People versus Ideas

Riv-Ellen Prell

On my first day of graduate school in Anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1971 one of the senior faculty announced to the assembled anxious and enthralled incoming class, "Anthropologists study ideas and not people." His forceful declaration underlined that "we" had little in common with misguided anthropologists who believed that their work entailed gathering obsessively detailed knowledge of kinship, cultivation styles, and other matters about particular groups occupying far-flung regions of the world for the purpose of "filling out the ethnographic record." Rather, our fieldwork would be no less detailed, but it was to serve the more important master/mistress of theory. In the 1970s those ideas were likely to include Marxist debates on economy, Weberian questions about religion, power, and economy, or Durkeheimian engagements about religion, symbolism, and social organization. Emerging concerns about colonialism and anthropology's close connections to it were to prove as challenging as the hurricane force of feminist thought, postmodernism and other theoretical challenges that would follow. Those issues were not yet in focus on that fall day when I learned the dichotomy between studying "people" and "theories" or "ideas."

I was to be challenged many times over my decision to identify American Jews as an ethnographic "site," or "my" people as an ethnographic object. They conformed imperfectly to anthropological theories because of the pluralism of the United States, and the lack of coherence of what it meant to be an "American Jew," or of "American Judaism," not to mention "Jewishness." However, it was hardly anthropology alone that provided the challenge to transcend people in favor of ideas.

Jewish Studies clearly had its own admonitions. It is not difficult to imagine a parallel orientation gathering where students were handed, as I have been told, a fragment of a Dead Sea scroll or a Talmud tractate and told to make this text the center of graduate study. Decoding and unpacking the text became the initiation into a world of scholarship untroubled by the daily life from which the text emerged. Though these studies captured debates and challenges to authority, their distance from what ordinary people did was enormous. Not only was it difficult to learn about daily life, frankly it was not valued. The culture and history of the Jewish people was a story best told through its authoritative and written sources.

There are many ways to phrase this core dilemma. What is the relationship between a textual tradition and "lived religion," as some scholars now term the latter? What is the relationship between the triptych of practice, belief, and text? How is "identity(ies)" linked to practice and authority? If this seemed complicated in the 1970s it is far more so today, as theorizing Jewish life requires an even deeper engagement with syncretism, global anti-Semitism, and nationalisms. Put another way, "people" have become more difficult to theorize through (or ignore) for forty years since "they" have been steadily fracturing the capacity of theory to ignore their complexity and diversity.

I have, nevertheless, never strayed too far from that early admonition offered on the first day of graduate school. To rephrase it in light of "the people's issue," what are Jews saying, doing, or meaning when they engage in the many things that have interested me, from creating independent prayer communities and innovating liturgy to circulating gendered stereotypes and slurs and situating Jewish characters and families in the popular novels and media that they create?

What has engaged my interests, above all, is to understand how Jews transmit Jewishness in the United States—how and why do parents, teachers, peers, partners, rabbis, artists, and even children circulate to one another some behaviors, beliefs, ideas, and abstractions that they think of as "Jewish," no matter how far outside any sensible version of a "great tradition" they may fall? This ongoing stream of stubborn, insistent innovation and reconfiguration of "Jewishness" in America welcomes a rich and profound interpretive pursuit that situates people at the crossroads of gender, social class, culture, nation, identity, imagination, and time. It anchors "culture" to practices and ideas, and seeks to understand how and why those practices are shaped as they are. These are questions of theory, but they have led me to pursue the people and relationships that, until the 1970s, were overlooked because they did not appear to author the texts or run the institutions that defined Jewish life. Scholars' inclusion of women, families, and children has consistently proven not only to offer rich perspectives on Jewish culture and history, but often to reshape how we understand them.

No scholars of postwar Jewry have undertaken a systematic study of questions related to socialization—family dynamics, class aspirations, education, or even popular culture—with an eye toward understanding what forces shaped Jewish Baby Boomers from the 1950s to the 1970s. My research has focused on a corner of the problem. I have asked how their teachers and rabbis, youth leaders, and counselors created new spaces and transformed old ones to accommodate their unprecedented numbers, their relative affluence, and new suburban addresses. I have paid attention not only to those whose task it was to shape children, but to the experiences of children themselves. Both groups, frankly, often are overlooked as marginal to the real work and importance of postwar Jewish life that was centered on adult relationships focused on institution building, philanthropy, and Israel.

How were youngsters to be recruited to that world? I found it unexpected, to some degree, to uncover how many of those who guided youth aimed to create an alternative socialization to that offered by the Baby Boomers' families, synagogues, and communities. Youngsters of the middle class shone with the patina of new wealth and new opportunities that their parents eagerly sought. But their Jewish teachers and leaders were skeptical, uncomfortable, and often openly questioning of what sort of Jews they were encountering. They asserted their own vision of a Jewish culture that was being reshaped in the overlapping and contradictory spaces of American triumphalism and the devastation of the Holocaust, and the growing pulls between the many pressures to join the suburban synagogue world and the opportunities for far greater acculturation to American society.

Children, and particularly teens, are never passive recipients of such messages, particularly such richly contradictory ones. Youth cultures are the product of not only rebellions, but reconfigurations of visions intended to shape them. Jewish summer camps, because of their artificial isolation and intensity, proved to be an ideal setting in which to understand how Jewish youngsters received, responded to, and reshaped those messages in their many formulations.

Certain patterns emerged in a view across the summer camps of the various Jewish movements that intended to "countersocialize" Jewish youngsters. These "new Jews" integrated their Jewishness with a deep sense of their parents' failures, and a desire to remake a more rigorous Jewish practice or Zionism that engaged America critically. Their adolescent development, sexual awakenings, and Jewishness were synthesized with cultural styles and questions that overflowed the boundaries of the carefully demarcated space and time designed for them. Gender and sexual norms went largely unchallenged in the camps in the mid- to late 1960s, though they would soon after. What was challenged, fundamentally, were the politics, culture, and basic assumptions of the foundations of their parents' worlds. To miss how these campers, and then college students, challenged American Jewish life from the left, the right, and the center is to miss entirely a key component of how Zionism, Jewish religious movements, and Jewish life took shape in the 1970s.

A rereading of what shapes something as tangible yet as open ended as "American Jewish culture" does not easily sort out into polarizing "theory" or "people," or "text" or "experience." What drives us to look outside the normative texts or actors in Jewish life has proven essential to grasp the full complexity of the cultures of Jewish people. To unmoor those people from a serious engagement with theories of Jewish history and culture might leave us with self-referential narratives that lack an interpretive framework beyond themselves. We need to stay at the task of rethinking history and culture systematically. In that way we best serve the vision of a broad understanding of people and ideas.