The Study of Man: Jewish Personality Traits
There has been much talk of Jewish personality traits, but little study of them.
HAROLD ORLANSKY / OCT. 1, 1946
There has been much talk of Jewish personality traits, but little study of them. Stereotypes supersede critical judgment, argument substitutes for investigation, and the whole question is enveloped in myth. Jews are more intelligent, Jews are shrewd, Jews feel inferior, Jews feel superior, Jews are neurotic or psychotic, Jews are this or that—you take your choice; perhaps the assertions have some basis in reality, perhaps not.
It is possible to determine personality traits scientifically, and such scientific determination must be the final arbiter. While some illumination may be gained from literary and speculative discussions of the Jews, the lone man’s thinking, based on his uncontrolled experience, can do little more than offer lines of study. Only the social scientist, working intelligently within the boundaries of scientific discipline, can tell us which propositions are true and which are false.
The purpose of this article is to summarize the results of scientific study of Jewish personality. Our object is not so much to give a rounded picture of Jewish personality as to identify those traits differentiating it from the average non-Jewish personality. To this end, attention will be focused upon investigations that have compared groups of Jews and non-Jews and reached significant, verifiable conclusions.
A preliminary word of caution: A directors of research, the social scientists, are ordinary members of society, sharing its passions, opinions, and limitations as much as any midwife. In addition, unfortunately, most scientists belong to the same social class. If their status were more varied, variant opinions might counterbalance one another, enlarging the total perspective; but the vast body of contemporary social science operates within an academic framework whose intellectual boundaries are no less rigid for being unperceived. The security of tenure in a cloistered world calms discontent; irreverent or political activity is eschewed; the academician tends to woo the status quo. These conditions circumscribe the scope, and qualify the findings, of most current social research.
The academician does not study reality in a manner best calculated to answer a particular question (and the questions he asks frequently have relevance only to members of his profession); instead he tends to examine such pieces of reality as float by him in the classroom or library, aspects of society that are comfortably accessible and often, also, comforting. A recent ambitious study of the “normal man,” for instance, selected only Harvard men for analysis! A critic has rightly remarked that “the existing science of human behavior is largely the science of the behavior of sophomores.” The field anthropologist, and sociologists such as those of the Chicago school, offer exceptions, but here, too, research has a way of being channeled into convenient grooves, and the fresh outlook is rare. No group of social scientists has sinned more in this manner than the psychologists, to whom we shall have to turn for most of our information on Jewish personality.
Perhaps a hundred psychologists have been sufficiently interested in various aspects of Jewish personality to publish papers on the subject in English-language journals. Yet none has selected a representative sample of Jews and compared their behavior with a similar sample of non-Jews in real-life situations. Such an enterprise might settle the problems posed, but it would take the psychologist away from his desk and involve him in collaboration with non-collegiate organizations. What we have instead is a series of erratic, disparate, and occasionally contradictory findings based upon pencil-and-paper tests of students, clinical observations of maladjusted individuals, and unchecked generalizations from personal experience. And these investigations are largely confined to shallow, isolated dimensions of personality: studies of the whole Jewish personality by a multiplicity of the techniques available to modern psychology are still unknown.
This is a poor basis on which to work, but we cannot alter the materials at hand. What we can do is use them judiciously. Future psychologists will build with more durable material.
According to a basic conclusion of contemporary social science, charecter is to say Instincts social structure. That is to say: Instincts and racially (i.e genetically) determined properties do not explain why groups of men differ in their character and behavior (except in purely physiological ways: ability to withstand sunburn, for example, or immunity to yellow fever). On the other hand, the social conditions under which men live do tend to explain differences in behavior—and even certain physiological functions, such as upright posture or night vision, are surprisingly modified by social circumstance. Jewish personality, then, is not a hereditary constant, but a shifting substance that varies with time and culture. While it is true that common elements may be found in the social position of all Jews since the Diaspora, these are insufficient to condition a universal Jewish prototype. The Yemenite Jew, the medieval Jew, the Palestinian Jewish farmer, are essentially dissimilar.
