Jewish American Leisure Lifestyles

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In 1934, Jews across America turned their eyes toward the Detroit Tigers' race to wrest the pennant from the New York Yankees. Baseball, the national pastime, had been a favorite sport among Jews for many years. The year the Tigers battled against the Yankees, however, Hank Greenberg, a Jewish player for Detroit, gained Jewish and national attention not simply for his batting record, but also for his public religious observance. In a famous rabbinical decision, Greenberg was advised that he could play in the game that coincided with Rosh Hashanah, but not the one that fell on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. American leisure culture made room for an all-star slugger who trotted off the field to the call of Jewish observance. Jews recall his decision not to play on Yom Kippur often just as vividly as they recall his crucial role in the Tigers' pennant victory.

Jews have participated in and created American leisure culture by infusing American space and time with Jewish culture and traditions, while they have also refashioned their own practices according to American leisure patterns. Since Jewish arrival in the United States, dated to the late seventeenth century, Jews have adapted to American opportunities and expectations, at the same time that they have created their own uniquely American culture. As the population of Jews grew in the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly with the entrance of German-Jewish immigrants, Jewish Americans created new realms of leisure practice that ran parallel to American leisure culture. When Eastern European Jewish immigrants entered the United States, German Jews along with other progressive reformers, attempted to Americanize these new immigrants by, in part, introducing them to American culture and leisure practices. In the twentieth century, Jews continued to expand the scope of their leisure activities and found more and more opportunities to join with mainstream America in leisure pursuits. At the same time, Jewish holiday observance and ethnic institutions grew, widening the realm of Jewish cultural activity, yet also replicating American consumer patterns.

Nineteenth-Century Leisure Culture

Historians estimate that between 150,000 and 200,000 Jews arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1880. The majority came from Germany and Central Europe looking for economic opportunity and hoping to flee the increasing anti-Semitism in Western and Central Europe. Although many of these Jews settled in cities, some sought opportunities in small towns and frontier settlements. Synagogues were erected in large cities and small towns alike, and slowly European-trained rabbis made their way over to the United States to tend to the new settlement of Jews. Jewish communities were established that not only provided for the religious needs of their inhabitants, but also created social and leisure space that often echoed American patterns.

In 1843, a handful of German Jewish men founded B'nai B'rith. B'nai B'rith, literally the "sons of the covenant," was modeled on American fraternal societies and provided its members with social and recreational activities similar to the popular Masonic organizations. The Jewish fraternity paralleled American institutions and offered Jews the opportunity to participate in leisure and cultural activities from which they were otherwise excluded. Aside from providing the equivalent of health and life insurance, B'nai B'rith sponsored lectures, concerts, and other secular activities. Jewish women quickly formed a women's auxiliary to B'nai B'rith.

American industrialization in the late nineteenth century benefited many German Jewish immigrants, who entered the ranks of the middle class, founding banks and department stores (including Bloomingdale's and Macy's). At the same time, however, new global demographic trends shifted the contours of the Jewish American population as immigrants from Eastern Europe flooded onto American shores.

Eastern European Immigrants and Early-Twentieth-Century Consumption and Leisure

Eastern European Jewish immigrants, like their German Jewish counterparts, came to the United States in search of economic betterment, but they came in far larger numbers and settled more exclusively in urban environments. The United States these immigrants encountered was far different than it had been just decades prior. Urban economies revolved around new trends in industrialization and particularly the demand for cheaply produced consumer goods. Eastern European Jews predominately manned the factories and shops that produced readymade clothing. Before they could even afford to enjoy the fruits of American industrialization, Eastern European Jews were creating the products of modern life.

The abundance of the New World stood in sharp contrast to the impoverished lives that many Jews in the United States continued to live. Often making their homes in dirty and crowded tenement apartments, each member of the family was expected to earn money and help with the task of daily survival. City-dwelling, middle-class German Jews, initially cool to the un-American and foreign new immigrants, set up charities and benevolent associations for them and also encouraged Eastern European Jews to educate themselves and their children. Indisputably, part of Americanizing was participating in American consumer and leisure culture. Progressive reformers hoped to rid foreigners of their presumed backwardness by offering them opportunities to engage in American recreational and cultural activities. Children, in particular, were the focus of reform activities.

