Jewish Assimilation

Has assimilation been bad for Judaism?
Samuel Heilman made it clear that materialistic gain has led to the fall of
Jewish culture. Have Jews turned their religious lives solely to conform to the
Catholic American society? Heilman gives the argument that since Jews have
moved up the socio-economic ladder, they actually lost focus on what it means to
be a Jew. One must first answer the question of what is being Jewish? Is it
simply something inherited? Does it mean living ones life solely regarding what
the Torah tells one to do? Is the answer much more complicated than following
rules, which were built for a time that was completely different? The Jewish
religion has lasted thousands of years, which were filled with intolerance and
murder, why is Samuel Heilman blaming the free Jews of today for being different
than their predecessors? One must look at events, which Jews have had to endure,
to fully comprehend the nature of why they have changed so vastly. Jews came to
the United States to escape persecution and gain economic security, why are
their grandchildren complaining of the state of Judaism, 100 years later?
Since the beginning of time Jews have endured anti-Semitic regimes, which
killed Jews merely for being Jewish. A clear illustration would be the past 150
years, which later involved a mass migration of Jewish people, to the United
States. Jews began
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common freedoms, which we take for granted presently. Jews subsequently came to
the United to escape persecution. Jews came from countries as different as
Russia and Germany with two common bonds. Religion and having endured some form
of persecution. Experiencing the pains of persecution, prepared Jews for any
possible experience awaiting them in the United States.

Most Jews arrived in Ellis Island without a penny in their pocket. Jews
settled in a part of New York that was called The Lower East Side. Jews chose
the Lower East Side, because it was the only place one could arrive and not have
to immediately assimilate into American society. These Jews began their
economic endeavors with the only profession they knew, commerce. Trade was
their main form of economic gain, the only profession that was allowed in
Europe. In America, Jews had to follow the American govt., instead of the
Kahilla. Not being singled out meant that Jews had to pursue the American dream
the same as Protestants, Catholics, and all other religions. To survive Jews
needed to lose various parts of their religious rituals. Jews could not stop
fulfilling economic duties simply because of religion. Jews were now competing
with other immigrants who had arrived before them. They had to learn customs
quickly so they wouldn’t be isolated in a society, which does not identify
itself with a religious preference.The only way to survive was to bend rules
of Judaism.

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The Lower East Side was a cornucopia of Jews from various parts of the world.
In the Lower East Side the Jewish community came together to solve each other’s
problems. Apartments were extremely close together, so in little time every
member of a
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street knew each other’s name. Each street represented a small community in The
Lower East Side.Hazardous health conditions caused sickness, and ironically
created friendships that were based solely on the purpose of Judaism. As time
passed, Jews began to reminisce of homelands, which were far away. Lives in
Europe were filled with torment, but Jews missed the sense of identity that came
by living under the Kahilla. In Europe one did not have to worry if he/she was
fulfilling a Jewish way of life. The Kahilla ordered one to accomplish Jewish
duties. Responsibility was never placed on the individual to choose between
economic affluence, and religious purity. Jews needed to come together and form
a sense of identity in The United States.This led to a Jewish renaissance
within the United States. Yiddish, which was the common language among Jews,
guided Jews to find the arts that they had left behind in their shtetls.

If one uses the Samuel Heilman perspective on Judaism, than the era of
renaissance, was the height of Judaism in the United States. Heilman explains
that at about the time of the 50’s Jews became more affluent, and began to move
farther away from the communal life, of the American ghetto. Heilman uses three
essential alterations to the Jewish State, to explain why the United States has
been bad for Judaism. Demographics, Intermarriage, and the change in education.
Heilman explains that each of these factors is equally important, in regards to
the loss of Jewish identity. He also takes into account different periods of
evolution that Jews experienced. He begins by describing the fifties as a
transitional period were Jews attempted to figure out, whether being Jewish or
being American was more important. The sixties and seventies are described, as
times where Jews were beginning to move farther apart, from the traditions
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of their ancestors. The eighties and nineties are described, as times were
Jewish people are fighting to keep the religion intact.