Here we are concerned primarily with the personality of the modem American Jew, though comparative evidence on European Jews may be of some relevance.
American Jewry presents a diverse picture, with differing national backgrounds, class characteristics, and degrees of assimilation. Even within a single generation, these differences are so manifest that Louis Wirth, after listing various common Jewish personality types (e.g the mensh, allrightnick, shlemiel, luftmensh, genosse), was led to declare: “Striking as the differences between Jew and non-Jew may be, the individual and sectional differences within the Jewish group are even greater” (“Some Jewish Types of Personality,” Publications of the American Sociological Society, Number 20, 1926). And a recent study of twelve college groups found that the two whose members held the most widely-separated personal values were, respectively, a group of Jewish theology students, and a group of Jews banded together in a political club. (A. Woodruff, “Personal Values and Religious Backgrounds,” Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 22, 1945.)
But we should not overdo our dialectics. If there is any meaning at all to the notion of Jews (and there is), their culture (the term is used in its anthropological sense) must be distinguishable from that of non-Jews, and consequently their personality also must be so distinguishable, since personality may be defined as the level at which the individual interacts with his culture.
For the purpose of having a background against which to view Jewish personality, it is enough to describe the Jewish group as an underprivileged minority in a marginal social position, and the individual Jew, like the light mulatto, as a typical marginal man. All American Jews are not in the same marginal position, nor do they all react to their positions identically. The devout Jew absorbed in Hebraic tradition is on a firmer psychological foundation than the rebellious intellectual; the wealthy Jew of Spanish ancestry has his personality oriented differently from the poor East European Jew; changes in the structure and stability of individual Jewish families are reflected in the character of their children. When from this manifold variety we abstract the “typical” Jew, it need hardly be added that he is a statistical fiction; indeed, the irregular testimony of the facts sometimes inclines one to think he is a total and inconvenient fiction. However that may be, we will proceed with our attempt to describe him.
There are two points around which an integrated are pattern of Jewish personality is often constructed: neurosis and inferiority. Robert Park, who introduced the concept of the “marginal man,” characterized him as suffering from “spiritual instability, intensified self-consciousness, restlessness, and malaise” (“Human Migration and the Marginal Man,” American Journal of Sociology, Volume 33, 1928). These are classical symptoms of the neurotic personality, which the Jew undoubtedly shares with his Christian fellows; but, for all its theoretical likelihood, actual evidence of a distinctive Jewish bent toward neurosis is indecisive (we will return to this subject later). It seems preferable, therefore, to begin with the inferiority complex, a less involved concept, whose applicability to Jewish personality is immediately suggested by the Jew’s inferior social status.
The Jewish child is not blind to society’s appraisal of him. Understanding of the fact that he is a Jew has been shown to occur generally between the ages of four and five (L. Lehrer, “‘Jewishness’ in the Psyche of the American Jewish Child,” Yivo Bleter, Volume 4, 1942). From that point on, normal development as a free individual is impossible: the child’s personality must insulate itself against public scorn and rejection, either directly experienced or anticipated. The evidence indicates that a majority of American Jews have had direct experience of frustrating anti-Semitic situations; the remainder experience these situations vicariously through identification with the Jewish group.
The Jewish child cannot help taking as his own, society’s evaluation of the Jewish stereotype. We have then the primary form of inferiority feeling and its consequence, self-hatred. “I could bite my arm when I see how black it is,” a colored girl once said. Analogous emotions are felt by many Jews, as Theodore Lessing pointed out in his book J ü discher SelbstHass Hershel Meyer has noted a self-accusatory vein in medieval Jewish literature: “After every pogrom or exile, there usually appeared various . . . admonitions to regard the visitations as punishment for some grave sin” (“Nationalism and Jewish Self-Hatred,” Medical Leaves, Volume 3, 1941). In our own day, self-castigation can be seen in the frequent assertion by Jews—especially the more assimilated—that the behavior of fellow-Jews is partly responsible for anti-Semitism. Other evidence is afforded by the disparaging popular attitude toward Yiddish, and by the nature of Jewish wit: “. . . cruel and shameless self-abasement and exhibition of the Jews’ own weaknesses and mistakes,” Theodor Reik said of it (“Zur Psychoanalyse des jüdischen Witzes,” Imago, Volume 13, 1929). “Unable to take revenge upon their oppressors, the Jews . . . introject the object of hate and . . . enjoy the expression of witty malice and verbal revenge against the enemy in the self.”
