Speaking of Jews

Speaking of JewsLila Corwin Berman is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies and Mal and Lea Bank Early Career Professor in Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University. She is also the author of Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity, which was published by UC Press in January 2009. In her blog entry below, Berman discusses her and her brother’s experiences growing up Jewish in America.
By: Lila Corwin Berman

When he was in fifth grade, my little brother decided to start wearing a yarmulke to school.  Our great-grandmother had just passed away.  Although not old enough to be counted in the daily prayer services, he had been impressed by the men in our family who woke early each morning for seven days after her death to pray together.  So once back home, he donned the yarmulke, ate breakfast, and then climbed on the bus that took him to his public elementary school.  None of his classmates knew what to make of his new hat—and, really, he did not much know what it meant.  But over that school year and the next and the next, he explained it to them, each time adding something new, sometimes coming home with a question for our parents.

While researching and writing Speaking of Jews, I thought often about my brother’s yarmulke.  It was a visible sign of his difference that demanded explanation—at least in our town.  In the process of explaining it, he came to new ways of understanding what it meant for him to be Jewish.  The subject of my book is not so unrelated.  I explore how Jews in the middle decades of the twentieth century explained themselves to non-Jews.  Language—the way Jews talked about themselves—became crucial to Jewish life in the United States.  I argue that Jews explained themselves to non-Jews out of a sense of necessity; they believed doing so was a strategy for survival in a new homeland.

The voices I chose to explore were the ones most self-conscious of the project of Jewish self-explanation.  Rabbis and Jewish intellectuals felt themselves purveyors of Jewishness to the American public.  Many stepped into university classrooms, radio and television studios, and publishing houses so their words would reach a wide audience of Americans.  The search for a proper language through which to explain Jewishness to non-Jews itself became a mode of Jewishness.  To be Jewish was, on some level, to speak about being Jewish to non-Jews.

European Jewish Enlightenment thinkers had more than a century earlier sought to remake Jewishness as a tool for encountering and sculpting modernity.  Yet whereas the course of modern European history thwarted those efforts, the course of American history encouraged them.  In the United States, Jewish leaders and thinkers suggested that Jewishness was vital to the success of American democracy, thus attempting to guard their survival without isolating themselves from modern American life.  Through this book, I hope to contribute to a larger historical and political discussion about how people, communities, and nations have encountered the tension between humanism or universalism on the one hand, and particularism or distinctiveness on the other.

On the bus ride home, after his first day of middle school, my brother noticed an older boy staring at his head.  “What’s that?” the boy asked.  A girl sitting close by chimed in, “Oh that, that’s because he’s the Pope’s son.”  And the conversation ended.  Which is to acknowledge that our explanations of ourselves always exist in dialogue with others’ perceptions of us.