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How to Become Jewish Americans?

The «A Bintel Brief» Advice Column in Abraham Cahan’s Yiddish «Forverts»

Series:

Magdalena Ewa Bier

Created by Abraham Cahan in 1906, the advice column A Bintel Brief ran as the most enduring feature of the New York Yiddish newspaper Forverts for over seven decades. This study takes a closer look at the letters and responses to A Bintel Brief thereby revealing the hardships of uprooted Eastern European Jews. In an uncharted environment they turned to the column for guidance. In his answers, the editor of The Bintel Brief was always sympathetic, yet pragmatic, encouraging assimilation and ethnic group solidarity, thus paving the way for the readers to become accepted Jewish Americans.
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10. Creating a New Jewish Identity: Jewish Faith or Culture?

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10.  Creating a New Jewish Identity: Jewish Faith or Culture?

10.1  Religious Re-Orientation within the Russian Jewish Community

Questions concerning their religious affiliation constituted a continuous source of trouble to Russian Jewish immigrants in the United States. While Protestant immigrant groups like the Germans, for example, retained their Christian religion while assimilating to American culture, this process was more difficult for Jewish immigrants, as Howe writes. Many Jews thought they would cease to be Jews, if they entirely turned their backs on Orthodox Judaism.934 In the context of becoming Jewish-American, the question arises how the editor and the writers define being “Jewish.” Among the secularizing factors in the Jewish immigrants community, the writers needed to find out to what factors defined them as Jews.

It is difficult to arrive at a satisfactory definition of a general Jewish identity and culture, as Jews were strongly influenced by the culture of the country they lived in. The Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe, for example, differed greatly from Sephardic Jews in Spain in terms of language, occupations and religious practices.935 Melville Herskovits points at the persisting dilemma of a precise definition of being Jewish the following way:

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