A Voyage Through Time
“If one little Jewish boy survives without any Jewish education, with no synagogue and no Hebrew school, it [Judaism] is in his soul. Even if there had never been a synagogue or a Jewish school or an Old Testament, the Jewish spirit would still exist and exert its influence. It has been there from the beginning and there is no Jew, not a single one, who does not personify it.” I bet you’ll never guess who said these, taken out of context, empowering remarks on the strength and connectivity associated with Judaism and its identity. If you managed to guess the most ruthless, wicked, sickening human being of the past millennia Adolf Hitler you would be correct. If taken out of context this quote speaks significantly to an individual’s ability to identify with Judaism. I was born to a Jewish father and Baptist mother who converted shortly thereafter. My family and I consider ourselves Reformed Jews. We associate more with the lessons and values instilled within Judaism to craft our ethical and moral compasses, contrary to Judaism being a statue of strict laws. In my personal belief, a person’s Jewish identity has nothing to do with how they practice, but the stout connection they feel towards fellow Jews and the faith itself. Personally, I see Judaism as the glue keeping my family connected and as a place to look for strength. My late grandmother Carol Kamean had a very close connection with Judaism and took great pride in being Jewish. She used Judaism to keep our family together by encouraging us to have bar/bat mitzvahs, to celebrate high holidays together, and to appreciate our Jewish heritage. I always looked up to how proud she was to identify as a Jew because many are still reluctant to do so. My family’s cultural pride and strong Jewish identity can be directly traced back to the toughest time in our culture’s history, the Holocaust.
Through this project I want to venture into the role in which the Holocaust took in shaping my family tree, the impact the Holocaust had/has on Judaism, and how my grandmother used Judaism and family as her sources of strength in her battle against cancer. In order to complete my goals, I must research the largest genocide in human history and the sole reason my family moved to America. I will be exploring historical, literary and artistic sources related to the Holocaust and Judaism.
A collection of primary sources about my great-grandfather from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum dating back to 1907 up until the mid-1940s
The most recent time I’ve seen my extended family was at my grandmother’s funeral this past August. I had recently been tasked with this project and took advantage of the gloomy situation. I asked my great aunt, Sue, Carol’s sister, about our family history and she directed me to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I found a plethora of material on my great-grandfather Max Goodman including: his birth certificate, his passport, playbills and photographs that featured him, and letters written to and from him during the Holocaust.
After sorting through the large amount of information, I discovered Max, originally born in the United States, was a German musician and soccer player of Austrian and Romanian descent. He lived in Berlin, Germany for the majority of his life before immigrating back to the United States in 1937. He traveled throughout Europe performing with his band and playing soccer. He was a revered musician in the Jewish community being described as a charismatic and caring man. He left Germany in 1937 because of religious tensions and discrimination against Jews. He sensed nothing progressive happening in Germany and feared the antisemitism would only get worse, sadly he was right. Because he was born in the United States, he managed to successfully secure a US passport after multiple failed attempts.
Within the documents provided laid a collection of about 25 translated letters sent from and to him during the years 1937–1942. These letters were between him, his family members, and his friends stuck in Europe during the Holocaust. The conversation topics of the letters range from asking for money and daily checkups to desperate attempts to secure safe passage to America. Through these letters I was able to get a glimpse into the past and what kind of person Max was. He worked constantly with the American immigration officials to pleading for valid papers for family and friends alike. Because his family was Jewish it was illegal for them to hold jobs in Nazi Germany, so Max would send money quite often to aid his relatives. These letters are also the only evidence, other than memories passed down to my late grandmother and her sister, of Max’s family and what kind of people they were. The letters were definitely the most moving and stimulating source I used for this project. These first-hand accounts placed me in Max’s shoes, illustrating exactly what he was experiencing during this horrific time period.
