Forward.com


How Jews Became Not Just White Folks
Trend Spotting

In the past several months three different organizations have held gatherings highlighting the growing racial-ethnic diversity of the American Jewish population. They have been advocating a “big tent” approach, pushing the organized community to adapt to perceived demographic changes.

The statistical portrait of American Jews, however, shows that those who are “Jews by religion” overwhelmingly categorize themselves as “white” and “non-Hispanic.” While it is true that the trends are changing as a result of intermarriage, adoption and conversion, nonetheless the proportion of non-whites and Hispanics among the adult population that is “Jews by religion” remains under 10%.

So it is all the more interesting to consider this newfound attention to diversity and the dynamics that have pushed it into the spotlight. Why is racial-ethnic diversity all of a sudden on the communal agenda?

American Jewish history is hardly un-diverse, filled as it is with successive flows of immigrants landing on these shores, from the earliest Sephardim to German Jews to Eastern Europeans. By the early 20th century, Jews were not only varied in their ethnic and national backgrounds, they were also divided into sub-tribes by their clashing ideological commitments: secularist, religious, Bundist, socialist, anarchist, Zionist, anti-Zionist and so on.

Along with this variety came the dynamics of a social pecking order. For instance, as immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, they were expected to conform and adapt to the sensibility and style of the more established and better-off German Jews, who themselves were hypersensitive about the reactions of the American Protestant elite of that time. They feared that their hard-won position would be disrupted by their wretched Eastern European cousins. In this climate, the concern was about conforming and being respectable, rather than celebrating diversity.

All this took place in an American societal milieu in which being Jewish was a significant social handicap, leading Mordecai Kaplan to note (astonishingly to our ears) in 1937 that the “average Jew today is conscious of his Judaism as one is conscious of a diseased organ that gives notice of its existence by causing pain.” To avoid being viewed as outré, they sought to conform to norms and values of the American mainstream, resulting in a rise in nose jobs, name changes and other adaptations to get away from being, or at least looking, “too Jewish.”

By the 1960s, Jews had become part of “white” American landscape, and being Jewish ceased to be, sociologically speaking, a burden. It no longer stood in the way of getting accepted to school, finding a job or living in a particular neighborhood. At that time, Jewish attention to the notion of diversity was focused outward, rather than inward, and it involved working to diversify the mainstream by advocating for equal rights and anti-discrimination.

By the end of the 20th century, being Jewish had lost its negative valence — indeed, it took on the possibility of cachet. Consequently, a new kind of inventiveness was unleashed.

One’s Jewishness could become a vehicle of personal expression and meaning-making, a development that coincided with the rise of identity exploration as the new national pastime. For older generations, this is a big change. For younger people, fluid, hybrid identities and wide-ranging journeys are commonplace. In this context, attention to diversity is a call to widen the normative expectations normally contained in the term “Jewish” so that it can begin to include a multitude of subcultures, choices and flavors.

From a different angle, diversity often appears on the horizon as a response to hegemony, and in this regard American Jews are certainly seen as part of the mainstream. “Jewish” is no longer synonymous with “outsider,” as illustrated by the comments of a 22-year-old I interviewed 10 years ago: “Have I ever felt marginal because I’m Jewish?! No!… I would say that being Jewish, if anything, puts me more into the sphere of influence than someone who is not Jewish.”

Today such attitudes are probably even more widespread. This social transformation reminds me of the ugly duckling becoming a graceful swan.

According to this view, the recent interest in exploring the racial and ethnic diversity of American Jewry might signal changes affecting the American mainstream more broadly. Sociologist Richard Alba noted recently that the story of whiteness “has been powerful because it has demonstrated simultaneously the centrality of race to the American experience and the astonishing mutability of race.” And so, too, with any social category, Jewishness included.

So “Jewish” — a category that became completely “white” in the American racial categorization — is beginning to broaden to include a wider range of racial and ethnic options, among other characteristics. The contours of American Jewishness are changing. Will the collective tent be big enough to include us all in our many colors and other combinations?

Wed. Jun 20, 2007


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Ben Levi said:

When talking with American Jews, you often hear the following statement: "My grandfather was Russian, and my grandmother was Polish..." However, if we could actually talk to these grandparents, we would find out that they didn't see themselves as Russian/Polish - they were Jews (and neither grandparent saw the other as a "foreigner"). However, in the American Jewish experience, one's nationality has become "American" - and one (wrongly) assumes, therefore, that in former times there was a parallel self-identity ("my grandfather was Russian"). The claim of this article that the Jews of the early 20th century were of varied "ethnic and national backgrounds" is not true. It is today's sociology and terminology being thrown back one hundred years, creating a statement that our grandparents would not agree with. The Jews saw themselves as Jews by nationality. "Nation" is a group of people who have a common descent (from the Latin word for "birth") - not the name of the government that issues you your passport. "Ethnic", likewise, is a Greek word derived from "people". The Jews are an ancient people, not various ancient peoples. The Jews share a common nationhood (descent), not various nationhoods.

