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  • Writer's pictureTracie Guy-Decker

Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

I usually try to write my reflections on a book within a week of my finishing reading it. That way my recollection of the arguments and my reactions to it are fresh.

Sadly, that did not happen for Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America, which I actually finished reading on the last day of 2021 (before I read How Do you Live? even). I think part of the procrastination has been that I don’t know how to do this work justice.

Ambivalent Embrace is a fascinating exploration of the competing demands on Jewish identities in the post-war period. Specifically, Rachel Kranson investigates the ways that the new-found achievement and acceptance as middle-class was sought-after and embraced by white American Jews even as it was denigrated and vilified as somehow inauthentically Jewish.

There’s so much here. Rachel Kranson investigates attitudes toward being middle class (and the Jewish tendency to claim “working class” status long after they’d achieved middle class incomes), suburbanization–and the large synagogue buildings built as Jewish communities moved out of urban centers, Jewish involvement in Civil Rights, the growth of the bar (and later bat) mitzvah party as a status symbol and rite of passage, the American idolization (in surprisingly gendered ways) of the citizens of the nascent Israeli state, and the Jewish counterculture of the late sixties and early seventies. Honestly, I can’t do it justice. If this kind of thing is interesting to you, you should just read it. For now, though, I’m going to focus on her analysis of the demands on middle-class Jewish women of the postwar period, which felt eerily relevant to the so-called "shecession" and other gendered consequences of the current reality.

Even before pandemic hit, I was fond of saying that working mothers are expected to parent as though they don’t have jobs and work as though they don’t have children. Kranson’s chapter, “Hadassah Makes You Important: Debating Middle-Class Jewish Femininity” investigates some of the precursors to the impossible demands I feel on working mothers. “As postwar Jewish men felt pressure to become breadwinners, the mores of the middle class stipulated that married women limit their interests to the needs of home and family. Jewish women received mixed messages from their leaders as they negotiated their responses to these middle-class prescriptions for domesticity. Some Jewish leaders supported middle-class gender ideologies, and some warned Jewish women against spending too much time away from domestic responsibilities. Others, including the leaders of Hadassah, encouraged Jewish women to defy postwar gender norms and to engage, fully and deeply, in the public sphere.” (114)

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the details in this chapter, since the mixed messages have hardly changed (though today I associate them much less with Jewish leaders than with American leaders of all different persuasions), but I really was. Kranson points out that despite the fact that in previous generations of Jewish communities–the more impoverished Jewish past that Kransons’ subjects thought of as more authentically Jewish–women almost always worked, often inside the home with sewing, mending, or taking in boarders, as the postwar Jewish community adopted to their new middle-class status, they translated middle-class mores into a Jewish idiom, implying they’d always been there. Kranson reports, “In a 1955 manual distributed by the Reform movement to couples about to be wed, Rabbi Jerome Folkman went so far as to imprint these domestic ideals on the religious rituals practiced at the Sabbath table. ‘The role of the husband and father,’ explained Folkman, ‘includes the blessing of the bread . . . which represents the physical necessities of life.’ This ritual properly belonged to the Jewish husband, continued Folkman, because ‘he is the breadwinner.’” (118). In the margin of my copy of the book next to this passage is my angry scrawl: “bread that she baked!”

Like many other affluent (white) women of first-wave feminism, Jewish postwar women weren’t all so keen to keep their interests focused only on the home and family. Hadassah, a women’s Zionist organization founded by Baltimorean Henrietta Szold took advantage of their interest in greater meaning. “Hadassah Makes You Important” read their 1957 brochure. In 1954, “under the headline ‘This is Your Life in Hadassah,’ displayed a picture of carefully coiffed woman superimposed in front of photographs of female nurses, male surgeons, and male welders in Israel. If the well-off American Jewish housewife would not actually go to work as a nurse, surgeon, or welder herself, this campaign assured her that her support for those who performed these important tasks made her contribution just as crucial. ‘Your life has meaning for you because it is bringing meaning to the life of others.’” (122)

Meanwhile (male) Jewish leaders weren’t so sure. In 1962 “in an article entitled ‘The Organization Woman,’ psychologist Samuel Kling attacked middle-class Jewish housewives for being ‘arrogant, spoiled and exceptionally aggressive’ as they abandoned their families in favor of ‘clubs, organizations, luncheons, courses, book reviews and other “cultural” activities.” (119 - 120). In fact, this article went so far as to insist, “those affluent Jewish mothers who pursued interests apart from the needs of their husbands and children would ‘destroy’ the ‘family fabric’ of American Jews.” (120)

Like my working mother conundrum, these women were in a lose-lose situation. If they participated in any activities outside the home they were told they were destroying the family fabric of American Jews, but if they didn’t, Jewish commentators cast them as selfish and spoiled. Their comfortable existence was contrasted with that of early settlers in Palestine (including Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold) and citizens of the early state of Israel.

Kranson notes that part of the hagiography of Szold is a clear judgment of American Jewish life. “Though Szold, throughout her years in Palestine, had regularly written of her desire to return to the United States, [Commentary writer Midge] Decter dismissed Szold’s professed homesickness as empty sentimentality. Indeed, Decter argued that after living among the Jews of Palestine, Henrietta Szold ‘could no longer find being in America meaningful.’”

American women were held up to their Israeli counterparts and found lacking. As Kranson puts it, commentators at the time subscribed to the notion that “the deprivations experienced by Jewish women in Israel made their lives more heroic, authentic, and meaningful than those of American Jewish women.” (130)

That word, “authentic,” is really important here. It is, at heart, the concept at issue throughout Kranson’s analysis. As she states in the conclusion to this chapter, “These leaders, for all of their different points of view, aimed to preserve what they perceived as the authentic Jewish family. That the new, middle-class Jewish family might fail to uphold Jewish traditions or transmit Jewish values to the next generation seemed to them an unthinkable tragedy.” (137)

While this chapter focuses on how women–in their specifically gendered roles–were given contradictory demands on how to uphold authentic Jewish life in the new, more affluent Jewish existence, the monograph explores the same phenomenon as it was expressed in other facets of Jewish life. Krasson is convincing. There is a clear thread among some Jewish thinkers that poverty and/or deprivation are essential to an authentic Jewish existence. I am certain that thread is still woven in to contemporary Jewish constructions of what is authentically Jewish (even as its inverse is also present, e.g. my grandmother’s insistence that Jews don’t eat white bread). I’m ready to watch for it so that I can help us all build a different picture of what is authentically Jewish. (I’m also still coming for the impossible demands on working moms. We can do better.)

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