A Golden Age for Jews

After World War II, Judaism thrived in America, and America awarded its Jews insider status.

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Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).

American Judaism had actually been gaining strength since the late 1930s, partly as a form of spiritual resistance to Nazism and anti-Semitism. Now with the war over, the nation as a whole turned increasingly toward religion--a response, some believed, to wartime horrors and to the postwar threat from "godless" Communism.

"One of the most significant tendencies of our time has been the turn to religion among intellectuals and the growing disfavor with which secular attitudes and perspectives are now regarded in not a few circles that lay claim to the leadership of culture," the left-wing Partisan Review reported in 1950. It predicted that "if the present tendency continues, the mid-century years may go down in history as the years of conversion and return."

Religion All Around

In 1954, Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 it made the phrase "In  God We Trust," found on coins since the Civil War, the official national motto. "Never has religion been so institutionalized, so conspicuous, so public," journalist Claire Cox concluded in a 1961 book depicting the "new­-time religion" that had taken shape in America since World War II. "Never has churchgoing been so acceptable, so much 'the thing to do.'"

Judaism played a prominent part in this conspicuous "new-time religion." As anti-Semitism declined during the postwar decades, the religion of American Jews gained widespread recognition as America's "third faith" alongsi­de Protestantism and Catholicism. Popular interest in Judaism burgeoned as Americans sought to learn more about this "unknown religion of our time."

Fueled by postwar prosperity, Judaism strengthened institutionally through the building of synagogues and religious schools and the development of new communal institutions, though whether Jews actually became more religious or only affiliated at a higher rate has long been disputed.

What­ever the case, religion became the major vehicle for Jewish identity, while secular Judaism as an ideology largely collapsed. Judaism also began to adapt to new environmental conditions, accompanying Jews out to the sub­urbs and then to sunbelt cities like Miami and Los Angeles.

Less noticeably but no less significantly, Holocaust-era immigrants began to affect American Judaism during these years. Their memories, commitments, and collective sense of obligation to those who had not survived set the stage for develop­ments that would transform all of American Judaism, Orthodoxy in particu­lar, for decades to come.

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Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.