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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2006
Number 64
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Uniqueness of American Judaism

American Judaism: A History
by Jonathan D. Sarna.
New Haven: Yale University Press.

A Review Essay by Melvin I. Urofsky

This is a book that is long overdue, and the funny thing is that I did not realize it until I began to read it. There are a number of histories of Jews in America, including the near encyclopedic work by Howard Morley Sachar, History of the Jews in America (1992), in which we can follow the triumphs and tribulations of Jews in the goldena medina from 1654 onwards. Of course, in these works one would always find some discussion of Judaism, although often it boiled down to a brief description of the difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, the rise of the Reform movement in the mid-19th century, and then the beginnings of the Conservative movement at the beginning of the 20th. If one looked closely, one might also find a passing reference to Mordecai Kaplan and Reconstructionism, or the surprising revival of Orthodoxy. But if one wanted to learn about Judaism the religion as it fared in the United States, as opposed to the Jewish people, all one had was the long out-dated work by Nathan Glazer, American Judaism (1957).

Sarna, the Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, is one of our pre-eminent scholars of Judaism and of the Jewish people in America. What makes him such a good scholar, however, is what else he knows. One can, perhaps, examine a particular doctrinal issue in a Talmudic manner without ever paying attention to the outside world. But to understand Jews and Judaism in this country one has to understand the major currents not only of American history but of religion in America. What Sarna understands is that while Judaism is unique, the pressures upon it for the last 350 years are not; they are the same pressures that confronted Catholicism and Lutheranism and every other religion. The openness of American society, the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, the lack of an established church, the inability of any one Protestant sect to gain hegemony over the others, and above all, the secular nature of the country all made it impossible for any religion to turn inward and ignore the world outside. (Even the Amish, perhaps the most successful practitioners of insularity, had to go to the Supreme Court to exempt their children from compulsory schooling laws.)

Sarna begins with a story. Thirty years ago when he first became interested in American Jewish history, a distinguished rabbinical scholar growled at him: “American Jewish history! Ill tell you all that you need to know about American Jewish history: The Jews came to America, they abandoned their faith, they began to live like goyim, and after a generation or two they intermarried and disappeared. That is American Jewish history; all the rest is commentary. Don’t waste your time. Go and study Talmud.” Fortunately Sarna ignored this advice.

While it is true that from the beginning some Jews abandoned their faith and intermarried, in fact many did not, and in time those who clung to Judaism would be reinforced by the arrival of new Jews from the Old World. Each wave of immigration would bring new baggage with them, and this would then impact upon the established culture, leading to change. The arrival of Jews from the Germanic states in the mid-19th century helped fuel the rise of Reform. The millions who fled Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920 led to the creation and growth of Conservatism. The refugees who came after the Holocaust laid the groundwork for the totally unexpected resurrection of a strong Orthodoxy. And all the time each generation had to deal not only with the demands of the faith, but with the demands of America.

As Sarna shows, they did this in much the same way as did other religions. The synagogue-congregation became the hybrid secular-religious entity common to Protestant churches, ruled not by any national chief rabbi but by local lay leaders. (Sarna has a good chapter on the effort to establish a chief rabbinate in the United States and its failure.) The role of women in the synagogue — an oxymoron in Eastern Europe — became a staple of American Judaism, as the religion evolved into a unique combination of formal worship in the synagogue and familial rituals at home. While the ultra-orthodox, especially those who came after 1945, tried to avoid American society, most American Jews see themselves as Americans who believe in and practice Judaism. They are defined less by their religion than by their nationality, a trend that makes very good sense in a country that does not ask its citizens to list their religion in any official document.

Years ago I was part of a group of scholars working in American Jewish history who argued that in order to truly understand our history, we had to lay equal emphasis on both words — American and Jewish. Sarna’s book is the triumph of that particular fight. His book will be read, and rightly so, not just by those interested in Judaism, but by those who want to know about religion in America. He interprets American Judaism broadly, and by casting his net so widely he informs us about things that we often ignore. Judaism in American does not take place in a schul or a temple; it takes place amidst social, economic, political and cultural events and developments.

These changes took place over many years, and in many different ways. It included the introduction of English into the ritual; mixed seating of men and women; the use of music in the liturgy, along with a choir and organ; the decision by the conservative movement to allow its members to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath; the changes in the American rabbinate and the evolution of the rabbi from a learned but remote figure into a more pastoral role; the rise of the sisterhood movement to reflect the growing importance of women in religious undertakings; the synagogue-center that attempted to meld religious and secular needs; and many others.

There is not enough room here to go into the very rich feast that Sarna lays out before us. I am in awe of his learning, because he draws from so many strands, so many traditions, and so many disciplines. Moreover, he writes well, at times elegantly. This book will be a pleasure for both scholars and laypersons to read. Does this Catholicism deprive Judaism of its uniqueness? Not at all. Judaism, despite what some ultra-orthodox claim, is not just the Torah and the Talmud. It is the history of a people in many lands and in many times, each one unique. But America has always been unique in a special way, a land of freedom and opportunity like none other in the long history of the Jewish people. As Sarna so convincingly shows, this milieu changed not only the people but their religion as well.

Melvin I. Urofsky is professor emeritus of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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