reconsideration of second-generational ethnicity was sketched by the conceptual merging of the physical urban milieu and...

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