The Jew­ish Amer­i­cans: Three Cen­turies of Jew­ish Voic­es in America

Beth S. Wenger
  • Review
By – February 20, 2012

To call this a cof­fee-table book is to min­i­mize its impact as a col­lec­tion of his­toric doc­u­ments. The Jew­ish Amer­i­cans is beau­ti­ful enough for the cof­fee table, and is of appro­pri­ate size, but it also con­tains won­der­ful pho­tographs and copies of orig­i­nal doc­u­ments which will be of inter­est to those who search for insights into how ordi­nary peo­ple lived dur­ing our nation’s infan­cy as well as an his­toric record of how immi­grant Jews became Jewish-Americans. 

Beth S. Wenger’s eye for select­ing illus­tra­tive doc­u­ments is unerr­ing. Start­ing with 1654, she divides Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry over the past 350+ years into four sec­tions, reveal­ing how Jews con­tributed to America’s grandeur dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War peri­od and the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion, the era of great immi­gra­tion, Amer­i­ca at war, and mod­ern Amer­i­ca. She intro­duces each sec­tion with a cogent essay, then offers illus­tra­tions drawn from orig­i­nal let­ters or oth­er doc­u­ments to enlight­en the read­er. Many of these entries may be famil­iar but the major­i­ty are unique and per­son­al, as when we read a Union soldier’s account of his company’s makeshift Passover seder in a West Vir­ginia field in 1862 (“The neces­si­ties for the choroutzes we could not obtain, so we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, remind­ed us, by look­ing at it, for what pur­pose it was intend­ed”), or when we read an eye­wit­ness account by jour­nal­ist Ruth Gru­ber, enlist­ed by Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or Ick­es in 1944 to help res­cue Euro­pean Jews (“They were a cross sec­tion of Europe’s cul­ture, Europe’s occu­pa­tions, Europe’s nation­alisms. Liv­ing with them on the ship made me aware that the most inde­struc­tible thing in the world is man. He sur­vives the Gestapo, he sur­vives the Vichy French… [and] hunger and wan­der­ings and crip­pling tor­ture. These peo­ple lived because they scratched and tore and hid and bought false iden­ti­ty papers and nev­er believed in their own death.”).

This book offers a record of resilience and faith, cel­e­bra­tion and tears — all the ele­ments that make us humane and are need­ed to build a nation. 350 years is but the blink of an eye, but this beau­ti­ful, engross­ing book offers tes­ti­mo­ny that we were there, and will con­tin­ue to be an essen­tial part of America.

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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