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Silberman's latest report lauds strength, success of American Jews

A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today, by Charles E. Silberman. New York: Summit Books. 458 pp. $19.95. Charles Silberman has written another major report. This one, unlike his earlier works on crises in race relations, education, and the criminal justice system, sounds no alarms. In fact, in what is perhaps the most optimistic commentary ever written on the subject, the overall message of ``A Certain People'' is that there is no crisis in American Jewish life today.

American Jews are better off than they have ever been. They are healthy, wealthy, and wise to the ways of making it in this unique nation of nations. And they are successful by almost every measure sociologists can devise. Mr. Silberman shows that Jews are now represented in every sector of society. They are doctors and lawyers, anchor men and editors, corporate leaders, presidents of elite universities, and members of Congress. Eight Jews are United States senators, the majority of them represent ing states with small to minuscule Jewish populations. Few formal barriers block the access of Jews to be what they want to be, to go where they want to go, to live as -- and where -- they want.

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In the aggregate, American Jews have achieved something unparalleled in their long history. Silberman claims that they have become an integral and important part of a society that accepts them both individually and collectively. Save for certain segments of the black community, he says there is far less anti-Semitism today than in times past; and there is far more acceptance of the idea that ours is a truly pluralistic country. The result, for increasing numbers of Jews, is to strengthen their sense of dual identity: to be both American and Jewish. Indeed, Silberman claims that in recent years there has been ample evidence that the historian Marcus Lee Hansen was right. (Hansen argued that what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.) Younger Jews have not been racked with anxiety about t heir ascribed status. If anything, they have become more pridefully Jewish.

Silberman suggests that what he found in six years of research -- and a lifetime of reflection on his own estate -- is a revelation of positive adjustment. Even that area considered most problematic, intermarriage -- always perceived as the single most serious threat to the perpetuation of Jewish existence in a country where Jews are now but 3 percent of the population -- is viewed from an upbeat perspective. His evidence suggests that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, new members seem to be j oining Jewish ranks through conversion as fast as older ones are leaving through indifference or rejection owing to their act of marital defiance.

For all the richly documented analyses and bulleted items inserted in the text to telegraph a point or relate an anecdote, the overall assessment leaves this reviewer a bit uneasy. The problem is not what Silberman says, but what is left out.

Throughout his book, Silberman judges success and security from the perspectives of those ``Jews of every age and rank and persuasion'' he interviewed or those whose studies of Jews he pursued. Yet, with a few exceptions, there is little in-depth examination of what gentiles of various ages, ranks, persuasions, and regions believe and feel about Jews today. One suspects that such an investigation would show a more complex set of attitudes than Silberman's Jewish informants perceive.

Peter I. Rose is a sociologist and writer. His latest book is ``Mainstream and Margins: Jews, Blacks, and Other Americans.''

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