American Idyll

Reviewed by Jerome A. Chanes

American Judaism: A History
by Jonathan D. Sarna
Yale University Press, 2004, 512 pages.

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f Europe were to become a prison,” mused the poet Heinrich Heine, “America would still present a loophole of escape…. Then may the Jews take their harps down from the willows and sit close by the Hudson to sing their sweet songs of praise and chant the lays of Zion.” Spoken nearly a century before his country marched six million European Jews to their deaths, Heine’s words proved prophetic. Come to America they did—and they have been singing its praises ever since.

The contemporary historiography of the American Jewish experience—a reflection of the ways in which Jews in different decades looked at the society around them and at themselves—begins in 1957 with Nathan Glazer’s popular American Judaism, which integrated the history of American Judaism into the sociology of American religions. This was followed by Henry Feingold’s Zion in America (1974), which placed American Jewish history in the context of American political history, and by Abraham Karp’s Haven and Home (1985), which, introducing a sense of social history to American Jewish history, argued that Jews flourished in America as much on account of American ideals as on account of their own religious values and traditions. Arthur Hertzberg’s idiosyncratic but thoughtful The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter (1989) was the first to analyze the contemporary debate over Jewish continuity in the United States from a historical perspective, and constituted a major statement against “transformationalism.” The regnant ideology at the time, transformationalism insisted that the Jewish community was not disintegrating, but merely transforming the ways in which it expressed its Jewishness. Howard Sachar’s massive A History of the Jews in America (1992)—journalistic and readable, albeit replete with factual errors—was the first to explore in detail post-1940 developments. Finally, Hasia Diner’s Jews of the United States: 1654-2000 (2004) “collapses” the German Jewish and eastern European waves of immigration, suggesting a continuity between the two.
Jonathan Sarna’s magisterial American Judaism in some ways completes the circle, returning to where Glazer began. Sarna aims to refract American Judaism through the prism of American history, and in so doing to gain insight into how American Jewish life developed. An estimable agenda, indeed, and Sarna—a professor at Brandeis with some twenty books under his belt—succeeds estimably.

Jerome A. Chanes is an editor of A Portrait of the American Jewish Community (Praeger, 1998). He has taught at Barnard and Stern Colleges.

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