Maus: A Survivors Tale by Art Spiegelman
Spiegelman, Art. Maus. Pantheon, 1986
I somehow managed to finish 9 years of Jewish day school never reading this magnificent work of literature. I finished the graphic novel in one sitting unable to pry my head away from its griping illustrations, harsh honesty, deep metaphors, and its unique narrative.
Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is a graphic novel based on a distant father being interviewed by his misunderstanding son. The son being Spiegelman and distant father being his own. I describe Spiegelman as misunderstanding because he was unable to comprehend the severity of his family’s struggles until he interviewed his father. I’ll get more into that later. The comic book is written as a dialogue between Spiegelman and his father as he describes the journey he endured during the Holocaust. What makes this novel beyond unique is that it uses animals to represent people. The Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, and the Poles as pigs. The comic covers the disturbing experiences of his father, but the simplicity attached to the animals act as a euphemism for the real life atrocities committed against other humans.
Not only is the comic layered with metaphors, but I believe the theme goes much deeper than the experiences of his father. Yes, this book provided an incredible narrative to the historical events that occurred throughout the Holocaust, but the deeper meaning is rooted in the author’s relationship with his family. He knows he’ll never experience what his kin had to endure and because of this he feels guilty that he was not there with them. This causes a rift in his relationship with his father. He had been through the ringer while Art grew up in a relatively sheltered environment. Art uses this graphic novel to mend his relationship with his father and grow closer than ever before.
One of my biggest takeaways from this narrative was from one of the more overlooked scenes in the comic. Art’s father speaks on how some people lost the meaning of family. If you read the scene below, it may baffle you how even in a person’s toughest time their family can turn a cold shoulder. This is another reason why, after the Holocaust, some families garnered a closer connection with each other while others distanced themselves relatives.
Art’s mother ended up taking her own life after the Holocaust because she could no longer cope with the trauma and loss she experienced. This was not uncommon among surviving families, it was a harsh aftermath of an already morbid time. My great grandfather was the only survivor in his family to make it to the United States. I cannot begin to imagine how he felt or dealt with never seeing his family again. Rather than creating distance between himself from family members, Max used his experiences to pull his family even closer together. My grandmother is part of the same generation of American Holocaust survivor’s children as the author and had to endure similar internal conflicts. This piece of literature provided me with not only historical relevance, but an emotional connection to my family’s journey as well as furthering the identity of post-Holocaust Jewish familial relationships.
Band of Brothers Clip
“Why We Fight.” Band of Brothers. Prod. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. HBO. 28 Oct. 2001. Television
Band of Brothers, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, was an HBO miniseries (a show designed to have only one season) that debuted in 2001 based on historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1992 non-fiction novel, Band of Brothers. Band of Brothers highlighted the true experiences and relationships formed between American soldiers fighting in World War II.
The specific clip I chose to use depicts the harsh reality of Jews held captive by the Nazis. In the second to last episode the war is over. The guys are searching through the woods for stragglers and potential outpost when they stumble upon a labor camp. A labor camp was, essentially, a prison where the Nazis were starving, torturing, executing, and working Jews to death. One of the soldier’s sprints back inform the others of the discovery. Unable to articulate what he had witnessed, he pleads for the others to follow him back to the scene. Upon arrival the soldiers are in complete and utter disbelief of the treatment of these people. They were incapable of comprehending what was unfolding in front of their eyes. The following scene is one of the most accurate fictious representations of the conditions faced by millions of Jews and minorities during the Holocaust. It is very disturbing and viewer discretion is advised.
My great-grandfather Max Goodman was lucky enough to escape from these atrocities however the rest of his family was not. His mother, Celia, his father, Simone, his sister, Sabine, his other sister, Berta, along with her husband and daughter, Lily, and his hometown friends were carelessly murdered by the Nazi regime. The Holocaust turned a once prosperous, sizeable Jewish family into nothing but a memory survived by a sole immigrant left with almost nothing. There are no words to describe how inhumane and truly evil this blemish on human history was. I feel that the best way to comprehend the magnitude of this situation is to see a visual representation of it.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Roth, Philip. Plot Against America. Vintage, 2005.
