Hasia Diner joins us to talk about the big issues that have driven the field of American Jewish history and her work in particular, how we understand American Jewish history in two contexts—in the context of Jewish history as a whole, and within the framework of American history—and also how the field has changed, what lies ahead, and why it matters today.
This episode combines two interviews, the first recorded over the summer of 2018, and a short second conversation following the attack in Pittsburgh in October 2018.
Hasia Diner is the Paul and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History at NYU’s Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies.
Some books and topics we discuss today include:
- Hasia Diner’s books
- The Jews of the United States, 1654-2000 (2004)
- Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (2003)
- Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (2015)
- We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962 (2009)
- A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880 (1992)
- Rachel Kranson, Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America (2017)
- Jeffrey Gurock, ed., Conversations with Colleagues: On Becoming an American Jewish Historian (2018)
- “Communalist” and “Dispersionist” Modes of Jewish History
- David Hollinger, “Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era,” American Jewish History 95, no. 1 (Mar. 2009): 1–32
- Tony Michels, “Communalist History and Beyond: What is the Potential of American Jewish History?,” American Jewish History 95, no. 1 (Mar. 2009): 61–71
- Development of American Jewish History in the 1950s
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Defining a Rubric of American Jewish History
Jason Lustig: I thought this might be a great opportunity for us to engage with and think about in very broad terms this major question about why American Jewish history matters in two different ways: Why American Jewish history matters in relationship with Jewish history broadly speaking, and secondly also how it relates to American history and how it illuminates bigger issues in that context. I think, in a certain way, this presents an overarching set of issues that I hope that we can explore.
But before we get to that, it might be useful for us to think about what American Jewish history actually is, in the sense of what falls under its rubric and what are some of the major issues which have animated it in the past and also where it’s going where it’s going now. So I thought we might get started by thinking about this big issue: in what ways do you understand the field of American Jewish history, and where do you see it going?
Hasia Diner: Right. So the field has been basically focused on the experiences of those Jews who are from the middle of the seventeenth century, but particularly by the beginning of the eighteenth century through to the present, have lived in what became or what was the United States. So it’s the story of the transplantation of what was about over four million people, from primarily Europe but also parts of the Ottoman Empire, to this particular chunk of geography that has had a history that we cannot deny its importance. Not to talk in either filiopietistic terms—that is veneration of the Jews—or in jingoistic terms about the United States, but it was a history that has to be thought of in its own terms and not just as another New World place, or another setting for Jewish life.
I’d say it has veered between those books, articles, scholars, programs that focus very closely on the inner life of the Jews—the synagogues they built, the ways they dispense charity, their political actions, their cultural projects, their social structures—and those which have a much more porousv view and look beyond the boundaries of the Jewish population. As such, this history has both an inner and an outer framework, or centrifugal and centripetal structure.
I think the really interesting question at the heart of all of this, and one way we might say it matters, is that in particularly the great century of Jewish migration, which goes from the early nineteenth century into the 1920s, a period where there were nearly no restrictions on Jewish entry into the United States, the U.S. emerged as the most attractive destination. And for Jews who wanted to leave their homes and homelands, in that period the United States was the single most attractive destination; some historians have put the figure at about 85 to 90% of all Jews emigrating opted for America. That’s a pretty staggering number. And so in one way, from the vantage point of Jewish history. I think just that simple figure gives us a sense about why it mattered.
And just conversely, no other population was as monomaniacally oriented towards the United States. The history of Irish immigration, fantastic, something I’ve worked on, they’re a group of people who totally transformed the United States—but in fact, the United States was not the most common destination for Irish immigrants, particularly after the 1870s, when the majority actually went to England and Scotland, that is, they stayed within the British Isles. And for Italians, again a group much larger than Jews, probably under half came to the United States, and the majority went to South America.
So, what seems to me notable about the Jewish migration is not their contribution—not that they were the most this or the most that, or the best at this or the best that—but rather how single-mindedly the United States emerged in their imagination as the place they wanted to go. America was the kind of “jewel” in the crown of migration choices, and that’s something we really cannot say for certainly any of the other European immigrant groups that did come in enormous, even larger number, America was one of a number of good options. For Jews, America was virtually theoption, the place of choice.
JL: I think what you’re saying here is really important, because as you say, when we talk about the reason why this is such an important history, it’s because we can talk about a period of 150 years or more, from the beginning of the nineteenth century into even the post-Holocaust era, where America was the destination of choice for Jews who were leaving Europe, whether we’re talking about the era prior to the 1920s or even afterwards, where even if Jews were limited in their ability to actually come to the U.S. because of the quotas, they still wanted to come.
