The Jewish Identity in Crisis
In the twentieth century, the 1940s stands out as a time of war and crisis in which the great powers of the world clashed to shape and mold the nations that stand today. To the average American, it was a war that erupted out of European greed and hunger for power. For another people, the Jewish people, it was the culmination of decades of rising antagonism in the form of anti-Semitism, both at home, and abroad. Henry Feingold describes the events leading up to this powder keg in his volume of The Jewish People in America – A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream 1920-1945, tracing the initial “signals of unwelcome” during the Roaring Twenties, detailing the burgeoning hostilities toward the Jewish people socially and politically, developing what some would describe the “pathological state of the American Jewish mind.”1 Feingold highlights the Jewish struggle to balance their attempts to gain acceptance through acculturation, with their endeavors to retain their Jewish heritage and identity in an ever-expanding anti-Semitic presence. In this chapter of American history, the Jewish people were plagued by external opposition, internal dispute within the Jewish community, and a general ignorance of their plight by the nation’s leaders.
The Roaring Twenties were a brief period of growth and prosperity for the American people. For the Jews living in America, this was no exception. However, as Feingold continues to recount, the twenties were a brief moment of luxury before a dramatic economic collapse worldwide. The twenties saw a glimpse of yet another change as well; the coming of rising anti-Semitism. As Feingold discusses in the first two chapters of his volume, as early as the 1920s, the first signs of institutional anti-Semitism came to surface. During a time of economic prosperity, the nation passed a restrictive immigration law, known as the “Emergency Immigration Act of 1921”, which targeted not only certain ethnic groups, but Jews as well.2 Official federal policy was not the only institution that showed the initial signs, however. Jews were attacked on all fronts—denied the right to apply to certain jobs and limited applications to universities. For instance, an ad seeking ushers in Variety magazine specified that “Applicants [have] to be blonde and ‘have straight noses.’”3 In this way, Jews were discriminated against publicly, not only legally. As Feingold continues to analyze the culture of the Jewish people, he describes how Jewish culture was founded upon acculturation. The Jews, as a “wandering people”, had a reputation for adaptability.4 The immigrant generation, as Feingold refers to, maintained stronger cultural and traditional religious ties than the second generation that arrived shortly after. The second generation, growing up amidst the Roaring Twenties, weakened these values. This resulted in a stronger identity as Americans and less as Jewish immigrants. This second generation became more assimilated into American culture, seeking to fit in. However, as the Jews found the culture they sought to become a part of unwilling to accept them, the Jewish people became more culturally aware of their own identity. As a result, Jews were forced to remain culturally tied to their roots, regardless of whether they truly wanted to or not.
As Feingold discusses in the next chapters, Jews were still able to find acceptance within American society and culture, despite their ethnic and religious differences. Among their many occupations, Jews found their niche in was theater. Jewish actors initially worked only in American-Yiddish theater until they eventually found their foothold in the entertainment industry. As the decade progressed, members of Jewish theater began to find their way into American theater. The result of this shift from purely Jewish industry into American culture was a “radicalized Jewish infusion” during the Thirties.5 Yiddish press too saw similar demographic trends, as journalists and writers migrated away from their communities into larger national industries. However, Jews were unwelcome in the film industry. Fearful of their influence over the general population’s opinion, the American public barred Jews and other minorities from participating in film. Unlike film, the audiences of theater and publications “cared little about the ethnic or religious origins of their favorite writers.”6 As they continued to seek acceptance, Feingold describes how the Jewish people only found their place in American culture by abandoning their ethnic ties. This conflicting struggle between acceptance and identity brings Feingold to the Jewish “crisis of faith” that occurs between the different branches of the community by the end of the Twenties.7 The Jewish people, drifting further from their ethnic immigrant roots, began a secularization movement. Members of the Orthodox branch of Judaism moved toward the Reform and Conservative branches. As the Jews began to move away from strict discipline and stricture, they became inspired by American principles, especially Protestant Christian models. This large-scale migration to the less orthodox sects led to a radicalization of the Jewish community, leading to internal reforms in an effort to maintain the Jewish population. The Jewish people in America, no longer an immigrant culture, became “interested in accommodation… unwilling to support the heder system… associated with the Old World.”8 Ultimately, Feingold argues, religious passion began its decline at this time, as it became replaced by modernity.
