The Holocaust and Jewish Identity in America: Memory, the Unique, and the Universal

Shaul Magid. Jewish Social Studies. Volume 18, Issue 2, Winter 2012.

The often-unspoken idea that the Holocaust was a unique event has become a key feature of American Jewish identity. As a result, universalizing the Holocaust is a complicated matter for those who feel Jewish “ownership” of the event must remain paramount. This essay explores the Holocaust as part of American history and its implications for contemporary American Jewish identity from three vantage points: the institutionalization of the Holocaust as part of American history and as a Jewish “event” in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Holocaust as seen through the lens of various recent readings of The Diary of Anne Frank, and the image of the Holocaust in American popular culture. Through these three lenses I suggest that the Holocaust will remain an important source of identity, but in order for it to do so, it must become a broader and more complex model for Jewish survival and for Jewish flourishing in an increasingly globalized world.

This essay is about the Americanization of the Holocaust. More specifically it is about the various ways in which American Jewry and Judaism absorb, remember, and refract the Holocaust through specifically American lenses. Many scholars have written about the Americanization of the Holocaust, but few have analyzed the debates in light of changes in contemporary Jewish culture and society. Below, I explore the role the Holocaust plays in the self-fashioning of American Jews in light of broader trends in the development of contemporary American and American Jewish identity. To do so I return to a series of important moments in the ongoing debate about the role of the Holocaust in America. I make no claim about what should be, but rather try to use the proximate past to understand how American Jewish understanding of the Holocaust can be viewed as a microcosm of the ways in which Jews are rethinking their identity in the twenty-first century.

There is tacit agreement among scholars that decades of intermarriage and the shift in America’s own understanding of ethnos as the anchor of identity have given rise to new challenges for Jews in America. By ethnos I mean a collective that holds a certain subjective belief in common descent along a combination of physical, historical, or mythic lines. I argue that the increasingly multiethnic makeup of American Jews and the destabilization of ethnos in contemporary America will have an impact on the way the Holocaust is understood by American Jews, and by Americans in general, in the next few decades.

American Jewish responses to the Holocaust-in concert with Jewish identity more generally-thus far have in large part been founded on an ethnic definition of Jewishness. Horace Kallen’s famous statement, “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religion, their philosophies, to a greater or less extent; they cannot change their grandfathers,” was viewed by social scientists until the 1980s as an operative description of American Jews. Yet in today’s multiethnic society, where many Americans have grandparents from sundry ethnic and cultural backgrounds, ethnicity does not function as an allencompassing determinant of Jewish identity. American Jews today-like other Americans-have more complex ways of identifying as Jews and as Americans. Many, if not most, have Jewish and non-Jewish grandparents, cousins, or spouses. Many practice other religions. Attitudes toward intermarriage have changed drastically. For example, in a 2000 national survey of Jewish opinion in America, half of the Jews surveyed said that “it is racist to oppose Jewish-Gentile marriage,” and more than half disagreed with the statement that “it would pain me if my child married a gentile.” Though this liquidity of ethnicity is not specific to Jews, it is surely relevant to them. The integration of the Holocaust as part of that identity may require a recognition of those shifting social and cultural circumstances.

I limit my focus to two overlapping themes: the discussion common in the 1970s and continuing in a more muted form in the present concerning the Holocaust’s uniqueness as it relates to American Jewish identity, and the depiction of the Holocaust as a particular (i.e., exclusively Jewish) versus a universal event. I examine these two themes in three ways: (1) through the lens of what I consider the disassimilation phase of American Jewry; (2) through the debates surrounding and educational agenda of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; and (3) through the depiction of the Holocaust in popular media focusing on the diary of Anne Frank.

Intense focus on the Holocaust as a lens to view developments in Jewish identity in America began in earnest in the early 1970s. The question of the Holocaust’s uniqueness was a prominent part of that inquiry, an expression of the competing desires of American Jews to be fully integrated yet definitively distinct in American society. It remains so today. The term “uniqueness” in general is problematic. The late Peter Novick remarked, “Insistence on its uniqueness (or denial of its uniqueness) is an intellectually empty enterprise for reasons having nothing to do with the Holocaust itself and everything to do with ‘uniqueness’. A moment’s reflection makes clear that the notion of uniqueness is quite vacuous.” Earlier, Ismar Schorsch wrote,

[U]nique is a description that responsible historians tend to employ only in a restricted context. Used indiscriminately, it is a throwback to an age of religious polemics where commitment was largely a function of uniqueness. Unfortunately, our obsession with the uniqueness of the Holocaust smacks of a distasteful secular version of chosenness. We are still special-but only by virtue of Hitler’s paranoia.

Uniqueness seems to me to be largely a placeholder for other issues that are at stake when those positions and debates are identified, issues such as identity, continuity, and the status of the Jew in society.

Uniqueness advocates from the 1970s to the present may be more interested in the term’s effects than in its conceptual coherence. The historical debate about uniqueness is often polemical and tacitly serves a contemporary agenda. For example, if the Holocaust as genocide against the Jews is unique and thus an exceptional case in human history, perhaps the Jews after the Holocaust (particularly in Israel) can justifiably inherit that exceptional status. Uniqueness, however, thrives on a stable foundation of ethnicity. As Jews increasingly own multiple ethnic identities, we may need to reassess the function of such a concept. If we abandon the claim of uniqueness, the Nazi genocide of six million Jews emerges as a tragedy of world historical proportions, but it is not “the Holocaust.”

The uniqueness claim presents certain challenges to the historian. One problem is that to argue for uniqueness too easily lends itself to taking an event outside the realm of history, making it what the Jewish theologian Arthur Cohen called a mysterium tremendum (awesome mystery) that in many cases results in a kind of mystification. Mystification too easily makes the Holocaust a purely religious and not a historical event. Yet, even without accepting this definition, many historians argue that the Holocaust is a unique event, in both Jewish and general history. In so arguing, the historian must defend how something can be both a novum (something unprecendented) and historical. Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer maintains that the Holocaust is a historical novum and simultaneously warns against using the Holocaust’s uniqueness in order to mystify it.

Although Bauer ultimately comes down on the side of uniqueness, he remains acutely aware that uniqueness can produce a kind of mystification that works against historical memory of the event. Bauer knows that “[t]he inevitable conclusion must again be that if we label the Holocaust as inexplicable, it becomes relevant to lamentations and liturgy but not to historical analysis.” Uniqueness elides history, thus leading to mystification that according to Bauer will result in “forgetting.”

