Thinking Jewish Culture in America.

Author:Whitfield, Stephen J.
Position:Book review

Thinking Jewish Culture in America. Edited by Ken Koltun-Fromm. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2.014. viii + 337 pp.

Drawn from a symposium held at Haverford College to honor the scholarship of Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, this set of eleven essays (with a postscript by the honoree) tackles one of the most elusive and absorbing issues to confront both historians and the contemporary Jewish community. Its civic status is secure; its economic signs indicate prosperity; its demographic base is, roughly, stable. Furthermore, the past that students of American Jewry explore offers plenty of evidence of the freedom to practice the Jewish faith and also of the autonomy to achieve not only comfort but even affluence. But the future will depend on the sorts of values to which Jews subscribe, on the ideas that will secure them a continuous and vibrant communal life on native grounds. Thus, culture matters. The meanings that it bestows, the sorts of religious and institutional purposes that can be envisioned and created, will surely determine the fate of American Jewry. This volume contributes to that task. Editor Ken Koltun-Fromm wants this book to be perceived as proposing "a cultural model in which Jewish identity is a contested performance worked out in local communities, in religious struggles, in material artifacts, and in ritual practices," which might "inspire future performances of American Jewish culture" (6).

The title that Koltun-Fromm has chosen is a misnomer, however. Consider the following subjects: Martin Buber, Mordecai Kaplan and Emmanuel Levinas (profiled in an essay by Akiba Lerner); Buber and Levinas again (in an essay by Mara H. Benjamin); The Jewish Catalog (in a chapter by Ari Y. Kelman); and studies of Joseph B. Soloveitchik (by Jessica Rosenberg) and Michael Wyschogrod (by the editor himself). When Claire E. Sufrin's chapter on religion and literature after the Shoah is added to this list, over half the essays can be classified as dealing with Judaic culture, even though that constitutes only one aspect of Jewish culture. The American thinkers whose writings are analyzed in this book are either Orthodox (Soloveitchik and Wyschogrod) or Conservative (Heschel) in affiliation or emerged primarily from the Conservative branch of Judaism (such as the editors of The Jewish Catalog). Reform Judaism, the largest denomination of all, is ignored entirely. Nor are secular expressions of...

To continue reading