Experimental confirmation of the Jewish inferiority complex, however, is inconclusive. The writer knows of only two cases in which comparable groups of Jews and non-Jews were tested in this regard: one test found no significant differences in superiority-inferiority feelings between two student groups at the College of the City of New York (A. Sperling, Journal of Applied Psychology, Volume 26, 1942); the other test found Jewish freshmen at Minnesota University to average decidedly higher inferiority-complex scores than non-Jewish freshmen (K. Sward and M. Friedman, “Jewish Temperament,” Journal of Applied Psychology, Volume 9, 1935). It should not be surprising, however, if standard personality tests fail to record a predominance of Jewish inferiority, since compensatory mechanisms frequently transform inferiority into something that the tests would not identify as such. Inferiority must be studied at unconscious levels as well as conscious, and in terms of both the total personality and the social pattern, before convincing conclusions can be reached. Lacking such fuller knowledge, we can only continue our critical review of the facts now available.
One psychologist (P. Eisenberg, Journal of Consulting Psychology, Volume, 1937) conducted a rather careful study of several hundred students at Columbia and Bamard colleges to determine factors related to feelings of dominance. (“The dominant individual feels self-confident, has a high self-evaluation, feels superior, feels at ease with people, and feels that he can control others. . . .”) He found that the Jews generally felt more dominant than either Protestants or Catholics, and offered the explanation that “‘the Jewish group . . . due to feelings of insecurity . . . react by compensating.” Such compensatory forms may be called secondary or derivative manifestations of Jewish inferiority feelings. At the same time, it becomes evident that an adequate analysis of Jewish personality is not possible solely on the basis of inferiority; various other elements—for example, real social insecurity—are equally important in stimulating the drive for achievement.
The sudden increase of anti-Semitism in the early years of the Nazi regime was observed to produce in German Jews a desire for aggression and power and a compulsive striving for social and professional recognition. The constant struggle to subdue an unfriendly world, to attain some sense of personal security, could well produce “aggressiveness.” Several studies have agreed in finding New York Jewish high-school and college students more aggressive, on the average, than non-Jewish students. This aggressiveness may offer an added psychological explanation for such pre-eminence as Jews have achieved in particular areas of American business, art, or intellect. Yet there is a common tendency, even among psychologists who really know better, to relapse into a racial or hereditary explanation of Jewish success in these fields and to neglect the social factors that have conditioned that success. British social scientists, long eugenics-minded, are notoriously guilty of this error.
The importance (and difficulty) of a thorough consideration of social factors can be seen from the problem of intelligence, which has been more studied than any other phase of Jewish personality. The popular supposition is that Jews are superior in intelligence to non-Jews because of racial or social factors that act alike on all Jews; a common theory combines both views, holding that the hostile environments have produced an intelligent breed of Jews by survival of the fittest. But these theories come up against the fact that there is as yet no proof of the thesis of superior Jewish intelligence.
The matter is complex, and statistical or experimental isolation of a single variable is not easy, but the shortcomings of academic research must also be held responsible for the failure to answer a question on which so much attention has been focused. Of more than thirty published reports (five summaries of these reports are also extant) half can be dismissed at once as worthless, because they disregard the most elementary scientific precautions: some base conclusions on an insufficient number of cases or on tests that do not measure the quality sought; others omit the data on which conclusions are based, or defend results that are statistically unreliable. One prominent psychologist, C. C. Brigham, was honest enough to confess later that his study was quite invalid.