The fear of repetition (baldly pronounced as a political platform in Meir Kahane’s 1971 book Never Again!) is arguably the emotional engine that drives much of the discourse about the Holocaust today. There are those who argue that although the Holocaust as a historical event ended in 1945, as a metahistorical phenomenon it never really ended. In this view, contemporary antisemitism, in Europe and now in the Muslim world, is an extension of the antisemitism that produced the Holocaust. Without some variation on such a view, it is difficult to maintain the Holocaust’s uniqueness and its possible repetition simultaneously. That is, to argue today about an impending Holocaust while maintaining that the Holocaust is a unique event in human and Jewish history may be implying, intentionally or not, that the first Holocaust is still with us.

Although the historical and theological questions regarding uniqueness are shared by American and Israeli Jews (for whom the Holocaust plays a very different role), the question of the particularistic as opposed to the universal message of the Holocaust is more specific to the American context. There are two interlocking reasons for this. First, Jewish identity in America is tied in complicated ways to American identity. Like other integrated minorities, American Jews are hyphenated creatures. Second, as indicated by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Holocaust is part of both Jewish and American history. As a result, exclusive Jewish ownership of the Holocaust is a vexed issue in contemporary America. Alternatively, in Israel the Holocaust is the final chapter in the state’s myth of origins before the state’s establishment in 1948, and thus there is little reason to universalize the event. Israelis also understandably seem less invested in calling the Holocaust unique. By referring to the Holocaust as “the third hurban,” or destruction, and the State of Israel as “the third commonwealth,” Israelis view both as part of and not categorically distinct from the Jewish past.

In what follows I explore the future of the Holocaust as it collides with what I view as American Jewry’s contemporary challenges. I suggest that the new multivalent nature of ethnic identity challenges the usefulness of the uniqueness argument as well as the particularist versus universalist message of the Holocaust. I examine the struggle between the Holocaust as an exclusively Jewish event and its use as a metaphor for a universal message of “man’s inhumanity to man.”

The Holocaust and the Disassimilated American Jew

The destabilization of ethnicity for many young American Jews overlaps with the later phases of multiculturalism. Many American Jews have rediscovered Judaism not as a return to an old-style ethnocentric religion (as was the case in the Baal Teshuvah movement in the 1970s and 1980s) but more in line with a globalized humanitarian ethos. For an increasing number of creative young Jews in America, Judaism is not solely the glue that solidifies one’s ethnic identity but also, and perhaps most prominently, a resource for contributing to global issues that concern Jews and that they wish to address as Jews. These Jews are largely not interested in a return to Judaism in any conventional sense. Theirs is more an adaptation of Judaism to construct meaning in a community whose ethnic parameters are being revised.

One reason for this shiftmay be that this new disassimilated Jew does not need Judaism as a source of solidarity in a hostile environment, at least not the way her grandparents did. In addition, this new generation is beyond the second generation’s search for authenticity common to those who came of age in the era of counterculture. Rather, for many young American Jews, Judaism can be used as a way of representing and expressing universal concern via what Anthony Appiah calls “rooted cosmopolitanism.” For many minority cultures in contemporary America, the individual can think and act globally yet remain part of a particular collective. The expression of collective identity no longer serves exclusively, or even primarily, as a way of preserving group distinctiveness, as much as it serves one’s own spiritual journey and, increasingly, contributes to the greater universal good.

Many young American Jews today are intermarried, are the progeny of intermarriage, or at least have a close relative who is one or the other. Hence, an increasing number of American Jewish families have multiple narratives, histories, stories, and allegiances. Whereas previous generations of Jews who intermarried often abandoned their Jewish identity because intermarriage is a primary consequence, and culmination, of assimilation, in this disassimilating phase an increasing number of intermarried Jews and their families are finding their way back to a renewed sense of Jewishness in spite of their intermarried status. Two examples are illustrative. First, in 2005 the Conservative movement published A Place in the Tent: Intermarriage and Conservative Judaism, a halakhic guide for rabbis regarding the integration of non-Jews into their synagogue communities. Second, Kerry Olitzky, an Atlanta rabbi, founded the Jewish Outreach Institute in 1987 as a support center for non-Jewish women married to Jewish men who are choosing to raise their children as Jews. The alienated intermarried Jew is increasingly becoming the integrated intermarried Jew.

My concern in this essay is to consider how the idea of uniqueness squares with the shifting sands of contemporary American Jewish identity. Put otherwise: How will the growing multiethnic fabric of American Jewry understand its relationship to the Holocaust as a unique event? I suggest that American Jews who are being raised in the twentyfirst century may be less invested in the uniqueness of the Holocaust for several reasons. This may be part of a larger phenomenon of reassessing accepted Jewish ideas. For example, though many Jews continue to rediscover their Jewishness, many have less use, and tolerance, for the notion of divine election that has arguably occupied the epicenter of Jewish identity since antiquity. Many Jews today feel too integrated into American society and too convinced of a multicultural ethos to accept that exclusivist claim of election, however apologetically it is presented. Liturgical changes that mute the language of chosenness, though still marginal, are much more common today than when they were first instituted in the 1970s. It was the American theologian Mordecai Kaplan who in the 1930s made the most forceful case against divine election as a religious precept. Kaplan’s influence continues to be felt in the disassimilation phase. As divine election becomes less operative in contemporary articulations of Jewishness, the uniqueness claim about the Holocaust may soon follow suit.

Given that many Jewish families in America are now multiethnic and thus inherit numerous stories of tragedy, oppression, and even genocide, the Holocaust as a unique event categorically distinct from all other narratives of tragedy may be far less convincing than it was for a community in closer proximity to the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Moreover, the uniqueness of the Holocaust, what John Murray Cuddihy called a “secular form of chosenness,” may not be as necessary for a community in the process of creating strategies for a particularistic identity that is less exclusivist than in the past. This is not to say that these multiethnic Jews do not care about the Holocaust or seek to preserve the memory of its victims. It is to say that given the fact that many embrace multiple stories as part of their familial inheritance, viewing one of those stories as unique is not as easy as it is for one whose entire heritage is based on ethnic homogeneity.

