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Jamie Hogan
English Language and Composition

The Influence of Jewish History upon Jewish American Culture and Rhetoric
Over the years the Jewish people have played both a subtle and influential role in the
progression of both the United States’ culture and rhetoric. This lasting impression is due to
Jewish emphasis on higher education, the rich and storied past of the Jewish people, as well as
their socioeconomic and political tendencies.
Dating back to biblical times, people of the Jewish faith have always seen education as a
fundamental value of both their cultural and social identity. One traditional duty of Jewish
parents is the education of their children, a charge many Jewish families of both the past and
present generations have taken very seriously. When the first wave of Jewish immigrants filtered
onto United States shores, they were often poor and without prospects for self-improvement.
These obstacles influenced their desire for a higher education for their children to “free them
from the shackles” of hard labor (Posner). One way that Jewish immigrants provided for a better
future for their children was by taking low-wage jobs in order to pay for a private, Jewish
education for their sons and daughters. Second generation immigrants were then influenced by
the American concept of Republican Motherhood, the attitude towards women’s roles as the
primary educators of their children (Republican Motherhood). This concept had a lasting
impression on American Jews, which allowed many Jewish women to get an education when
other American women did not. Their emphasis on higher education enabled them, over the
years, to improve the social and economic status of both their own and future generations of
Jewish people. This relationship with higher education led the Jewish people to the forefront of

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American Literature. In the 1950’s Jewish American literature reached its “golden age” when
Saul Bellow published his book, The Adventures of Augie March (Goffman).He felt the need to
emphasize how Jewish people were just as much a part of the American society as anyone else
due to previous negative cultural relations between the Jewish and the Anglo-Saxon societies. In
the post-Holocaust era, the Jewish community felt particularly ostracized by the rest of the
American community due to the tragic noninterference in Jewish persecution in WWII by the
United States (Wyman). This sentiment of bitterness was reflected in many aspects of Jewish
Rhetoric by authors such as Elie Wiesel, who was influenced by Saul Bellow as he began his
writing career, and J. D. Salinger, who went inside a concentration camp as a young man in the
army, where he was greatly influenced by the brutality and destruction he saw there (J.D.
Salinger). In his book Night, Wiesel writes that the Holocaust “[deprived him] of his desire to
live”, and upon publication spoke to the hearts of millions of the atrocities and brutality
experienced in Nazi Concentration camps during WWII (Wiesel). Their educations at University
of Paris and New York University, respectively, influenced their positions as prominent writers
in the 20th century.
The rich and storied history of the Jewish peoples fused with the pre-established dominant
American Protestantism to create Reformed Judaism, a branch of Judaism that adopted popular
non-secular beliefs in order to be more widely accepted by the American public. This change
was motivated by the desire to receive legal and social legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream
America (Origins). The institutor of Reform Judaism in North America, Isaac M. Wise, has been
remarked to have “[taught] Judaism as an American Patriot, not as a denominational zealot”
(Wise). This departure from previous Jewish Orthodoxy marks the Jewish-American transition
from cultural segregation into sociological integration of the Jewish community in the United

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States during the twentieth century. This integration brought about many changes in the lives of
American Jews, including placing a new tension between generations of Jewish families, as
younger Jews faced the pressure to assimilate. This pressure came from their enrollment in
public school systems, which exposed Jewish children at a young age to dominant American
cultural practices, such as popular attire and dietary choices. Orthodox Judaism calls for specific
clothing to be worn by its adherents, and for them to keep kosher, an undertaking difficult for
many American Jews due to the lack of availability of kosher foods, especially soon after the
formation of Jewish immigrant communities in the United States. As the American Jewish
community grew and became more and more involved in global affairs, a new political and
social movement took root- Zionism. Zionism was essentially the belief that all Jews deserved
the opportunity to live as a united people within the land they consider their own- The Land of
Israel (Zionism). Modern Zionism reflects the sense of community felt by American Jews
throughout the centuries, which can be traced back to their rich history as a people.
The socio-economic and political tendencies of the American Jewish community as a
whole have led them to distinguished positions as lawyers, doctors, professors, writers, and other
desirable professions. Utilizing their newfound social mobility due to their educations, second
generation American Jewish Immigrants pursued careers that are highly prized today. Because of
this, 55% of Reform Jews in the United States report an annual income of over $100,000,
compared to only 19% of the rest of the American population (American Jews). Historically,
Jewish enrollment at major universities has been incredibly high, with Jews taking up 30% of
undergraduate admissions at Harvard University. Politically, Jewish Americans are more likely
to be liberal and democratic than the majority of other American social groups, a shared
characteristic that has been shown to help foster the tight-knit sense of community they retain

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today (A Portrait). These distinguishing factors have led members of the Jewish American
community to positions of prominence in United States business, education and politics. The
current day president of Yale University is Jewish, along with 14 Jewish U.S. Senators. To date,
eight members of the Supreme Court have been Jewish (American Jews). Alongside these
notable Jewish figures, author Norman Kingsley Mailer won multiple Pulitzer Prizes, and ran for
political office (Norman Mailer). Mailer exemplified the socio-economic and political tendencies
of Jewish Americans in the twentieth century, and is a prime example of the ways Jewish and
American cultures have merged and woven together to form an identity for their adherents that is
both American and traditionally Jewish.
While the changes to something as dynamic and fluid as the rhetoric of a culture cannot
be quantified, the profound influence exercised upon America by the Jewish people cannot be
understated. Through literary works describing what it means to be an American Jew to
prominent Jewish American politicians, the Jewish people have left a unique and lasting mark
upon the landscape of the American identity.

Works Cited

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"American Jews." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
Goffman, Ethan. “The Golden Age of Jewish American Literature.” Proquest. March 2010.
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“J.D. Salinger.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
"J.D. Salinger Biography." Bio.com. A&E Networks, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
"Norman Mailer." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
"The Origins of Reform Judaism." Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative
Enterprise, 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
"A Portrait of Jewish Americans." Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS.
Pew Research Center, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
Posner, Shmuel, Rabbi. Personal interview. 18 Feb. 2014.
“Republican Motherhood.” UShistory.org. The Independence Hall Association. 2008. Web. 02
Mar. 2014.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam, 1982. Print.
Wise, Isaac M. Selected Writings of Isaac M. Wise. Cincinnati: Robert Clarke, 1900. Print.
Wyman, David. The Abandonment of the Jews. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. Print.
"Zionism." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 03 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.