From institutional decay to primary day: American Orthodox Jewry since World War II.

Author:Waxman, Chaim I.
Position:Part Two: Recent American Jewish History, 1954-2004

A number of works on American Jewry written during the early second-half of the twentieth century began with the contrast between the very pessimistic evaluations about the state of American Judaism at the end of the nineteenth century and the authors' more optimistic prognoses at mid-twentieth century. (1) An even starker contrast can be made between the state of American Orthodox Jewry at the time of World War II and at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The New York area has always been home to the majority of Orthodox Jews in the United States. According to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, 73 percent of those who identify as Orthodox Jews live in the Middle Atlantic states, i.e., New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In the 1920s and 1930s, the overwhelming majority were in New York City proper, and as a result of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1923-1926 the period was the "heyday of American Orthodoxy." (2) The sense of elation and self-confidence dissipated rather quickly. Indeed, as Jeffrey Gurock's detailed analysis demonstrates, the first half of the twentieth century was the "era of non-observance" for American Orthodoxy, (3) and Orthodoxy was increasingly viewed as doomed in American society. As Jenna Joselit put it,

By the 1940s the English-speaking Orthodox rabbinate had suffered somewhat of a reversal and was forced to take stock of its future. Now muted, its characteristic buoyancy and optimism was succeeded by a barely disguised sense of thwarted expectations, especially pronounced among the second and third generation of RIETS [Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University] students, as the interwar years gave way to wartime and the fifties. To the modernized Orthodox Jews, once confident that their form of Judaism would become the dominant religious expression of second-generation Americanized Jews, it now seemed as if a true modernized Orthodoxy could be found only in isolated instances, in "pockets," and that the anticipated orthodoxization of middle-class American Jewry would not materialize. "A lost cause," reflected a RIETS graduate of 1942, "Orthodoxy was not going anywhere." (4) One of the problems was that when immigration was feasible, the most traditional and Jewishly-educated of Eastern European Orthodox Jewry, and especially its rabbinic-intellectual elite, were the most resistant to migration to the United States for several reasons. As a rule, the more traditionally religious are the most resistant to geographic mobility, in part perhaps because of its negative consequences on religious participation. (5) Eastern European Orthodox Jewry was further discouraged from migrating to the United States because of negative reports about religious life there. For example, New York's Rabbi Moses Weinberger (1854-1940), who had immigrated from Hungary, wrote a sharply critical portrait of Judaism in New York in the 1880s. (6) He viewed American society as totally materialistic, and he bemoaned the low levels of Jewish education and observance of dietary rituals in the country. His book was in large measure a warning to his fellows in Eastern Europe that the United States was a spiritual threat to religiously traditional Jews.

In the early 1890s, Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen (1838-1933) of Radun, Belarus, one of the most revered rabbinic authorities of his generation, who was widely known by the title of one of his works, Hafetz Hayyim, published his own warning to Eastern European Jewry about the dangers of immigrating to America. In the conclusion to Nidhe Yisrael (The Dispersed of Israel), which is a work that clarifies some of the basics of halacha (traditional religious law) for those who were in "distant countries," especially America, the author warned of the risks of leaving Eastern Europe, and asserted that the economic opportunities were not worth the price of losing one's Judaism or that of one's children. (7)

Several years later, in 1900, Rabbi Jacob David Wilowsky (1845-1913), the renowned rabbi of Slutsk (Belarus), "the Ridvaz," publicly proclaimed "that anyone who emigrated to America was a sinner, since, in America, the Oral Law is trodden under foot. It was not only home that the Jews left behind in Europe, he said, it was their Torah, their Talmud (Oral Law), their yeshivot (schools of Jewish learning)--in a word, their Yiddishkeit, their entire Jewish way of life." (8)

There was at least one further reason that the majority of the Orthodox rabbinic intellectual elite remained in Eastern Europe and did not participate in large numbers in the massive immigration of Jews to the United States during the peak years of immigration between 1881 and 1923. The words and actions of several of them on the very eve of the Holocaust suggest that some remained because they felt that they had an obligation, as leaders, to tend to their followers in Eastern Europe.