Wow, thank you Professor Simrill for the abstract recommendation. This novel was definitely an interesting read, especially, for fans of science fiction novels. The premise upon which the story is set is wildly creative, and the author does an impeccable job at placing the reader into the situation as if it had been reality. Roth creates a masterful concoction of fiction mixed with reality including a dash of an auto-biographical aspect resulting in a thought provoking read.
Philip Roth was an American Jewish author born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up Jewish but struggles identifying as an American or a Jew. Throughout the novel he makes this personal belief abundantly clear; he is mistreated because people think of him as a Jew rather than an American. Because of the intricate approach, Roth is able to convey non-fiction personal, religious and societal themes throughout the novel from the viewpoint of a seven-year-old child, despite its not-so-far-fetched fictitious setting. Not only would I recommend this book to fans of science fiction, but I would recommend it to other Jewish Americans who had family in the United States during the Nazi regime.
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth is set in the United States from 1940–1942. The novel follows an alternative historic timeline rather than the actual series of events that took place. Rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt getting re-elected for his third term as president, Roosevelt is defeated by aviation hero- and anti-Semitic isolationist- Charles Lindbergh. Roth supports the alternative timeline by basing the novel on Lindbergh’s real-life isolationist ideas as seen by his involvement in the America First Committee. The America First Committee advocated for the United States not to enter World War II and was backed by anti-Semitic rhetoric from its leading members. The central character, and narrator, is seven-year-old Roth. The point of view of the novel alternates between young Roth and news clippings that set the alternative historical events. After Lindbergh’s election, Roth and his family feel like outsiders despite being second and third generation Americans. Lindbergh’s first act is a non-aggression treaty with Hitler and the Nazis, the “Iceland Agreement”. Lindbergh also creates a national relocation program, “Just Folks”. “Just Folks” forced Jewish children to spend periods of time in homes throughout the heartland of America. The idea was to “Americanize” these kids into essentially becoming self-hating Jews. Roth’s brother is selected to participate in this program being sent to rural Kentucky. His brother comes back a completely different person displaying contempt towards his family and their Jewish way of life. After instituting the new acts “Homestead 42”, relocates entire Jewish families to the West, and the “Good Neighbor Policy”, meant to break up Jewish communities, Walter Winchell decides to oppose Lindbergh. His candidacy infuriates Lindbergh’s supporters causing riot and mobs. Lindbergh’s supporters eventually murder Winchell at a speech in Louisville, crushing the hopes of Jews and progressives around the country. As the novel progresses, the alternative timeline becomes more far fetched with the staged kidnapping of Lindbergh by the Nazis. The nation blames the Jews, resulting in the kidnapping of prominent Jewish figures and an increase of hate crimes, including murder. Essentially, the Nazi Kristallnacht came to the streets of America. Then its over in a flash. History resumes itself as the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, a year late in this timeline. Roth’s post script provides his historical sources including: biographies of legitimate historical figures, and documentary proof that the story he wrote very well could have happened.
Throughout the novel, Roth does an incredible job of getting across the fears and bewilderment that a young child would face in the wake of these events. Yes, there are many themes that can be translated to the actual political environment of today. I do not deem it appropriate to discuss current politics in school nor compare the current condition of the country and world to that of the darkest time period in world history. So, rather than addressing the political themes of the novel I would like to discuss an internal, mildly societal, conflict Roth, the main character, narrator, and author, battles during the novel.