The changes within the Jewish community prompted by the shifting attitudes and positions of the Jewish people within the American nation led to the struggle for equality in yet another area of society: social class. As Feingold proves, the interwar period allowed the second generation of the American Jewish people to work their way “out of the working class.”9 In the brief years of prosperity in the Roaring Twenties, the Jews experienced a major economic boom. Jews rose dramatically economically; often becoming prominent across a diverse number of American industries, most often in sales and manufacturing. For the working class, Jewish membership of labor unions also saw a tremendous rise, with the most prominent unions like the “United Hebrew Trades climbing to several hundred thousand” during the New Deal period.10 As the Jewish laborers united, so did the community as well over education in an effort to raise the status of their community. A movement to place education as a priority paved the way for Jews to enter new professions in medicine and law, greatly aiding the future generations for the American Jewish community. According to Feingold, it was only through their hard effort, and “realization of the potential of their human capital,” that the Jews were able to make their great economic leap.11 As Feingold discusses, only after the development of their economic prowess, did the Jews become politically active. Prior to the Great Depression, a number of Jewish political organizations had sprouted up, such as the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and Zionist Organization of America. Political groups like these sought to unite the community under one political identity. However, their attempts to do so were fruitless. Faced with internal opposition, the community remained divided politically, and as a result, unable to use its influence. Feingold argues that the Jewish people’s disunity prevented it from gaining the acceptance they sought, as political figures within the Roosevelt administration turned a blind eye to their demands to secure their rights in Palestine. Ultimately, the diversity of the Jewish political organizations reflected the diversity of the Jewish community itself, for the culture was not a single unified mass, but a conglomeration of many different people with different interests, bound only by their shared religious cause.
During the interwar period, Jewish politics received major backlash from the American people. The Jewish cause was attacked as a conspiracy to change the public perception through manipulation, which ironically, was impossible considering the dispute within the Jewish community over ideology and politics. Despite this, the Jewish agenda was still refuted and the mere association of a politician and Jews became a cause for alarm. For instance, President Roosevelt was criticized for supposedly aiding his Jewish supporters through the New Deal, which some coined the “Jew Deal.” During this time, polls showed that the 60 to 65 percent of the public “believed Jews had too much power.”12 Despite their supposed connections to the Roosevelt administration, in reality, the Jewish people lacked political power. With Nazism growing in continental Europe, increasing numbers of Jews desperately attempted to immigrate to the United States, only to be turned away due to the unwillingness of the American people to accept new immigrants during an economic depression. Here, Feingold analyzes the initial signals of political discontent, as Jews began to identify with Soviet ideology, as its propaganda not only combatted Nazism, but defended the Jewish people. This political resurgence would continue up until America’s entry into the war, which would end the Jewish people’s disillusionment. Most important for the Jewish people during this period of time was the events happening in Germany and eastern Europe beginning shortly after the Great Depression. The Nationalist Socialist, or Nazi movement began in 1933, and quickly gripped the European Jewish population by the throat. Unfortunately, the Jewish people in America were powerless to help their European brethren. As Feingold states, because of their preoccupation with the Great Depression, the American people were unwilling to listen to the Jewish people’s needs. As a result, the Jewish people failed to catch the attention of their nation, unable to aid the masses of refugees attempting to flee. The Jewish people felt vulnerable and helpless, in a state of fear, anxiety, and constant alarm. Feingold defends the Jewish position, arguing that unlike some historians argue, it is not the fault of the American Jewish people for their inability to protect their fellow Europeans, and that “the Jewish task was thus difficult, perhaps impossible, to perform,” requiring not only a change in America’s immigration policy, but an alteration of wartime priorities to intervene in the name of the European Jews.13 According to Feingold, the American Jews had an unimaginable task, for which they had little chance of success, and have since paid the consequences.
Throughout his volume of Jewish American life, Feingold ties together each chapter of Jewish history to the great diversity among the Jewish community that enabled it to succeed despite its growth in a hostile environment, yet led to conflict and ended with its inability to seize action to defend itself. In doing so, Feingold argues against the view of the Jewish people that other historians hold, which is that it is that American Jewry failed for “no longer being the unified, single-minded community they imagine it once was.”14 Feingold instead argues that such a case never existed; the Jewish people had always been a diverse melting pot of various beliefs and cultures, bound only by a shared religious identity, for which reason the expectations of the Jewish people to unify under one voice are unrealistic. And as Feingold ironically points out, it is the misconception that the Jews were a unified power that led to the fear and anxiety that made up the foundation of anti-Semitism, for “the idea of a Jewish conspiracy… requires the assumption that Jews are bound together by a common ideology and political culture.”15
As a leading historian in American Jewry, and a Jew himself, Feingold has a reliable expertise on the Jewish people in America during the Holocaust. Having written several historical books on similar subjects, and as a member of the American Jewish Historical Society, The American Jewish Congress, and The United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Feingold tends to be forgiving toward the actions of Jewish organizations, while acknowledging the fault in their divisiveness within the Jewish community.16 As an American as well, Feingold holds sympathy for what he refers to as cultural pluralism: the maintenance of a Jewish identity while fitting into American culture. Ultimately, Feingold’s own identity as an American Jew gives him the ability to self-reflect upon his own people, and upon his own identity, giving him a greater and more personal perspective as a historian.