One of the consequences of Jewish integration into American society, coupled with a renewed search for Jewish roots as part of, and not in opposition to, assimilation, is that Jews seem more interested in utilizing Judaism’s textual sources and traditions and even recalibrating its message to reach out to the larger world. The Jewish environmentalist movement, concern for oppression elsewhere in the world (e.g., Darfur, trafficking of women in the third world), support for workers’ rights movements, the Arab spring, and the Occupy Wall Street movement have caught the attention of many disassimilated Jews who seek to deploy Jewish texts and values to create a better world.

Given its new circumstances, a new generation of American Jews may view the question of the particular as opposed to the universal character of the Holocaust differently than did their predecessors. For many of these newly disassimilated Jews, universal concerns do not exist as auxiliary to parochial ones. Rather, their particularism is expressed through the universal, not the other way around. Organizations such as the Jewish World Service, the Progressive Jewish Agenda, Hazon, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and the Jewish Service Corps, among many others, are devoted to utilizing Jewish tools and resources to work on issues that have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism per se.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Microcosm of the American Jewish Experience

Even though the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened two decades ago, in 1993, the debates surrounding its inception remain relevant in part because the museum serves as a central catalyst for how American Jews understand the Holocaust. Though few may be aware of the complex and sometimes volatile nature of its conceptualization, the museum’s exhibits and programs still reflect those early debates about how the Holocaust should be presented to an American audience, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

In Jewish institutional life, the first two decades after the event that became known as the Holocaust focused on at least three interrelated issues: (1) rescuing Jews from endangered places around the world (culminating in the movement for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s), (2) memorializing Holocaust victims, and (3) supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and subsequently the State of Israel. Influenced by these institutional programs, I think it is safe to say that for most American Jews who retained a strong Jewish identity, the Holocaust was an event exclusive to Jewish history and memory. In the early 1970s something changed, likely as the result of various events in American and Jewish history. Although the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 and Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the trial in the New Yorker (published as Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963) may have jump-started Jewish attention to the Holocaust and also turned the American government’s interest toward America’s complicated behavior during the war, it did not significantly change the attitude of the American Main Street. Mainstream American interest began a bit later. A combination of the Six Day War in 1967 and the American quagmire in Vietnam contributed to American interest in the Holocaust not solely as an event that happened to the Jews of Europe but as one in which America participated as liberator. The complex question of good and evil that emerged from Vietnam, where the nature of the enemy was often unclear, made the war against Nazi Germany (the Holocaust being a part of that story) easier to understand. The Six Day War, revealing again what seemed to be the perennial vulnerability of the Jews-this time to a different enemy-and Israel’s seemingly miraculous triumph not only resulted in a significant increase of American Jewish pride but also raised the status and stature of Israel and of Jews in America more generally.

The interest of the American federal government in constructing a national Holocaust memorial was as much a result of an American need to secure its own moral stature as an arbiter of good in the world and to solidify American Jewish political support for the administration’s policies more generally as it was of the realization of the gravity of the tragedy that had befallen the Jews of Europe. And though many American Jews carried stories about the Holocaust that they shared within their families and even commemorated in communal contexts, the decision to construct a museum in Washington had an impact on the role of the Holocaust in American Jewish lives. Vivian Patraka notes, “If what is critical for the museum’s project is to extend our fictions of nationhood by the premise that a democratic state comes to the aid of peoples outside its borders subjected to genocide, then the conferring of liberation becomes the story of American democracy.” This can also be said of the decision to construct a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Though recognizing the tragedy of European Jewry, the decision to memorialize its victims and teach the world about this historical event had a political dimension including but not exclusive to the U.S.’s alliance with Israel. It was no coincidence that President Jimmy Carter’s announcement establishing a commission to investigate the construction of a national memorial to the Holocaust was made on May 1, 1978, the thirtieth anniversary of Israel’s existence, with Israeli prime minister Menahem Begin in attendance. The connection between the Holocaust and the State of Israel was unassailable when it came to the very mission of the museum. Mark Siegel seemed to express what everyone in the know at the time already knew when he said in an interview with Rochelle Saidel, “The Holocaust memorial was born out of [U.S.] politics and it was born out of a domestic crisis.”

Nonetheless, once President Carter initiated the commission, once the decision was made that the national memorial would also include a museum and would be built adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (the most sacred real estate in America), the Holocaust officially ceased to be the exclusive property of the Jews and became part of American history. Edward Linenthal begins his book on the history of the museum with the words, “On April 22, 1993, the Holocaust became an event officially incorporated into American memory … The Holocaust echoed throughout the country: many churches rang bells simultaneously at the end of this service [on Sunday April 18, 1993] in memory of Holocaust victims.” The museum made American Jews feel simultaneously more firmly established and accepted in the society in which they lived and uneasy about the prospect of losing ownership of an event that was perhaps the cornerstone of their identity as Jews.

What happens, though, when integration and, in this case, the American adaptation of a Jewish event threaten to rob Jews of their own history as the price of full acceptance? And how does this play out for Jews who now have more complex family narratives and affiliations? Edward Alexander’s cry of “stealing the Holocaust” resonates quite strongly with many who track this development. On this Linenthal writes,

When in the postwar years, the memory of the Holocaust was solely the possession of American Jews, the boundaries of Holocaust memory were firmly established and could be preserved. But when the memory became a national trust, the boundaries became at one and the same time more firmly established—in response to fear of dejudaization—and yet more permeable-because of the pluralistic ownership of the memory.

In Preserving Memory, Linenthal documents the debates about the nature and function of the museum from its inception to its completion. For our purposes the most relevant debate was whether the museum should depict the Holocaust exclusively as a Jewish event or, as President Carter referred to it, as “man’s inhumanity to man.” Should the museum present the Holocaust as a metaphor for genocide everywhere or exclusively a Jewish story? I limit my analysis here to the remarks of Elie Wiesel and Michael Berenbaum, whose positions in many ways encapsulate the divergent views on the museum. Both had influential roles in the decision-making process regarding the museum and both had much to say about the notion of its ostensible Americanization. Wiesel and Berenbaum played musical chairs with leadership roles in the early years of the museum project. Berenbaum was deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and was fired because he was viewed by some on the committee as an agent of dejudaization. Wiesel resigned from the same committee, ostensibly over his refusal to accept the American context of the museum, claiming the entire project had been unduly compromised.

