This book review by Rabbi Rachel Esserman, executive editor of The Reporter, won first Place in the Award for Excellence in Arts and Criticism News and Features – Critical Analysis/Review category for newspapers with a circulation of 14,999 and under from The American Jewish Press Association. The judges' comment on the review was "very well written and gives a good insight into narratives about Jews in the U.S. and the myths that have been passed down."
Turning Jews into Americans
By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Jewish path in America has not always been an easy one. The acceptance of Judaism as a mainstream American religion equal to that of others did not begin until World War I, at least according to Jessica Cooperman's "Making Judaism Safe for America: World War I and the Origins of Religious Pluralism" (New York University Press). Although some acceptance began during the first part of the 20th century, Jews still experienced economic antisemitism even after World War II. Some Jews tried to ease their economic future by changing their names, some-thing discussed in "A Rosenberg By Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America" by Kirsten Fermaglich (New York University Press). Together, the two books offer insights into American Jewish history and the changing perception of Jews by their fellow citizens.
Perhaps the most interesting fact – and one that may be difficult for those of us in the 21st century to grasp – is that the Protestant outlook was so ingrained in the American mindset that most people considered the religion nonsec-tarian. Cooperman notes "for much of American history, Protestantism seemed so naturally intertwined with the institutions of American life that it was almost invisible, appearing only as the seemingly neutral ground on which society rested." The idea of a non-religious Protestantism affected Jews and Catholics who wanted to practice their own religions, and be fully accepted.
Cooperman shows how the definition of Protestantism as secular changed through policies instituted by the U.S. government during World War I. Her main focus is on the Jewish Welfare Board, an organization formed by the "old guard" of American Jewish leadership to help Americanize new immigrants from eastern and east-central Europe while they were in the armed forces. The JWB worked to gain ac-ceptance by the government as the official representative of American Jews in order to provide services for Jewish soldiers, much as the Knights of Columbus sought to provide services for the Catholic ones. The government originally picked the YMCA to be the only organization to offer leisure activities to soldiers. The military saw the YMCA as nonsectarian, even though the organization proselytized, something that disturbed the Catholic Church and Jewish organizations.
The JWB was not equally accepted by all branches of Judaism. That was partly because the JWB sought to make Jewish religious practice resemble that of American Protestantism. For example, when Jewish groups pushed for kosher food for Jewish soldiers, the JWB decided not to request that from the government. Since the purpose of the organization was to show the military that Jews were like their fellow Americans, saying that special food was necessary would highlight their difference rather than their similiarities. Cooperman also suggests that JWB had specific ideas about what a Jewish American man should be like: "He should be athletic and good looking, dignified in his bearing, personable, open, liked by all, and possessed of intuitive good sense and pride in his Judaism, but not overly punctilious about religious observance." Of course, this idea did not sit well with those who were more religiously observant.
For draftees, language served as a barrier for those immigrants whose native tongue was Yiddish. Being in the military meant adapting to the English language and American culture. Difficulties also arose from antisemitism: Jews were disliked for their foreignness and their interest in "isms" – socialism, Zionism, etc. – that were considered suspect. The JWB hoped to ameliorate these problems with programs and classes that would help these soldiers accept American culture and create friendships between Christians and Jews. Some soldiers definitely wanted a Jewish space where they could relax and feel at home. The JWB worked with local communities to provide connections with other Jews, particularly "good Jewish girls." This was to remind the men of their communal obligations so they would become upstanding citizens after they left the service. Where the JWB drew the line was intermarriage: the organization believed there was a difference between the public sphere – where the soldiers were expected to be good citizens like everyone else – and the private sphere, where they were expected to remain Jewish and marry Jewish women.
By the time World War II arrived, the U.S. government had formed another group to help all soldiers: the United Service Organization – also known as the USO – became the umbrella group for all service related religious groups. Now, religious groups no longer had to pretend they were nonsectarian or appeal to all soldiers. According to Cooperman, "the USO affirmed that Jews and Judaism had something of crucial value to contribute to the welfare of the country as a whole, and that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews stood side by side as equally valuable contributors to the moral welfare of the country."
Cooperman admits that it was not until the 1950s that Judaism was truly seen as an equal partner – with Protestants, Catholics and Jews being equally American. That fact plays an important role in Fermaglich's study of name changing in the United States. Fermaglich notes that no one has seriously studied Jewish name changing. In fact, the general understanding about name changing is wrong: few Jews' names were changed by officials at Ellis Island and most Jews who changed their names did not opt out of the Jewish community. The opposite was in fact true: Jews changed their names in order to make themselves sound more American so they would have greater economic opportunities, but most remained involved with the Jewish community. They just made the same distinction between the public and private spheres of American life as did the JWB: they were not identified by their religion at work, but lived a Jewish life at home.
Fermaglich notes that "name changing was an important and widely-practiced phenomenon among New York Jews in the 20th century. Between 1917 and 1967, thousands of American-born New York Jews submitted name-changing petitions as families in order to combat antisemitism, find jobs, and receive an education. In fact, Jewish names represented in the New York City Civil Court name-changing petitions are far out of proportion to their numbers in the city, suggesting that legal name changing was a Jewish behavior during this era." During that time period, Jews were starting to enter the middle class, but often found themselves discriminated against because of their names. This occurred whether they were applying to colleges, the Civil Service or private businesses. Most of the name changing petitions did not address the idea of antisemitism: rather, people wrote they wanted to change their names because they were difficult to pronounce or spell. Two name-change petitions that did address the issue were submitted by non-Jews with Jewish sounding names: they wanted to change their names because of the problems caused by people thinking they were Jewish.
The petitions for name changes soared during World War II. Fermaglich believes that during this time "antisemitism grew to its greatest heights in American history... thousands of Jews came to believe that officially reshaping their personal, familial, and racial identities would provide them with safety, security, and opportunity." Before the U.S. entered the war, Nazi propaganda was used against Jews: Jewish stores were picketed and synagogues were vandalized. Jews were being seen as a race apart – one that did not participate in American life. Fermaglich notes there were still problems after the U.S. entered the war: "Young Jewish men's and women's efforts to find jobs associated with the war, to serve honorably in the military, and to scale the military hierarchy sometimes met with exclusion and humiliation, and their distinctive names were frequently at the heart of these experiences." The end of World War II did not end discrimination, however. That continued into the 1970s. It was only after the passing of civil rights legislation that Jews began to move away from changing their names.
Misconceptions about Jewish name changing still exists. In the past, those who changed their names were sometimes condemned for trying to disguise their Jewishness. The fear was that they were trying to assimilate and leave the community. While a small proportion did leave, most remained active within the Jewish community and with Jewish organizations. The idea behind a name change was to prevent discrimination in the public sphere. This would not prevent people from practicing Judaism or joining Jewish religious and secular institutions in their private lives. Fermaglich notes that even today, when people discuss name changing in fact or fiction, the writers tend to disparage those who made a change. Those writers seem blind to the economic and social realities of that time, especially the antisemitism that was common in the U.S. during those years.