Coffey et al.

Austin Coffey
Jamie Hogan
Daniel Matson
Ben Peel
Eve Thomas
Lucy Wood
AP American Studies
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

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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 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

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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 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

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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 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 socioeconomic 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
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.

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