Wiesel thought the museum should be about two things: the uniqueness (and Jewishness) of the event and the commemoration of its victims. Comparisons with other genocides were simply a distortion of historical truth. The Holocaust’s uniqueness must remain the central dogma of its memorialization. Though he acknowledged that the Nazis murdered millions of non-Jews who also deserved to be memorialized, for Wiesel only Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Others died because of the Holocaust. In other words, without the Jews there would have been no Holocaust. This also categorically distinguishes the Nazi program of eradicating all (non-Jewish) undesirables from the Final Solution. Yet to say, even if only by implication, that if the Nazis had not wanted to eradicate all the Jews (and this assumes that total eradication was the goal from the beginning) they would not have killed any Gypsies or homosexuals, in my view, requires further substantiation. Yet one can draw such a conclusion from Wiesel’s position.

However, Wiesel is not averse to using the Holocaust to serve universal and humanistic concerns, as is readily attested in his passionate remarks about Sarajevo in his inaugural speech at the museum in 1993 and in the tenor of his acceptance speech when he received his Nobel Prize. One could also point to his comments about Paraguay’s Ache Indians, whose plight he acknowledged as significantly testing his commitment to the uniqueness doctrine. But for Wiesel, such universalization could never come at the price of viewing the Holocaust as a metaphor for universal suffering, that is, as anything other than the attempt to eradicate the Jews. Even more strongly, for Wiesel the inclusion of other victims in the U.S. memorial was an “act of generosity” on the part of the Jews. The Holocaust was something that happened exclusively to the Jews, and the proper memory of its victims must ensure that this remained central. Wiesel, along with Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer and American Holocaust scholar Alvin Rosenfeld, was concerned that the museum would become dejudaized through its Americanization, a process that included the Holocaust being compared to other genocides and injustices throughout history.

The link between Americanization and dejudaization requires further exploration, especially considering that the individuals in question, as far as I know, supported in principle the existence of the museum adjacent to the National Mall. Can one avoid the Americanization of a museum that sits on the territory of American memory and is funded by the U.S. government with tax revenue from U.S. citizens, 98 percent of whom are non-Jews? All agree that the museum is an educational institution whose mandate is, in part, to educate all Americans about the Holocaust. Should such an educational program exclusively be about memorializing the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, an event that did not even take place in America?

This question points to a crucial difference between Wiesel, who occupies a position of exclusiveness, and Berenbaum, who is much more open to the notion of Americanization as both an opportunity and a necessity. In his book The World Must Know, Berenbaum sets out his agenda for the book, and the museum, quite forcefully:

The museum, as you will read elsewhere, is an American institution, chartered by the Congress and built on federal land. This book is an American book, designed to move us a continent away and take us back a generation in time. We see the events of the Holocaust through a variety of perspectives: those of victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers. Time and again we refer to the United States both as an actor in the drama and as a point of reference along our journey.

Berenbaum acknowledges that the physical placement of the museum presents a challenge. How can we have an American museum on the National Mall commemorating something that happened “a continent away”? The official name, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was carefully crafted. This institution is mandated to be both a memorial and a museum, a site of both remembrance and education. Therefore Berenbaum, who focuses his comments on the museum aspect of the institution, suggests that a museum, especially one adjacent to the National Mall, has to have a broader, American agenda. How then can Americanization avoid the dejudaization that would too easily enable the Holocaust to be transformed into a metaphor? In the same introduction, Berenbaum writes, “So while the museum is not a proper place to resolve ideological and historiographical issues, this work and the institution include the totality of victims without dejudaizing the Holocaust (and thus falsifying history), or overlooking any group victimized by the Third Reich.”75 Is Berenbaum guilty of a sleight of hand here? If dejudaizing is a result of Americanization (or vice versa), how can Berenbaum argue for Americanization and deny the accusation of dejudaization?

Berenbaum makes a crucial distinction between Americanization and dejudaization that I believe subverts the exclusivity component endemic to the arguments of those who fear dejudaization. He suggests that the history of the Holocaust presented in his book and in the museum is a history that “cuts against the grain of the American ethos … While we impart no singular meaning to the events of the Holocaust, we see in their perpetration a violation of every essential American value.” This is a significant claim in regard to the presentation of the Holocaust in America and reflects comments made earlier about the American perception of the war even before the term Holocaust became normative. For example, Edward Shapiro writes, “The war saw the merging of Jewish and American fates. Nazi Germany was the greatest enemy of both Jewry and the United States.” Thus, though it was an event that happened to the Jews-he never makes the stronger claim that it happened exclusively to the Jews-Berenbaum suggests that Americans can relate to this tragedy because it contradicts everything America holds to be right and true. (Whether one agrees with this assessment is beside the point.) He attempts to do something similar to what Louis Brandeis did for Zionism when he drew a correlation between being a good Zionist and being a good American. For Brandeis, Zionism was an expression of American values such that one’s allegiance to the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine was an expression of one’s allegiance to America.

Berenbaum argues that the Holocaust can be Americanized without being dejudaized, as Americans can understand the Jewish genocide precisely because it speaks to their values as a nation. He claims that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as a museum and the educational programs that it generates around the country must perform more than memorialization of its victims. Its raison d’être as an American institution is to help Americans (Jew and gentile) become better Americans by teaching them what happens when the values they cherish are torn asunder by despotism and hatred. Berenbaum goes even further. For him, the Americanization of the Holocaust is the very lens through which Jews in America can, and should, understand the event. Similarly, Alan Mintz notes,

The goal is not to become a better Jew who identifies more closely with the Jewish people but to become a better American who understands the implications of the Holocaust for man’s treatment of his fellow man. The meaning of the Holocaust is thus particularized in one setting and universalized in another.

Berenbaum’s position on Americanization and the use of comparative analysis in teaching the Holocaust (two related but surely not identical ideas) is not a stance that denies, by definition, the claim of uniqueness. His rationale for the inclusion of non-Jews in the museum was precisely to strengthen the claim of uniqueness. He writes:

I drafted a memo which suggested that the inclusion of non-Jews was necessary in order to document the uniqueness of the Holocaust [in] the nature of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” … One could not perceive the involuntary nature of Jewish victimization without understanding the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who could be released from concentration camp if they renounced their faith, and one could not comprehend the “Final Solution” without understanding Nazi policies toward the Roma or Sinti, who were not central to Nazi ideology or toward Poles who were made to be subservient but not annihilated.