HD: And you know, even the Soviet-era migration lure was the United States. And the intense conflict between American Jewish organizations and state of Israel, which obviously had deep connections to all sorts of matters of diplomacy between the Soviet Union and the United States… most of them (the Soviet Jews) wanted to come to America. And the whole crisis of the so-called “dropouts,” that is the Soviet Jews who were in the transit camps in Italy and were trying their utmost notto go to Israel but tm come to the United States, it raises questions, I think really important ones, about why the United States was so attractive and how does this matter, both for, as you put it so well in your phrasing of the question, how does it matter for Jewish history? And how does it matter for American history?
The Geography of American Jewish History
JL: When we talk about this issue of why American Jewish history matters within these two spheres, it really brings us around to some of the hidden assumptions that we have about the nature of these two histories. We can talk about the geographical borders: you talked about American Jewish history in terms of what would eventually become the United States, i.e. British North America, and there are other people who take other views, who are less interested in migration as the driving force of American Jewish history. There are people who take more of the school of thinking about American Jewish history in terms of the entire Western Hemisphere, thinking about the early history of the Jews in the Caribbean and what goes beyond that as well. So I think that when we talk about American Jewish history, one of the challenges, like you said, is that this is an entire field that for one-hundred-plus years has been struggling over questions of what is in and what is out, and why do we do it? You mentioned that you were not trying to make any kind of a filiopietistic argument or anything like that. But there are many people who have made those kind of cases over the course of time.
HD: I certainly have absolutely no problem (with), and indeed I really think it’s fantastic, that we have an emerging group of scholars, people like Adam Mendelsohn, who look much more broadly at the Western Hemisphere and look at the Caribbean, and others who factor in Canada. These are extremely important, and they’re not unrelated to the United States— well, let’s call it the United States even if we’re dealing with the period before the creation of the United States. And I think it’s fantastic that the scholarship has expanded beyond the borders of the thirteen colonies and their sort of successor states and then the nation. But yet, certain elements of the history make the thirteen colonies and then importantly their successor nation different. You don’t have groups of people in some town in Galicia and Lithuania saying, “I really want to go to Jamaica.” So these were very important communities, but it doesn’t hold the same significance in terms of the idea, the possibility, the opportunities, the circumstances, as a kind of motivating force in and of itself. And notably, those populations dwindled. They, for the most part—I think Canada is a different story—but they really couldn’t sustain a kind of Jewish presence terribly long. While they all have fascinating skeletal populations left with an institution here and an institution there, they pale in the scope of the migration to the United States.
But I don’t want at all to leave your listeners with a sense that I’m kind of an “America first” person and say, if it’s anyting offshore or beyond whatever the parallel is that separates the United States from Canada, I’m not interested. I’m fascinated in fact by the flows of people and the business relationships in and out. Take a place like Cuba, which has a very important Jewish history. And it’s been the subject of some really terrific scholarship, and hopefully even more. But notably, most of what we know, most of the Jews who lived in Cuba saw themselves as a way station to the United State. And in one one of the studies, the historian had said that they referred to Cuba as Achsaniya Cuba [Cuban hotel], and that people described themselves as sitting on their suitcases because they were just waiting for the possibility of being sprung from the island and getting to the United States. We don’t have that as a U.S. narrative.
Even England, which was a place of great opportunities and freedoms for Jews, and from the middle of the nineteenth century onward, a perfectly livable place. it served as a corridor community. And Jews coming from primarily Lithuania but not only went to England with an eye to eventually getting to the United States. And a substantial cluster of the Jewish peddlers who I studied had actually peddled first in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales. And they acquired English (there) and then they came to the United States, where they were already now in possession of a kind of English “pedigree,” and certainly in possession of language, and could move into kind of higher economic realms. They did their almost apprenticeship in England. So I’m definitely not averse at all, and I think it’s really good for scholars who define themselves as American Jewish historians to look beyond the borders of the United States, but to look at the oversize, disproportionate impact and importance of the United States as a kind of magnet that drove Jewish migration.
Factors Driving Jewish Migration to the U.S.
JL: What would you say, then, are, briefly, the major factors that perhaps explain why it was that people came to the U.S.? Is it simply this story of the so-called “goldene medina,” that America was this “land of opportunity,” when of course there were many other places that held opportunities for Jews too? How is it that we can explain and understand what you’re saying, that American Jewish history is important because it was this magnet for migration but why?
