Dec 10, 2018
Naomi Prawer Kadar, Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917 – 1950. (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017), 312 pages, $39
In his 1976 classic, World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe lamented that America exacted a “price” on Jewish immigrant culture. In exchange for “a life more ‘normal’ than anything their most visionary programs had foreseen,” Howe wrote, America asked that “the Jews surrender their collective self.” 1 1 Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made, 30th Anniversary Ed. (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2005), 641. Indeed, America has historically been for Jews both a promising invitation and an existential threat. Naomi Prawer Kadar’s Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917-1950, which explores the development and ultimate decline of secular Yiddish education in the United States, has a story arc that may seem like another example of America’s price. Yet Kadar’s work is more about Jews in negotiation with America. In her book about secular Yiddish supplementary school literature, Kadar shows us efforts by those who sought to facilitate Americanization while preserving their “collective self,” thinking for a time that they just might succeed at accomplishing both.
Kadar’s work fills a critical gap in scholarship as the only monograph-length study devoted to secular Yiddish school periodicals in the United States. Published posthumously, Raising Secular Jews analyzes the children’s literature from the four Yiddish secular supplementary school movements, using their “literary corpus as an extension of their pedagogical program.” 2 2 Naomi Prawer Kadar, Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish Schools and Their Periodicals for American Children, 1917–1950 (Waltham, Massachusetts: Brandeis University Press, 2017), x. Kadar designates a chapter for each school movement and its respective magazine. The Labor Zionist Farband schools, the “apolitical” Sholem Aleichem schools, the socialist-allied Workmen’s Circle schools, and the communist-allied Ordn schools of the International Workers Order each professed their own political ideology and pedagogical focus. Yet as Kadar shows, while these school movements varied in their approach to teaching politics and issues like Hebrew language and Zionism, all four were essentially part of the same project. In Kadar’s words: “ … each of the school systems was committed to the ideal of propagating Yiddish language, each subscribed to a world view supporting social justice, and each sought to prepare its students for participation in both Jewish and American culture.” 3 3 Ibid., xix. Over time, responding to threats against Jewish cultural survival at home and physical survival abroad, the four movements became increasingly similar in their educational content and commitment to preserving secular Yiddish culture.
One of Kadar’s central themes is the integration of American aesthetics and culture into Yiddish secular school literature. In her second chapter, Kadar examines the cover art of the school magazines as a “vista of the theoretical educational goals and future possibilities that defined their view of society as a whole.” 4 4 Ibid., 24. By comparing the cover art of the Yiddish school movement in the United States with that of Europe, as well as comparing the cover art of the different Yiddish school movements in the United States, Kadar concludes that the artistic choices of secular Yiddish school pedagogues went through a transformation when they took root on American soil. These American magazines opted for visuals that symbolized the challenges and opportunities of America, such as images of American landscapes, cityscapes, and leisure activities. In this way, Kadar shows how the Yiddish schools in America were more than mere transplants of European Jewish culture onto a different continent. Rather, they were a unique regional synthesis that depicted the story of Jewish immigrant acculturation in the United States.
Even as Kadar writes with her primary focus on Americanization in mind, one can situate her subject in the story of a global, secular Yiddish culture that connected Jews around the world through shared history and traditions. Kadar demonstrates parallels and exchanges between the American schools and the European secular Yiddish schools, as these were part of the same phenomenon of Jewish modernization stemming from political and cultural rupture in Europe. As in Europe, it was in large part through the Yiddish school magazines that Yiddish children’s literature found its beginnings in the United States. Additionally, Yiddish pedagogues initially used textbooks from Europe before changing them to create their own textbooks to better fit American Jewish life.
Here Kadar’s work can be placed in conversation with other studies of Yiddish children’s literature. For example, in the volume Children and Yiddish Literature: From Early Modernity to Post Modernity (2016), published just the year before Raising Secular Jews came out, editors Gennady Estraikh, Kerstin Hoge, and Mikhail Krutikov write in their introduction of the importance of Yiddish schools as institutions that helped birth Yiddish children’s literature. The authors further explain that during the interwar period, “Yiddish children’s literature became an established arm of cultural activity in all three centers of Yiddish culture, viz. the Soviet Union, (non communist) Eastern Europe, and North America,” where there were also instances of “cross-fertilization.”
Gennady Estraikh, Kerstin Hoge, and Krutikov Mikhail, eds. Children and Yiddish Literature: From Early Modernity to Post-Modernity, (Cambridge: Routledge, 2016), 2.
With this in mind, we can understand Kadar’s book as a significant remedy to the dearth of studies about Yiddish children’s literature in the North American “arm,” which was on the one hand part of a transnational exchange and on the other thoroughly concerned with the specific needs of Jewish life in the United States.
Indeed, some of Kadar’s key insights about Yiddish schools in the United States have broader applicability beyond the American context. In one of her later, thematic chapters, “Folklore and Jewish Folk Heroes,” Kadar describes how the Yiddish secular schools in the United States took on as one of their central projects the teaching of Jewish religion and traditions in a secularized form. This phenomenon, as the authors of Children and Yiddish Literature point out, occurred on the European continent as well, as movements facilitating Jewish secularization and radicalization matured and fashioned a robust secular Jewish national culture. In one example of the secularization of Jewish tradition, Kadar looks at Elijah the prophet as a frequent folkloric character in children’s magazines, and describes how he was cast as a “Humanitarian,” “Rescuer,” and preserver of the future of Jewish culture. As demonstrated by Elijah’s transformation, secular school activists converted Jewish religion into Jewish history, Jewish traditional culture into folklore, and Biblical figures into Jewish heroes. The secularization of Jewish tradition was therefore both an act of, as Kadar says, “divesting” from religion, and, in viewing it instead as folklore, seeing it as “the quintessence of the soul of the Jewish people.” 6 6 Kadar, 199. While Kadar’s narrative about Elijah’s transformation in the literature shows him as responding specifically to the threat of cultural disintegration of American Jewish life, she also argues that the secularization of folklore in Yiddish children’s literature stems from—and works in tandem with—processes on the European continent.
