Author Archives: Jenna Weissman Joselit

Jenna Weissman Joselit

About Jenna Weissman Joselit

Jenna Weissman Joselit holds the Charles E. Smith Chair in Judaic Studies at the George Washington University. The author of the prize-winning book, The Wonders of America, she is also a monthly columnist for The Forward as well as a frequent contributor to the New Republic. Professor Weissman Joselit is currently at work on a book about America's relationship to the Ten Commandments.

Jewish America’s Cultural Vitality

This article was written in response to Leon Wieseltier’s working paper, Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry, which was presented at the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Writing at the turn of the 20th century, Moses Weinberger, a disgruntled rabbi who hailed originally from Hungary, limned a scathing portrait of America’s Jews. By his lights, they were an empty-headed, foolish bunch, given to strutting and preening and not much else. If Weinberger had his druthers, European Jews would not make the same mistake he did. They would think twice before crossing the high seas to throw in their lot with this community of dunderheads.

Though Leon Wieseltier‘s prose is far more nimble, his range of sources far more encyclopedic, and his sensibility far more knowing and canny than Weinberger’s, the celebrated New Republic literary editor and cultural critic is at one with the good rabbi in his unabashed disdain for American Jewry.  

Abraham Geiger

Abraham Geiger believed Hebrew
to be dead in the 19th Century.

In his “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,” Wieseltier, like Weinberger before him, cannot find a kind word to say about his American coreligionists, whom he dubs the “spoiled brats of Jewish history.” That America’s Jews have created an unparalleled network of Jewish institutions of higher learning, dramatically expanded the range of opportunities for Jewish women, and in things large and small display enormous cultural vitality and originality at the grass roots is, for him, of paltry, glancing significance when compared with what he takes to be the community’s wanton disregard of its textual and linguistic patrimonies.

Alternately saddened by and infuriated at American Jewry’s putative failure to hold on tight to Hebrew and Yiddish, Wieseltier acts as if his fellow American Jews have let him down.

Back in Germany

Perhaps they have. But then, American Jewry is hardly the first modern Jewish community to turn its back on Hebrew. In its rejection of that language, German Jewry had its New World counterparts beat by a mile–and a century. 

Jewish Vacations: The Catskills

Though several Jewish hotels remain open in New York’s Catskills mountains, most have closed. Despite its decline, this region played an important role in American-Jewish social history, and has made its contribution to American culture more broadly: The region is the proverbial “Borscht Belt,” where many of the great Jewish-American comedians got their start entertaining guests at the Jewish hotels described below. Reprinted with permission from The Forward.

Vacations, like women’s fashions, are ever changing. One year, cruises are all the rage; the next, it’s trekking in the Himalayas. Earlier generations were no less impervious to what was in and what was out. As early as the 1920s, increasingly affluent American Jews began to forsake the humble bungalow colonies and boarding houses of their youth in favor of the well-appointed resort hotel, with its swimming pools, tennis courts, golf course, and nightclub or “casino.”

Resort in the Catskill Mountains

The Concord and Grossinger’s, that self-styled “kingdom of outdoor happiness,” were two of the best known and certainly the most enduring of the resort hotels that catered to an American Jewish clientele. At a time when many tony watering holes were off limits to Jews (“We are better off without than with their custom,” declared one hotel proprietor, frowning on what he took to be American Jewry’s predilection for toothpicks and patent leather shoes), these two establishments provided a welcoming alternative.

Great Variety

Located in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, north of New York City, they enabled the children of immigrants to perfect their swing or their backhand, master the latest dance steps and otherwise indulge in summer’s manifold pleasures–all within the company of their own kind.

Garnering much attention, Grossinger’s and the Concord were by no means the only resort hotels on the American Jewish landscape. Rifle through back issues of the Forward, American Hebrew, or the Jewish Tribune, and you’ll be astonished at the number and variety of advertisements extolling the virtues of this vacation spot or that.