American Jewish Identity on a Pacific Northwest Stage

During the second half of the 20th century, American Jewish identity was strongly tied to three key historical memories.

First, the catastrophe that was the Holocaust was a central focus, underscoring the need to remember and to guard against anti-Semitism. Second was an embrace of Zionism and Israel as a response to the Holocaust and-particularly after the Six Day War- as a vital element of American Jewish identity. Along with these, American Jews embraced a retelling of their own story, one featuring immigration, struggle, and, ultimately, triumph-- and centered on the iconic image of the (by then no longer intact) Lower East Side of New York. Each of these, the Holocaust, Israel/Zionism, and the Lower East Side became central touchstones of American Jewish identity.¹

This essay will examine the ways in which these themes were articulated locally by Oregon Jews. How did Jews in a region so remote relate to these touchstones? If, for example, the Lower East Side experience was the iconic place of American Jewry, how did Jews living in a region considered the antithesis of the New York² negotiate the disjuncture between regional and ethnic identities? To what extent did they incorporate each of these touchstones into local practice and programming?

This essay will draw on institutional holdings from the Portland JCC, educational programs, youth groups, and synagogues around the state, and the Jewish press to examine the ways in which these connections were expressed and adapted to local conditions. How did these historical memories and Jewish identities play out on the regional stage in the Pacific West?

¹The centrality of the Holocaust, Zionism/Israel, and the Lower East Side to American Jewish identity has been well documented. Although is has been conventional wisdom that the Holocaust did not become a focus until the 1960s, this has been recently disputed by Hasia Diner in We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962 (New York: NYU Press, 2009). Diner is also the author of a critical work on the place of the Lower East Side in American Jewish historical memory. See Diner, Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

²Diner has argued that "New York" came in the late 20th century to represent the essence of "what it means to be Jewish in America," while "the West" was "the essence of America". These strong associations have made the idea of a "Jewish West" seem comedic or oxymoronic. See Diner "American West, New York Jewish" in Jewish Life in the American West, Ava F. Kahn, ed. (Autry Museum & University of Washington Press, 2002), 33-52.

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