I would like to expand on the idea of either being American or Jewish. Roth clearly articulates that he feels more American than Jewish at the beginning of the novel, however, often finds himself contradicting that notion. Growing up Jewish, I have learned how difficult it is to identify as both Jewish and American. In Roth’s case, his Jewish identity is not as prevalent as his American one. There is a scene in the beginning of the novel where a Hassidic Jew is collecting money for the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. Young Roth seemed confused by this notion because he felt the United States was his homeland. Roth did not even consider the possibility of his homeland turning on him and his family. His family had been living there for generations why would they? Well, once the timeline gets flipped on its side, Roth’s prior notion appears naïve, almost ignorant. Because he is a Jew, he is discriminated against by the same group of people he beloved he belonged to. Today, for the most part, our nation, attempts, I repeat, attempts to convey an open outlook, so the youth will not have to face dilemmas like those by young Roth. I, like young Roth, definitely would have considered myself more American than Jewish in my youth. However, as I matured, I began recognizing and discovering my Jewish identity. Doing research about the Holocaust, and learning about my great-grandfather’s journey, created a newfound appreciation for the Jewish half of my identity. There is no place for hate in today’s world. If I was ever forced to choose between my faith and my nation, I hope I would choose faith. I feel by passing down our family’s history to each ensuing generation it would provide extra strength to the Jewish aspect of their Jewish American identities. Hopefully, they will be able to appreciate their culture as much as I have learned to do.
Mary Elizabeth Frye, Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
The poem, Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep, is a renowned poem worldwide. Few people know the true inspiration behind it though. Frye wrote this poem about Margaret Schwarzkopf, a German-Jew, who was staying with her and her husband at the time. Schwarzkopf had been deeply concerned about her mother, who was too old, crippled, and ill to leave Germany. Schwarzkopf was unable to go to her mother’s aid because of the rabid antisemitism that was erupting into what later became known as the Holocaust. After receiving the news her mother had passed away, Schwarzkopf told Frye she never had the chance to, “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” The story goes that Frye found herself writing the sonnet on a ripped-off section of a brown paper bag. She gave the poem to Schwarzkopf and she held it close to heart forever. The poem reads:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
*This poem is public domain thanks to Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Frye
This poem is beautiful. It provides console to those grieving a lost loved one and gives the reader an optimistic outlook on such a tragic event. When I read this poem, I immediately thought about the passing of my grandmother this past August. It was emotionally uplifting to read and analyze because I know my grandmother would want us to look at her passing in this light. In fact, we spread her ashes at Lake Oconee where my parents are building a house that will become the new hearth for our family. As my siblings and I grow up and move forward with our lives, it will be a place where the family can always come together; my grandma wanted to be a part of that.
The inspiration for this poem is also significant to my family’s journey to this country. Similar to Margaret Schwarzkopf, Max Goodman had to leave his family behind in Nazi Germany. He continuously tried and tried and tried to secure safe passage for his family but ultimately failed. He never saw any of them again. Max, like Schwarzkopf, was never able to stand by his mother’s graves and shed a tear. The poem has showed me a potential coping mechanism and mindset in which Max may have taken while wrestling with these intense, heartfelt emotions.
Felix Nussbaum, The Refugee 1939
Nussbaum, Felix. The Refugee. 1939, Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem.
Felix Nussbaum was a German-Jewish painter during the Holocaust. His life and his career were plagued with intolerance, imprisonment, and death. His artwork was inspired by his and other victim’s emotions and attitudes during their struggles for freedom and life. Nussbaum’s work focused on the individual among the many victims of the Holocaust.
The painting I chose depicts the isolation of the wandering German-Jew. No where in Europe was safe, the Nazi’s were everywhere. Being a Jew simply meant live in hiding or die working. The viewer must place themselves in the man sitting on the stool’s shoes. He is stuck, with vast nothingness outside and a world of opportunities in front of him, yet he sulks. He asks himself “Where can I go in this world, where can I live, where can I work and exist?” He sulks because he knows the answers. He knows that his life will never be the same. He is unable to travel to safety, he is unable to live freely, he is unable to work and make money, and he is unable to truly exist in the world. If he does manage to exist, it would result in his capture or death. He, the man sitting in the stool, is the Refugee. Nussbaum is not only refereeing to himself but the millions of others in hiding that are unable to exist under the current conditions of the world.
