New Essays in Amer­i­can Jew­ish History

Pamela S. Nadell, Jonathan D. Sar­na and Lance J. Suss­man, eds.

  • Review
By – August 30, 2011

New Essays in Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry is a joy­ous festschrift” cel­e­brat­ing the six­ti­eth anniver­sary of the found­ing of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Archives (AJA) and the tenth anniver­sary of Gary P. Zola as its direc­tor. That posi­tion was held for many years by the inde­fati­ga­ble and vision­ary founder of AJA, the his­to­ri­an Dr. Jacob Rad­er Marcus.

This anthol­o­gy of twen­ty-two arti­cles rep­re­sents, as the book flap jack­et sug­gests, the best in mod­ern Amer­i­can and Jew­ish schol­ar­ship” and a schol­ar­ly bench­mark in the grow­ing field of Amer­i­can Jew­ish stud­ies.” The top­ics are far-rang­ing, from syn­a­gogues in Suri­name to chang­ing prac­tices among the mod­ern Ortho­dox in North Amer­i­ca. The com­mon thread is that the read­er will gain new insights into the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in South and North America.

I have sin­gled out three arti­cles that illus­trate the joy of schol­ar­ly dis­cov­ery the read­er will experience.

A Land That Needs Peo­ple to Increase: How the Jews Won the Right to Remain in New Nether­land” by Paul Finkel­man pro­vides an analy­sis and a nuanced view of a famil­iar top­ic — the role of the Jews in New Ams­ter­dam. We have all heard how Peter Stuyvesant was thwart­ed from turn­ing away the 26 Por­tuguese Jews who land­ed in New Ams­ter­dam in 1664 by the efforts of the siz­able num­ber of Jew­ish investors in the Dutch West India Com­pa­ny (WIC). As Finkel­man points out, that tra­di­tion­al account is mis­lead­ing. The sit­u­a­tion was far more complex.

At the time of the arrival of the refugees, Jew­ish invest­ment rep­re­sent­ed only 1.27 per­cent of the ini­tial cap­i­tal­iza­tion of the WIC. Jew­ish investors made up only 4 per­cent of the investors. Stuyvesant did make anti- Semit­ic state­ments but his major rea­son for turn­ing away the Jews, and oth­er reli­gious groups, was to main­tain sta­bil­i­ty in the colony. He was opposed to the arrival of any­one who was not Dutch.” Stuyvesant was far more anti-Quak­er and anti-Luther­an and vir­u­lent in his efforts to pre­vent them from join­ing the colony. Finkel­man also doc­u­ments the crit­i­cal role the Jews played in the eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and in lay­ing the foun­da­tion of reli­gious and cul­tur­al tol­er­a­tion that have become hall­mark aspects of New York.

Shu­ly Rubin Schwartz’s essay, Hen­ri­et­ta Szold: The Mak­ing of an Icon,” reflects the anthology’s atten­tion to the crit­i­cal role women have played in shap­ing Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. Schwartz describes the strate­gic efforts of Hadas­sah to achieve recog­ni­tion for its founder, Hen­ri­et­ta Szold (1860 – 1945). Their efforts cul­mi­nat­ed with the induc­tion of Szold into the Nation­al Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007, along with 217 oth­er out­stand­ing Amer­i­can women. This insured that Szold’s mon­u­men­tal achieve­ments would be acknowl­edged by a broad­er audience.

The essay Robert King Mer­ton, his Sci­ence, and the Promise of the Enlight­en­ment” by Samuel Haber illus­trates the behind the scene” infor­ma­tion many of the arti­cles pro­vide. Robert K. Mer­ton (1910 – 2003) is not a well-known fig­ure. And yet in the social sci­ences, he is one of the great the­o­ret­i­cal fig­ures. His ground­break­ing work on the struc­ture of sci­ence, deviance, social insti­tu­tions, and social strat­i­fi­ca­tion are cit­ed in every intro­duc­to­ry and the­o­ret­i­cal soci­ol­o­gy course.

The Haber arti­cle traces Merton’s life begin­ning with his eco­nom­i­cal­ly impov­er­ished child­hood, as Mey­er R. Schkol­nick, through to his stun­ning aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess­es under his new legal­ly changed name, Robert King Mer­ton. Mer­ton changed his name at 19 years old, to try to avoid encoun­ter­ing the ram­pant aca­d­e­m­ic anti-Semi­tism of the peri­od. He attend­ed Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty and then Har­vard grad­u­ate school on full schol­ar­ship. Haber traces the intel­lec­tu­al roots of Merton’s bril­liant work and dis­cuss­es the impor­tance the Enlight­en­ment and his cul­tur­al back­ground played in shap­ing his ideas. End­notes, glos­sary, index, illustrations.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

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