The American Jewish Experience : An Author Goes in Search of a Community’s Stories

Times Staff Writer

Howard Simons, author of an anecdotal history of American Jews, defines a Jew very simply:

“My criterion was, do you identify yourself as a Jew? Do you say, ‘I am Jewish’? As long as someone was willing to say, ‘Yes, I am Jewish,’ ‘I come from a Jewish background,’ or ‘One of my parents was Jewish,’ ” then Simons asked to hear their stories about growing up in America.

For “Jewish Times,” published this year by Houghton Mifflin, Simons criss-crossed the United States for four years, interviewing Jews of all kinds, young and old, rich and poor, famous and obscure, gathering material. Their stories--called bubbe mayses in Yiddish, or grandmothers’ tales--describe his view of the American Jewish experience, from the preoccupation with food to the penchant for changing Jewish-sounding names, from Jews in the military to Jews in the South, from the trials of immigration to the contradictions of assimilation.

In an interview from Cambridge, Simons, 59, former managing editor of the Washington Post and now director of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, described himself as “probably a typically American mainstream Jew,” not particularly religious but proud of his Jewish heritage.


He was raised in an Orthodox home but now alternates between Reform and Conservative services held at Harvard. He has never struggled, he said, with his Jewish identity.

He was critical of the current effort by Israeli Orthodox religious parties to require that, among converts who want to become Israeli citizens, the conversion must have been conducted by an Orthodox rabbi.

“I think it’s grossly unfair for people who are super-religious to insist that everyone else be super-religious,” he said.

Cultural Gap


In his view, the vigorous protests here among Jews opposed to the change represents to a large degree a cultural gap between American and Israeli Jews.

“The concept of freedom in this country, First Amendment freedom, is part of the American psyche, part of growing up in the United States and part of the heritage of those immigrant groups who are here,” Simons said. “That streak of independence, that (attitude of) you don’t tell me what to do, is part of what you see reflected in the American reaction” to the “Who is a Jew” issue, he added.

For his compendium of the American Jewish experience, Simons interviewed 227 people, only two of whom said they did not consider themselves Jewish. They were U.S. Sen. William Cohen and Barry Goldwater, the former Republican senator from Arizona.

The one “distinguishing aspect” of being Jewish he found in his travels, he wrote, was a sense shared by his interview subjects of being different or apart from the mainstream.


There was, for instance, the 89-year-old woman in West Virginia who recalled being too embarrassed to stay out of school on Yom Kippur. “We never wanted to be different,” she told Simons. “We wanted to be great Americans from the beginning.”

Joan Benny, daughter of the late Jack Benny, told Simons about having “very strange feelings” about being Jewish. “I have a Jewish soul, I certainly think of myself as being Jewish,” she said. But she was not raised to observe Jewish traditions and has not raised her children Jewish. “I had a very strange upbringing, really, as far as religion was concerned,” she said. “I think my parents’ religion--certainly my father’s--was show business. You were a good person if you were doing well. . . . That was the religion.”

And Simons found Jews who were less ambivalent about their religious identity.

Ari L. Goldman, a religion writer for the New York Times, described for Simons the magical fellowship that he shared with schoolmates in the yeshiva, a school for Talmudic studies: “At the drop of a hat we would form a circle and sing. There was a wonderful warmth to it, and even the fellow you sat across the table from every morning for three hours, he was your best friend. . . . There was something very warm and very beautiful about it, and when I hear songs on records of these little boys singing, I get very emotional.”