As the 1950’s rolled around, Jews began to become more affluent. The American
dream had been forfiled, and many chose to leave the ghettos that they had known
all of their lives. These Jews were children of immigrants, and wanted to move
away from their parents. “The movement to the suburbs consists largely of
families in the most fertile of age groups (Heilman, 9).” Young Jews did not
have the same perception of the ghetto that their parents had. Their parents
cherished a lifestyle, which preserved some culture of the old country. Fear of
not being identified, as a community was a large reason why Jews moved into
ghettos. Young Jews wanted to be known as Americans, and the only fear they had
was one of anti-Semitism. “Jews or any other ethnic or religious group wanted
to live together, forming their own community. Young Jews feared segregation,
in contrast to their parents, who in many cases sought it (Heilman, 19).” Jews
were moving to suburbs and attributes, which the old country had given them,
were being lost. “Replanting themselves in a suburban environment seemed to
call for homogenization differences led them to diminish communal and tribal
ties while emphasizing continuing mobility and the individual pursuit of
happiness above all else, it encouraged a life-style that denied the importance
of anything that happened before the move to the suburbs (Heilman, 19).” Jews
did not simply move away from the ghettos to move away from their parents. Jews
ultimately chose to move to the suburbs because they could not stand the crime
and health hazards, which were so prevalent in the ghettos.


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Did the movement out of the ghettos mean Jews were losing a part of their
culture? This epoch of Jewish life, according to Heilman, was the beginning of
the end for Judaism. Heilman describes the time period as misleading, because
after moving to the suburbs Jews began to build synagogues in America. This can
deceive many because Jews were merely following mainstream society. “In 1954,
Gallup reported that 79 percent of American adults were members of the church
(Heilman, 28).” Heilman argues that Jews were now trying to become better
Americans, rather than becoming better Jews. These new temples were not like
the old ones according to Heilman. They represented economic prosperity instead
of religious affiliation.

The 50’s were not the beginning of the end! Jews were not losing a part of
their culture, because they began to move out of the ghettos! Moving to the
suburbs was done out of necessity rather than comfort. Crime and death were the
first factors for migration out of the ghettos. “The apartments in the
buildings were packed with relatives and children, many of them fugitives from
unpaid rent (Howe, 2).” To survive Jews had to leave the death traps. One
cannot blame Jews for trying to move away from their poverty stricken past, and
move into communities that were not solely comprised of Jews. When Jews lived
in the ghettos it was very easy to identify them. Young Jews feared
identification, because of the alarming emergence in anti-Semitism that was
happening in the United States.Henry Ford, a presidential favorite at that
time, announced how dangerous he thought Jews were by releasing the publication
of the International Jew. By the end of 1925 the Dearborn Independent, Fords
anti-Semitic publication, reached a distribution of 700,00(Sachar, 316).
Heilman does not stress this as an important factor
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of Jewish assimilation. Jews of this time felt it was important to prove to
Americans, they were not the source of any problems. Jews adapted, they did not
conform to live in the United States. Jews would have to find a way to express
their religion in other forms that did not base itself solely on community.
Jews watched their families being murdered in the Holocaust, and they wanted to
make sure nothing of the sort would happen in the United States. When Jews
finally accomplished being able to move into communities, they had achieved the
dream they had set out to do, when they left the oppressive regimes in Europe.
Leaving the ghettos was a sign Jews had overcome struggles that had plagued the
lives of their ancestors. As Jews moved out of the ghettos they continued the
practice of Judaism by building synagogues in their communities. This is a sign
of religious affirmation rather than conformity.

