In the minds of many historians, and of many Jews as well, American Jewish history is comprised mainly of the travails of immigrant ancestors, the pursuit by grandparents and parents of prosperity and the American way of life, the founding of this or that Jewish organization, and the assorted biographies of Jews who have made their presence felt in national life. As an academic field, American Jewish history is still frequently regarded by professional historians as so much filiopietism, current events, and local color: anecdotes, in short.
The historiographical achievements of the last four decades, however, should have dispelled all such notions. If, in 1892, at the first meeting of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS), it was declared that patriotism required every American ethnic group to record its contributions for posterity, by the 1940’s the imperatives of the field had broadened considerably, through the work, among others, of my teacher Jacob Rader Marcus, the founder of the American Jewish Archives. Today, there are almost 100 local Jewish historical societies in North America and 63 professors at American universities who consider American Jewish history their primary field of interest. There is, as well, a growing monographic literature of high quality and an impressive roster of journals devoted to the study of the American Jewish past.1
A measure of what has been achieved in the last decades can be seen in two recently-published comprehensive histories. Howard M. Sachar’s A History of the Jews in America2 contains a bibliography of 73 pages for a total of at least 1,500 items. (Unfortunately, his book has no footnotes.) In the five volumes of The Jewish People in America3 a work sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society in honor of its centennial, the scholarly apparatus, especially in the endnotes and bibliographical essays, gives daunting testimony to the advanced condition of modern American Jewish historical study.
In its methods and procedures, Sachar’s lively book lies midway between the older and the newer historiography. Sachar, whose previous work ranges from a survey of Jewish history since the 18th century to six volumes on Israel and the Middle East, here summarizes topic after topic with facility and wit, incorporating into his narrative piquant and little-known details.
In Sachar’s telling, Jewish connections crop up in unexpected places. Alexander Hamilton, denied admission to Anglican educational institutions because of his illegitimate birth, studied in the school established by the Jewish community of Jamaica. (As late as 1830 there were probably more Jews in the West Indies than in the United States.) Daniel Boone, having been employed by three pioneer Kentucky Jews, recruited a Jewish lad as his assistant; this fellow would become the first Jew initiated into the Shawnee Indian nation. A Jewish councilman in Dodge City (Kansas) appointed the celebrated sharpshooter Wyatt Earp as U.S. marshal; Earp is buried in a California Jewish cemetery thanks to the San Francisco Jewish woman who became his common-law wife.
Signs of Jewish enterprise span the history of America: at the end of the 18th century, the Monsanto family had built Natchez, Mississippi’s wharf facilities, and helped the town become a thriving river port. In 1882, in one of various attempts to turn Jews into sturdy farmers, 60 Russian Jewish immigrants were escorted by rail to an agricultural settlement that was to be called Beersheba, Kansas. Julia Richman, daughter of German Reform Jews, became the first Jewish public-school principal in New York; in her district, “children lapsing into Yiddish had their mouths washed out with soap.” But I too am lapsing into American Jewish history by anecdote.
More than half of Sachar’s volume deals with the 60 years since the beginning of the Great Depression, the period that will probably be looked on by future historians as the Golden Age of American Jewry. Among these chapters is an account of the “Jewish impact on American culture” which includes a succinct if opinionated survey of Jewish intellectuals and artists, many of them refugees who propelled America into the front rank of almost every field: social science (Alexander Gerschenkron, Paul Lazarsfeld, and others); political theory (Leo Strauss, Hans Morgenthau, and others); medical research (here we are given inter alia a capsule history of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and an account of the famous turn-of-the-century Flexner report reforming American medical training); painting (Chaim Gross, Ben Shahn, and others); musical composition (Ernest Bloch, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein); songwriting, drama, poetry, the novel, literary criticism, publishing, political commentary, and so forth. (There are, to be sure, omissions and mistakes of fact in Sachar’s compendium, and the reader is advised to proceed with caution.)
Sachar has created a frame for his book, one that is meant to convey the reassuring hope that American Jewry, comfortable in a way Jews never were in Europe, will remain dynamically intertwined with its “senior partner,” Israel, in the unfolding destiny of the Jewish people. The book opens with a description of the German Jewish ancestors of a family named Myers arriving in Springfield, Illinois, in 1865, on the same day as Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train. At the end, Sachar returns to this family, which he sees as “a palimpsest of the United States itself” and an emblem of the present state of American Jewry. Some have assimilated; others have intermarried but remain active in the local temple and are raising their children as Jews; still others have deepened their easygoing, Midwestern style of Jewishness through the study of Hebrew, a stay in a kibbutz, marriage with a sabra, or a longing for the Jewish land where they feel especially at home.
Sachar’s measured optimism is usefully contrasted with the generally sober tone adopted by the authors of The Jewish People in America. Although each volume in this series—which has been skillfully arranged and edited by Henry L. Feingold—has a somewhat different point of view and style, all proceed in basically the same way, treating their designated phases of American Jewish history topically so that geography, economics, religious institutions, secular organizations, politics, and culture are covered systematically and in relation to one another. In addition, one of the most valuable features of the first three volumes is the space given to descriptions of the Old World background of Jewish immigrants to America. Although these newcomers were creating a community in an environment without parallel in Jewish history, they brought with them expectations, values, and skills that shaped their response to their new home.
In A Time for Planting (the title of each book in the series echoes a phrase from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8), Eli Faber indicates that, apart from a few places such as Massachusetts and Connecticut where Jews were made to feel unwelcome until well into the 19th century, the few thousand Jews who settled in colonial America quickly adapted to the unprecedented opportunities for social intercourse with non-Jews and the broad political rights available to them.
The early Sephardis were not only pioneers, “the first to experiment with a new kind of Jewish community in the emerging modern world”; they also maintained an “outward, cosmopolitan gaze,” remaining in touch with the trans-Atlantic world of trade and family connections. Thus, the Lopezes, Portuguese Marranos who left Lisbon in the 1730’s, arrived (after a stay in London) in Newport, Rhode Island, where they were circumcised, dropped their Christian names (Duarte Lopez became Aaron and Gabriel became David), and began their ascent to wealth through participating in the lucrative rum, hardware, and slave trade with West Africa and the Caribbean. Besides Newport and New York, other colonial communities soon appeared in Philadelphia, Lancaster, Charleston, and Savannah, and many members of those communities maintained connections across the Atlantic.
Hasia R. Diner, the author of A Time for Gathering (covering the period 1820-1880), emphasizes that the German-speaking Jews who arrived in large numbers during the middle decades of the 19th century came from many different areas of Central Europe (and parts of Western and Eastern Europe as well) and thus constituted a population far more diverse than is usually imagined. She devotes considerable attention to their Old World occupations, what they knew of America back in Europe, and the distinctively Jewish complex of reasons that drove and lured them across the ocean.
From a population of 2,500 in 1825, the Jews of America totaled 240,000 by 1880. According to Diner, those who arrived in this migration were quite similar to the truly immense numbers of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe who came after them, and she inveighs against “historians of American Jewry, being largely the children and grandchildren of the East European immigrants themselves, [who] have painted a stilted portrait of these earlier American Jews.”
Diner maintains that beyond the conspicuous and well-known group of brilliantly successful Jewish businessmen and bankers who did assimilate quickly (the “Our Crowd” Jews), the major portion of German-speaking immigrants were impoverished newcomers coping, often in a frontier environment, with the help of family and communal aid and eager to retain their Judaism. “German Jews,” she writes, “demonstrated a deep wish to live as Jews despite their decision to venture out into places where few accoutrements of Jewish life awaited them.” The associations and organizations they created—B’nai B’rith, YMHA’s, the many synagogues that replaced earlier and simpler Jewish communal structures, the new Sunday Schools—all this is evidence for Diner of a commitment to hold on to Jewish identity and reshape it in light of their new ambience. She insists that despite the seemingly inexorable abandonment of traditional Jewish practice by the movement toward Reform, pre-1880 American Jewish culture was not, as some have asserted, “shallow, materialistic, and derivative.”
In her commendable effort to revise the commonly accepted picture, Diner may overstate her case. But her general point is well taken. Acculturation, as the sociologists have taught us, does not necessarily lead to outright assimilation; it may equally result in heightened self-consciousness. This, at any rate, is one lesson that comes through especially strongly in the next volume, A Time for Building, by Gerald Sorin.
