Orphans and Prodigies: Rediscovering Young Jewish Immigrant

Orphans and Prodigies: Rediscovering Young Jewish Immigrant "Marginals" (Essay)

By American Jewish History

  • Release Date: 2009-06-01
  • Book Genre: Social Science
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Orphans and Prodigies: Rediscovering Young Jewish Immigrant "Marginals" (Essay) by American Jewish History

Many recent understandings of historical consciousness have lavished a great deal of attention on the construction of the historical record as a semantic and cultural artifact. (1) Insofar as "narrative" becomes culturally embedded as "memory," it is the socialized and presumably common experience that is privileged over the singular or idiosyncratic experience. An invitation to rethink American Jewish history from the point of view of "youth" and its role in cultural change, however, is a call to rethink the whole notion of collective memory. Examining the American Jewish past through the experience of youth allows us to view it from the perspective of the border-territories of society, where less is assumed about the collective social experience and about those who speak for its coherency. A youth-culture perspective on Jewish immigrant history in America, for instance, might involve delving into the loss of parental authority in immigrant households; the maintenance or weakening of linguistic and religious norms in the face of the "external" culture's imprint on young people's experiences; the intervention into such matters by socializing institutions (public schools, the social services sector, institutions like the Educational Alliance and its counterparts outside New York City); or the valorization of youthfulness and independence in modern American culture. These and other similar issues represent a specific instance of "crisis and re-adaptation," a perspective deployed by veteran scholars of intergenerational relations such as Glen Elder. Elder viewed his research on American youth in the Depression era as a corrective to understandings of social change that were based solely on stable, "normative," and gradual development within pre-existing social institutions. Elder, in turn, cited the much older collaborative work on immigrant households done by the University of Chicago's William I. Thomas and Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki (The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 1920), that "made a convincing case for studying [the dynamics of social change and personality adaptation] at points of discontinuity or incongruence between person and environment." Similarly, other recent scholars have underscored the importance of "pivotal historical events that can abruptly alter the ... matrix for young people's development." (2)

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