His­to­ry Lessons: The Cre­ation of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Heritage

Beth S. Wenger
  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
This excel­lent study by Beth Wenger orig­i­nat­ed in class­room dis­cus­sions, in which some stu­dents under­stood that Judaism is demo­c­ra­t­ic, and focus­es not on why this idea is incor­rect but on why the stu­dents believe it is true. Draw­ing on pre­vi­ous work on the cre­ation of col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, she describes how Amer­i­can Jews, like oth­er eth­nic groups, find a his­to­ry that acknowl­edges its pres­ence in the Amer­i­can nation and assigns it a mean­ing absent from main­stream his­tor­i­cal accounts.” This mul­ti­fac­eted her­itage — ascrib­ing Judaism’s place in Amer­i­can soci­ety but at the same time empha­siz­ing the com­pat­i­bil­i­ty between Jew­ish and Amer­i­can val­ues — was encod­ed in writ­ing poet­ry, lit­er­a­ture, his­to­ry books (par­tic­u­lar­ly those writ­ten for chil­dren), cel­e­brat­ing civic hol­i­days (like Thanks­giv­ing, July 4, and Colum­bus Day), and rever­ing his­tor­i­cal icons like George Wash­ing­ton, Abra­ham Lin­coln, and the Jew­ish community’s own Haym Salomon.

In con­trast to oth­er immi­grant groups in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies, Amer­i­can Jews had lit­tle nos­tal­gia for their home­lands, places of pover­ty and per­se­cu­tion, and sev­ered them­selves from their geo­graph­ic roots — Amer­i­ca, not Poland or Rus­sia, was home.” The book offers an impor­tant the­o­ry of eth­nic his­to­ry, describ­ing accul­tur­a­tion as a dynam­ic and com­plex process, because eth­nic her­itage does not dim in a new land but sim­ply finds alter­nate routes of expres­sion.” Wenger’s work pro­vides a pow­er­ful frame­work that will hope­ful­ly guide future research but also inform a gen­er­al read­er­ship about the nature of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life.
Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions