Ambivalent Embrace

Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

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Rachel Kranson
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , November
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This short sociocultural study offers a broad overview of the changes and conflicts that developed in the American Jewish community from the late 1940s through the 1960s. During this period the postwar generation moved out of the inner cities where the poor immigrant generation had settled and into the middle class and the suburbs. The author posits that the Jews’ ascent to economic and social success and suburban living created in them a pervasive anxiety about losing their ties to the insular Jewish communities in which they were raised and the Eastern European roots of their immigrant parents. Kranson asks the question: Can a committed Jewish life be reconciled with upward economic mobility? To explore this she has researched the records of Jewish communities in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The study is rich in primary and secondary sources, readable, and free of academic jargon.

Kranson focuses on a number of eclectic aspects of this topic: traditional Jewish liberalism, building new Jewish suburban communities, fictional treatment of Jewish men and women in postwar American literature, and the development of a Jewish counterculture in the 1960s.

In an introductory background chapter on the immigrant generation that settled in the large cities, Kranson cites New York’s Lower East Side as “the largest Jewish neighborhood the world had ever seen” (29), but readers may also be interested to know that New York’s Harlem neighborhood was home to a huge immigrant Jewish community at the same time (see Jeffrey S. Gurock, The Jews of Harlem, New York University Press, 2016).

The most illuminating chapter in Kranson’s study explores the changes in the Jewish community as it acclimated to suburban life by building modern, often large, synagogues to replace inner-city neighborhood shuls. These sprawling edifices are familiar to most American Jews today. Imposing sanctuaries for worship are complemented by massive ballrooms constructed to host lavish bar mitzvah and wedding receptions. She quotes Rabbi Harold Saperstein of Temple Emanu-el in the New York suburb of Lynbrook that “the great test of Jewish life in our time is whether it can survive in an affluent society” (4). She profiles one example of a nonconformist response to this challenge. In the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, a Reform congregation, Congregation Solel, determined not to experience the problems of middle-class Judaism. In the early 1960s they limited their membership to 425 families, banned bar mitzvah celebrations as ostentatious displays of wealth, and disallowed social clubs, all in order to try to maintain the intimacy and authenticity of Jewish observance in their newly built suburban edifice. (Years later all these restrictions were lifted.)

The chapters on images of Jewish masculinity and femininity in the postwar years draw from some of the iconic literature of the time, including Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Sylvia Rothschild’s short stories of femininity in the 1950s. The chapter on Jewish women in postwar suburbia could have benefitted from inclusion of more sociological studies. Another chapter deals briefly with American Jews’ involvement with the civil rights movement, and with the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s, which rejected the suburban synagogue and saw Jewish upward mobility as destroying true Jewish life. Each of these topics could easily be expanded into a book-length study. A topic the author does not explore is the relationship between the relocation of Jewish communities to the suburbs and the increasing percentage of Jews who intermarry.

In sum, this book offers a broad, but not in-depth study that touches on a number of crucial areas of interest in postwar Jewish studies. A strength is the many viewpoints contemporary to the postwar era and the sources cited for further study. It would be valuable to follow up this study with an update of the period from the 1970s to the present.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barbara A. Rader is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rachel Kranson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.


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