Celebrating Jewish American HeritagePublished: May 15, 2014
Jeffrey Blutinger, the Barbara and Ray Alpert Endowed Chair for Jewish Studies, knows it has been a long road to May’s Jewish American Heritage Month.
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law this annual recognition of Jewish American achievements, which celebrates the community’s contributions to U.S. society.
“Jewish immigrants are just one of many groups who have come to America,” said Blutinger, who joined the History Department in 2004. While there have been Jews in North America since the 17th century, most Jews came here between 1881 and 1924. “One of the dominant trends in American discourse is the fear of immigration. The immigrants are coming and they are transforming American society! This goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin complaining about Germans coming to Pennsylvania. Yet far from destroying America, all these groups have helped build American society.”
American popular culture is one place in U.S. society where Jewish Americans have had the most impact.
“Wherever there was a new opportunity developing in the American economy, Jewish Americans would be there,” explained Blutinger. “One of those places was the movie industry. When the movie industry began at the turn of the century, it was wide open: all you needed was a camera and some actors. The men who became the Hollywood studio chiefs and many directors were immigrants and the sons of immigrants. They produced movies that celebrated an idealized image of America to Americans that was wholesome, tolerant and pluralistic.”
The ripples of Jewish contributions to U.S. popular culture extend beyond Hollywood. “Look at the first major comic book hero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. He had his Jewish name of Kal-El and his non-Jewish name of Clark Kent. In a 1940 issue, when he captures both Hitler (and Stalin), Superman threatens Hitler with ‘a non-Aryan punch,’” he said.
Blutinger noted that American Jews essentially founded the comic book industry; not just Siegel and Schuster, but Stan Lee and others.
“Look at how humor in America has been affected by Jewish Americans. There is a whole style of Jewish comedy that is heavily ironic. Think of Mel Brooks or Adam Sandler or Jerry Seinfeld or the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges. Even Lenny Bruce, who re-invented stand-up comedy, was Jewish,” he said. “Now look at the American novel post-World War II with names like Normal Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. Jewish music producers in the 1950s worked with anyone who wasn’t white. They recorded everything from mambo to hip-hop. If you look at the role of Jews in American culture, then you’re looking at a group that embraced both white and non-white America. American popular culture, in TV, literature and music, has all been shaped by Jewish American culture.”
The changing face of America has meant a changing role for Jewish Americans. “The forces that drove American Jews toward success have, after three or four generations, led to Jews being much more assimilated into mainstream American society. In fact, one of the biggest debates in Jewish culture dating back many years is about the ultimate survival of the Jewish people,” he explained.
“You can never do straight-line projection,” Blutinger explained. “There will be those who say `at an X rate of intermarriage, by a certain year, there will be no Jews left.’ But the future is never a straight-line projection. It has been argued that the Jewish community will become overwhelmingly Orthodox because Orthodox couples are having more children while non-Orthodox Jews are having fewer. But if you look at statistics, you discover that a significant percentage of those raised in the Orthodox community leave to become conservative, reform or secular Jews. That is the problem with the straight line.”
While there is still some prejudice against Jews in America, Blutinger believes American anti-Semitism and xenophobia peaked during World War II. “America was still a racially segregated society. Remember the World War II Japanese internment camps in California? Anti-Semitism was part of a panoply of prejudices. But there was a dramatic drop in anti-Semitism in America during the 1950s,” he said. “What happened was that American Jews moved to the suburbs. American Jews became the model minority. There is the same discussion around Asian-Americans today. The idea of who is the model minority changes over time. The fear of `the other’ shifts to other groups in American society. But the main touchstone of prejudice in American society remains the color line.”