Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism. By Sarah Imhoff. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2017. vii + 300 pp.
A vibrant scholarship on Jewish women and their gender roles in recent decades has enriched our understanding of American Jewish life. Jewish women were at the forefront of the labor movement in the early twentieth century and second wave feminism in the latter half of the century, in part because their prescribed gender roles varied from their non-Jewish counterparts. Within Jewish households, for example, it was more acceptable for women to work and for unmarried women, in particular, to have access to the public sphere. But what about American Jewish men? In what ways did their gender roles conform or not to American ideals of masculinity and how did Jewish masculinity shape the American Jewish experience more broadly? Sarah Imhoff rightfully observes that "gender" in the field of American Jewish history has largely equated to the study of women. Her fascinating and meticulously researched book, Masculinity and the Making of American Judaism, provides a much-needed corrective.
Imhoff interweaves two agendas. First, she uncovers the meaning of Jewish masculinity in the early twentieth century. Building on the insights of theorists like Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, she maintains that the best way to "understand unarticulated norms is to look at the social margins and unexpected places" (9). Imhoff is careful, however, to note there was never one dominant definition of American Jewish masculinity. She focuses on acculturated Jews who practiced Reform Judaism because they "embodied the norm in the American imagination" and conceived masculinity in marginal locales (5). Imhoff also analyzes how Jewish masculinity was marshalled by acculturated Jews in order to make Judaism into a "good" American religion. Reform Jews sought to cast Judaism as a "good" American religion by claiming it as rational, universal, and democratic as opposed to emotional and superstitious. These gendered philosophical foundations had roots in the Enlightenment. For Judaism to be considered American, it had to conform to this rubric and be "good"--i.e., manly.
The rest of the book examines various "margins" of American Jewish life to see the formation of an American Jewish masculinity at work. The four chapters in Part Two focus on mass immigration and efforts by acculturated Jews to transform Eastern European Jews into manly citizens...