The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity, by Daniel Greene

, December 30, 2013

The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity, by Daniel Greene, Indiana University Press, 2011. 185 pp.

Reviewed by Sarah Schmidt

Daniel Greene, Director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago, has written a well-researched monograph on the Intercollegiate Menorah Association, a group of young, college-based, American Jews, children of immigrants from Eastern Europe who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, were looking for some way in which they could identify both as Americans and as Jews.

Perhaps reflecting its origins as a doctoral dissertation, the book is sometimes repetitive, as if Greene wants to be certain the reader has understood the points he is making, and its six chapters read like separate articles, only loosely connected to his overall thesis. But Greene shows clearly how this group of young men, through the Menorah Association and its organ, The Menorah Journal, paved the way towards creating an American Judaism, which they referred to as Hebraism, that was different from the Judaism of their European-born parents. Their debates about how best to express Hebraism would ultimately influence much of the discourse about American Jewish identity throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

In 1906 a group of Harvard University students met to discuss how they might retain some Jewish identity in an environment that strongly encouraged assimilation. They called themselves the Harvard Menorah Society, and by their second meeting they had agreed on a goal “to foster the study of Jewish History and Culture.” Though these Harvard Menorah founders supported Zionism and were not hostile to the concept of religion, they wished to balance these aspects of Judaism by focusing on the humanities, and considered the club’s purpose not merely social but, in line with their identity as American college students, as an intellectual way to express Judaism through lectures and discussions on Jewish culture, including history, science, art, literature and politics of the Jewish people.

Just two years after its founding the Harvard Menorah Society counted more than one hundred members, and chapters were opening up on college campuses all across the United States. The growth seemed natural; after all, the Association’s leaders were confident that Jewish cultural literacy would strengthen Jewish loyalty to America and thereby dislodge threats of dual loyalty. By 1913 the nearly thirty Menorah chapters that had sprouted in less than a decade formed the Intercollegiate Menorah Association, and in 1915 the Association published the first edition of The Menorah Journal, a magazine that for the next three decades was to become the locus for some of the most perceptive expressions of American pluralism, featuring an ongoing debate about the best way to embrace American culture while at the same time preserving a Jewish way of life.

The Journal also published fiction, showcasing the first stories written by such later luminaries as Lionel Trilling, Meyer Levin and Anzia Yezierska. Their stories tended to portray, often through humorous characters, how Jews could reinvent Jewish culture in an American setting. Greene devotes an entire chapter to deconstructing some of these short stories, notably a six-part series by Irwin Edman, professor of philosophy at Columbia University. Edman has a character named Reuben Cohen rejecting identification as a Jew as he goes off to college, and maturing as a Jew and as an American to the point that by the end of the series that he feels confident that he can lead a positive Jewish life in an American context. Greene calls this “heroic pluralism.”

Throughout the 1920s, the Menorah Societies dominated Jewish campus life but by the early ’30s many of its chapters existed in name only. In 1923 B’nai B’rith had founded the Hillel Foundation, whose competing chapters offered students the option of expressing Jewish identity in religious, cultural, and social forms. Menorah’s emphasis on intellectualism contradicted its own pluralistic view of what it meant to be an American Jew, and by the 1930’s a new generation of students was emerging with changing interests and needs. Menorah’s reluctance to adjust to these changes, and to complement study with religious and social activity, sealed its own fate; though the Journal continued to publish until 1962, by the 1930’s Hillel groups, as well as Jewish fraternities, had replaced Menorah on American college campuses.

The “Menorah Idea,” with its emphasis on ethnic identity and cultural pluralism, was rooted in the personal struggles of American social philosopher, Horace M. Kallen, when he was student at Harvard. Though he had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, Kallen had left Orthodoxy early on, determined to assimilate into his American environment. While at Harvard, however, a non-Jewish professor named Barrett Wendell pointed out to him the similarities between American values and those of the Old Testament and challenged him to find a way to integrate the two. Kallen’s answer was what we now know as cultural pluralism, the concept that America could, and should, help its various ethnic minorities hold onto their customs, primarily as a way to enrich American culture. His favorite metaphor was that of a symphony orchestra, each instrument playing its own tune in order to create a richer overall sound.

In 1906 Kallen chaired the first meeting of the Harvard Menorah Society, and his emphasis on a culturally based Jewish identity continued to influence its work. Greene makes frequent reference to Kallen, and claims that the Hebraism he defined, with ethnicity and cultural pluralism at its core, “remained the linchpin” that would enable not only himself, but also other American Jews, to solve the problem of how to remain Jewish while integrating into American life. Over the course of a long and active lifetime Kallen published books on subjects as varied as consumerism, environmentalism, and adult education, but it was pluralism, including encouraging support for the Yishuv and later the Jewish State, that lay at the heart of his work. Coming full circle, in 1962 Kallen wrote the lead essay in the Menorah Journal’s final edition, once again returning to “The Promise of the Menorah Idea,” as he reflected on the origins of pluralism, what it meant to be an American and, more specifically, what it meant to be Jewish in America.

A personal note: During the last six years of his life I came to know Horace Kallen well. I visited him often in his office at the New School, as well as at his home in Oneonta, New York, where I also met his (non-Jewish) wife and was the first person to whom he gave access to his archival material. While I wrote my doctoral dissertation, he read each chapter, often suggesting new sources and adding information. He seemed intrigued by the fact that I, an observant Jew, was engaged in graduate work in American Studies. In his view, my simultaneous appreciation of America and preservation of Jewish identity represented the quintessence of cultural pluralism.

Yet, in all the time I knew him, Kallen never once mentioned the Menorah Society; apparently it had become a “forgotten” part of his life. I think that he would be pleased at the recent renewed interest in his work—and would have enjoyed reading Greene’s book.

Dr. Sarah Schmidt

Dr. Sarah Schmidt teaches courses related to modern Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with an emphasis both on Israeli and American Jewish history.