Week 11: Jews and American Acculturation

  • Prell, Riv-Ellen. Fighting to Become Americans: Assimilation and the Trouble between Jewish Women and Jewish Men. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000.
  • Moore, Deborah Dash. GI Jews: How World War II Changed a GenerationCambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004
  • Prell, Riv-Ellen. “America, Mordecai Kaplan, and the Postwar Jewish Youth Revolt.” Jewish Social Studies 12, no. 2 (January 1, 2006): 158–71.


This weeks readings encompassed the struggle Jews endured to assimilate or acculturate into American society. First, Riv-Ellen Prell, in her text  Fighting to Become Americans: Assimilation and the Trouble between Jewish Women and Jewish Men, tracks the enduring stereotypes of female and male Jews (mostly female) through the 20th century. Prell is aware that these gender stereotypes are both hoisted onto the Jewish populous by the dominant, American culture as well as perpetuated by the Jews themselves in their attempt to join middle-class America. She positions her study at the crossroads of these two threads and illustrates how Jewish men and women turned on each other in their effort to become American. The second text, Deborah Dash Moore’s GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generationis a study of Jews and the military during the Second World War. Moore follows the trajectory of 15 Jews from their desires to enlist to their return home from the War. Moore is interested in illustrating how the War changed their understanding of themselves as both “American” and as a “Jew.” In an interesting environment, Moore highlights how being “[i]nducted into the vast American military world, Jews would begin to discover their difference” [48].

For both Prell and Moore, the dominant influence or issue regarding Judaism is its meshing with American culture. Tweed would agree with both of these texts accounts of Jews acculturation as they illustrate the numerous cultural flows that can dominate their religious life. In particular, they illustrate the “confluence of..cultural flows” within the faith. Prell articulates this differently by stating that “Jewish gender stereotypes are a set of cultural images that are produced precisely at the meeting point of internal and external constructions of Jewishness” [18]. Furthermore, Tweed would identify the numerous modes of “crossing boundaries” that these American Jews took part in. For the two soldiers in Moore’s text that wore the star of David and the mezuzah necklace, they experienced the crossing of the boundary (into the military) yet retained with them a semblance of their home (religious symbols).

It is interesting that in large part, for both of these texts, the liturgical religion of Judaism was largely absent. Prell and Moore are interested in the ethnic religious experience of Jews in American culture. As I progressed through the texts, I kept thinking of the various denominations or levels of liturgical adherence for Judaism (Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, Assimilated). I wonder what these texts would look like if they approached the same historical questions but from a liturgically religious Judaism rather than an ethnic one? Would there be a difference?

For my own research, Moore and Prell offer the mirror image of what many nineteenth century Mormons were experiencing in regards to American culture. While most of the converts were from western Europe and the eastern states, there remained a vehement opposition to the “Gentile” ways and culture. Paul Reeve in his text, Religion of a Different Color, has shown the ways American society stereotyped and distanced themselves from those whom they felt “stepped back into barbarism.” I am left wondering if Mormons accepted or perpetuated any of these stereotypes to further entrench their “otherness” to American society.



Week 11: Jews and American Acculturation

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