This painting ties deeply to my family’s navigation of the Holocaust. One of Max Goodman’s sisters, Berta, and her family along with Max’s parents were stuck in Berlin, Germany. They had no where to go, unable to work because their employers had to fire them, and they had to live in fear every single day for the rest of their lives. Countries closed their doors on them and left them for dead. They were refugees. They were all the man on stool. Max’s sisters and parents all perished under the Nazi regime, as did Felix Nussbaum and his family.
The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives
Chapter 4: The Contemporary American Jewish Family
Jay Y. Brodbar-Nemzer, “The Contemporary American Jewish Family,” in The Religion and Family Connection: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Darwin L. Thomas (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 66–87.
The chapter I chose from this research study revolves around American Jewish family life from a sociological point of view. Throughout my readings I found my family fits into many of the findings within this study. Although it is from the late 1980s it highlights trends that are still present in today’s world.
Some interesting points I found were: Jewish men marry later than non-Jews, low rates of divorce among Jews compared to Protestants and Catholics, the growing trend of interfaith marriage within the Jewish community, Jews are more likely to stress values of independence even after controlling for education, and the value Judaism puts on family. My parents got married in their early 30s, relatively late for the 1990s compared to the national average. They are still together. However this probably has nothing to do with being Jewish but rather a healthy relationship. My parents intermarried, my mother Baptist and father Jewish. It used to be very looked down upon for a Jew to marry out of faith because the population of Jews is so low. However, within the Reform community the rate of intermarried couples has been increasing since the 1960s along with an increase in social acceptance. My family is big on independence. My Dad always says, “I’m giving you the tools, lets see what you can build.” He grew up in a very low middle class family where his Father was an electrician for a worker’s union in New York City. His parents scrapped by to provide him an education. He made the absolute most of it. Now he wants to implement these values into my siblings and me. The value put on family is where my family strays from the research within the study. My family has put a lot of emphasis on togetherness as we embark on adulthood. I believe it stems from my father’s lack of togetherness with his family, more specifically his brother. My dad and his brother are not close at all. I have no idea why, but it has always been that way. It used to constantly bring my grandmother to tears when it would come up in conversation.
Towards the end of this semester I will be visiting my great Aunt in New York and while there I hope to get the opportunity to interview many of my other family members as well. This chapter has feed me with a plethora of information on the sociology-science behind the Jewish American family. I feel I have furthered my knowledge on the American Jewish family as well as better prepared myself for the interview process.
New York Times Article on the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting
Robertson, Campbell, and Mele, Christopher, and Tavernise, Sabrina. “11 Killed in Synagogue Massacre; Suspect Charged With 29 Counts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/us/active-shooter-pittsburgh-synagogue-shooting.html
For my next source, I chose an article surrounding the recent Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to the strength and resilience of the Jewish community. On the morning of October 27th, 2018, Robert Bowers opened fire on the praying congregants of The Tree of Life Congregation located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people were killed. The motive, anti-Semitism.
Robert Bowers committed the deadliest crime against the Jewish people in United States history. His social media was littered with anti-Semitic hate speech, and, according to witnesses, Bowers shouted anti-Semitic remarks as he was firing at the peaceful congregants. Bowers is a testament to the undying anti-Semitism sprinkled within the country and around the world.
The Squirrel Hill area is the most densely populated Jewish area of greater Pittsburgh. It’s home to a large, close knit, Jewish community. This community aligns with the idea of Jews living near other Jews, a common theme within our culture. After the shooting, the community came together to support and mourn for the victims of this tragic event. For the victims and their families it had to mean the world for a community of that magnitude to support them throughout the following moths.
The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation
Sarna , Jonathan D, and Jonathan Golden. “The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation.” The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation, The Twentieth Century, Divining America: Religion in American History, TeacherServe, National Humanities Center, Brandeis University, Oct. 2000, nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/jewishexp.htm.
