American Jews Between the Wars

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

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Focus on Children

Another manifestation of the Americanization of Judaism was a newfound emphasis on child-centered celebration. The Jewish Home Beautiful (1941) reflected this trend with its recipes for Maccabean Sandwiches and Menorah Vegetable Salad. Jewish themed children's books also became ubiquitous by the beginning of World War II. Sadie Rose Weilerstein's K'tonton, "the Jewish Tom Thumb" delighted youngsters with his perilous ride on the chopping knife and his ride on a runway dreidel.

Jewish education was also revolutionized during this period. Under the influence of Samson Benderly, an educator born in Palestine under the British Mandate, who ran the New York Bureau of Jewish Education, the field was professionalized and innovative teaching techniques were introduced. Benderly and his protégés emphasized cultural Zionism and the teaching of Hebrew as a spoken language. They opened up bureaus of Jewish education and Hebrew teacher's colleges across the United States.


Jewish upward mobility and unbridled acculturation were stymied somewhat by the Great Depression and the strengthening of domestic anti-semitism in the 1930s. Jews were disproportionately employed in white-collar occupations and suffered less economic dislocation than other ethnic groups. Yet, many still experienced unemployment and destitution. With the failure of the Bank of the United States, many Jews saw their life-savings virtually disappear. Jewish garment workers, who comprised one-third of New York's Jewish population, were overcome by layoffs.

For young Jews entering the labor market, the discriminatory hiring practices of many businesses constricted an already lean job market. Those whose families could get by chose to stay in school. But there too, they were confronted with social manifestations of anti-semitism in the form of restrictive quotas.

While many Jews had no choice but to accept government welfare, they saw it as a last resort, preferring their own support systems. New York's Hebrew Free Loan Society offered approximately one million dollars to needy business owners and families during the Depression.

The mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) that one historian has called "the backbone of the immigrant Jewish community," had a difficult time responding to the increasing needs of their members. Many were forced to discontinue their traditional services and benefits. Jewish Federations, which were funded by the more affluent, were better equipped to dispense aid through their various agencies.

The Depression also had a dire affect on communal institutions as funding sources dried up. The synagogue center building boom of the 1920s came to an abrupt halt, only to resume again after the Second World War. With mounting deficits and unpaid mortgage debts, there was recognition that the "building craze" of the 1920s was ill conceived. Economic woes, however, did not result in a major change in the direction of synagogue programming. Starved for dues-paying members, synagogues continued to play up their educational, social, and cultural programming. However, as operating budgets were slashed, the variety of offerings was necessarily curtailed.

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Dr. Jonathan Krasner

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