Be that as it may, the empirical evidence suggests that, if not "Yiddishkeit" in its entirety, some basic mitzvot, or Jewish religious rituals, such as Sabbath observance, did come under strong attack and were rapidly abandoned in America by the acculturating Jews. As Warner and Srole found in their pioneering community study of "Yankee City," the pseudonym for the small town in Massachusetts which they studied in detail between 1930 and 1935, "the progressive defection of successive generations of Jews from their religious system in a process apparently nearly completed among the children of the immigrants themselves" was much more obvious than the defections among other groups. As they wrote: "The religious subsystem of [the Yankee City Jewish] community is apparently in a state of disintegration," primarily because of the economic factor. (9) If Jews were to compete successfully in the economic sphere, they had to break with the traditional religious patterns that restricted them. The Sabbath was a case in point:

The Jewish Sabbath falls on Saturday. In Russia the Jews, comprising an important part of the merchant class, maintained their own work rhythm in the week, and non-Jews had to adapt themselves to it. On Saturday their shops were closed, whereas on Sunday they were "open for business." The work rhythm of the American week, however, is Christian. Sunday is the Sabbath, and Saturday is a work daB the most important day in the week. This rhythm the Jews are powerless to resist. They must accept it or lose out in the competitive race." (10) Though they readily dropped those religious traditions that inhibited their successful participation in the competitive race, Yankee City Jews did not opt for mass identificational assimilation. Nor did their actions result in the disintegration of the Jewish community. Rather, the very nature of the community underwent basic change. As Warner and Srole defined it,

In all other aspects of the Jewish community, the process of change is one of a replacement of traditionally Jewish elements by American elements. In the religious system of the Jews there is no such replacement. The Jews are not dropping their religious behaviors, relations, and representations under the influence of the American religious system. There are no indications that they are becoming Christian. Even the Fl generation [the native-born generation] can only be said to be irreligious. (11) In other words, the Jewish community was culturally assimilating without disappearing. While the class system in Yankee City was open and "the Russian Jews climb its strata faster than any other ethnic group in the city," (12) there were certain requirements, nevertheless. Definite norms of behavior were expected of those rising in the class system, which were at odds with the norms of traditional Judaism, and all but those who immigrated as adults adopted the American norms.

The prevalent leadership of Orthodox Jewry was apparently not quite equipped to overcome the challenges of the open American society. As Marshall Sklare put it at mid-century, "Orthodox adherents have succeeded in achieving the goal of institutional perpetuation only to a limited extent; the history of their movement in this country can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay." (13) Nor was it solely institutional decline. The available evidence suggested that the Orthodox were declining in numbers as well, and indeed, even in the mid-1970s it appeared that they would continue to decline. (14)

The Holocaust changed much of this. Although many Orthodox Jews had resisted coming to the United States in earlier years, there was now no choice for them, and they decided to come and transplant their religious culture to America. The available evidence suggests that Orthodox Jews were disproportionally represented among Holocaust refugees who immigrated to the United States. In his study of Holocaust survivors, William Helmreich conducted in-depth interviews with 170 survivors and found that approximately 41 percent identified as Orthodox, as compared to the 10 percent or less in the larger American Jewish population. (15)

Lest it be argued that Helmreich's interviewees may not be representative, analysis of data from the national survey of America's Jews, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, indicated similar patterns. Among respondents who stated that their current religion is Jewish and who were born elsewhere and arrived in the United States during the years 1937-1948, fully 20 percent identified their current denomination as Orthodox and 45 percent identified the denomination in which they were raised as Orthodox. Among those of the same age who were born in the United States, 6 percent identified their current denomination as Orthodox and 19 percent identified the denomination in which they were raised as Orthodox.

The second half of the century also witnessed a significant shift within Orthodoxy itself. Although in terms of numbers Orthodoxy is the smallest of the major...

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