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Class in the United States may be one of the hardest things to determine, and yet one of the most determinant forces. While this has not always been the case, it has increasingly been so since the end of the Second World War, when a mix of economic prosperity and consumer culture helped spin a fantasy of social equality. (1) The belief in an expanding middle class served as confirmation of fading class lines, but the postwar obsession with talking about the middle class also evidenced that class still mattered in American life. The trouble was how to define class, especially the middle class. The knowledge that class shaped American life, and yet that few Americans could articulate how, bred a particular kind of anxiety. In 1955, for example, Allen Ginsberg excoriated middle-class culture in his poem "Howl," and that same year Sloan Wilson depicted suburban middle-class life as desperately meaningless in his novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. (2) Novelists and poets were not alone in searching for a language of middle-classness. In that same era, a group of social critics popularized a new vocabulary about and in many ways for the middle class. In their new terminology, middle class served as shorthand for the typical and normal in American life. It also came to define much of what was wrong in America. The writings of these social critics reflected a wider cultural ambivalence about the power a newly defined mass public--the postwar middle class--might wield. By diagnosing the problems of the middle class, these critics sought to control and contain its potential power. American Jews shared a deep ambivalence about middle-class power that paralleled broader American trends but also was connected to longstanding anxiety about the consequences of Jews assuming power in the non-Jewish world. (3) By their own accounts, American Jews' economic standing rose remarkably quickly, placing the vast majority of them in the ranks of the middle class by the postwar era. (4) General portraits written about the middle class often similarly characterized American Jews as paradigmatic of the postwar expansion and democratization of the middle class. Yet neither Jews nor other Americans saw this fact as unequivocal reason for celebration. For centuries, Jewish economic success, a sign of Jewish power, stirred resentment in the non-Jewish world. During the enlightenment, Jews' economic behavior, and stereotypes about it, informed debates about whether Jews were fit for citizenship. (5) Later, these ideas filtered into the theories of many influential social commentators, even some of Jewish origin. In his famous 1844 essay, "On the Jewish Question," Karl Marx posited that Jewish money--what he termed the Jews' "worldly God"--and Jewish "huckstering"--the Jews' "worldly religion"--dominated Europe, making true emancipation and equality impossible. (6) While his true nemesis was bourgeois society, Marx's contention that Jewish economic power perpetuated societal ills fueled pernicious conspiracy theories about Jews that arose in the late nineteenth century. In the United States, Jews hoped to prove their Americanness precisely through their rising economic status. Yet, although America was not Europe, suspicion about Jews' economic success followed them across the Atlantic. During the Great Depression, some populist leaders, respinning Marx's almost century-old conclusions, tried to characterize Jews as at the helm of an economic system that benefited them more than others. (7) When economic times were better, however, Americans tended to eschew socialist-tinged rejections of capitalism. Instead they believed that money was a legitimate marker of success.

December 1
American Jewish Historical Society
The Gale Group, Inc., a Delaware corporation and an affiliate of Cengage Learning, Inc.

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