Sociological Jewishness and Marilyn Monroe

Today's guest post comes from Kevin Schultz, who teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago and is the author of the forthcoming book Tri-Faith America: How Postwar Catholics and Jews Helped America Realize its Protestant Promise. Here, Kevin offers some thoughts on an important new book by Lila Corwin Berman, Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of a Public Identity (University of California Press).

From the book's website:

Lila Corwin Berman asks why, over the course of the twentieth century, American Jews became increasingly fascinated, even obsessed, with explaining themselves to their non-Jewish neighbors. What she discovers is that language itself became a crucial tool for Jewish group survival and integration into American life. Berman investigates a wide range of sources—radio and television broadcasts, bestselling books, sociological studies, debates about Jewish marriage and intermarriage, Jewish missionary work, and more—to reveal how rabbis, intellectuals, and others created a seemingly endless array of explanations about why Jews were indispensable to American life. Even as the content of these explanations developed and shifted over time, the very project of self-explanation would become a core element of Jewishness in the twentieth century.

Another review of the book, by the New Republic's Adam Kirsch is here. Professor Berman's own personal reflections on writing the book are here.


Marilyn Monroe and the Problem with Jewish Studies


Kevin M. Schultz

a review of: Lila Corwin Berman, Speaking of Jews: Rabbis, Intellectuals, and the Creation of an American Public Identity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009)

I had forgotten Marilyn Monroe was a Jew. She converted just moments before she got married to America’s most famous playwright, Arthur Miller. She took conversion courses from Rabbi Robert Goldburg of New Haven. She attended fundraisers for Jewish causes. She gave a speech on the importance of Israel. And she remained a Jew until she died in 1962.

The match between Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe was the union of the “great American brain” and the “great American body,” according to Norman Mailer, who knew a little about both. It was as if “the mythical erotic dream girls…all yearn for Jewish intellectuals and learn to make matzo-balls,” said Leslie Fielder. It was every bespectacled Jewish boy’s fantasy: to have Marilyn Monroe and to have her want to cook you matzo balls. Under the chuppah, the bride wore beige.

The story of Marilyn Monroe’s conversion is one of the good stories told in Lila Corwin Berman's new book, Speaking of Jews. And it’s more than just a topic of voyeuristic interest for Berman. Marilyn Monroe, the quintessential beefcake-and-bodiced shikse, threw rabbis and Jewish intellectuals into a tizzy with her conversion. How could she be a Jew? But there she was, all blond and chuppah-ed. I’ve seen her conversion papers. Berman reprints them on page 146.

And if you think Monroe’s conversion caused apoplexy among Jewish intellectuals, you should see their reaction to the conversion and subsequent Jewish wedding (to a blond Swedish convert!) of Sammy Davis, Jr., in 1960. The black, one-eyed singer was now a Jew? How could that be?

The tizzy provoked by the two superstars’ conversions emerged in force because—and this is the central argument of Berman’s book—between the 1920s and the early 1960s, Jewish intellectuals consciously crafted an image of American Jews as a sociological category, just like any other American minority group. They created, in Berman’s nifty phrase, “Sociological Jewishness.” In the 1910s and ’20s, these intellectuals had been afraid to be castigated as a separate race, which sounded too pejorative, and too close to black people anyway. Meanwhile, they had seen millions of their co-religionists lose their faith, making a religious identity somewhat troublesome. The answer came in the form of sociology. What bound Jews together—how they defined themselves to themselves and to others—was as just another American ethnic group. They had their own social habits and webs of meaning. Judaism as a Civilization was more than just the title of Mordecai Kaplan’s famous 1934 book. It was a statement about Jews and the Jewish “ethnic pattern.” Monroe and Davis’s conversion threw Jewish intellectuals into such a tizzy because these superstars didn’t look like what Jews were supposed to look like. They didn’t fit that pattern. They sat outside the sociological parameters that had sustained American Jewry since the 1920s. (To this day, Monroe is excluded from the encyclopedic Jewish Women in America.)