For Berenbaum, inclusion of the non-Jewish victim not only recognizes that the Holocaust was not exclusively a Jewish story, it also contextualizes the way the Jewish part of the story was unique. Here Berenbaum gives us an affirmation of uniqueness that is not exclusive, one that can, perhaps, contribute to new thinking about the Holocaust today.

The founding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum marked the first time that America adopted part of Jewish history as its own and, in doing so, made American Jews ponder the price of a shared history. This price may include relinquishing ownership of an event that Jews understand to have happened exclusively to their people. Ironically, this event, so tragic and understandably so private for many Jews, has become a touchstone not only for Jewish identity in America but also for American self-fashioning. Wiesel and others charge that Americanization is an example of universalization, or at least departicularization, resulting in the dejudaization of the Holocaust. Berenbaum argues otherwise. For him, the price of a Holocaust museum on the National Mall is Americanization. This does not de facto result in dejudaization, but it may require the attenuation of exclusivity, at least as an educational tool, in order to present the Holocaust to the contemporary American community as a tool to strengthen basic American values that are in concert with basic Jewish values. In this sense, Berenbaum’s position may have something to contribute to rethinking the nature of Holocaust education for an increasingly multiethnic community of American Jews, some of whom care as much about Darfur as the Holocaust and many of whom use the Holocaust to make their case against contemporary genocides.

The Sainthood of Anne Frank, Popular Culture, and the Holocaust as a Lens for a Future Judaism

Although the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum served as a touchstone for the formal Americanization of the Holocaust, Americans (Jewish and non-Jewish) have long been exposed to the Holocaust through mass media: print, film, and television. One important media moment in American Holocaust awareness was the miniseries Holocaust broadcast by NBC in 1978. This show met with sharp criticism from Wiesel and Claude Lanzman (director of the nine-and-a-half-hour documentary Shoah, which appeared five years after Holocaust), in large part because they believed it did not do justice to the victims and, as a fictional depiction, distorted the memorialization of the event, even though the miniseries made no claim to be either historical or about remembrance. Wiesel’s language was unequivocal: “[Because] the Holocaust transcends history … it cannot be explained nor can it be trivialized.” Lanzman adds, “[T]here are some things that cannot and should not be represented.” Uniqueness stands at the very center of both criticisms. It was not the particular script that was flawed (although both took issue with that as well) but the very attempt at a dramatization of the Holocaust. Historical events can be dramatized. The Holocaust cannot.

The miniseries was followed by many films and television shows about the Holocaust that did not focus exclusively on its Jewish victims, including Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997), and Quentin Tarantino’s macabre Inglourious Bastards (2009). Many of these portrayals received similar critical reviews, especially in the Jewish press. This is in part because, as mentioned above, for many American Jews the Holocaust remained a unique event that could not be adequately fictionalized. It could not justifiably be viewed through any lens other than its primary victims, and even then never in a dramatized form. The Holocaust could be, or should be, utilized only to memorialize its victims and not to derive meaning or serve any universal ends.

Jeffrey Shandler’s While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust (1999) and Alan Mintz’s Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (2001) are excellent studies of the impact of mass media on Holocaust memory in America. I will borrow Mintz’s categories of the exceptionalist and the constructivist models of Holocaust memory in America to make a few points about the present state of American Jewry and to suggest that the struggle over the appropriate presentation of the Holocaust is a microcosm of the identity struggles of contemporary American Jewry more generally. Although the construction of a strict binary opposition is problematic, exceptionalist and conceptualist models do help us appreciate different orientations toward the reception of the Holocaust from the late 1970s to the present. Mintz defines the exceptionalist model as follows:

The exceptionalist model is rooted in a conviction of the Holocaust as a radical rupture in human history that goes well beyond notions of uniqueness … When it comes to cultural refractions of the Holocaust, however, the norm is, sadly, vulgarization, especially in the works of popular culture. Most disturbing and most prevalent, moreover, is the way the Holocaust is traduced by being appropriated to serve purposes-national interests, universal ethics, personal identity-that are not only unrelated to the Holocaust but are often antithetical to its memory.

Mintz suggests this model dominated the early period of Holocaust memory, perhaps until the early 1970s. The constructivist model is defined as follows:

For the constructivist model, the point of departure is the assumption that beyond the factual core, historical events, even the Holocaust, possess no inscribed meaning; meaning is constructed by communities of interpretation-differently by different communities-out of their own motives and needs.

Mintz argues that the constructivist model, which contains all the dangers of relativization, perhaps even vulgarization and dejudaization (all of which Mintz rejects), is a necessary counterbalance to an exceptionalist model that refuses, in both principle and practice, to move beyond the event itself. Largely as historical positivists, exceptionalists maintain that the Holocaust can, and therefore should, be “objectively” depicted. That is, the exceptionalists in principle refuse to give the Holocaust any meaning outside the horror and tragedy of the murder of six million Jews, which explains why so many of them reject any comparative analysis.

To make his argument, Mintz deploys James Young’s distinction between collective memory and memorialization. The former points to an ongoing process of encounter with the past; the latter refers to fixing and concretizing the meaning of the past. Memorialization is largely the product of the exceptionalist model, whereas collective memory is primarily indicative of the constructivist model. For example, Elie Wiesel is a strong, albeit complex, advocate of the exceptionalist model, though he remains open to attenuated universal implications so long as the exclusivity of the Holocaust as a Jewish event is unequivocally maintained (the universal, he says, is precisely in the particular). I would add to Mintz’s suggestion above that the museum and the plethora of mass media representations of the Holocaust have reconstructed its “community of interpreters,” widening its parameters to include American Jews as a subset of Americans more generally. If I am correct, it would mean that in America the exceptionalists could not avoid the constructivist template. It is not simply that one cannot avoid Americanization of the Holocaust in America. The very notion of the Holocaust in America is, by definition, American. Though this may have been a hotly debated issue in the 1980s and even the 1990s, given the reach of the museum and the plethora of media about the Holocaust (much of which does not focus exclusively on the Jews), by the late 2000s the “Americanness” of the Holocaust for the younger generation, Jewish, non-Jewish, and partly Jewish, may no longer be a live debate. Although it is hard to tell, this may not be the result of the success of the museum’s educational programs as much as it is the consequence of the increasingly multiethnic fabric of American Jewry.

Jewish memorialization of the Holocaust has undergone a process of Americanization such that even the exclusively Jewish rendering of the Holocaust is now, to some degree, a part of the search for meaning rather than purely a manifestation of memory. Mass-media depictions of the Holocaust today are almost exclusively about interpretation. The consumer interest that drives the market is largely about the way the Holocaust can be used as a tool to deepen one’s understanding of the power of evil in the world. Whether this results in the construction of the Holocaust as full-blown metaphor or not, memorialization is attenuated through interpretation. Though many exceptionalists continue to protest what they consider the dehistoricization or dejudaization of the Holocaust, where the Holocaust becomes an event whose meaning is constructed rather than essentialized, partially as a result of the acculturation of American Jewry, this may be inevitable. And when Jewishness in America becomes less essentialized and more constructed and Jews feel even more American than their parents and grandparents, Americanizing the Holocaust may be less jarring and even less offensive. Whether it is lamentable is a matter of personal inclination.

I suggest that this phenomenon of interpretation is even further complicated by the normalization of intermarriage in America, where Jewish families are increasingly multiethnic, producing multiple allegiances that all vie for equal time. In this new family structure, drawing lessons from the Holocaust is not only one option but increasingly the only option. Intermarried and multiethnic Jews and their families want the Holocaust to be a part of their Jewish identities, but the Holocaust must also in some way serve the non-Jewish members of the family. This multiethnic family structure is itself a new kind of collective, a new “community of interpreters” that will form its own relationship to the Holocaust, perhaps more inclined to view the Holocaust both as something that happened to the Jews and as a metaphor for making sure nothing like it ever happens again-to anyone. In her interviews with young American Jews, Debra Renee Kaufmann notes that for many of them, “never again, specifically meant never again to any people.”

One of the more interesting cases of resistance to moving from “history” to interpretation is the scholarly debate regarding the various versions of The Diary of Anne Frank. I limit my comments to two essays by Alvin Rosenfeld, “Popularization and Memory: The Case of Anne Frank” and “Anne Frank and the Future of Holocaust Memory.”  In both essays Rosenfeld argues that the various depictions of Anne Frank, in both America and Europe, are guilty of what he calls historical “distortions” resulting from the presentation of Anne as a heroic figure whose outlook remained optimistic through the utter tragedy of genocide, as opposed to Anne the victim of Nazi genocide who withered away and died in Bergen-Belsen only weeks before its liberation. Cynthia Ozick wrote that the universalization of Anne is so distasteful that it might have been better had the diary been “burned, vanished, lost.”

What exactly is at stake here? There is little doubt that Anne has been universalized. She achieved her saintly status precisely through her universalization. She would hardly have become “Anne Frank” had her story simply been about a young Jew murdered by the Nazis. Her story is so compelling precisely because of her adolescent passion and rebellion and the fact that her optimism was not totally erased by her tragic circumstances. Alvin Rosenfeld acknowledges as much when he writes,

In order to give the book this emphasis-one that urged readers to cherish its youthful author rather than to mourn her-one had to read the diary in such a way as to have it appear an uplifting and not a harrowing experience. The only way to do that, though, was to dehistoricize Anne Frank’s story: to see it, on the one hand, as emblematic of Jewish fate during the Nazi period, to be sure, but, on the other hand, as transcending that fate.

There is some terminological confusion here between particularization, or perhaps contextualization, and historicization. Although history requires context, it is not by definition limited to it. Even historians sometimes, albeit cautiously, generalize historical events and apply those lessons to other contemporary situations. Anne was in that attic because she was Jew, and she was hiding from a regime that sought to kill her for no other reason than the fact that she was a Jew. Of that there is no doubt, and even the generalizers fully acknowledge that. But is that all we can say historically about her life or about her diary? She was also a precocious adolescent cut off from her peers, trying to make sense of her assimilated Jewishness and also her budding womanhood in spite of her concealment. Under excruciating circumstances she was able, in moments, to “transcend her fate.” As her diary readily attests, she did not fall into despondency, overly obsess about her destiny, and lose all hope in the human race, even though her famous optimistic comment about “all people being good” did not conclude her diary and was intentionally misplaced at the end in various depictions of her story.

What seems to be at stake here is a scholarly debate not about definitions of history or even about history at all but about the very nature of universalization and the use of metaphor as a legitimate tool, historically, culturally, or even rhetorically in regard to the Holocaust. Alvin Rosenfeld is quite up-front about this when he writes, “The function of metaphorical language of this kind is to compare one thing to another not so much from an urge to get at the first but to get rid of it.” Commenting on Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s 1955 production of The Diary of Anne Frank, Rosenfeld notes, “In particular, they tended to understate some of the specifically Jewish aspects of her story and instead universalized her experience as the experience of suffering in general.” Even if we set aside the fact that poetic license often, if not always, allows for choosing the central message, and even if we acknowledge that Rosenfeld can question whether an uplifting ending to the play was the best artistic choice, the accusation of distortion seems to imply something else entirely. The equation seems to progress as follows: dejudaization follows from universalization, which is an act of dehistoricization, and any lesson to be drawn from the event or from Anne’s life other than mourning is distortion. This is an unfounded critique based primarily on polemical grounds having little to do with the diary. It makes an assumption about what a literary artifact (the diary) truly means and relegates any other reading to a misreading or distortion. In fact, Alvin Rosenfeld makes his polemical agenda quite clear when he writes, “There is probably nothing that can prevent this process of ‘dehistoricization’ from occurring, but some of its negative effects can be mitigated through a counter-process of ‘rehistoricization.'”

