Missionary Jews ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Missionary Jews

A new book looks at how mid-20th Century Jews sought to present themselves in ways that generated understanding and support.

I have a general interest in any form of "missionary" activity, and here's a new book looks at a form of missional activity in the conscious self-presentation of Jews in America in the past century.

Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity

From the Introduction (available online):

Over the course of Jewish history, Jews often thought of themselves as living among strangers. Through stories, rituals, laws, and folkways, Jews sought to understand their relationship to non-Jews. In the modern era, in a more sustained fashion than any other historical period, explaining—or presenting—Jewishness to non-Jews became a political necessity and an act of Jewish survival.

For some Jews, the task bred ideological fervor, a sense that Jewishness was enacted only when Jews were busy addressing themselves to the non-Jewish world. Even for those who were not so fervid, few Jews could navigate modernity without considering how to talk about being Jewish to non-Jews.

This book is about some of the ways in which American Jews explained themselves to non-Jews and how the meaning of Jewishness became inseparable from their explanations.

In the United States, Jewish leaders—rabbis and intellectuals—sought to generate a public language of Jewishness, one that carried authority and was disseminated into an American public sphere. Speaking of Jews is a history of how these leaders talked about Jewishness in public from immediately after World War I through the civil rights era.

Photo by Gila Brand.Image via Wikipedia

As the most widely recognized spokespeople of American Jews, countless rabbis devoted themselves to creating an American language of Jewishness. Taking to the roads, the airwaves, the printing presses, university classrooms, and pulpits across the country, rabbis engaged in the central and as yet unexamined project of presenting Jewishness to the United States. Their task, as they saw it, was as much about defining a collective identity as it was about crafting an ideology about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews and the role that Jews could play in a non-Jewish society. At different times and in different contexts, rabbis claimed that Jews' religious ideals, their history, or their distinctive behaviors allowed the United States to forge ahead with its democratic experiment. When properly conceived, a public language of Jewishness, instead of marking Jews as outside of or peripheral to American life, enabled Jewish leaders to define Jews as indispensable to the United States.

The book combines questions of history and identity among an important religious-ethnic group in the face of questions of diversity and legitimacy in the United States. My impression? Informative and fascinating.

You can find more on Speaking of Jews at the University of California Press website.

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