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The escalation of scholarship on the Holocaust, the expansion of publications in American Jewish history, and the proliferation of American Jewish literature in the 1980s suggest a renewal of interest, on the part of American Jews, in things Jewish. At the same time, the issue of whether there is to be an enduring American Jewish culture is vexing, for the present generation of American Jews must cope with the dilemma of identity, the problem of parochialism, and the threat of fragmentation--all of which, some have warned, imperil the existence of the Jews as a people. The melancholy conclusion reached by the historian David Vital is a case in point: "Today, at the end of the unspeakable twentieth century, it is not too much to say, that the survival of Jewry as a discrete people, its various branches bound to each other by common ties of culture, responsibility, and loyalty, is entirely in doubt" (Future 146-47). Voices of optimism have not been wanting, however. Calvin Goldscheider, Steven Cohen, and Charles Silberman proclaim the transformation of American Jewry into a form of Jewishness appropriate to America, a new kind of survivalism they welcome as "the New Judaism." Yet their views, however comforting, evade the more thorny issue of how to define an American Jewish culture. And the sharp divide between the two perspectives suggests the tensions within American Jewry, the divergence among its central interests, and the issues likely to influence the future development of American Jewish culture. If indeed the contemporary Jewish world faces the prospect of a bifurcation that threatens permanently to shatter its old unity, and if it is the Jews of the Diaspora who must determine the outcome of that possible eventuality, then American Jews are truly at a crossroads. An issue of Contemporary Literature devoted to American Jewish writing at what may well be a defining moment is, then, especially timely.
That moment, however, cannot be apprehended apart from the larger cultural forces that have helped bring it into being. But to discuss issues of culture these days is to feel impelled to distinguish between what the word "culture" once was taken to encompass and how it is presently construed. Against the idea of culture as the literacy belonging to an elite class, which Matthew Arnold propounded in the nineteenth century and Lionel Trilling espoused in the middle of this one, stands the sense of culture today: "the regnant attitudes and traditions that are the wellsprings of belief" (Bell, "Cultural Wars" 79). What characterizes American Jewish culture is complex, for it constitutes an amalgam of two cultural realms shot through with troubling issues of conflicting identities and loyalties. The intellectual predicament they generate was expounded by Daniel Bell in 1976 and still obtains: "This generation had grown up in galut, |exile,' and would spend its life there. But a sense of Jewish identity came out of a return to a particularism, and one which lived in tension with the universalism which had once been sought. It is that tension between universalism and particularism which I believe has been the historical stance, emotionally and intellectually, of that generation" (Winding Passage 134).
Ever since the Haskalah ("the Enlightenment"), when the distinction between nation and culture became possible--a situation some described in the unpleasant formula "a Jew at home and a man abroad"--that tension has held sway. In America the process of assimilation has made the tug between two loyalties less fierce, often at the expense of particularism. Arriving in this country, Jews wanted to become Americans as soon as possible, so they embraced America wholeheartedly and succumbed to the lure of American culture. To some degree, the third generation of American Jews has withdrawn from that position. If the second generation relied upon ideology in America and feared the charge of particularism, the third has witnessed a re-emergence of theology, which "has not accomplished the objectives which its practitioners set for themselves" and has offered "no thriving and distinct Jewish life on which to draw" (Eisen 177,180). The third generation of American Jews thus maintains its tie to tradition only tenuously and has what Arnold Eisen describes as a "halfway covenant," leaving them "foreigners to their own tradition and members of a separate community only to a limited extent" (170). Two centuries after the Emancipation, the majority of Jews live outside the Halakha ("law," the legal side of Judaism), and for many of them the religious tradition continues as Jewish activism, nostalgia, and even mere kitsch and sentimentality. The "issues of 'Judaism and Modernity' and of 'Jews in an open society,'" Arthur Hertzberg observes, "are even more open today than they were at the beginning of the era of the Emancipation" (Jewish Polemics 234).
A commitment to an open society is a commitment to cultural pluralism, the preservation of diversity, a situation that continues to pose dilemmas for American Jews. Endemic to American life and frequently associated with the term "pluralism" is a concept commonly taken to reflect a situation different from the one defined by the term "assimilation," which posits a mergence of separate cultures into the surrounding one--a process falling under the general rubric "Americanization." To be Americanized, to achieve full participation in the United States, once demanded complete acceptance of America's ideas, values, and mores. It required assimilation. Responsible for a predicament confronting American Jewry in general and American Jewish culture in particular, assimilation and its relevance to Jewry have a history. The issue of assimilation has been ever present in Jewish history, sometimes influencing it creatively, at other times destructively, but always powerfully. Entering one culture after another in their long history, Jews acquired cultural traits they ultimately made their own. Behind the dialectic of the Talmud, to cite but one example, lies the Roman system of legal codification and Greek rhetorical methods. That is just the sort of phenomenon that in 1893 the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha'am ("One of the People") maintained enriched the spirit of Jews: by appropriating new ideas and new forms, the Jews ultimately Judaized them. Seen in such a light, assimilation becomes a fructifying phenomenon--the example of Spanish Jewry springs immediately to mind--not an encounter that exacts as its price cultural distinctiveness. To regard assimilation as "a danger that the Jewish people must dread for the future," Ahad Ha'am insisted, was to overlook the greater danger for the Jewish people--"being split up into fragments" (121-22). The realities of history have proven Ahad Ha'am wrong, for at present, both assimilation and fragmentation threaten the Jews with extinction as a people and leave the future of American Jewish culture in doubt.
During the 1950s in America, assimilation, though not of the fruitful kind Ahad Ha'am advocated, was nonetheless thought by Jews to be healthy, for unlike pluralism, assimilation was believed to moderate divisiveness. Speaking at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1958, Marshall Sklare of the American Jewish Committee argued against subsidizing pluralism and stressed its potential for augmenting anti-Semitism. Though the climate of those years seems to reflect a desire for diversity, Philip Gleason reveals something else--"the underlying paradox of pluralist thinking in the 1950s, viz. its assimilationist substructure" (239). If in the late nineteenth century Ahad Ha'am championed the enrichment that assimilation brought, in the mid-fifties Will Herberg warned that its …