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by Stephen J. Whitfield

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 1999
ISBN: 0-87451-754-0

Whitfield (American Studies/Brandeis; A Death in the Delta: The Life of Emmett Till, 1988) examines the complex interplay between Jewish newcomers to the US and the culture they helped shape. Whitfield states his central concern early in this volume: “The United States may be the site . . . that has most fully tested the category of Jew. . . .‘’ Although the Jewish presence in America is nearly 350 years old, Jews did not come to the US in significant numbers until the 1880s when the first influx from eastern Europe arrived. At the turn of the century, Jewish- American institutions experienced an explosive period of growth, and the Jewish influence in American culture became widespread, far beyond the tiny size of the Jewish-American community. There is “no epicenter of American Jewish culture,” as Whitfield notes, yet Jews have dominated many areas of American culture, most prominently Hollywood, the musical theater, and, in this century, literature. Whitfield’s thesis is as complex, multifaceted, and polyvalent as the Jewish-American experience itself. He sidesteps the more heavily trod fields of film and literature to focus on music, theater, and the Jewish-American reaction to issues of race and the Holocaust. The book suggests that while the Jewish contribution to American culture has been a central one—perhaps second only to that of African-Americans in this century—the reverse has been less true, with the greater freedom and security of America having a deleterious effect on Jewish identity. He is hardly the first to make that observation. Nor is he the first to argue that a stronger faith component to Jewish-American identity is all that stands between the community and an eventual evaporation into the American ether. But he makes his case wittily. In Search suffers a bit from a ramshackle structure, but the author pulls the threads of his themes together convincingly in the book’s final chapter. If readers can stay with him that long, they may be rewarded for the effort.