Feingold tends to identify as a member of the “New Left” school of historiography for his method of using an alternate perspective and approach toward historical events. In doing so, he recounts the history of a nation through the eyes of the minority: the Jewish people. As Feingold describes, he attempts to use “the focal point of American Jewish historiography during the interwar period” in order to reexamine history from another perspective, in order to present a new interpretation of history’s effect on a different group of people.17
In his review of Feingold’s volume, Leonard Dinnerstein remarks on the unusual chapter of Jewish history that Feingold picks up with, dealing with American anti-Semitism and reactions to it. Dinnerstein praises Feingold for his attention to Jewish cultural activity and the decline of religiosity, stating that his analyses were “vastly superior to any other synthesis written on these subjects.”18 Dinnerstein also remarks on Feingold’s fair assessment of the Jews opportunities in Washington under the Roosevelt Administration, noting their contemporaries’ adoration for the President that critics later came to scorn. In yet another review of Feingold’s work, Egal Feldman is less praising. Feldman criticizes Feingold for exaggerating the predicament of the American Jewry in attempting to respond to the Holocaust, claiming that Feingold suggested that the American Jews had been “riddled with ‘guilt’ because of their paralysis in the face of disaster,” rather than the actual events of the Holocaust themselves.19 Both reviewers touch upon interesting points, analyzing Feingold’s strengths and weaknesses in detailing the brief, yet important chapter in Jewish American history.
In his account of the Jewish people, Feingold repeatedly asks the haunting question: Could the American Jewish people have averted the devastation that resulted from the Holocaust? Opposing a number of historians’ perspectives, Feingold boldly argues that the Jewish people were not to blame for the tragedy, nor were they ever realistically to be expected to unify as a single political voice to call for action. In doing so, Feingold underestimates the power of the Jewish people, as well as the power of the American nation. Feingold sympathizes too heavily with the Jewish people, feeling it the fault of the nation rather than the fault of his people that such a tragedy befell Europe. In his sympathy and regret, he describes it was due to the “prevalence of despair,” that the Jewish people were unable to take action, and thus is spared the obligation and responsibility for the slaughter of the European Jews as a result.20
The 1940s was a pivotal decade for the American Jewish people. According to Feingold, it was a moment in history that ultimately brought a diverse people closer together, and led to their acceptance among a previously hostile world. The tragedy of the Holocaust ultimately scarred the Jewish community permanently, but the scar itself served as a simple reminder of its members’ ties, and how “modernization had not totally destroyed their sense of peoplehood.”21 The 1940s marked the decline of anti-Semitism both in the United States, and around the world, as the tragic events that took place in Europe served to give sympathy to the world’s powers.
The 1920s through the 1940s were a key period in the history of American Jewry. As Feingold discusses, it is during this time that the Jewish people struggled amongst themselves between acculturation and their own identity, while they saw the rise of, and last “spluttering” of intolerance, “about to breathe its last gasp.”22
1. Boas, Ralph. “Jew Baiting in America.” Atlantic Monthly 21 May 1921: 658-65. Print.
2. "Emergency Quota Act." Emergency Quota Act. Princeton, n.d. Web. 03 June 2013.
3. Feingold, Henry. The Jewish People in America – A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream 1920-1945. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992. 2.
4. Feingold, Henry. 35.
5. Feingold, Henry. 67.
6. Feingold, Henry. 87.
7. Feingold, Henry. 90.
8. Feingold, Henry. 119.
9. Feingold, Henry. 125.
10. Feingold, Henry. 133.
11. Feingold, Henry. 154.
12. Multiple Editors. “Jews in America.” Fortune 1936: 3-5. Print. ; Zuckerman, William. “The Jewish Spirit in Crisis.” MJ 30 July-Sept. 1942: 108-110. Print.
13. Feingold, Henry. 263.
14. Feingold, Henry. 265.
15. Feingold, Henry. 189.
16. "Henry Feingold." The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. N.p., 2013. Web. 03 June 2013.
17. Feingold, Henry. xvi.
18. Dinnerstein, Leonard. Journal of Social History 27.4 (1994): 878-79. Web.
19. Feldman, Egal. American Historical Review 99.1 (1994): 286-87. Web.
20. Feingold, Henry. 259.
21. Feingold, Henry. 265.
22. Barton, George. “Dying Embers of Bigotry in America.” Current History 19 March 1926: 557. Print.
Henry L. Feingold is a renowned scholar on America’s role as a witness to the events of the Holocaust. After having received his Ph.D from New York University, he became active as an American Jewish historian, specializing in the American response to the Holocaust. Having served in a number of Jewish historical organizations, Feingold is a leading expert on American Jewry with several published works.