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Forgotten books and postwar Jewish identity

In recent years, Americans have reckoned with a rise in antisemitism. Since the 2016 presidential election, antisemitism exploded online and entered the mainstream of American politics, with the 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue marking the deadliest attack on American Jews. But this is hardly the first season for grappling with domestic bigotry and racism. Eighty years ago, in the wake of World War II, Americans began addressing some of their own antisemitism and racism problems. They wondered how Americans could fight a war abroad against fascist enemies when they had so many of their own sins of bigotry to reckon with at home. Several popular books—fiction and non-fiction—addressed these issues during the 1940s but are mostly forgotten today. I discuss some of them in my new book, Postwar Stories: How Books Made Judaism American.

Laura Z. Hobson’s bestselling novel, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) is the most famous of this group of popular 1940s anti-antisemitism novels; less than a year after publication, Agreement was made into an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck. But Hobson was not alone in thinking and writing fiction about American antisemitism. She was inspired by other successful women anti-antisemitism novelists. As Hobson wrote to her editor, Richard Simon, of the publishing house Simon and Schuster, “Maybe six other authors are right this minute finishing novels on the same subject—maybe not one will do much by itself, but perhaps all together those authors could become a kind of force for ending the complacency of uncomfortable or scared silence which defaults to the rantings of the bigots, who don’t practice that conspiracy of silence at all.”

Several writers were, in fact, working on anti-antisemitism novels. Hobson’s writer-friend Margaret Halsey had published Some of My Best Friend Are Soldiers, a novel attacking racism and antisemitism. As Hobson wrote to Simon, she was also encouraged by the news of the Canadian novelist Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven (1944), a popular anti-antisemitism novel, being serialized in Collier’s magazine. And although Cleveland-based novelist Jo Sinclair (the pen name of Ruth Seid) was farther afield from Hobson’s New York literary circles, by 1946 it would be difficult for Hobson to miss the many New York Times references to Sinclair and her award-winning anti-antisemitism novel, Wasteland, published that year. Through different narrative strategies, these women writers made antiantisemitism into a subject fitting for popular fiction.

These novels also succeeded in making what had been considered a Jewish problem—something for Jewish communal leaders and defense organizations to worry over—into an American problem that required an American solution.

But it was precisely this approach that made some reviewers critical of what Hobson and other anti-antisemitism novelists accomplished. They asked: where was the Jewishness in these novels? Why had novelists not provided readers with more of an understanding of the religious traditions, rituals, and joyous festivals at the heart of Jewish life? To some rabbis and Jewish writers who realized how little Americans understood about the distinctiveness of Judaism, it seemed to many like a wasted opportunity.

Rabbis and other writers invested in Jewish religious life stepped in to fill the void. They seized the opportunity to present Judaism to a readership of Jews and non-Jews. In books with titles such as What Is a Jew? (1953); What the Jews Believe (1950); Basic Judaism (1947); Faith through Reason: A Modern Interpretation of Judaism (1946); and This is Judaism (1944), writers explained the basics of Judaism. In some ways, it is possible to see the anti-antisemitism genre as having paved the way to the “Introduction to Judaism” genre. These primers on Judaism were books and magazine articles that helped explain Jews and their religion to other Americans. In unexpected ways, increased concern over antisemitism led to greater understanding of what it meant to live a Jewish life.

In the past 60 years, the anti-antisemitism novels of the 1940s and the Introduction to Judaism books of the 1940s and 1950s have faded in popularity. These books and articles were very much of their moment. But they forged genres that proved lasting in American culture: anti-antisemitism remained a popular theme in late twentieth century film, with examples such as School Ties (1992) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and the Introduction to Judaism genre continued to flourish at this time, with popular examples written by Anita Diamant, Rabbis Irving Greenberg, Hayim Donin, and David Wolpe, as well as Sarah Hurwitz, Noah Feldman, and Rabbi Sharon Brous in more recent years.

The ideas disseminated by these mid-twentieth century genres have also had a lasting impact on American culture. Americans continue to be outraged by antisemitic incidents in this country. There is still a huge discrepancy between the 1920s through early 1940s era, described in Postwar Stories, when antisemitism was much more accepted as part of the American Way—and the post-1940s reality, when antisemitism continued but lessened and was increasingly called out and interpreted as an affront to American values. As a result of the mid-twentieth century “religion moment” described in Postwar Stories, Americans continue to classify Jews as members of an American religion, despite the problems inherent in that categorization: we all know Jews who consider themselves proudly Jewish, but not religious.

Today, we live in a culture that is very much a result of the ideas and attitudes these genres helped to inculcate. With increased antisemitism and questions about the meaning of Judaism during an era when Jewishness has become a more challenging identity, we may find Americans making their way back to these mid-twentieth century genres.

Featured image credit: Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck & Sam Jaffe in a scene from the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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