- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (May 1, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805070028
- ISBN-13: 978-0805070026
- Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 9.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,533,974 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950 Reprint Edition
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Drawing on advertisements, etiquette manuals, sermons, and surveys, Jenna Weissman Joselit constructs a lively and humorous account of how three generations of American Jews created their distinctive American culture. This provocative, enlightening study describes the forging of a rich and exuberant modern Jewish identity and makes it clear that it is not the theoretical debates of rabbis and scholars but the small choices of daily life that shape and sustain a culture
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Other rituals declined and then rose from the dead again: Chanukah was neglected in the 19th century; as early as 1884, one rabbi wrote: "The customary candles disappear more and more from Jewish homes." Christmas trees became more common until in the 1920s, savvy Jewish marketers reinvented Chanukah as a large-scale gift-giving holiday. And as a result, by the late 20th century even some relatively secular households (like mine) ignored Christmas and made a production out of Chanukah.
Shabbat observance, though still not as widespread as one might hope, appears to have rebounded slightly from the alleged "good old days"- in 1950, only 2 percent of American Jews attended a Shabbat service of any kind, a figure that I suspect is even lower than today's status quo.
And innovation sometimes came from unlikely quarters: bat mitzvahs began in Conservative, and even Orthodox, synagogues rather than in Reform Judaism (which preferred confirmation).
Other attempts at innovation thankfully failed- for example, some synagogues' attempts to water down Shavuot by turning it into a Jewish Mothers' Day.
Another interesting feature of this book is that it shows how early American Jews came to differ from other groups. As early as the 1890s, for example, American Jews had half the infant mortality rate of Italians or Czechs. Jews were also fussier eaters- a 1930s survey showed that 42% of Jewish 2-5 years olds refused two or more of a group of foods offered, as opposed to 18% of Polish-American children. (Make of that what you will).
One moral of the book: the more things change the more they remain the same. In 1893, Rabbi Maurice Harris of Chicago asked, "Can a minority move among a majority without being absorbed by it? . . . our distinctive characteristics are going, one by one; we are becoming more and more like our neighbors." Words that could be said just as easily in 2004.