The remaining reports can be summarized as follows: The intelligence of Jews was found superior to that of non-Jews in three tests of public-school children in Boston and New York, and in four tests of college students at C. C. N. Y., Columbia, Ohio State, and Pittsburgh; Jewish intelligence was found superior to that of Italians in two tests of New York public-school children; children of Yiddish-speaking parents were found superior to children of other foreign-language groups in Detroit public schools; Jewish children were found superior to non-Jewish in three London schools. One test of Pittsburgh University freshmen and one of New York public-school children found no significant differences in intelligence between Jews and non-Jews; and a Detroit public-school test found children of Yiddish-speaking parents to have lower intelligence than children of native-born whites.
Superficially, the weight of the studies appears cast on the side of superior Jewish intelligence. But such a generalization is quite unwarranted: none of the studies adequately equated the socioeconomic status of the groups tested or controlled the language handicaps of their subjects, and both status and language-fluency are known to correlate directly with intelligence as defined by psychological tests. Indeed, the I.Q., or intelligence quotient, actually measures performance ability in our society rather than the still undetermined element, “native ability,” for which no valid measure has yet been devised. Keeping this qualification in mind, we find one significant study that offers a possible way to reconcile the somewhat contradictory findings cited above.
This study, conducted a few years ago by Audrey Shuey (Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 15, 1942) examined the intelligence of 3,000 freshmen at New York University’s Washington Square College. No reliable difference was found between the intelligence of Christian and Jewish students. The over-all ranking by religious groups was Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, in descending order of intelligence, but when the groups were equated by social characteristics—e.g type of secondary education, country of birth, age, etc.—their scores became more equal. “It is to be presumed that the differences found would be further reduced or eliminated with further equating processes,” Miss Shuey concludes, pointing out that the Washington Square students constitute a more homogeneous group than those at Columbia or Ohio State, where Jewish intelligence was found to be superior. Her hypothesis appears reasonable, and should additional investigations sustain it, the ghost of native Jewish brilliance will finally be laid—possibly. Previous findings of high intelligence would then be attributable to such factors as the selection of a picked sample (as at colleges from which Jewish students of inferior intelligence are excluded by discrimination), the Jew’s emphasis upon education as a device for assimilation and social mobility, and, more generally, his sophisticated, bi-cultural urban status.
The proof of this lies in the divergent intelligence scores obtained by members of subsections of the Jewish population in accordance with their degree of Americanization and social status: tests have ranked Polish Jewish children in a New York school as more intelligent than Russian Jewish children; New York University students with native-born Jewish parents as more intelligent than those with foreign-born Jewish parents; and Jews of high socio-economic status as more intelligent than Jews of low status. In short, certain social situations bring forth Jews of high intelligence, much as great Negro athletes are produced by other situations, but there is no evidence of general Jewish mental superiority.
The recalcitrance of the facts of intelligence The may stand as warning against sweeping deductions in other realms of personality. The trouble with such deductions is that they project principles derived from a limited range of phenomena upon a broad world, whereas the living world is made up not of isolated principles, but organic wholes. More closely examined, the principle—not the world—collapses. A case in point is the complex problem of Jewish psychosis and neurosis.
It was formerly asserted that the frequency of psychosis among Jews was greater than among non-Jews, and limited observations seemed to substantiate the claim. A ready rationale was available: the tensions of minority life magnify normal predispositions to insanity. Unfortunately for the premature theorists, subsequent studies failed to confirm the theory. Statistics of first admissions to mental institutions in New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois, show the Jewish rate to be less than half the non-Jewish. The New York data (two decades old, it is true) reveal Jewish commitments as lower than non-Jewish in every important psychosis. However, functional or “emotional” disorders like dementia praecox and manic-depressive psychosis predominate among the Jewish insane over degenerative organic psychoses like general paresis, senile psychoses, and cerebral arteriosclerosis (though these have increased among Jews in recent years). The factual residue thus appears, at present, to be: American Jews have a lower incidence of insanity than non-Jews, but Jewish insanity generally has an emotional rather than organic origin—probably more so than among non-Jews.
