Com­ing to Terms with Amer­i­ca: Essays on Jew­ish His­to­ry, Reli­gion, and Culture

  • Review
By – December 6, 2021

In the pref­ace to his newest book, the not­ed his­to­ri­an of Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry Jonathan D. Sar­na shares the impe­tus for the fif­teen essays includ­ed in this vol­ume: The Amer­i­can the­olo­gian Har­vey Cox once observed that few faiths ever escape mod­i­fi­ca­tion when they col­lide or inter­act with oth­ers. Most prof­it from such encoun­ters.’ Com­ing to Terms with Amer­i­ca applies Cox’s obser­va­tion to the Jews.” The essays have all been pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished, but they have nev­er appeared togeth­er. Each has a theme of its own, but col­lec­tive­ly explores the encounter between Jews and Amer­i­can soci­ety from the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion to the present.

The essays are divid­ed into three parts. The six essays of part one con­sid­ers the ten­sion in strad­dling two civ­i­liza­tions” and how to best har­mo­nize these dis­parate worlds. The third essay explores the evo­lu­tion of Jew­ish prayers for the gov­ern­ment, with their roots in the Han­oten Teshu’ah prayer devel­oped in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry. Sar­na con­cludes that the his­to­ry of this prayer serves as a barom­e­ter of the rela­tion­ship between Amer­i­can Jews and the state” over time.

The three essays of part two inves­ti­gate how Jews sought to trans­form Amer­i­ca into a cen­ter for Jew­ish renais­sance. Chap­ter nine explores the ten­sion found in the hall­ways of the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary between schol­ars who sup­port­ed tex­tu­al study to its own end and those that saw this schol­ar­ship as a means to restore or remake Judaism cut loose from its moor­ings.” Sar­na sug­gests that while both approach­es have a fol­low­ing at the Sem­i­nary, the divide between the two has only widened in the last half-cen­tu­ry, reflect­ing a broad­er ten­sion found in the Con­ser­v­a­tive movement.

The six essays that com­prise the final part of Sarna’s anthol­o­gy explore Amer­i­can Jewry’s search for bal­ance between accul­tur­a­tion and assim­i­la­tion. Chap­ter four­teen con­sid­ers the con­fronta­tion between Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian ideas and ideals in the pub­lic square, pub­lic schools, the mil­i­tary, and the prison sys­tem. An exam­ple of this con­fronta­tion can be found in pub­lic school cur­ricu­lum, which, despite Supreme Court rul­ings uphold­ing the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, con­tin­ues to be a source of ten­sion. How­ev­er, Sar­na con­cludes, this con­fronta­tion ulti­mate­ly serves to enrich all faiths, sug­gest­ing that where the Chris­t­ian major­i­ty and the non-Chris­t­ian minori­ties in the Unit­ed States do com­pete freely, they learn from one anoth­er, bor­row from one anoth­er, and strength­en one another.”

The essays con­tained in this col­lec­tion were orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten over the span of forty years, yet each is as rel­e­vant today as when they were first authored. As part of the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Society’s Schol­ar of Dis­tinc­tion Series, Com­ing to Terms with Amer­i­ca rep­re­sents exem­plary schol­ar­ship that is also acces­si­ble to the lay stu­dent of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. A read­er will come away with new insights on how the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of the Unit­ed States has nav­i­gat­ed embrac­ing both Amer­i­can and Jew­ish ways of life.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions