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Social Characteristics of American Jews, 1654-1954

August 19, 2016 | By: Nathan Glazer

In this 1955 book chapter, the eminent American sociologist Nathan Glazer profiles the American Jewish community in its first three hundred years. He describes the experiences of Sephardi and Ashkenazi immigrants to America: their professions, educations, family life, and economic mobility. In this discussion, spanning from the early colonial days to the post–World War II years, Glazer paints a picture of a community in which those with means sought to help those in need. American Jews vacillated between assimilation and strengthening their particularistic, Jewish identity, all while old world habits helped people to live flourishing lives, even as they were being transformed by new world surroundings.

The whole body of information on the socio-economic position of the Jews that we have attempted to summarize in this article leaves us with one unanswered question: What is the explanation for the greater success—measured in the objective terms of income, and the commonly accepted status of different occupations—of the Jews in the United States? . . .

We think that the explanation of the Jewish success in America is that Jews, far more than any other immigrant group, were engaged for generations in the middle-class occupations, the professions and buying and selling. . . . The special occupations of the middle class . . . are associated with a whole complex of habits. Primarily, these are the habits of care and foresight. The middle-class person, we know, is trained to save his money, because he has been taught that the world is open to him, and with the proper intelligence and ability, and with resources well used, he may advance himself. . . . The dominating characteristic of his life is that he is able to see that the present postponement of pleasure . . . will lead to an increase in satisfaction later.

Read the whole essay in Articles in Celebration of the American Jewish Tercentenary 1654-1954.

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