Wed. Jun 20, 2007

ric said:

In 1976 when the plo and its german pals were seperating jews from non-jews in entebbee no one but Israel would do anything;today the arabs are spouting hatred for Jews and are getting dumbWesterners to agree,many American college campuses are harrassing anyone that is publicly friendly to Israel.Ant-zionism is the new code word for for anti-jewish.When Jews were being beaten in England,France and Russia it seems the liberal progressives from the U.S. and Europe were very quiet and this was only about 18 months ago.In the USA today we do not have as many closed country clubs and barriers to emplyment as a generation ago but we have 50% intermarriage and a static population that is less than half the percentage it was 50 years ago.Our new friends are the conservatives that did not want to know us untill recently;Our old friends the liberals do not seem to remember we were there for civil rights,equal rights,voting and the new deal...at best we are a source of money and votes and at worse the cause of world misfortune for demanding Israel survive.In every generation Jews have had a threat;In Germany many Jews had blue eyes,blond hair,were not circumcised and were still murdered.Assimilation did not protect in 1937 Europe and today a Jews best protection is to live as a Jew.Outside of Israel the USA is the best place to be Jewish;the American culture has not been a land of Dreyfuss,pograms,inquisition and forced conversion.Historicly those that did not like us just wanted to keep us out of their neighbourhood and not hire us...today their grand-child may marry a jew and it is a none event

Wed. Jun 20, 2007

Marsha said:

I noted a lot of adoption of Asian children to Jewish families and the making them "Jewish." So, I guess this counts. Does this mean we are more diverse? I doubt it. Jews are still white people from Europe or darker skinned white Sephardim.

Thu. Jun 21, 2007

J. Barry Gurdin, Ph.D. said:

It is unfortunate to read that Bethany Horowitz’s shoddy journalism (see her “How Jews Became Not Just White Folks,” June 20, 2007) is uncritically printed in The Jewish Daily Forward. Had she read a few texts by major sociologists, she might understand that Jews are not sociologically-constructed as White. For example, in Cross-National Research in Sociology, edited by Melvin L. Kohn (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1989), p. 285, in the American Sociological Association’s Presidential Series, T. K. Oommen writes, “In the contemporary United States, literally numerous collectivities are labeled as ethnics. But yet, consensus seems to be emerging that there are a few major ethnic clusters, viewed in terms of the structure of deprivation and patterns of interaction…These ethnic clusters are Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics Asian Americans, Jews, and Whites…While Native Americans, Blacks, and Hispanics are clearly minorities, the Jews have already become ethnics and Asian Americans seem to be well on the road to achieving ethnic status…” Moreover, Ms. Horowitz, like others promoting multiculturalism, deny the anti-Semitic impact that the related policies of multiculturalism and affirmative action have had on the American Jewish community in the current and last generation, which a host of major sociologists and other writers from across the political spectrum have documented. Consider, for example, the Hannah Arendt Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Rutgers University, Irving Louis Horowitz in his book, The Decomposition of Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 91, “…Ethnic ‘balance’ turns out to entail putting a cap on hiring younger Jewish scholars as replacements; while ‘pluralism’ turns out to mean uncapping every sort of vilification and vituperation in the name of hearing every viewpoint. Affirmative action translates into a subtle shift in criteria for appointments and promotions. The phenomenon of anti-Semitism in sociology would hardly cause an intellectual stir were it not aided and abetted by sophisticated scholars of Jewish origin who still feel that placating the virulent poison of anti-Semitism will somehow mitigate its consequences….It is a matter of historical irony that a profession mired in genteel right-wing anti-Semitism at the beginning of the century should now find itself enmeshed in a far more acerbic left-oriented anti-Semitism by the end of the century.” I have reviewed several other social scientists and other writers who present solid evidence refuting propaganda similar to Ms. Bethany Horowitz’s in my op-ed, J. Barry Gurdin, “Is Multiculturalism Anti-Semitism,” San Francisco Examiner, Thursday, July 27, 1995, 19(A).

Thu. Jun 21, 2007

David said:

To Ben Levi, 'm sorry to say that you are completely wrong.

Our grandparents definitely DID distinguish themselves from one another as being Polish, Russian (usually meaning Litvak), Hungarian, Romanian and so on. Not because they considered themselves Poles or Russians or whatever their passport said (they considered themselves Jews and were considered so by others), but because these different, albeit overlapping, Jewish communities were not culturally or even religiously identical.

Even within these communities, they came from different places. My own family came from a predominantly Jewish town in what is now Belarus, but was at different times in Lithuania, Russia and Poland. Culturally, this was a strongly Litvak community, close to several major "Lithuanian" yeshivas. It's inhabitants would never have described themselves as Polish, or as Polish Jews, even when the town was part of Poland or when they were given Polish passports. But they did consider themselves to be Russian/Lithuanian Jews, as distinct from Polish Jews.

And they were ethnically diverse. Some families had arrived there up the trade routes from Turkey long before the arrival of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Poland. Others were Karaites. There are stories about certain families who would keep old Karaite customs. And they intermarried with each other, of course.

They might now have considered themselves "Russians" or "Poles," but they were certainly ethnically diverse.

Thu. Jun 21, 2007

J. Barry Gurdin, Ph.D. said:

Please change my incorrect spelling of your name from Bethany to Bethamie on the first line and on the second to the last line of my comment posted yesterday. Thanks.

Fri. Jun 22, 2007

Ben Levi said:

David - Although, indeed, Jews distinguished between a Litvak Jew or a Galitziyaner Jew, still, I don't think that such a distinction was necessarily significant. There are people who grow up on kibbutz, and there are those who grow up in Tel-Aviv - and, yet, despite my ability to tell the difference, both types clearly share common ethnicity and common cultural expressiveness. If, in fact, the Jews are from diversed ethnic backgrounds, as claimed in this article, then perhaps we should conclude that Jewish peoplehood is now just a myth. When one examines a people, one notices that they might speak a common language, they probably share a common territory and they obviously share a common descent. Well, we no longer share a common language. If Jews no longer see themselves in exile, then we no longer share a connection to a common soil. And now, so I learn from the Forward, we don't share a common descent (ethnicity) either. How sad.

Sun. Jun 24, 2007