Yet the European-American Jewish relationship shifted by the mid-1930s, with the rise of Nazi violence against Jews in Europe. From this point onward, Yiddish school periodicals in America doubled down on their Jewish content, showing their heightened sense of responsibility for the future of Yiddish culture. Kadar’s seventh chapter, “Writing the Holocaust for American Children,” explores how tragedy in Europe gave new meaning to the American Yiddish schools and their project of preserving Yiddish culture. Here Kadar argues that the Yiddish secular schools in the United States—unlike other Jewish schools in the U.S., which were silent on the topic of the Holocaust until the 1960s—immediately incorporated the tragedy into their curriculum. This point, however, was challenged by Hasia Diner in 2009 with We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust, in which Diner argues it is a false assumption that American Jews did not acknowledge the Holocaust in their liturgy, holidays, and educational institutions until the 1960s. As Diner points out, the Yiddish schools championed themselves as best equipped to teach the new generation about the Holocaust, given their crucial role in preserving Yiddish language and culture. She writes about how, in the 1950s, Yiddish schools focused on the Holocaust as a key justification for their existence.
Hasia R. Diner, We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962 (NYU Press, 2009), 354.
However, she also shows that they were not the only educational body that taught the Holocaust for the new generation, citing evidence that Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Jewish schools engaged the topic as well. Reading Kadar’s work, we can only lament that she likely did not have the chance to consider Diner’s claims before her untimely death in 2010. Even with Diner’s study, Kadar’s point stands that the Yiddish schools played an important and special role in teaching the next generation about the Holocaust in its immediate aftermath. Furthermore, that this is one of the very few, if only, places where the text seems dated—having been published seven years after Kadar’s passing and ten years after the completion of the dissertation it is based on—shows how much of Kadar’s study is built on strong scholarship that will remain relevant for years to come.
What is perhaps most significant about Kadar’s study is her reminder of the very existence of her subjects in American Jewish history. Yiddish secular schools, and the secular identity they promoted, did not exist so long ago and yet have few vestiges in the present. For today, American Jewish education lives predominantly through the religious institution of the synagogue (with some notable exceptions, such as the current Workmen’s Circle shules in several cities and the Sholem Community in Los Angeles). The gap between the Jewish education today and the history Kadar explores speaks to Arthur Goren’s claim that Judaism and Jewishness became synonymous only after World War II. 8 8 Arthur A. Goren, “A ‘Golden Decade’ for American Jews: 1945-1955,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry, January 1992, 301. As Goren argues, the postwar period brought a “new communal order” in which the synagogue became “the primary guardian of ethnic identity and continuity.” 9 9 Ibid., 295. Kadar’s depiction of a robust Yiddish school movement that taught Jewishness as comprised of secular elements such as history, literature, culture, folklore, and language for tens of thousands of Jewish youth makes apparent the starkness of this transformation of the American Jewish institutional landscape—and with it, the transformation of Jewish identity in America—over the course of the twentieth century.
Although the historical narrative she constructs is more than a story of decline, Kadar ultimately must reckon with America’s “price.” Kadar titles her final chapter “Almost At Home in America,” a reference to Deborah Dash Moore’s foundational book in American Jewish history, At Home in America (with which Moore sought to challenge Howe’s narrative of decline in World of Our Fathers). Yet Kadar’s ending—hinted at in her use of “almost” in the chapter title—offers a different take-away than that of Moore’s work. While Moore argues that there was a reinvention and retention of Jewish ethnicity after the immigrant generation, Kadar, like Howe, completes her book acknowledging the loss of Yiddish culture in subsequent generations: “In the United States,” Kadar writes, “Yiddish, the hallmark of Jewish identity for secular Jews, was declining as a new generation of students entered the Yiddish schools from English-speaking homes.” 10 10 Kadar, 220. Thus, one can place Kadar’s work as balancing between Moore’s and Howe’s respective frameworks of reinvention and decline. As a work on Yiddish in America, Kadar’s story is inevitably one of decline; one cannot get around the fact that these Yiddish school activists were largely unsuccessful in delivering their full vision of preserving Yiddish language (and a Yiddish-based secular, radical culture) for future generations. Yet at the same time, Kadar’s point in Raising Secular Jews is not to merely bemoan the loss of Yiddish culture. For as she says, “Despite the fate of Yiddish in America … the Yiddish-speaking community in its heyday succeeded in its goal of creating a substantial literary heritage for its youth and left a rich, if overlooked, legacy for its descendants and scholars to explore.” By understanding the organizations and literary world these secular Yiddish school activists created and maintained, as Kadar’s book helps us do, we see a Jewish “collective self” that was very consciously fashioned as committed to social justice and cultural literacy, and was something of a source of pride and inspiration for the coming generations.