Sorin, too, offers an overview of the Old World roots of the Jewish migration from Eastern Europe that began in 1880 and resulted, by 1920, in a community constituting nearly 23 percent of the Jews of the world. He points to the endemic poverty of the Russian Pale of Jewish settlement and adjacent regions, the social stratification, and the confined Jewish energies of the “classic” shtetl. East European Jewry was, he emphasizes, in a state of social upheaval and ideological ferment—migration within the Pale and a Jewish cultural renaissance were well under way before most of the immigrants set out for America.
When he comes to describing their arrival on these shores, Sorin pays due attention to the experience of immigration itself, and to the aid, at first halting and later generous, offered by Jewish organizations to the newcomers (including such defensively motivated schemes as the attempt to relocate some of them in the Midwest by having them debark in Galveston, Texas). He also takes note of the rise of Jewish communities outside New York, observing that immigrants often became more conscious of themselves as Jews in the smaller cities of the American interior than in the crowded ghetto neighborhoods of the Eastern seaboard.
The cultural flowering of the immigrant generation—the Yiddish theater, the newspapers, the poets and playwrights—is an often-told tale, and so too is the saga of the sweatshops, the gangs, the general raucousness of the Lower East Side. As the author also of American Jewish Immigrant Radicals: The Prophetic Minority, Sorin offers an informed picture of the emerging Jewish labor movement and its ancillary institutions, such as the Workman’s Circle, which combined socialist idealism with a day-to-day practicality that eventually enabled this immigrant generation to become “almost at home in America.”
Although he gives a fair account of how the three religious branches of American Judaism responded to the tide of new immigrants, the heart of the story for Sorin is the crystallization of a nonreligious Jewishness:
Beginning in the era of mass immigration, many American Jews practiced a civil religion, achieving unity, purpose, and identity as a moral community through secular organizations devoted to philanthropy and social work and to the welfare of the Jewish people abroad. The early steps in this direction were not always consciously ideological. But the eventual development of a Jewish civil sphere—distinct from, though not necessarily antagonistic to, religious institutions—was a significant step in the formulation of an American Jewish civil religion.
If the development of this incipient ecumenical secular Jewishness is the telos of Sorin’s narrative and (at least for him) the climax of the formative migrations of American Jewry, a more paradoxical state of affairs emerges in the last two volumes: the story is one of remarkable success in economic and social integration combined with unease, a sense of loss, even of dissolution.
Not growing consensus but an inability to overcome Jewish organizational and ideological differences is the leitmotif of Henry L. Feingold’s A Time for Searching, the fourth and most assured and authoritative volume in the series. Feingold astutely compresses a myriad of technicalities into a rich narrative of the quarter-century between 1920 and 1945, moving with ease from high culture to popular culture, from the transformation of the religious scene to economic enterprise, from the travails of American Zionism to the self-denying Jewishness of figures close to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
For Feingold, the key to the forces shaping Jewish private and public behavior during these years is duality, a duality which, he writes, had “produced tensions and conflict as well as imaginative accommodations . . . in the entire American Jewish experience, but [was] particularly clear at the time when American Jewry was poised to enter the mainstream of American life.”
In Feingold’s account, many American Jews in the 20’s and 30’s can be considered a veritable “lost generation,” caught between the transitional immigrant culture but as yet not accepted by a host society which had now closed its doors to further newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe. Yet some Jewish intellectuals were already beginning to formulate a characteristic American Jewish “attitude”: the writers grouped around the Menorah Journal, for example, “present us with the first glimpse of what the American Jewish amalgamation would be like—less ideological, and motivated by a cerebral interest in things Jewish rather than an emotional one.”
Likewise, a cadre of professional Jewish educators and the towering figure of Mordecai Kaplan—the founder of that echt-American Jewish movement, Reconstructionism—were articulating “an approach to the needs of secularizing Jews so that one can say most Jews were Reconstructionists without knowing it.” Yet despite these new directions, there was a counter-tendency toward disaffiliation, decline in religious observance, cutbacks in Jewish philanthropy under the impact of the Depression, all within the context of an ominous growth in popular anti-Semitism.
What interests Feinberg most is political culture. Why the American Jewish “adoration” of FDR? “Not so much for his person,” Feingold concludes, “as for the political principles he was imagined to represent,” especially as embodied in his welfare legislation (principles long advocated by the Jewish labor movement). As for Roosevelt’s cadre of Jewish advisers, these “were not Jewish men of influence, but rather men of influence who happened to be Jewish,” the product of several generations of the muting of ethnic and religious affiliation.
The limited Jewishness of these high officials—some, like Felix Frankfurter, astonishingly indifferent to Jewish suffering during the war, others, like Henry Morgenthau, Jr., alert to their Jewish responsibilities—is a crucial element in Fein-gold’s analysis of American Jewish responses to the Holocaust. This is an issue to which he has long devoted attention: why was American Jewry so impotent in the face of Nazism, especially after the news of the mass extermination reached American shores? As answer he offers a mixed bag of motives, illusions, and self-interest.
With evident approval Feingold quotes Rein-hold Niebuhr’s remark that “Jewish humanitarians had difficulty coming to grips with the existence of an evil so dark that it could ‘undermine the characteristic credos of the democratic world.’” The lack of interest displayed by “Jewish” Hollywood in the “group-prejudice theme”; the endemic divisiveness of Jewish organizations and movements; FDR’s skill in obfuscating the “refugee problem”; fears of a Nazi-like movement in America; even “the individuation and secularization that promote individual achievement while adversely affecting the Jews’ ability to act collectively”—all these, in his reading, contributed to the failure to act.
The reader comes away with a conundrum: there was not much that American Jewry could have done in any case, but it should have risen to the occasion in a more decisive way. Feingold, who admits that a historian cannot require that his subjects step out of their time and place, nevertheless concludes that the community’s inability to transcend itself in those years resulted in “the abiding sense of loss and guilt [that] has shaped much of its contemporary sensibility.”
In the last volume of the series, A Time for Healing by Edward S. Shapiro (healing, presumably, the wounds of the Holocaust), we see American Jewry assuming the leadership role after World War II that it failed to attain during it. Shapiro, whose volume is to my mind the least satisfactory in the series, is congratulatory when it comes to American Jewish achievements but skeptical about the long-range prospects for cultural viability or real vitality. As icons of worldly-success-cum-Jewish-alienation, he chooses such individuals as Hank Greenberg, sports hero to millions of Jews who did not raise his children as Jews. A chapter is devoted to “the tale of the two Shapiros,” the Harold who became president of Princeton and the Irving who became president of the Du Pont Corporation, both enjoying unprecedented access to the American social elite but neither showing much interest in perpetuating Jewishness beyond his own generation. Unfortunately, however, the Shapiro who wrote this book is arbitrary in his choices—many counterexamples come to mind—and irritatingly flippant in his tone (“Purim also became more important since it came at approximately the time of Easter”; etc.).
Still, there is much useful information in this volume, including accounts of the wavelets of Jewish immigration to America since the world war (the Displaced Persons, the Russian Jews, the Israelis, Jews from Iran, Cuba, and elsewhere); the growth of Jewish studies in colleges and universities; and shifts in Jewish population and residence patterns in the postwar era. It is surprising to realize, for instance, that more Jews now live in California than anywhere else in the world except for the former Soviet Union, Israel, and the rest of the United States combined.
Shapiro’s final chapter, “The Question of Survival,” summarizes the debate in the 1980’s between two schools of Jewish sociologists, the “transformationists”—who argue that American Jewry is reshaping itself into something vital and distinctive—and the “assimilationists”—who from the same sets of data draw the conclusion of a severe decline in numbers, influence, and cultural identity. Shapiro straddles the fence: taking due note of the apparently inverse relationship between social mobility and a strong sense of Jewish identification, he nevertheless fleetingly suggests that Jews might even survive the freedom and prosperity of America.
If Jacob Rader Marcus, still productive at the age of ninety-seven, is the patriarch of professional American Jewish historiography, the leading scholar of the generation that came to prominence in the late 60’s and 70’s is Naomi W. Cohen, for many years professor of American history at Hunter College and now Distinguished Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has published important books about American Jewish figures (Oscar S. Straus); the development of American Jewish organizations (a history of the American Jewish Committee); American Zionism; reactions in America to the Palestine crisis of 1929 and 1930; and a widely acclaimed account of the achievements of German Jews in the United States in the 19th century. Her new book, Jews in Christian America: The Pursuit of Religious Equality,4 which has won this year’s Jewish Book Award, moves in yet another direction, which in itself shows how much is yet to be done before the interrelationship of Jewry and America is adequately understood.
Jews in Christian America is a highly original and lucid study turning on crucial constitutional issues of both practical and symbolic importance. Focusing on important court cases and legislative initiatives, Cohen describes the positions taken by American Jews and leading defense organizations from the days of the early republic up to the mid-1960’s in articulating their understanding of the constitutional separation of church and state. The specific cases she discusses concern such matters as blue laws prohibiting work on the Christian Sabbath, the place of religion in the public schools (Bible readings, classroom prayer, released time to attend classes in religion in local churches and synagogues), and the deployment of crèches and other religious symbols in parks and other public areas.
It is well known that Jews and Jewish organizations have taken a leading role in promoting the strict separation of church and state in America. Cohen indicates what this vigorous advocacy has cost in terms of Jewish-Christian relations, and the problematic bedfellows that Jewish organizations have sometimes found themselves bundled with. But the real value of Cohen’s study lies elsewhere. Her angle on the Jewish presence in America shows, more clearly than the usual treatments of Jews in Hollywood or the rise and fall of the Jewish labor movement, the long-range and fundamental impact that Jews and the Jewish tradition have had on American public life.
To put it briefly: as part of the enlargement and refinement of American civil liberties, the movement of constitutional law and public policy in the United States has taken a certain direction in order to accommodate the sensibility of emancipated Jews. To this extent, the interests of Jewry, at least as those interests are represented by the organizations pressing this particular issue, have thereby gained equal status in the eyes of a government which, according to its founding document, is supposed to be neutral as between religions, if perhaps not neutral to religious faith in general.
But here is the rub. Naomi Cohen keeps to herself her views on the ideal relationship of religion and the state, but she does hint that there are ramifications not yet dreamed of by American Jewish organizations and alternative paths not yet taken:
Today, loyal separationists claim that the unrelenting Jewish fight against government identification with religion has contributed in large measure to the security, confidence, and sense of “at-homeness” of American Jews. . . . [This approach] . . . largely ignored questions about the future of Judaism. Its exponents did not consider whether their stand reinforced the pervasive secularism within the Jewish community. Nor did they admit that on the issue of secularism the community stood apart from most Americans who have continued to identify as believers and churchgoers. . . .
Other arrangements, she perhaps implies, may emerge in the future.
The five volumes in the American Jewish Historical Society series succeed in taking a multidimensional view of social and political history, and in understanding the “layered” role played by Jewish voluntary associations, both secular and religious, in relation to Jewish adjustments to the American environment. By and large absent from this series, however, and from Howard Sachar’s book as well, is a disposition to take religion seriously—religion not as the history of organizations, seminaries, or the adjustment of traditional practices to American life, but religion as the articulation of the spiritual sensibilities of modern American Jews.
And yet the future of American Jewry may well hinge on the degree of commitment which Jews muster to the intrinsic, even supernal, meaning of their Jewishness. It may be that only a critical mass of Jews convinced of the transcendent worth of Jewishness, and a Jewish leadership responsive to their spiritual needs, will be able to overcome what these volumes portray as an evermore attenuated Jewish identity as one generation gives way to another.
If that is so, several decades from now a different slant may emerge on the American Jewish past. The role of Jewish religion in America may turn out to be even more important a key to understanding that past than the sociocultural integration of waves of immigrants; and the place of Judaism (not just the Jews) in the American polity, the resurgence of traditional elements in different contexts, new modes of religious community, even serious religious thinking may overshadow some of the subjects covered in such detail in these books. As always, a moving present transforms the meaningful past.
1 For up-to-date overviews of the basic literature, see Jonathan D. Sarna, “American Jewish History,” in Modern Judaism 10 (1990), pp. 343-65, and his informative chapter, “The American Jewish Experience,” in Barry W. Holtz, The Schocken Guide to Jewish Books (1992), pp. 108-27. Very useful is the article by Jack Wertheimer, “American Jewish History,” in the volume he has edited under the title The Modern Jewish Experience: A Reader's Guide (New York University Press, 1993), pp. 52-61.
2 Knopf, 1,051 pp., $40.00.
3 Henry L. Feingold, general editor. Vol I: A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820, by Eli Faber, 224 pp. Vol. II: A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880, by Hasia R. Diner, 352 pp. Vol. III: A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920, by Gerald Sorin, 344 pp. Vol. IV: A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920-1945, by Henry L. Feingold, 376 pp. Vol. V: A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II, by Edward S. Shapiro, 352 pp. Johns Hopkins University Press, $145 the set; $29.95 each volume.
4 Oxford University Press, 300 pp., $39.95.