Since Jews came the United States it was evident that their Jewish education
would be different than those of the old country. In America their was no czar
to bar one from receiving the govt. education (Sachar, 189).This led to the
decline of Jewish formal education. “A survey taken in 1908 indicated that only
23 percent of New York’s 170,000 school-age Jewish children were receiving any
form of Jewish education whatsoever (Sachar, 189).” Jews in America would have
to receive their Jewish education through supplemental schooling. Yeshivas were
created by European Jewry because they believed that America was the last
possibility to instill Jewish culture in youngsters (Revel, 504). Jews never
concentrated on the supplemental schooling, which was given to them. They
mostly took advantage of the American education that was provided to them.
After the 1950’s Jewish education almost disappeared. “In 1946,
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62.7% of students enrolled in supplementary schools attended five days per week;
in 1958, 66% of the students attended three days and only 6% attended five days.
By the 1970’s there were almost no five-day-a-week supplementary schools left
(Heilman, 77).” Presently Jewish education is done in four major categories:
1) supplementary, afternoon, Hebrew school; 2) independent all day school; 3)
yeshiva; and 4) University based studies (Heilman, 32)
Have the Jews of today forgotten their history due to a lack of proper
education? Heilman believes this is absolutely true. He believes this can also
be attributed to Jews attempting to make Americans forget the status of
immigrant, which had previously been placed upon Jews. A step Jews took to
relieve this status was to concentrate their studies on American education.
“Jews saw a college education as a way to escape the poverty and second class
citizenship which their immigrant status and identity had imposed on them
(Heilman, 39).” Heilman believes that even though formal Jewish education is
growing in America, it does not compare to the education that was given to them
in the ghetto. Jews who presently receive religious schooling do not spend
enough time on them to come away with any significant knowledge. “More and more
for this type of Jew, Hebrew school, became mainly remembered as the place where
Hebrew wasn’t learned (Heilman, 78).” Heilman thinks Jews have moved away from
studying the wisdom of the Torah, which the Yeshivas of the past taught so well.
“Now they were thinking about other wisdom in the secular and open atmosphere of
the liberal arts university (Heilman, 83).”
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I disagree once again with Heilman’s belief that Jewish education in the United
States, has led to a decline of Jewish awareness. He believes that due to the
decline of Jewish five-day-per-week, Jews have forgotten much of their history.
Heilman’s perception is based on blaming statistics that are deceiving. As Jews
have begun prospering in the United States they have chosen to reacquaint
themselves with Jewish education. In 1908 only 23% percent of Jews received
formal education (Sachar, 189). By the end of sixties 80% of Jewish males, and
70% of females had received some sort of Jewish education. Only recently have
Jewish Studies programs been part of college education. The bottom line is that
more Jews are presently getting some sort of Jewish affiliated education, than
in the past. Jewish education can never be solely based on beliefs of the past.
If present Jewish beliefs are not incorporated into Jewish education, than the
Jewish people will never evolve. Jewish education must revolve around the
present society were Jews are living, or else Jews will once again find
themselves ostracized. One can never complain whether a child is learning
Hebrew or not. Hebrew is the language of Israeli Jews, English is the language
of American Jews. Heilman blames the progressive nature of Jews, but he fails
to mention that 90% of Jewish Day schools today are Orthodox, even though only
25% of their students contain to this section (Sachar, 853). Heilman never
takes into account how Jews, who are not in America, are teaching kids about
Judaism. As a fortunate individual I have been able to visit various countries
were family members of mine are receiving a Jewish education. The perception of
these acquaintances is a Jewish education will teach one about the history of
the Jewish culture, but it fails in regard to teaching individuals how a Jew can
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live his/her life outside of education. We are privileged to live in country,
which allows an individual to choose their occupation. One must never forget
the Jews of the old country never had the freedom to choose their profession,
and that is why they opted to leave.

Jewish intermarriage has changed from epoch to epoch. “Sephardic Jews did
intermarry frequently, the post-1820 Jewish immigrants did not (Diner, 130). In
the past forty years, Jews have begun to marry outside their religion once
again. ” 9 percent of those married before 1965 married Gentiles, that number
grew to 25 percent by 1974, and 44 percent by 1984. Since 1985, 52 percent of
those Jews marrying have married Gentiles the first time in American history
when more Jews are marrying Gentiles than Jews (Heilman, 130)” The increase of
inter-marriage has ultimately led to the decline of the Jewish population in the
United States.