Though it is surely the case that Holocaust deniers and some of those who argue against the Holocaust’s uniqueness (obviously two different groups) are guilty of dehistoricizing the Holocaust, as Gavriel Rosenfeld notes, they are also guilty of historicizing the event and thereby viewing it not as unique but as part of the complex nature of modern European society. So when Alvin Rosenfeld speaks of historicizing, he means it in a very specific way-that is, to offer what he calls “empirical evidence” through a particular interpretive lens to reach certain conclusions about what can and cannot be said about the Holocaust and any one of its victims. In that sense, Anne is one thing and one thing only: a victim of genocide. To make her into anything else is a distortion of history. Of course, Alvin Rosenfeld is partially correct; she was a victim of genocide. But that is not what the diary is about, because when she wrote it she was not yet a victim of genocide, only a potential victim. And as a potential victim (she may not even have known that much), she expresses certain human emotions, desires, and passions that can inspire her contemporary readers. Why is that a distortion of the diary, or of Anne? Lawrence Langer takes a slightly different tack by arguing that the diary simply should not be used as a “major Holocaust text” at all. It has nothing “of great consequence to tell us about the atrocities that culminated in the murder of European Jewry.” That is, the text has no real history to teach us. Rosenfeld does not go in that direction. He wants the diary to teach us something about the Holocaust. He simply wants its unwritten epilogue (her horrible death) to be the exclusive lesson plan. Anything else is a distortion.

For Alvin Rosenfeld, the historical view requires us to read Anne not as an adolescent in the attic but only through the lens of a living corpse in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. We do not know what she would have said about the optimism in her diary had she been asked in Bergen-Belsen (or had she survived), and Rosenfeld unequivocally discounts as “implausible and silly” what her father said about her being “happy” when they were together in Westerbork in Holland before their deportation eastward. On this Langer notes more stridently,

If Anne Frank could return from among the murdered, she would be appalled at the misuse to which her journal entries had been put. Above all, her journey via Westerbork and Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where she died miserably of typhus and malnutrition, would have led her to regret writing the single, sentimental line by which she is most remembered, even by admirers who have never read the diary.

Though this may indeed be true-who can know?—I find it odd for Langer to speak so confidently about what a young girl he never knew would say about what she wrote in a private diary. It is this kind of unsubstantiated confidence that makes this approach to the diary so disturbing.

But isn’t all this beside the point? Anne leftus with a document she likely never intended us to read. The diary stands on its own merits. Does trying to overly, even dogmatically, historicize it by forcing upon it the lens of her tragic fate make it more historical, or less? And let us not forget that the diary contains sufficient universalizing components about adolescence, about people, even about Anne’s fate as a Jew that would make the various depictions of the diary plausible as creative adaptations of a young human life trying to understand the world as it collapsed around her.

This may all be viable unless one rejects outright the very notion of universalizing, in principle, on the assumption that the Holocaust is a unique event that transcends history. And here is the rub. Alvin Rosenfeld claims to be rehistoricizing the Holocaust but in fact may be dehistoricizing it. That is, by making it an event for which one can only mourn and reject universal messages, metaphors, or generalizations, he is essentially making it an event that Wiesel labeled as “transcending history,” that is, he is mystifying and not historicizing the event. By rejecting any adaptation of Anne that does not focus exclusively on her Jewishness (which is essentially her victimhood), that is not primarily focused on mourning her fate, Alvin Rosenfeld may be entering the realm of mystification. Interpretation or creating collective memory is part of what we humans do with history. And it is the centerpiece of what Americans have done with the Holocaust. On this Michael Berenbaum notes,

For the Holocaust to have any sustained impact it must enter the mainstream of international consciousness as a symbolic word depicting a particular, extraordinary event with moral, political, and social obligations. Yet the moment it enters the mainstream, the Holocaust becomes fair game for writers, novelists, historians, theologians … with different backgrounds and unequal skills. Some lesser minds or insensitive thinkers are bound to disappoint, dilute, and misrepresent.

Thus, though there may indeed be objectionable adaptations of Anne’s diary, the very nature of interpretive license to universalize a particular person or event is not by definition illegitimate, nor is it dehistoricizing. It is what we call art (good or bad being a matter of opinion). And art, though not history, is not by definition antihistorical either. Perhaps Anne’s more universal rendering is partly due to more receptive audiences for such universalization. Iconic figures such as Anne Frank are creations of the times. Alvin Rosenfeld’s Anne is no less socially constructed than the universal Anne of the multiethnic, de-essentialized American Jew. Neither is historical as much as both are historical.

The move from memorialization to collective memory and interpretation that Mintz delineates in his study and Alvin Rosenfeld laments in his may also allay some of the fears of those who believe the Holocaust plays too dominant a role in the American Jewish psyche. Though many have written about this, I limit my analysis to an essay by Robert Alter, “Deformations of the Holocaust,” published in Commentary in February 1981. Even though Alter’s essay was written over 30 years ago, I use it for my presentist concerns because his analysis served as a kind of balanced template for the many essays that followed in its wake, and his criticism arguably resonates more today in the popular imagination than it did in the 1980s.

In “Deformations of the Holocaust,” Alter advances a series of complaints focused on one central question: How much “Holocaust” is healthy for American Jews? His worry is that overemphasis on the Holocaust overshadows other important dimensions of Jewish education, history, thought, culture, and literature, that is, the long view of Jewish civilization. By “overshadow” I do not mean erase. Alter is asking us to question whether the Holocaust serves as a lens through which Judaism writ large is ritualized, absorbed, and taught and if that lens is healthy for the future of Judaism, and Jewry, in America.

Even though Alter wrote this essay in the early 1980s, closer to the present we could point to the fact that in many (non-Orthodox) American synagogues the service commemorating the Holocaust on Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom ha-Shoah) is one of the most well-attended services of the year aside from the High Holidays. As is the case in modern religious communities in Israel, special liturgy has been composed to memorialize the victims in what is becoming a modern Jewish holiday. In some Orthodox and almost all ultra-Orthodox synagogues no such service exists, as the day itself is not recognized, much less ritualized. On Tisha be-Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Jerusalem temples and subsequent Jewish tragedies from the Crusades to the many pogroms throughout history, non-Orthodox American synagogues are fairly empty by comparison, whereas in Israel, Tisha be-Av has garnered more attention. And finally, many synagogues in America have at least some memorial, wall, or object rescued from the Holocaust on prominent display in their public spaces. This is less true in Israel. This seems to have been a gradual process. Jacob Neusner writes, “But we do not find in the 1950s what we see today [1981]: the obsession with ‘the Holocaust’ which wants to make the tragedy into the principal subject of public discourse with Jews and about Judaism.” A whole generation of Jews has been taught that the Holocaust is an integral-sometimes even the central-part of their Judaism. Alter questions the health of such a phenomenon. My question is, Can this survive the restructuring and reorientation of American Jewish society in the next few generations?

