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Future Shock

AMERICAN JEWISH YEAR BOOK 2000; Edited by David Singer and Lawrence Grossman; The American Jewish Committee: 634 pp., $38.50

February 18, 2001|DAVID LAUTER | David Lauter is a senior editor on The Times' Metro desk

No doubt Henry Luce would have been pained to contemplate it, but the era that the founder of Time was pleased to dub the "American century" became the Jewish century in American history.

Before the 20th century, the Jewish presence in America, although of long standing, was relatively small. It was 1654 when the first Jewish settlers arrived in North America. The 1820s brought the first large-scale migrations from Prussia, Bohemia and elsewhere in Central Europe. But it was not until the closing years of the 19th century that the slow collapse of the empires of Austria and Russia, coupled with the new technologies of steamships and railroads, spurred what became a migration of more than 2 million Jews from Eastern and Central Europe to America.

And it was only in the 20th century that those immigrants and their descendants created what has become the most prosperous, secure and educated community in the more than 4,000 years of recorded Jewish history. To a degree out of proportion to their numbers, that Jewish population has shaped its adopted land--its culture, its humor, its laws and its politics.

For 100 years, tracking the trajectory of Jewish life in America has been the task of the "American Jewish Year Book." The annual volumes--of which the 100th has recently been published--have become an indispensable reference work for those interested in American Jewish life. For decades, each volume has featured one or two main essays--often major works by scholars, including historians Oscar and Mary Handlin, Lucy Dawidowicz and Jack Wertheimer and sociologists Everett Carll Ladd Jr., Seymour Martin Lipset and Nathan Glazer. In addition to those works, each year's volumes have included annual summaries of developments in Jewish communities around the world, directories of organizations and religious calendars. A combination of almanac, sociological treatise and organizational directory, edited and published first by the staff of the Jewish Publication Society and now by the American Jewish Committee, the "Year Book" has both mirrored and helped to shape the hopes, fears and obsessions of at least the leadership of the American Jewish community.

Starting with a community made up mostly of working-class immigrants, the arc of American Jewish history in the century just ended passed through decades of rapid growth, the movement of the first American-born generation into higher education and greater prosperity, suburbanization and assimilation. In the closing years of the century came what scholars have called the beginnings of a bipolar community, with one part of the population returning to a strengthened sense of Jewish identity--often accompanied by greater observance of religious traditions--even as the larger share grows ever more tentative in its ethnic and religious identification.

Along the way, Jews have become an intensively studied model for one of America's most persistent questions: whether a minority group can successfully mix into the mainstream of society while still retaining a genuine distinctiveness--and if so, how. The annual volumes of the "Year Book" provide invaluable source material for any student of the Jewish experience who hopes to wrestle with that issue.

In the early years of the century, Jews--restricted from many professions and discriminated against in well-established lines of business--turned to fields of endeavor that were too new to have barriers to entry. In the century's first decade, Jews made most of the nation's clothes, taking advantage of new technologies that allowed production lines to replace hand-sewing. A couple of decades later, Jewish entrepreneurs had pioneered another industry that established businessmen shunned and were making a large share of the nation's movies.

Those successes coincided with a rise in anti-Semitism, which had been relatively subdued through much of the 19th century. The turn of the century was a time of rapid industrialization in which millions of people saw traditional ways of life uprooted by economic forces they could barely discern. Many sought villains to blame, and Jews, along with Catholics, blacks and--on the West Coast--Asians became favored targets.

Not surprisingly, the "Year Book's" articles in the early years of the century reflected the anxieties of the Jewish population. Many articles in those years sought to demonstrate Jewish fealty to their adopted land by, for example, listing names of Jewish war veterans. Others reported on the activities of anti-Semitic organizations and those whose mission was to combat them. But despite those concerns, the writings and public statements of Jewish leaders from the early 20th century reveal a remarkable optimism about prospects for life in America.

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