“In our time, the Jewish community’s “functional consensus”, forged in the mid-twentieth century, has nearly unraveled…”

Historians of American Jews are accustomed to a different conceptualization of the past, one that depicts the broad sweep of American Jewish experience as a steady process of voluntary adaptation to a free, democratic, and prosperous society. The regnant view is basically linear and progressive: Jews immigrated to the United States, struggled to earn a living, achieved affluence, adjusted to social norms in ways consistent with Jewish traditions, values, and interests, and thereby built a variegated but stable ethnic subcommunity. It is a soothing narrative, but unconvincing from the vantage point of the twenty-first century. In our time, the Jewish community’s “functional consensus” (to use Arthur Goren’s term), forged in the mid-twentieth century, has nearly unraveled; previously marginal trends, such as ultra-Orthodoxy, have enjoyed surprising growth; and economic security eludes growing numbers of people. American Jewish history appears, in retrospect, to lack clear direction. It seems driven by extremes and contrasts: creative upsurges and cultural dissolution, communal solidarity and social assimilation, secularization and fervent religiosity, alienation and return, and other divergent and contradictory trends reflective of a society characterized by “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions,” and “everlasting uncertainty.”

Tony Michels, “‘Freedom and the American Experiment’: Comments on the Topic of Jews and American Freedom”, AJS Perspectives (Fall 2016), 22.