For a literary illustration of this phenomenon one could cite David Roskies’s The Literature of Destruction, a book still quite popular and widely used in college courses across America. At first blush it appears Roskies is making a claim that the Holocaust is one of a long line of Jewish catastrophes and should be commemorated as such. Yet, as Alan Mintz notices, Roskies’s agenda is more nuanced. Traditionally, the destructions of the two Jerusalem temples are the centerpiece of all literature of destruction in Judaism. Mintz suggests that

Roskies has turned this tradition on its head and made ancient and medieval history into a kind of background that leads up through modern times to the Holocaust. So, in Roskies’s construct of a Jewish literature of destruction two things are true: The Holocaust is indeed preeminent rather than being another in a series of catastrophes. Yet at the same time, the responses to the Holocaust can be understood only by reference to responses to these earlier events.

Although Roskies introduces his reader to a wide selection of literature of destruction throughout Jewish history, he arguably does so not to view the Holocaust as one destruction among many but to help the reader understand the unique nature of the Holocaust by reference to the past and, as important, to present the Holocaust as a lens through which we can revisit past destruction and rethink the entire Jewish past.

Though Roskies is surely not suggesting that literature of destruction become the centerpiece of contemporary Jewish life, Alter’s concern that victimhood can too easily become overly prevalent if the Holocaust serves as the center of American Jewry’s secular, civil religion remains relevant. Such a scenario would not be new. There seems to have been a group (real or invented we do not know), known to us through later rabbinic literature, called the Avlei Tsiyon (Mourners of Zion) who, after the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 c.e.), decided that mourning the temple should be the centerpiece of exilic Judaism. Whether this group actually existed or was the product of rabbinic imagination we do not know, but they serve as the very antithesis of the rabbinic project. Memorialization plays a role in all religions, but Judaism rejects it as its central motif. These Mourners of Zion failed. Rabbinic Judaism rejected their approach and chose another path. The rabbis drew lessons from the destruction, relegated it to a subsidiary part of a new Jewish vision based on God’s continued covenant with Israel, and created what we now know as Judaism. The rabbis memorialized the destruction liturgically, but practically it was not a central part of their theological project. Perhaps Alter sees the danger of another form of “negative Judaism” in the overemphasis on the Holocaust, especially in a society where the positive content of Judaism, in terms of interest, knowledge, and practice, has largely diminished through secularization and assimilation.

Although the exceptionalist model still exists, it is arguably less aligned with the changing intellectual and communal landscape of American Jewry’s increasingly multiethnic makeup. The essentialized and ethnic notion of Jewishness of the past that can more readily support an exceptionalist claim is becoming less operative at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Some of Alter’s comments are a product of a time when the exceptionalist model still dominated. As we move more decisively toward the constructivist model, where meaning arguably becomes as relevant as memorialization, if not more so, perhaps at least some of Alter’s concerns are less relevant today than they were 30 years ago.

By “meaning,” I refer more specifically to future-oriented interpretation and not exclusively to an understanding of the past. This might begin with the inevitable realization that the Holocaust as an event does not occupy the American Jewish psyche the way it did a generation ago, nor does it serve as the dominant lens through which we understand everything that came before (Roskies). In this case, one could ask whether the Holocaust can be normalized, by which I mean viewed as a tragic part (even the most tragic part) of Jewish history, without being forgotten. Can lessons be drawn from it rather than focusing primarily on memorializing those who were its victims? This may arguably be the continuation of the project instituted by the sages of old that gave us normative Judaism, albeit with a different orientation. More fully integrating the American adaptation of the Holocaust, a notion embedded in the very existence of the museum in Washington, D.C., coupled with rethinking the meaning of the Holocaust for the new multiethnic Jewish American family, may result in new articulations of the constructivist model as defined by Alan Mintz and, somewhat differently, James Young.

Critics will undoubtedly argue that this will result in forgetting the victims and that the event will suffer what they call dehistoricization. In fact, as James Young has noted, “the unmistakable resistance to any overly theoretical readings of this literature … stems from the fear that too much attention to critical method or to the literary construction of texts threatens to supplant not only the literature but the horrible events that lie at the heart of our inquiry.” This need not be the case. There is no reason to think memorialization will not remain a part of how Jews deal with the Holocaust in America, as well as all Jewish tragedy, and using the Holocaust as a lens to rethink the past will continue. But even memorialization is an interpretive process. Memory can never be history. It will survive through new lenses of interpretation, perhaps new rituals and liturgy; it may just not be the center. On this Jeffrey Alexander writes, “Metaphorical bridging shifts symbolic significance, and audience attention, from the originating trauma to the traumas that follow in a sequence of analogical associations. But it does not, for that, inevitably erase or invert the meanings associated with the trauma that was first in the associational line.” This is a crucial observation, as the fear of metaphorization is precisely a fear of forgetting.


To bring Alter’s concerns up to date, perhaps one way of recalibrating Judaism after the Holocaust, in a new generation where ethnicity is far more complex than before, is through a process of normalizing the trauma to let new sprouts grow from its blood-soaked soil. This may require a deftcombination of universalizing and meaning without erasing the particularistic nature of the event in question. This new paradigm, born simultaneously from tragedy and survival, need not focus primarily on inwardness and fear of repetition, or even exclusively on the memory of tragedy, but can include the expansive spirit of universal concern, a concern born in part from a diminishing and more complex notion of ethnic particularity.

Many of the intellectual debates examined above are not known to most American Jews. However, this is not to say they are not relevant; in fact, they may be more relevant today than ever before. With the plethora of books and scholarly essays on contemporary Jewish identity and the increasing liquidity of Jewish ethnicity, scholars have correctly noted that something is indeed happening in contemporary American Jewry. Since the Holocaust served as a significant anchor of Jewish identity in the second half of the twentieth century, it should be part of the scholarly calculus. In fact, as I have argued here, it may even be considered a microcosm of these changes.

The shifting sands of the American Jewish family may provide new ways to consider the role of the Holocaust for Jewish, and (Jewish) American, identity. If the biblical call for Jews to be a “light unto the nations” remains operative, how a post-Holocaust “light unto the nations” will be constructed may be one challenge for Judaism as it moves, with the rest of humanity, more deeply into the twenty-first century.