Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917-1950.

Author:Jacobs, Benjamin M.
Position:Book review

Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917-1950. By Naomi Prawer Kadar. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2017. xxv + 282 pp.

Several years back, as a graduate student in history/social studies and education, I participated in an advanced doctoral seminar on Jewish historiography for which I wrote a paper on progressive Jewish schooling on the American scene in the early twentieth century. The professor enjoyed the paper, but "next time," he wrote, "please write a straight history." The comment stung, for it suggested that Jewish educational history is something inferior, insignificant, or uninteresting relative to the hard science of Wissenschaft des Judentums. This type of critique is not unique to Jewish education. Educational historians generally are accustomed to disparagements from some "straight" historians for being light on context, evidence, analysis, or rigor while being heavy on narrow, faddish, and contemporary concerns, insinuating that educational historians are dilettantes who lack the tools, sophistication, and robustness of so-called serious historians. This kind of intradisciplinary sniping can be petty and unproductive, to be sure, but it nonetheless resonated as 1 read Raising Secular Jews, which was published posthumously.

Kadar, a scholar of Yiddish literature and history, provides an exhaustive review of the aims, contents, rhetorical method, and style of Yiddish magazines written expressly for American Jewish immigrant children who attended Yiddish supplementary schools from the interwar years through the establishment of the State of Israel and into the heyday of postwar American Jewish adjustment--all historical backdrops that significantly influence her subject matter and thus her analysis of its creation and propagation. The book's most compelling chapter, on how the magazines dealt with the Holocaust in the midst and aftermath of the tragedy (answer: much more frankly than one might imagine), is poignant and eye-opening and makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the impact of the Holocaust on segments of American Jewry at mid-century. Given the book's purported focus on Yiddish schools and their impact on raising secular American Jewish children, we might expect important contributions to American Jewish educational historiography as well.

Kadar dives into historical sources--namely, extracurricular school materials--and contexts--namely, secular...

To continue reading