From Freud to Ann Landers, Jewish psychologists and advice columnists have been instrumental in shaping the collective American psyche, but often took pains to downplay their background. And as a rule, historians have avoided examining how the shared heritage of these popular thinkers has affected the modern understanding of the self. In Jews and the American Soul, Andrew Heinze argues that, whether or not they were conscious of it, they share a moral sensibility grounded in the Hebrew Bible.
Why write a book specifically about Jewish psychologists in America?
To show that Jews in the 20th century were central actors in the development of American ideas of the psyche, the soul, human nature, and so forth. People have been aware that there are a lot of famous Jews—that’s not surprising—but even among historians, there’s no sense that anything distinctively Jewish was conveyed into mainstream American thought in such an important area as popular psychology.
You talk about many Jewish figures in psychological thought since the 1890s. What ties them all together?
The Jews involved in popularizing psychological ideas tended to say things that they had in common but were not shared with non-Jewish counterparts. For example, in the early 1900s they reacted much more to mainstream ideas about intelligence and the degree to which different ethnic groups might have different capacities and personality traits. So many were immigrants and were fighting the nativists who were using these psychological arguments to shut down immigration. The Jewish thinkers seemed to almost have a consensus against these hereditarian ideas. And what they said about the most basic questions of human nature changed the American conversation.
Is there one thing they all have in common?
I would say a Jewish moral perspective—a specific Jewish moral sensibility marching into the mainstream culture.
How would you characterize that perspective?
In a lot of ways it would overlap with a Christian moral perspective: both read the Book of Proverbs, for example, which has moral instruction. But it also exists in tension with a Christian moral perspective. In the early years of psychology, there were tendencies to almost euphoric views about how one can totally transform oneself. The Jews didn’t jump on that bandwagon; they pulled back and followed a more guarded optimism. They didn’t subscribe to those notions partly because of the Jewish rationalist tradition, but also because they had no model like the Christian conversion experience. Especially for Protestants, there’s a model of complete transformation—the Holy Ghost can enter you and purge you of sin. There really wasn’t anything like that in mainstream Judaism.
The Jewish approach comes more from the tradition of musar, to keep working at moral improvement. It’s hopeful, but emphasizes self-discipline and emotional self-control. The people I talk about emphasized evil, took a slightly darker view about human nature. I ascribe that to the basic Jewish historic sensibility—the Inquisition, pogroms, the whole history of persecution.
All of these people grew up in a world which was Jewish in important ways. Many of them were immigrants or came from immigrant families; some grew up in religious households. It’s only after you introduce those biographical details that it makes sense: These people were raised as Jews. They may have become secular, but it’s not like you forget your parents or that you went to a Jewish school or studied the Bible. What was really interesting with Freud and Adler was that they were both fascinated and inspired by the Bible stories that they learned in Vienna.
Joseph Jastrow was one of the first to really write for a mass audience—was one of the first radio psychologists, had his own newspaper column. Jastrow is a great example of someone projecting his own perspective into the public. His father was a Talmudic scholar and wrote a dictionary of Talmudic terms that is still in use. He was also the brother-in-law to Henrietta Szold. In the secular guise of popular psychology Jastrow carried on what rabbis used to do traditionally—correspondence with Jews who had questions about how to apply Jewish laws, how should you live, the right way to live.
You’ve said you had to be very careful not to overreach. Why?
Well, I could have decided to just write really speculatively, if I had just gone out and said, “This is a Jewish idea, that is Jewish,” maybe I could have written a best seller. But it was important to make a dent in the way that people teach and write about 20th century American history. Academics especially can be very wary about any ascription of Jewishness to any of these ideas. Even with Erich Fromm, who was a yeshiva bocher, Orthodox until he was 20, you couldn’t make more of a case about how completely Jewishly saturated his whole perspective was. Yet somehow no one had ever really emphasized that before. Believe me, I have gotten into trouble in academic circles for trying to isolate this as a Jewish experience. Some people were really bugged about the fact that I was singling out Jews.
David Hollinger pointed out that a persistent inhibition, based on the legitimate desire to avoid ethnic stereotyping, has kept scholars from investigating the ways in which Jewishness might have figured into what intellectuals chose to write and talk about. Put into normal language, there’s one real good reason to be wary about saying this is a Jewish idea and that’s a Jewish idea: that was the kind of thing the Nazis did. They posited that there is a German or Aryan consciousness or mind or soul or psyche and a Jewish one and that they are essentially different. Among Jews there is a hesitancy to talk too much about Jewish influence. And this is even more true for historians who are not themselves Jewish. Those are tricky waters.
Does this inhibition impede scholarship, or is it a good thing?
It can be good. For example, when I submitted some portions of the book as an essay to The Journal of American History it was intriguing to them, because no one had done this before in this way. But they also raised serious issues. I was forced to actually prove what I thought. But in another instance, the NEH refused my second grant application. From the readers’ comments, I got the sense some of them weren’t evaluating the credentials of the project but were going on this off-the-cuff feeling that there’s nothing Jewish here, why are you singling out these Jews?
You organized a panel at the Scholars’ Conference in American Jewish History on the “crisis of relevance.” What is that crisis?
Jews will generally come up in courses and texts when it’s time to talk about the big immigration between the 1870s and the 1920s, the same time you talk about the Italians and the Slavs. What I was saying is that in several areas of American history, and I single out the economy and the growth of American culture and society, Jews have been important in shaping the American experience, way out of proportion to their numbers. But we know almost nothing about that.
Why do you think that is?
The burden of responsibility falls on scholars that are dealing with the history of American Jews to make the case—not just talking within Jewish intramural circles, but making the case to people who do U.S. history in general. The people who do this work need to impress others within the field, so that the ways in which Jews were involved in the reshaping of American popular culture and intellectual life become part of the larger American story, not just something that gets recycled every year in the same Jewish venues.
What’s your next project?
I switched gears completely and decided to move into fiction. I wrote a coming-of-age story set in a New Jersey boarding school in the 1970s. The protagonist is a Jewish boy from a lower-middle-class family who attends this elite school on a scholarship and becomes involved with boys, and a few girls, from backgrounds very different from his own.