Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation. By Noam Pianko. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2015. x + 171 pp.
The sixth entry in the Rutgers University Press series Key Words in Jewish Studies, Jewish Peoplehood by Noam Pianko challenges readers with a provocative and startling idea. The concept "peoplehood," a word which courses through contemporary American Jewish discourse, has a history of less than a century and owes its coinage to the experience of Jews in the United States. The term, malleable, concise, and essentially secular, asserts that what holds Jews together, past, present, and future, involves a sense of belonging to a single people. Despite vast variations in religious expression, class, ideology, and geography, Jews invoke peoplehood to assert that they consider themselves bound to each other through a sense of shared belonging and kinship. Less proscribed than religion and less fraught with the racial or political implications of nation, peoplehood worked well for American Jews at a moment in time.
However, Pianko attempts to deflate the term's resonance, to show that it must be seen as the historic artifact of a limited moment in time and a reflection of the opportunities and pressures of a single place. The book's subtitle as such says it all. This phrase "Jewish peoplehood," invoked by Jewish communal leaders and by ordinary American Jews as they converse among themselves and when they have responded to surveys such as the 2013 Pew report, represents an articulation of both reality and desire born of particular American circumstances of the twentieth century. So, too, officials of the State of Israel declare its reality as a timeless and meaningful category, unaware of its invention in America, a place in which the conventional categories of understanding Jewishness by the early twentieth century did not work.
American Jewish thinkers, in particular Mordecai Kaplan, author of Judaism as a Civilization, that hefty 1935 work which laid out the dilemmas and complexities of the modern Jewish existence in America, essentially created this term as an alternative to older conceptualizations as the most appropriate way to express what "being" Jewish meant to his readers, mainly although not exclusively the rabbis, educators, and Jewish communal workers who sought to impart to the Jewish masses a reason for "being" Jewish and how to do so. Pianko's book, somewhat marred by turgid prose, provides, particularly in...