In the summer of 1902, two German Jewish women arranged for a group of Jewish immigrant children with their mothers to take streetcars to Detroit's Belle Isle. The group spent the day frolicking on the island park and learning the value of outdoor play and relaxation. In New York City, as well as in most other major U.S. cities of the time, similar activities were planned for new immigrants. The immigrants themselves also created realms of leisure space, often pausing to read Yiddish newspapers or to observe Jewish holidays.

The public school system, which grew in the nineteenth century and by the twentieth century accommodated many new immigrant children, provided a space not simply for education but for socializing with peers. For the children of immigrants, the public school system offered a pathway toward middle-class professions and American respectability. Jewish children also met non-Jews through their schooling and learned new vocabulary, games, and ideas from them. In New York City, some Jewish boys continued their education at City College, which by the 1920s had a thriving Jewish student body.

Even with meager salaries, as Jews acclimated to American life, they often managed to save money to move from the crowded tenement districts to cleaner and roomier urban neighborhoods. Urban life educated them in American styles, and many Jews attempted to outfit themselves and their apartments in the latest American fashions—from placing pianos in their parlors to wearing shirtwaist dresses (a style of dress whose tailored details are copied from men's shirts). Jewish women, in particular, were characterized, often in disdainful terms, as aspiring consumers. Many toiled to create homes that echoed American styles and offered a space of relaxation and comfort.

The Life of the Soul

Jewish holidays were the focal point of Jewish leisure culture. Although critics over the years have accused Jews of leaving their religious observance behind in the Old World, it is clear that religion melded with American leisure patterns and did not simply become replaced by them. The Jewish Sabbath, celebrated on Friday night and Saturday, was historically the centerpiece of Jewish life. In the United States, Saturday was often a day of work, like any other day, and many Jewish immigrants had to violate Sabbath rules to keep their jobs. The Friday night meal, however, became a focus of Jewish activity and was paradigmatic of Jewish holiday observance with its emphasis on family togetherness and food.

Holiday observance, tracked through the first half of the twentieth century, reveals the rapid pace through which Jews attained middle-class status. Jewish festivals became connected to consumer goods and elaborate celebrations, prepared almost exclusively by women. As early as 1900, New York City department stores created "Passover Departments" to ease the preparations for the spring holiday and to introduce women to an array of new products. At the same time, the stores shifted the very practice of the holiday by passing out instruction guides about how to conduct a proper Passover Seder. Bringing family together, eating special foods, and marking a connection to Jewish history permeated holiday celebrations, even if Jewish law and Orthodox observance were often muted or ignored.

The Jewish holiday Hanukkah, traditionally one of the minor festivals, attained a new place of prominence following World War II and rivaled Christmas with its gift giving and focus on children. Christmas, which appeared more like an American holiday than a Christian holiday, had attracted Jews, and some had started to experiment with Christmas observance. Jewish leaders shunned such practices, and Hanukkah was gradually remodeled as a Jewish alternative to Christmas. Consumer desires were closely tied to the new holiday; by the 1940s, one advertiser proclaimed, "Every home should own at least one [Hanukkah menorah]" (Joselit, p. 237).

Religious space, and not simply religious holidays, coincided with leisure starting in the early twentieth century. Synagogue centers, far from simply providing venues for religious services, served as sports clubs, reception halls, and meeting spaces. Activities for children and families dominated the agendas of the new synagogue centers. The Brooklyn Jewish Center, erected in the 1920s, served Jewish families who had moved out of the Lower East Side to find more spacious and middle-class housing. The center, in addition to holding Sabbath and holiday services, also housed a Hebrew school, a sisterhood, youth group meetings, and Friday evening lectures and musical services. Dances and parties were held frequently at the Center, and the basement held a pool.

Although Jewish religious practice and belief were modified as Jews entered the American middle class and sought more leisure outlets, Jewish culture remained at the center of Jewish leisure activities. Additionally, Jews tended to spend their leisure time with other Jews, a function, on one hand, of the predominately Jewish neighborhoods in which Jews lived, and, on the other, of exclusion from non-Jewish leisure and social activities.

