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The Conundrum of Jewish Identity

An expert in American Jewish studies, Professor Stephen J. Whitfield of Brandeis University, explained at the Hannah A. Quint Lectureship in Jewish Studies that two paradigms “and only two paradigms” have defined the place of Jews in the United States since the 1940s.

Professor Stephen Whitfield

Professor Stephen Whitfield

The first is the force of anti-Semitism that endured until the late 1960s, and the second is the rise of multiculturalism in the 1980s—a movement that continues today, Whitfield said, as Americans of the 21st century embrace diversity as a source of national pride and strength.

American society has changed over the past 70 years, and the Jewish people’s place in that society has evolved along with it. Making references to American literature (Richard Wright), theatre (Arthur Miller), film (Otto Preminger), music (Louis Armstrong), sports (Jackie Robinson), and journalism (Look magazine), the guest speaker took the audience on a scholar’s tour of the Jewish-American experience over the past seven decades.

Whitfield was at Middlebury College on April 14 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Quint Lectureship during the day-long symposium on “The Jews in America: Past and Future.”

The Max Richter Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis—a chair he has held since 1985—Stephen Whitfield is the author of eight books, the writer of 60 articles, and the recipient of Fulbright teaching professorships in Israel and Belgium. And while Whitfield’s C.V. says his “curricular and research interests are primarily in the intersection of politics and ideas in the 20 century,” it is clear from his scholarship and his talk at Middlebury that his expertise also extends into civil rights, foreign languages, modern American and European history, philosophy, and of course Judaism.

Whitfield was one of four speakers invited to give presentations at the conference. The others were: Riv-Ellen Prell, professor of American studies at the University of Minnesota, speaking about “Women, Men, and Families: The Axes of Jewish Cultural Change”; Ted Sasson, professor of international studies at Middlebury and visiting research professor in sociology at Brandeis, on “American Jews’ Changing Relationship to Israel”; and Michael G. Holtzman, rabbi of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, on “The ‘Joining’ Paradigm and the Future of Communal Life.”

Historian Stephen Whitfield (l.) greets Adam Jones '13 (r.) and faculty member Larry Yarbrough.

Historian Stephen Whitfield (l.) greets Adam Jones ’13 (r.) and faculty member Larry Yarbrough at the symposium.

Professor Whitfield, in the Sunday afternoon lecture delivered in McCardell Bicentennial Hall, equated the anti-Semitism of the post-war era with the racism that was prevalent in America at the time, and yet he said there was always a sense that intolerance was at odds with American values.

Bigotry in America was “seamless” in the years immediately after the Second World War, Whitfield said. “Prejudice was seen to spring from a single psychic source or distortion, even if the targets might be multiple. Who the minorities were was fluid because the hostility toward them was sometimes generic.” This tendency demonstrated historian John Higham’s theory of the “unitary character of prejudice,” the guest speaker said.

Something extraordinary was going on in the 1950s and 1960s that made the nation more democratic, something Whitfield called “a tectonic shift in the definition of the American identity.”

“An awareness of the heterogeneity of the pot increasingly gathered momentum. The American way of life that was so frequently invoked in the 1950s, increasingly needed to be expressed in the plural. The republic was increasingly appreciated as a collection of groups.

“The pot had not melted,” Whitfield noted. “It meant that all sorts of changes would be taking place, and it also meant that the place of Jews in American society could rise to extraordinary influence and conspicuousness.”

By the 1980s, the differences between peoples ceased to be a cause of divisiveness in the United States. Diversity became a source of national pride for minorities, and thus did multiculturalism provide the framework for Jews to strengthen their place in society.

Whitfield, who mentioned earlier that his family’s name was originally Weissfeld, or “white field,” concluded with remarks about the “conundrum of Jewish identity” in America today where “prejudice has been replaced by popularity, hostility has given way to hospitality.” In this context Whitfield related a remark by Elvis Presley who apparently had taken to wearing the Star of David around his neck. Elvis explained his choice of jewelry saying: “I wouldn’t want to be kept out of heaven on a technicality.”

So where Jews in America had once been subject to widespread anti-Semitism, today they live in a pluralistic society in which they are appreciated for cultivating their heritage in ways that could not have been anticipated in the 1940s or 1950s.

The Quint Lectureship was established at Middlebury in 1987 by the late Hannah A. Quint and her son Eliot Levinson, a member of the Class of 1964. Its purpose has long been to provoke thought at the College and within the community on issues of Jewish history, religion, and culture.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg delivered the first Quint lecture in 1988 on the topic “Israel and Palestine: A Battle of Two Rights.” Since it was founded, the lectureship has always been delivered by a different speaker, with one exception: Rabbi Hertzberg, a prominent scholar and activist, was invited back in 1997 to mark the 10th anniversary. His subject: “The Future of the Zionist Movement.”