קונגרס העולמי ה-18 למדעי היהדות

“What the Jews Believe”: Life Magazine Introduces Americans to Judaism, 1950

September 11, 1950 was a proud day for Rabbi Philip S. Bernstein. His article, “What the Jews Believe” was featured on the cover of Life, a magazine read by 13.5 million people. Of all of the publications in the Time Inc. parent company, Life, with its mission to show readers the world through photographs, was the magazine intended for the widest readership. It had become a kind of national arbiter of what counted as part of the American Way of Life, and this issue, appearing on newsstands just before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was no different. Its pages contained photographs ranging from the frontlines of the Korean War to Hollywood. Photographs and texts combined, in Life, to educate readers about events they might never encounter in their daily lives. Bernstein’s “What the Jews Believe” followed this pattern. It offered readers a clear explanation of a religion with which many Americans were only vaguely acquainted.

The essay portrayed Judaism cautiously, and without revealing much that the Christian reader would find foreign. Although the Life editor instructed the rabbi-author not to write his article as a retort to antisemitism, that was difficult advice to follow for a rabbi who had come of age during the antisemitic 1920s and 1930s. Explaining Judaism to such a large, mixed middlebrow readership – still unusual for a rabbi – was inherently an act of anti-antisemitism as writers like Bernstein sought to present Judaism in a way that would earn their readers’ sympathy and with full knowledge of the kind of antisemitic views that Americans might bring to such a reading.