THE WONDERS OF AMERICA by Jenna Weissman Joselit


Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950
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 An alternately nostalgic, entertaining, and annoying portrait of what Joselit sees as the domestication, commercialization, and sentimentalization of American Jewish culture. Joselit (Our Gang, not reviewed) has combed an array of Jewish newspapers, memoirs, synagogue bulletins, and other documents to create a vast assemblage of facts about the transformation of Jewish ritual and religion in America. She details the evolution of the simple Jewish marriage ceremony into a copiously catered, highly theatrical ``affair''; the growth of Jewish consumer culture, from Bible dolls to bar mitzvah suits to designer Chanukah menorahs; and the devolution of the observance of kashruth into a yen for gefilte fish. The rise and fall of confirmation as an egalitarian alternative to the bar mitzvah, the development of advertising targeted to a Jewish market (exemplified by the ubiquitous Maxwell House Passover haggadah)--all are related in engaging detail. But Joselit's analysis is thin (she speaks of the ``promise of America'' and the clash between individualist American culture and community-based Jewish culture), leaving readers with a sense of nostalgia for the past, a patronizing attitude toward an era when divorce was referred to as a ``marital mishap,'' and irritation at the glib tone with which Joselit refers to intermarriage as ``the ultimate romantic escapade.'' In the end, a distasteful, homogenized portrait emerges of a Jewish community consisting of what Joselit calls the ``folk'' (a cultural grouping, not a class one) who think religion can be lively and fun, and a bunch of crabby rabbis (the ``elite'') who rant and rail over their materialism and abandonment of tradition. It is a spiritually bereft culture, in which the deli is visited more regularly than the synagogue and Chanukah is less a celebration of freedom than, as one woman put it in 1950, a ``major competitive winter sport.'' It was a culture that led to both higher rates of intermarriage and a search for spiritual renewal in the post-50s decades. Unfortunately, Joselit ends her tale too soon.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-8090-2757-7
Page count: 356pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1995