"Going Greek": A social history of Jewish college fraternities in the United States, 1895-1945
Secret student societies have an extensive history reaching back to medieval Europe. In the U.S., the so-called "Greek System" began its ascent in influence at American colleges from the 1820s onward and in particular after the Civil War (the use of Greek letters was meant to recall the glories of the ancients and to stress the difference between the "Greeks" on the one hand, and the excluded "barbarians" on the other). Despite their objectionable aspects, college administrators saw fraternities as an advantageous and inexpensive way to feed, house, and control students, as well as to foster alumni loyalty. In addition, the social training and contacts students gained were considered an asset in the world of business and public life following graduation into an increasingly industrialized and capitalist working world. By 1900 the "Greek system" was an integral part of American higher education, completely dominating campus social life and student politics even when members did not make up the numerical majority.
However, the system was effectively barred to Jews because of Christian symbolism inherent in fraternity rituals, the reluctance to share living quarters with them, and most often explicit racial and religious restrictive clauses in fraternity constitutions. Such exclusion was intolerable for an immigrant/ethnic group which sought higher education as a form of social and economic advancement and which attended college and professional school in hugely disproportionate numbers. American Jews with means to do so therefore both retaliated and sought comfort among their own by forming a complete parallel fraternity and sorority system which functioned separately from the Gentile groups into the 1950s and in some cases well into the 1960s, until a combination of anti-sectarianism, student indifference, and profound changes in post-World War II American society led to its decline.
This work is an institutional biography and impressionistic narrative using surviving archives and periodicals of the historically Jewish fraternities concentrating on their heyday from 1920 to 1940 and focussing on the twin themes of external anti-Semitism and internal self-hatred. Other themes include: manifestations of the "Best Behavior" syndrome, whereby Jews sought safety by punctilious observance of Gentile modes of deportment; vocational fears of young Jews, especially during the Great Depression; the phenomenon of Jewish student migrancy; intergenerational relations between alumni and undergraduate members; and finally, the extensive social life and match-making role of the Jewish fraternity system.
0745: Higher education
0520: Education history