It was, of course, fear that drove “sociological Jewishness” into being. Jewish intellectuals were afraid of intermarriage, afraid about Jewish survival in a secular world, afraid of assimilating, all topics Berman covers gracefully. But, as ever with Jews in America (and, evidently, with the historians who write about them), Jews wanted to protect their group’s unique endogamy while not being punished for their differences. They wanted their “adventure in freedom” (Oscar Handlin) to be more than just a “quest for inclusion” (Marc Dollinger), which might mandate they pay “the price of whiteness” (Eric Goldstein), despite the twentieth century being a time “when Jews became white folks” (Karen Brodkin). When “speaking of Jews” (Lila Corwin Berman), they wanted to ensure Jewish survival while eliminating antisemitism. It was a tricky balance, and, for a time, defining Jews as a sociological category seemed to work.

This sociological definition of Jewry, which Berman accepts too easily, I think, reached its apogee in the early 1950s, in the work of Oscar Handlin and Nathan Glazer. Both writers—one a historian, the other a sociologist—wrote important works about Jews in America in the early 1950s, and both relied mostly on a definition of Jews that was sociological, not religious or historical or anything else. “Religion,” concludes Corwin, “was just another way that American social groups defined themselves, as were foodways and patterns of residence.” (117) Those were the traits Handlin and Glazer sought to describe.

The arc of sociological Jewishness came down (mostly) in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the sociological definition of Jews failed to provide enough sustenance to prevent assimilation. Indeed, saying Jews were just like everyone else except for their diet and a few other mild social demands probably put Jews on the track to assimilation anyway. Jewishness had to be made attractive, not just categorical. The result, says Berman, was a transition to “volitional Jewishness,” to a time when Jewishness had to be made attractive, had to be chosen. The best part of this trick was that choseness could occur for a variety of reasons: religious, ethnic, marital, or whatever. It has dominated the definition of American Jewishness ever since. Even non-Jews search for mates on J-Date, a topic Berman concludes with.

Berman tells some good stories (I wish there were more of them), and, by delineating the contours of sociological Jewishness, she’s made a real contribution by providing a way in which we can understand why Jews were talking about themselves the way that they were. She’s a bit too easy in declaring the triumph of the sociological definition, I think, eliding statements like the 1955 claim of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that a Jew had to find in Judaism “an answer to man’s ultimate questions,” (171) as well as an answer to the question of what was for dinner that night. No matter, the theory of sociological Jewishness will likely prove to be useful.

On the other hand, her book falls into a pattern of Jewish studies that I find a bit troubling. The premise of this pattern is that the central way in which we should understand Jewish life in America is by looking at the way Jews have talked about themselves and thought about themselves. (It’s no accident Berman’s book is titled “Speaking of Jews” and that it’s all about Jews speaking about Jews.) The problem with this dynamic (as, I suspect, would emerge during the intense study of any ethnic group) is that it tends to focus overwhelmingly on the psychological drama of in-betweeness. The narrative focuses on how Jews tacked to one image or another, depending on how they perceived the prevailing winds, on where they thought they could find safe harbor in their perpetual quest for inclusion.

This focus, of which Jews are a particularly vibrant case study (but perhaps nothing more than that), has certain limitations. First and foremost, the conversation gets bogged down in the question of “but is it good for the Jews?” The circularity of Jews talking about other Jews is sometimes interesting, but as the focus of a discipline, it has limited value and worse, it tends to get boring. I’m not saying Jews in the past didn’t have these concerns themselves and that we should know about them, but the constant focus on this particular discussion makes Jews appear to be waffling actors (or better, re-actors) willing to forsake their true selves for social acceptance. They are not shapers, creators, contributors, other than to a circular and unending debate about what it means to be Jewish at a particular time and place.

In contrast, when studies of Jews move beyond these circular and insular debates, the results are often fascinating. Andrew Heinze’s book on Jews and the American Soul, for example, shows how these insular debates created a worldview that was then imported into the broader American context. It’s an exciting and powerful book. Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century does something similar, only on a more global level. It too is an exciting work of creativity.

When we do this kind of work, when we leave aside perpetually tracing the “quest for inclusion” narrative—valuable though it is—we discover a much more interesting and complicated people, who were not only interested in the survival of their people, but also in contributing to American life, whether for better or for worse.


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