Like most Freshman in college, I was nervous yet excited for what the new school year would bring. I decided to pledge a Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, to meet and befriend other Jews my age with hobbies similar to my own. It was a perfect fit: I didn’t regret my decision for a second. Although I may have thought very highly of the fraternity I am not sure if people around campus felt likewise. I found myself in multiple awkward situations where people would ask me what fraternity I was in and after replying “AEPI, the Jewish fraternity” I often received “Ohh”, accompanied by a negative facial reaction as a response. It was as if people were surprised or underwhelmed by my reply. A couple sororities refuse to schedule socials with us. In all honesty though it does not irk us in the slightest. We understand that if people don’t like us because were Jewish then we do not need people like that in our lives. The year is 2018 and anti-Semitism is still all around us. Even the University of Georgia this past year scheduled the Career-fair on the second holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashana. I had an accounting test on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. I had to fast all day then take an accounting test when I should have been at home, with my family, fasting and going to services. Although these events may not have been directly targeting Jews, the lack of consideration is disappointing. Now put yourself into the shoes of a 20th century Jewish American immigrant. Though much better than the alternative in Europe, you are on one of the bottom rungs of the priority totem pole of America, and that’s the America my great-grandfather, Max, and my grandmother, Carol, had to endure.
Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden’s paper illustrates the journey of Jewish immigrants coming into America throughout the 20th century. It begins with a brief history on the early 20th century as a time where the Jewish population in America amounted to under 1 percent of the country’s population. By 1930 Jews formed about 3.5 percent of the population in America. As the number of Jews rose, more and more Jewish communities came about. Jewish communities are considered to be areas of the country, state, or city where the concentration of Jewish inhabitants is unproportionate to that of the national population. Most of these Jewish communities were in East Coast cities including parts of Boston, New York, and even Atlanta. The article continues to explain how this was a reaction to antisemitism as well as the comfortability of living among people similar to oneself. The paper also touches on immigration post World War II, and how after the destruction of major European centers of Judaism, 1945 America stood as the unrivaled largest, richest, and politically most important Jewish community in the world.
My great-grandfather, Max, my grandmother, Carol, and my father, Jeff, lived in American Jewish communities. My dad has told me stories of how he grew up in an Italian Jewish neighborhood. He claims it’s the same one that Jerry Seinfeld grew up in too. He talked about the true sense of community and how everyone knew everyone. He described how he and his family would consistently eat and pray with his friends and their families. That sense of community is one of the greatest aspects of American Reform Judaism, a culture that embodies a sense of togetherness and connectivity. Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden’s paper has provided me with historical context behind the formation of Jewish communities as well as Jewish immigration throughout the 20th century.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah 101 by MJL
Mjl. “Bar and Bat Mitzvah 101.” My Jewish Learning, My Jewish Learning, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/bar-and-bat-mitzvah-101/.
Bar/Bat Mitzvahs are very significant to Jewish tradition, especially, regarding spiritual growth. The article I selected encompasses the rich history, practical aspects, and contemporary issues surrounding Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. It begins with the history, discussing the first glimpses of Bar/Bat Mitzvahs throughout time dating back all the way to the fifth century. The practical aspect entails the commitment to planning and orchestrating the event. It details the effort and time necessary for making it all happen. Lastly, the author hashes on the contemporary issue with regard to women and Bat Mitzvot. As the times continue to change the deep rooted, ancient sexist laws must go. It is completely inappropriate to deny a girl a Bat Mitzvah simply because she is a girl. These laws were written thousands of years ago, some of which no longer apply to a modern society.
Bar Mitzvahs are significant to my family’s story because they serve as a perfect example of Judaism bringing the family together. At my Bar Mitzvah the entire New York crew came down to celebrate. For the following seven years, my grandma talked about how incredible it was having the entire family together enjoying themselves. I remember leading up to my Bar Mitzvah my grandfather was in poor health but motivated himself bare witness to my aliyah. It meant the absolute world to me. There is just nothing greater in the world than being surrounded by family. Judaism’s use of family in Bar/Bat Mitzvahs significantly adds to our connectivity as a people.