When it comes to the matter of neurosis, psychiatric opinion holds that Jews are more neurotic or anxiety-ridden than non-Jews—A. A. Brill, Abraham Myerson, and Israel S. Wechsler may be mentioned as exponents of this view. The last writes: “ . . . if being a Jew means to have a neurotic character make-up (which it does) . . . consolation may be found in the fact that among all peoples and races whatever progress was made came from men of neurotic make-ups, if not with actual neuroses” (“Nervousness and the Jew,” Menorah Journal, Volume mo, 1924).
The causes of Jewish neurosis are attributed by these authorities to the taboos and inhibitions of Mosaic law, to the unconscious “incest motive” resulting from exceptionally close ties within the Jewish family, to exclusion from manual activity and “seclusion into a world of life predominantly cerebral,” and to the tensions of minority life. On the last score, Wechsler observes: “. . . a special and ever-Alert mental attitude had to be developed to meet the ever-present threat of destruction. There was thus engendered the intense emotion of fear which was denied the possibility of fight or flight . . . This undue intensification of fear without outlet . . . engendered a constant emotional fermentation and repression, a perpetual state of anxiety.”
Generalizations by practising psychiatrists, however, invite errors resulting from the selective nature of their experience. For example, since the three doctors just cited are Jews, their patients may have been disproportionately Jewish. The only empirical verification comes, as usual, from studies of college students, and these studies are by no means in unanimous agreement on the hypothesis of neurotic Jewish personality. Jewish students were found more neurotic than non-Jews in tests at the universities of Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and Chicago; at the last-named institution, the Jewish neurotic score was only slightly above the norm, and the investigators warn that “the difference is not large enough to warrant any sweeping conclusions about the neurotic tendencies of the Jews.” On the other hand, negative findings are recorded at C. C. N. Y. and at Minnesota, where a study of over a hundred Jewish students, principally members of the Hillel Foundation, concluded that “the majority of these Jewish students are . . . at least as well adjusted as are students generally. Certainly we are not dealing with a group of neurotics.”
A few scattered aspects of personality remain on which some information is available. m. First, there is the much debated subject of radicalism. Here, for once, psychological tests lend unequivocal support to a conventional stereotype. All studies with which the writer is acquainted agree that Jewish students are more liberal and radical than non-Jewish students in their attitudes on political, social, and religious matters. Specifically, Jewish students have been found to be more opposed to prohibition, and more sympathetic to pacifism and communism, more liberal in their attitude to sexual mores and birth control, and, invariably, less religious than Catholics or Protestants.
The explanation of Jewish radicalism is fairly obvious. As Lewis Browne puts it: “There is no denying that we Jews as a group are especially prone to favor change in the present order. But what else can you expect? If the present order won’t accept us, how can we accept it?” Evidently, where the possibility of social change exists, the marginal minority position breeds rebellion, especially among members of the younger generation. Jessie Bernard has given a good description of radical Jewish adolescents in a paper entitled “Biculturality: A Study in Social Schizophrenia” (in I. Graeber and S. Britt, eds., Jews in a Gentile World, New York, 1942). “They had rejected Judaism and now their sense of shame and guilt made them want to tear down the Gentile world also. Since they could be neither Jew nor Gentile they must destroy everything these stood for. It was very easy for them to be revolutionaries because they felt outside of the whole system.”
2. There is a little evidence to support the supposition that Jewish families are more closely knit than non-Jewish. An unsatisfactory study of Vicksburg families (S. Brav, Jewish Family Solidarity: Myth or Fact? Vicksburg, 1940) supports the supposition, and observers at state hospitals have noted that Jewish patients are visited more often, and by more visitors, than other patients. But research is certainly needed to establish the hypothesis of Jewish family solidarity.
3. Kretschmer believed that Jewish temperament was associated with a distinctive physical constitution and glandular balance. His thesis is without proof, but psychosomatic medicine may yet confirm similar relations which are still obscure. For instance, there appears to be a relation between the Jew’s social insecurity and his attitude to food and drink, and this attitude might have organic correlates. It is known that alcoholism and alcoholic psychoses are exceedingly rare among Jews; the proscriptions against intoxication are possibly due to a deep cultural orientation toward reality. Dr. Wechsler, who postulates such an orientation in his article cited above, points out that the emphasis upon realism and the avoidance of mysticism in Jewish religion was later reinforced by the “stern external necessity” of facing reality in the social struggle for survival. This view fits in with the importance given to education and learning in the Jewish family, and would help to explain why Jews are generally unable to accept the reality-escape of chronic alcoholism.