Has inter-marriage led to the decline of Jewish culture? Heilman believes that
inter-marriage is one of the most significant factors in what he calls the
squandering of Jewish identity. “All this out-marriage signifies not only a
Jewish demographic erosion but also a cultural drift toward the rest of America.
That is, not only do high rates of out marriage threaten directly demographic
survival of small minority populations, but they also symbolize, as perhaps no
other indicator, the conflict between universalism and particularism (Heilman,
131).” As a result of intermarriage, according to Heilman, Jews have interwoven
elements of other religions into Jewish life.Heilman deems that this will
only result in more inter-marriage in the future.The cycle will continue
until Jewish identity vanishes. “While maintaining linkage may make the trauma
of
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intermarriage bearable by Jewish families and individuals, it may, in the long
run, prove to be devastating for the cultural integrity of the Jewish people
(Heilman, 134-135).”
When two people of different cultures come together and live in happiness, it is
a beautiful thing. One can never consider saying that one must look at a life
time partner, simply based on religion. With that being said, the decline of
intermarriage can be attributable to a Jewish identity, which has emerged
recently. Jews do not want to marry a person who is ignorant, to the fact,
cultures other than their own exists. “I don’t want to marry someone who is too
Jewish (Prell, 177).” Jews marrying outside of their religion will not result
in the loss of Jewish identity. Intermarriage will spread Judaism to cultures,
which have never experienced it before. Jewish intermarriage is a prime example
of why, Jews who left Russia, made the correct decision in choosing the United
States. They wanted a country where they would be free of religious oppression,
and they could make decisions based on intuition rather than force. In 1953, 43%
claimed they would be unhappy if their child married a non-Jew. By the end of
the 1980’s 79% claimed they would support intermarriage (Heilman, 132).
Segregation between Jews and other citizens of the United States has been
eliminated. Love between these two factions is due to religious tolerance,
which can only be found in the United States.

America has been good to Jews, and it has helped evolve Judaism to match present
day concerns. Judaism is not the same as 100 years ago. 100 years ago Jews
were stuck in the ghetto and were unable to practice services, which were so
prevalent to their culture. Now that Jews have fulfilled the American dream
they have the freedom to choose the ceremonies they practice. Judaism has
always based itself on justice and
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Democracy. “As Americans of Jewish faith we believe implicitly in the
fundamentals of democracy, rooted, as they are, in moralities that transcend
race and state, and endow the individual with rights, which he is answerable
only to God (American Council For Judaism, 523).” America has freed Jews from
prejudice that has always been part of their past. Jews have responded by
living in the United States peacefully and together with people of other
religions. Cultural assimilation does not mean the end of Judaism. It means
Jews will now be able to spread their word of God, without prejudice. Presently,
there are less restrictions on Judaic practice, than in the past. This will
ultimately lead to the distribution of the Jewish practice; not it’s demise

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References
American Council For Judaism: A Statement of Policy.
Feb. 1944
Diner, Hasia R. A Time For Gathering: Striving for The Sacred. The
Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore and London. 1992.

Heilman, Samuel C. Portrait of American Jews:The Last Half of the 20th
Century. University of Washington Press. Seattle and London. 1995.

Howe, Irving. A Margin of Hope: In the Movement. Harcourt Brace Jovanich,
Publishers. San Diego, New York, London. 1982
Prell, Ellen. Fighting to Become Americans: The Jewish American Princess.
Beacon Press. Boston. 1999.

Revel, Bernard. Builder of American Orthodoxy; The American Yeshiva. Publication
Society of America. Philadelphia. 1972.

Sachar, Howard M. A History Of The Jews In America. Vintage Books. NY. 1992.


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