American Reform Judaism by Dana Evan Kaplan
Kaplan, Dana Evan. American Reform Judaism. Rutgers Univ. Press, 2005.
I found this book very interesting and enlightening. Kaplan touches on almost all aspects of American Reform Judaism furthering my knowledge and understanding far more than I expected. The author and I saw eye to eye on our definition of Reform Judaism. We believe Reform Judaism is continuously changing, interpreting religious text with a modern perspective. Within Reform Judaism one’s Jewish identity is not bound by practice or law, but by one’s spirituality and sense of self connection to God and fellow Jews. Reform Jews do not believe Jewish law, Halakha, written thousands of years ago, should be followed verbatim but should be constantly re-interpreted. A prime example being that Reform Judaism has historically emphasized its interpretation of the prophets central message as: the need to fight for social justice. The Reform movement is the most progressive of Judaism’s denominations. This remains the case because Reform Judaism has no strict guidelines for how individual’s practice or interpret law, but because of its liberal moral compass. As Kaplan puts it, the Reform movement “met the individual’s need for nominal religious identification while allowing them to join the stew of the American melting pot.”
The author begins with the history of the Reform movement stretching back to 1824 in Charleston, South Carolina. Forty-seven members of congregation Beth Elohim signed a petition asking their congregational leadership to institute certain ritual reforms as a response to US daily life. At first, the movement was not theologically motivated; it recognized the practical benefits of adapting religious practices to the American patterns of living. Entering the 20th century the movement pivoted. The Jewish population in America grew exponentially in the early 1900s as pogroms (violent strikes against Jews) and prejudice became prevalent in eastern Europe. As a direct result of the discrimination faced, Reform Judaism took on a more traditional outlook in the sense of prayer and involvement. After the Holocaust, the Jewish population in the United States grew even more. In response to the brutality of the 20th century, the Reform movement broadened and started embracing a more particularistic understanding of the Jewish identity. The Reform movement began to accept a definition of Judaism centered on Jewish people-hood and Zionism, the belief in a free, safe, Jewish state of Israel.
Reform Judaism received heaps backlash from the Orthodox branch of Judaism, the very strict traditional branch, because of how progressive and liberal it was. The Reform movement allowed women and men to pray together, gays and lesbians to join synagogues, prayers to be read in English during services, upbeat enthusiastic hymns and prayers, optional praying equipment, and, probably the most upsetting to Orthodox Jews, allowed women to become rabbis and read from the Torah. For Orthodox Jews these reforms were seen as sacrilegious and blatantly disrespectful to the holly law. To this day many members of the Orthodoxy community resent Reform Jews and do not consider them Jewish at all. Sexism is embedded in ancient Judaism, but the Reform movement saw that as law of the past. I visited Israel in 2013 and happen to bare witness to the first woman EVER to read Torah at the Western Wall, the most significant and holly landmark in Judaism. It was truly an incredible experience.
I chose this book because I believe it emphasized some of the most meaningful lessons and struggles of the American Reform movement. Personally, the most insightful take away was how Kaplan differentiated “Reform from Reformed”. Up until now, it was my understanding, as well as most people Jew and gentile alike, that “Reformed” was the proper way to articulate our progressive branch of Judaism, but, after reading his work, I realized that it would be completely inappropriate to call our branch of Judaism “Reformed Judaism” because it did not reform just once. It is constantly reforming and will continue to reform as the world around us ceaselessly becomes more progressive. He states the more appropriate syntax is Reform Judaism to highlight that the ideology is always progressing as liberal ideas expand. Kaplan’s work has greatly benefited my comprehension of the Reform movement, and Reform Judaism as a whole, and will help tremendously in completing my goals for this project.