University faculty member creates encyclopedia covering American Jews' experiences

The Encyclopedia of American Jewish History
The Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, co-edited by Eunice Pollack, a lecturer in the University of North Texas Jewish studies program, is the first reference work that examines all aspects of the American Jewish experience in depth.
Monday, January 14, 2008

While she was still a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1990s, Eunice Pollack was shocked by members of the Nation of Islam claiming that the Jews had "monumental culpability" for the Atlantic slave trade and were prominent among slaveholders. And she was outraged that newspapers kept reprinting the charges without attempting to rebut them.

In 1995, Pollack, now a lecturer in the University of North Texas' Department of History and Jewish studies program, successfully persuaded the American Historical Association to issue a statement that condemns the charges of the Nation of Islam.

More than a decade later, Pollack has co-edited a reference book that she hopes will be used to forestall and counteract false claims about American Jews. The two-volume Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, which Pollack edited with Stephen H. Norwood, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, focuses on Jews as an ethnic group as well as members of a religion.

"I wanted to create the encyclopedia so that ridiculous -- and dangerous -- errors wouldn't continue to be made," she said. "It is a record of, and a memorial to, the Jewish experience in America."

Pollack notes that the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History is the first reference work that examines all aspects of the American Jewish experience in depth.  She said 125 scholars from Canada, Europe and Israel as well as the United States contributed almost 200 articles to the encyclopedia, with maps contributed by British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who is best known as Winston Churchill's official biographer.

 Unlike most encyclopedias, Pollack said, the articles in the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History are organized topically instead of alphabetically, and the articles are analytical as well as packed with information. The topics include immigration, Jewish communities, Judaism, anti-Semitism, Zionism, the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors, Jews and politics, Jews and the labor movement and Jews' relations with other groups, among others. In addition, the encyclopedia includes sections on literature, art, music, sports, and entertainment and popular culture, with articles on Broadway, Hollywood, the comics, Harry Houdini, the Marx Brothers and many other subjects.

Many Jewish immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants in the early 20th century changed their names, including Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline in Russia), George Burns (born Nathan Birnbaum), Jerry Lewis (born Joseph Levitch) and Kirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch). But Pollack points out that America eventually became the first society that offered tremendous opportunities for Jews without them having to convert to Christianity or change their names -- particularly from the 1960s onward, when large parts of corporate America, including the banking and legal professions, and universities became more open to Jews.

"The Jews who changed their names did so in part because of anti-Semitism, but also because they were planning to stay in the U.S. Other immigrants, such as Italians, would go back and forth to their homeland and family members, and so didn't want to change their names. Jews also tended to come to the U.S. as an entire family," she said.

Pollack, who teaches a course in the UNT Jewish studies program called Jewish Women in Modern America, says Jews who immigrated to America, particularly those in the large migration of 1881-1924, "came with a very different gender system" from that of other immigrants.

"While other women were staying home, many Jewish women were working to supplement the family income so men would be free to study the Talmud," she said. "For centuries, many Jews married at a young age, and the male's in-laws helped to support his studies. Fathers wanted their daughters to marry men who studied the Talmud."

Jewish women, she said, were prominent in the American feminist and labor movements, founded Weight Watchers and developed Barbie and Ken dolls. In addition, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, Lena Himmelstein Bryant Malsin, founded Lane Bryant, one of the largest retailers of women's plus-size apparel, Pollack said.

Jewish men, meanwhile, built many hospitals and orphanages, were pioneers in creating musical comedy, science fiction stories, superheroes and comic books and, as late as 1982, comprised the large majority of stand-up comedians in the U.S., she said.

"People wonder why the Jews have done so well financially in America. The truth is that they haven't always done so well -- many were very poor," she said. "But they have always had a profound role in shaping America, although they've never been more than 3.9 percent of the population."

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