American Jews Between the Wars

The character of the American Jewish community changed, as a nation of immigrants Americanized.

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The 1920s and 1930s witnessed an intense effort on the part of "second generation" American Jews to acculturate. With the doors of immigration virtually shut by Congress in 1924, immigrant culture was no longer sustained by a steady influx of "greenhorns." Native-born Jews soon outnumbered first generation immigrants. The archetypal Jew became the "alrightnik," on his or her way to acculturation and middle class respectability while retaining a strong Jewish identity constructed primarily along ethnic lines.

Residential Patterns

One way in which success was measured was geographically. To be sure, most second generation Jews continued to live in ethnically Jewish neighborhoods. But they were quick to venture out of first and even second areas of settlement to more middle class communities. In New York, this meant trading in addresses on the Lower East Side and even Brownsville and Williamsburg, for those in Flatbush, the Grand Concourse, and Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Although most Jews continued to be apartment dwellers, many of these newly Jewish neighborhoods had a suburban feeling. Rental advertisements typically touted the tree-lined streets and the proximity of parks.

Many Jews imagined that the move to middle class neighborhoods would result in greater social interaction with non-Jews. But they were often mistaken. As Jews moved in, white Protestants moved out. Nevertheless, as Jews increasingly joined the ranks of the middle class, they recreated Jewish culture to reflect their newly acquired American bourgeois values. Among the cardinal innovations was the consumerization of Judaism. Consider, for example, the evolution of the bar mitzvah from a simple synagogue ritual where a 13-year-old boy is called to the Torah for the first time, to an elaborate affair with catered food and orchestral music.

Americanized Synagogues

American Jews increasingly found ways of synthesizing Jewish and American elements in their daily lives. Even the immigrant synagogue was Americanized. Alarmed by a decline in synagogue attendance and religious observance, rabbis and community leaders sought ways of making the synagogue more palatable to second generation American Jews, whom they feared would succumb to assimilation. Eastern European congregations with Yiddish speaking rabbis increasingly hired English speaking junior rabbis who could preach to the younger congregants.

Rabbis like Herbert Goldstein and Mordecai Kaplan popularized the concept of the synagogue-center, the "shul with a pool," expanding the walls of the traditional synagogue to include educational programming, social activities, and even athletic facilities. Grandiose multi-purpose synagogue buildings were erected in Jewish communities throughout the United States. While the synagogue-center began as an Orthodox and Conservative phenomenon, it quickly spread to Reform congregations as well.

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Dr. Jonathan Krasner

Jonathan Krasner is an Assistant Professor of American Jewish History at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.