Jews on the Move: Suburbanization, Hollywood, and Israel

In the aftermath of World War II, Jews joined other Americans in a mass exodus from urban neighborhoods. For Jews, the movement toward more comfortable, economically viable lives was a story as old as their immigration to America. Education, professional-level jobs, and access to cars and America's growing highway system enabled Jews, along with other middle-class Americans, to relocate to suburbs. Jews dotted the suburban landscape with new synagogues, which tended to be affiliated with the Conservative denomination, not Orthodoxy. Critics often complained that the suburb encouraged conformity. From the identical homes outfitted with the same appliances to the way that individuals practiced religion, some people worried that the suburbs bred a culture of similarity and conformity, while others praised suburban culture for its tolerance of various American ethnic groups.

The spread of mass culture—including radio, film, and television—starting in the 1920s had already created a common cultural ground in which Jews and non-Jews participated. American radio programs, movies, and, later, television shows attracted Jews and educated them in American culture. Yet, as with other forms of leisure culture, Jews did not simply receive American media; instead, they participated in sculpting it.

Jewish movie moguls—including Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Marcus Loew, Louis B. Mayer, and Harry and Jack Warner—were pioneers in the growing American film industry, located by the end of World War I in Hollywood. The nearly exclusively Jewish character of Hollywood alarmed some Americans, like Henry Ford, who believed that Jewish control of the American entertainment industry was part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Few of the films produced by these men touched on Jewish themes, but Jews and Jewish subjects did occasionally appear in film. The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, a Jewish immigrant, examined the tension between an Orthodox father and a secularizing son.

Starting in the decade after World War II, more and more Jews left their homes on the East Coast or in the Midwest and relocated to southern California. Los Angeles, in particular, was rapidly expanding and offered economic opportunities for newcomers. California also enticed Jews because of its newness and the seeming flexibility of its social structure. Although Jews built synagogues throughout the Los Angeles area and established Jewish social clubs, they also believed that in their new sunny homes, they could choose their Jewish activities and identification more freely than they had been able to when living close to their extended families and near historically Jewish centers of life.

Whether Jews moved to suburbs or to southern California, by the 1950s, Jewish identity had changed in many ways. Jews were enrolling in colleges and universities at rates disproportionately higher to other American groups, and Jews had experienced and were continuing to experience upward mobility unlike most other immigrant groups. With increasing wealth, more and more Jews were able to participate in leisure activities—like skiing, boating, and vacationing—that had earlier been reserved for only the elite among them. Again, however, Jewish culture was intertwined in many of these activities.

The establishment of Jewish overnight summer camps in the 1950s and 1960s enabled Jewish children to play outdoors, while also participating in Jewish activities—such as observing the Sabbath, speaking Hebrew, or learning about Israel. Parents could simultaneously indulge in their own leisure activities, bereft of children. Travel also became part of Jewish youth culture with the advent of the teen tour to Israel. On these tours, sponsored by Zionist, religious, and communal organizations, children were introduced to the joy of travel at the same time that they learned about their heritage, hiking through the desert, swimming in the Red Sea, and visiting kibbutz farms.


By the end of the twentieth century, Jews were consumers of American mass and leisure culture in many ways that were indistinguishable from other Americans. Aside from very religious communities, most American Jews watched the same television programs, listened to the same songs, went to the same movies, and played the same games and sports as their non-Jewish neighbors. Yet, leisure culture continued to intersect with Jewish culture and ethnic practices in distinctive ways.

As Jews entered the middle class, their leisure practices shifted or Americanized to echo American styles of leisure culture. Jews shared with other middle-class Americans an increase in consumer spending, a greater emphasis on child-centered activities, and the desire to separate the realm of work from the realm of leisure. The pairing, however, of Jewish observances and cultural practices, including Jewish holidays, Jewish support for Israel, Jewish education, and Jewish cuisine, with leisure sculpted certain uniquely Jewish leisure practices.

The Sabbath, for the Jews, is traditionally called a day of rest. Leisure, then, or at least a break from work-a-day life, is built into the Jewish time cycle. When Jews immigrated to the United States from Europe, rabbis and traditionalists worried that there would be no Sabbath in the United States. Their worries were justified to an extent; keeping the Jewish Sabbath in the States was economically and socially a difficult task. Yet, the importance of rest and the importance of pairing it with a consciousness of Jewishness—whether Jewish family, community, observance, or history—remained vital for Jewish Americans.

See also: Movies' Impact on Popular Leisure, Urbanization of Leisure


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Lila Corwin Berman

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Jewish American Leisure Lifestyles

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