Post­war Sto­ries: How Books Made Judaism American

  • Review
By – April 26, 2024

In 2003, Arthur Miller looked back at a dark moment in Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry that he had dra­ma­tized in his 1945 nov­el, Focus. The anti-Semi­tism I ran into all over the place was fierce,” Miller recalled of the World War II years in Amer­i­ca. And yet there was no sign of any recog­ni­tion of it or acknowl­edge­ment of it in the pub­lic domain, not in nov­els, not in plays … I felt it had to be unearthed. It had to be brought to light.”

Rachel Gordan’s Post­war Sto­ries takes on a sim­i­lar task. It tracks a trans­for­ma­tion in how Jews became por­trayed in the Amer­i­can pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion after World War II. Gor­dan argues that in the wake of the hor­rif­ic rev­e­la­tions of Nazi geno­cide in the mid-1940s, two mid­dle­brow” gen­res — what she iden­ti­fies as anti-anti­semitism nov­els and Intro­duc­tion to Judaism primers — emerged, and proved cru­cial in alter­ing per­cep­tions of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in mod­ern America.

Post­war Sto­ries is a deeply researched book that recov­ers how every­day con­sumers of pop­u­lar cul­ture, Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish alike, respond­ed to these pop­u­lar modes of mid­dle­brow expres­sion. Gordan’s analy­sis of Lau­ra Z. Hobson’s famous 1947 anti-anti­semitism nov­el, Gentleman’s Agree­ment, is par­tic­u­lar­ly impres­sive. Gor­dan shows how the fig­ure of Phil Green,” who pass­es for a Jew in order to expose gen­teel anti­semitism, embod­ies 1940s lib­er­al sen­ti­ment.” Iden­ti­fy­ing with Phil,” Gor­dan argues, allows read­ers to bring their recog­ni­tion of his moral out­rage back to them­selves.” Inter­est­ing­ly, almost all of the anti-anti­semitism nov­el­ists of the late 1940s men­tioned in this study were women.

Gor­dan also excels at ana­lyz­ing the impact of var­i­ous best­selling Intro­duc­tion to Judaism primers — books that were writ­ten by a cohort of now rel­a­tive­ly obscure rab­bis. Has any­one read Mil­ton Steinberg’s 1947 best­seller, Basic Judaism, recent­ly? Accord­ing to Gor­dan, thir­ty-nine edi­tions appeared between 1947 and 2004.

After gain­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty, these mid­dle­brow works served an impor­tant role in recast­ing Amer­i­can Judaism,” both for Jews feel­ing uneasy in their adopt­ed home­land and for non-Jew­ish Amer­i­cans who either remained igno­rant or embraced stereo­types of Jews and Judaism. Gor­dan claims that the pop­u­lar­i­ty of post­war mid­dle­brow cul­ture per­formed sub­stan­tial cul­tur­al work: it awak­ened Amer­i­cans to the indig­ni­ties of anti­semitism and altered the nation’s col­lec­tive per­cep­tion about Jews. They went from being viewed as a race” to being rec­og­nized as a vibrant sub­cul­ture. Indeed, in his famous 1955 soci­o­log­i­cal study, Protes­tant Catholic Jew, Will Her­berg des­ig­nates Judaism as one of the sanc­tioned Amer­i­can religions.

Per­haps the rich­est mid­dle­brow texts Gor­dan ana­lyzes are the pop­u­lar, pho­to-sat­u­rat­ed mag­a­zine spreads that depict how Amer­i­can Jews lived their pri­vate­ly obser­vant lives. In the chap­ter Lifes Old-Fash­ioned Jews,” Gor­dan pro­vides a detailed account of a Life mag­a­zine cov­er sto­ry, dat­ed June 13, 1955, of the Finks, an Ortho­dox fam­i­ly from Scran­ton, Penn­syl­va­nia. This expan­sive pho­to treat­ment cap­tures the fam­i­ly per­form­ing a vari­ety of rit­u­al prac­tices, includ­ing Shab­bat can­dle light­ing, the veil­ing of a bride, the lay­ing of tefill­in, and the obser­vance of kashrut in their kitchen. 

Such a pub­lic per­for­mance of Jew­ish reli­gious prac­tice in a major mid­dle­brow venue inevitably raised anx­i­eties for some of Lifes Jew­ish read­ers; yet this strik­ing mid­cen­tu­ry dis­play of Jew­ish­ness sup­ports Gordan’s argu­ment that pop­u­lar depic­tions of Jew­ish feel­ing and prac­tice ulti­mate­ly proved enabling, even ther­a­peu­tic. The rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a healthy Judaism in anti-anti­semitism nov­els and Intro­duc­tion to Judaism guides ulti­mate­ly helped to make Jews, many of whom were self-con­scious and haunt­ed by anti­semitism and trau­ma, know­able to Amer­i­cans.” It also pushed them toward new ways of under­stand­ing their identities.”

Post­war Sto­ries is a major con­tri­bu­tion to our under­stand­ing of this key tran­si­tion­al moment in mid­cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can reli­gious and cul­tur­al history.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions