Amer­i­can Judaism: A History

  • Review
By – January 6, 2015
Jonathan Sar­na has giv­en us a mas­ter­ful gift to com­mem­o­rate the 350th anniver­sary of Jew­ish set­tle­ment in Amer­i­ca. Draw­ing on his own ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca, his Amer­i­can Judaism pro­vides read­ers not only a well­craft­ed and emi­nent­ly read­able his­to­ry but an insight­ful ret­ro­spec­tive allow­ing us to face the next 350 years with hope. 
Sar­na describes, with cap­ti­vat­ing detail, the social, cul­tur­al and his­toric fac­tors which have shaped today’s vibrant Jew­ish Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. Sar­na rec­og­nizes that it is impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate the sec­u­lar his­to­ry of Jews in Amer­i­ca from our reli­gious expe­ri­ence. Look­ing at our his­to­ry through the lens of reli­gious change is a unique approach. Sar­na uses it effec­tive­ly to guide us through the dilem­mas faced by gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can Jews. We learn that con­cerns about anti-Semi­tism, inter­mar­riage, edu­ca­tion, Zion­ism and reli­gious obser­vance are not unique to our gen­er­a­tion. Nei­ther are the result­ing respons­es. The mes­sage Sar­na clear­ly deliv­ers is that today as so often before, Amer­i­can Jews will find cre­ative ways to main­tain and revi­tal­ize Amer­i­can Judaism.” 
Although the ear­li­est Sephardic and Ashke­naz­ic set­tlers attempt­ed to dupli­cate famil­iar mod­els of com­mu­nal author­i­ty, they quick­ly dis­cov­ered that in Amer­i­ca there were dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties. Unfet­tered by (or deprived of, depend­ing on one’s view) rab­binic and schol­ar­ly lead­er­ship, they restruc­tured reli­gious prac­tice to fit an Amer­i­can way of life. By the time the first rab­bis arrived in the 1840’s a tra­di­tion of inde­pen­dence and prac­ti­cal­i­ty had been in place for decades. In Amer­i­ca, as Jews empow­ered them­selves to make reli­gious deci­sions, the result was a unique­ly Amer­i­can form of Judaism. 
More than his­to­ry, this is a book of hope. Each wave of Jew­ish immi­gra­tion faced its own suc­cess­es, dilem­mas and fail­ures. In retelling the rich nar­ra­tive of Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca, Sar­na reminds us that each gen­er­a­tion has had to wres­tle anew with the ques­tion of whether its own chil­dren and grand­chil­dren would remain Jew­ish.” Some­how, as this book so cogent­ly observes, we’ve man­aged to suc­cess­ful­ly bal­ance our lives as Jews and Amer­i­cans, with every indi­ca­tion that we will con­tin­ue to do so in the future. 
Sar­na is deserved­ly known as the dean” of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. His schol­ar­ship is renowned. Yet, he writes in a style that brings his knowl­edge and ideas alive to a wide spec­trum of read­ers, Jew­ish and non- Jew­ish, schol­ars and lay peo­ple. This book is des­tined to be the new clas­sic of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, glos­sary, index, notes, timeline.

Nor­man H. (1941 – 2024) taught Jew­ish his­to­ry at Hebrew Col­lege for more than thir­ty-five years and is the author of twen­ty-one non­fic­tion his­to­ries and biogra­phies. Two of his books, Heed­ing the Call and Forged in Free­dom, won Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards.

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