Some of the inhibitions and anxieties that non-Jews release by alcohol may, among Jews, be directed to a preoccupation with food. Social workers in a Hartford psychiatric clinic have noted that feeding problems occur more frequently among Jewish than among non-Jewish children, and a 1925 study by Leydesdorf in Holland found Jews more fond of eating and drinking than non-Jews (but less fond of drinking alcohol). These scraps of information are all that the writer has found on the subject. However, a paper by Hilde Bruch and Grace Touraine in Psychosomatic Medicine (Volume 2, 1940) offers an analysis of childhood obesity that should be relevant also to the psychological significance of food in Jewish households: “The marginal economic level of these families seemed to be a contributing factor in the overfeeding. Abundance of food represented the one contribution to luxury which the mother could make and which gave a certain sense of affluence. . . . [In] an environment which does not offer adequate emotional security, food gains an inordinate importance. Food is offered and received not alone for the appeasement of a bodily need but it is highly charged with emotional value.”
4. One psychologist—Keith Sward—has suggested that Jewish women may have better adjusted temperaments, on the average, than Jewish men because they are in a more sheltered social position. As a result of an investigation among Cleveland students and their parents, he concludes: “Jewish mothers reproduce the picture of their mates, though in a less pronounced degree. . . . There is . . . slight evidence . . . pointing to a feminine advantage in the struggle for racial adjustment.”
5. Numerous other aspects of personality have been briefly touched upon by investigators, but the findings are so meager and contradictory, or so vague and meaningless, that little value can be attached to them. Thus, Jewish students have been found both more extroverted and more introverted than non-Jews, while a third study found no difference in this regard. Two studies have found Jews more “sociable” and “gregarious” than non-Jews. Other tests found Jews more “alert,” more “able to accept responsibility,” more “aesthetically inclined,” less “attractive,” and less “reliable” than non-Jews.
This last series of “findings” illustrates the follies to which psychologists succumb at times in their over-zealous use of attitude tests. The assumption that any series of questions that yields differentiated responses therefore provides a significant index of difference in attitude or behavior on the part of respondents, or that answers reflect the same dimension of personality as that which the questions are designed to measure, is often made quite gratuitously, whereas in reality many tests, like broken scales, measure nothing but their own imperfections. (For example, a test submitted to Jewish students purports to measure “aesthetic value,” defined as “interest in form, harmony, fitness, beauty,” and another is supposed to measure “religious value,” defined as “concern over the ultimate nature of the universe and one’s own relation thereto.”)
Summing up the principal features of Jewish personality about which any sort of .scientific evidence is available, the following traits may be tentatively listed: inferiority feelings, self-hatred, neurosis (?), striving for dominance, aggression, radicalism. Apparently a great deal of ambivalence inheres in Jewish character—both within the Jewish group, where one individual may be as timid as another is aggressive, and within the individual, where submissive and aggressive tendencies may wage constant emotional war.
After a good deal of labor in reading the extensive literature, and some thought as to how the results might best be synthesized, the writer cannot escape the feeling of failure: a crisp and neatly packaged formulation of Jewish personality has escaped him. This may be a result of his own and the investigations’ shortcomings. But perhaps Jewish character is not such a clear-cut entity as to be immediately distinguishable from the character of non-Jews—especially of other urban dwellers. It would be easy to seize upon some likely theme—anxiety, sensitivity, insecurity, masochism—collect supporting references, and generalize about the “essential nature” of Jewish character. Such intuitive constructions are personally, but not scientifically, satisfying. Instead, we have recorded the facts as they are known today; if they are relatively unsatisfying, it is because the truth is not always simple or easy to come upon.