U.S. Jewry shaped by more than Holocaust

Few can question the impact of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel on today's American Jewish community.

However, as we confront issues of intermarriage, assimilation, a dwindling population, a potentially changed map of Israel and a resurgent Orthodoxy, it becomes clear that American Jewry over the last 100 years owes its existence to more than a just the establishment of a homeland or to the systematic murder of 6 million Jews.

It is a complex history, unfolding in Israel, the United States, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and beyond. The story began, scholars agree, with the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to America.

Between 1881 and 1924, approximately 2 million Jews immigrated to the United States. A great many came from czarist Russia. The implications of this exodus resounded from coast to coast.

On New York's Lower East Side in those years, "East European Jews smashed German Jews in the shmata [rag] trade," recalls Steven Zipperstein, director of Stanford University's Jewish studies program.

Here in the Bay Area, classical Reform Judaism — which had been established by German immigrant families in the mid-1800s — faced new challenges. From 1896 onward, "you can find reflections of that tension in the [local Jewish] newspapers," says Fred Rosenbaum, director of Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley.

"That original German Jewish group held the power and determined the culture of this community for longer than perhaps any other American Jewish community. The balance finally shifted in the last few decades to East Europeans and their descendants," Rosenbaum says, lending a Yiddish flavor to what had previously been a more assimilated Jewish community. "Had it not been for the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, the migration of Jews to America would have been the main event of our century."

In the mid-19th century there were 50,000 Jews in the United States. By 1920 the number jumped to 4 million. Today, nearly 6 million Jews live in the United States.

Jews have contributed more than a mere statistical presence to the United States, however.

Zipperstein says the rise of the Jewish labor movement and the Bolshevik revolution fueled Jews' political consciousness and upheld the Jewish tradition of protecting the underling.

In the wake of the Depression, American middle-class institutions placed the first real restrictions on Jews in this country. It was common knowledge that Harvard University employed quotas. Other schools, clubs and hotels also restricted the numbers of Jews they would accept.

Across the Atlantic, World War II raged. Millions of Jews were slaughtered in Nazi work camps and death camps.

The annihilation of 6 million Jews in Europe was "not the Holocaust as we understand it today," Zipperstein explains. "It's not clear at all at that time that [Americans had] a true sense of what was happening [across the Atlantic].

"Even when the facts were known and they were fully integrated, the Holocaust as we now understand it is very much a phenomenon of the [education efforts of the] 1960s."

Waves of survivors immigrated to what was then Palestine. In 1948 the Jewish state was established, affording all Jews a safe haven and offering American Jews an erstwhile recipient of their political and monetary outpourings.

"The state of Israel politically empowered Jews in a way they wouldn't ordinarily be empowered," says David Biale, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.

"Following the destruction of the European Jewish community, the weight of Jewish history shifted to the Western democracies — especially the United States and Israel," Biale says.

"Without the Holocaust, the United States and Israel would be relatively smaller communities in relation to the overall world Jewish population."

Yet as the fledgling Jewish state emerged, America's newly middle- and upper-middle class Jews headed for the suburbs. And for the first time, "Jews had to think about what it meant to make community," Zipperstein says.

"By and large, Jews were in a few major cities speaking mostly Yiddish well into the 1920s." But after the war, "Jews were increasingly living among a majority of non-Jews and they [had] to construct [Jewish] life consciously."

Meanwhile, incomes rose and synagogue construction boomed. Best-selling authors Philip Roth and Saul Bellow appeared on the literary scene, writing in distinctly Jewish voices and proving that it is possible to "tell a Jewish story in America, set in the Lower East Side or Chicago or Newark with the texture of Henry James and a very different voice," Zipperstein says.

These factors, Biale says, led to a "dramatic decrease in what I would call widespread popular and institutional anti-Semitism following World War II."

By entering the middle class in large numbers, Jews "established themselves as part of American civil religion — joining Protestants and Catholics. It's partly [the result of] assimilation," says Biale, who also cites inevitable acculturation over time.

Nonetheless, he notes that recently "in Clinton's State of the Union address, he talked about churches and synagogues. That's a remarkable piece of evidence for the inclusion of Jews in American civil religion.

"Where this will lead, of course, is anyone's guess."