HD: Okay, so I definitely want to move away from the “goldene medina” notion. I think I’d like to consider a couple factors that just created a field of opportunity or a field of possibilities for Jews who were committed and able to leave their homes and start over elsewhere. And certainly the fact is the United States from the middle of the nineteenth century onward—and, well, you’ll need an economic historian to give you a terminal date—but it was the most dynamic economy in the world.
So, yes, all those other places had possibilities for Jews. Yes, they could go to South Africa. Yes, they could go to England. But none of those places had economic vistas comparable to what existed in the United States. It (America) was attractive to Jews because it was attractive to the seventy or eighty million other European immigrants who were coming to the United States also. And Jews then become involved in all the enterprises of selling stuff to those people.
So it was the nature of the economy, (it) was one of constant expansion. The possibilities for somebody who was willing to strap a pack on their back and go places in the hinterlands to sell this, that, and the other to families, particularly to women, and then who were willing to open a little store to again sell this, that, and the other was terribly important.
I think that economic draw came first. The economic draw, however, was also connected to the fact that Jews came to America as white people. And as white people, they arrived with the highest level of privilege available to newcomers who were defined as white Europeans. And so there were never any impediments to their acquisition of citizenship, of being able to press their claims in courts, to have free access to the roads. And so when I was working on the book on peddlers, I always thought, could I imagine somebody who was not white walking around the back roads of upstate New York or the Michigan Upper Peninsula or the Mississippi Delta, and going from house to house knocking on the door and crossing the threshold of their customers’ homes and say, “Good morning, ma’am, would you like to look at my pack?” You know, that was not something that was available to people who did not have the privileges of whiteness. So Jews who are making their way to America understand—and I think they had, like all immigrants, a very good base of knowledge of what’s awaiting them—they know that they are coming with the highest possible set of um of rights.
Likewise, the fact that the United States was a nation of so many other immigrants meant that Jews never stood out as the quintessential outsider or the quintessential foreigner. In so many of the other places to which they went, they kind of almost embody foreignness. In the United States, that just was not the case. And so one of the figures that I absolutely adore is that in Chicago in 1900, eighty percent of the population were immigrants and their children. That meant there was absolutely nothing unusual to be an East European immigrant Jew speaking Yiddish, or the child of such immigrants, because all your other neighbors were also newcomers or were the daughters and sons of newcomers, and whatever experiences you were going through was almost the norm. And it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t social privilege on the top for the white Protestant Anglo-Saxon elite who held on the reins of power, but Jews did not stand out as notable for their foreignness in that great century of migration.
And indeed, in the period of the greatest Jewish migration, they were never even held up as the worst immigrants. We obviously know that the current of xenophobia was always there. But, you know, I think we could roughly say that from the 1840s until the end of the nineteenth century, the Irish were the embodiment of the “bad” immigrants. Their Catholicism was a huge mark against them, and so much of the public discourse against immigrants was really about the Irish. And after that, the pride of place for being the “bad” immigrants went to Italians. Jews did not stand out as the most problematic in a nation that was struggling to understand what this kind of diversity meant.
The next element is that America had a very strong tradition of anti-Catholicism. There was an extremely powerful discourse about America as Protestant, and when they say it’s “Protestant,” it meant it’s not Catholic.Catholics were banned in many of the colonies; priests were attacked on the streets. And Judaism just did not suffer that fate. And Jews were able to assert a certain respectability and did not have to face a very loud chorus of voices which said that their religion did not fit America, whereas Catholicism was the subject of this vast discussion about how the fundamentals of the faith tradition made it unacceptable in America life. One thinks only of those really graphic cartoons of Thomas Nast, where you have these Irish immigrants coming off the ships and behind them are these crocodiles with bishops’ hats on them, and the immigrants are the avant-garde of a movement to have the Catholic Church take over in America and overturn American liberty and individualism and so on. We just don’t have this in any meaningful way about Judaism as incompatible with some of the basics of what were defined as American culture.
And a final dimension is that there was never an antiJjewish political tradition in the United States, partly because political parties tended— other than on the issue of, first, slavery and then race—political parties tended to be pretty much the same in their non-ideological orientation; Helen Keller once described the two parties as the parties of Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Basically, the parties existed to do well by capitalism, and so neither party had much of a stake in demonize Jews as somehow bad but rather for the most part—and it doesn’t mean, by the way, that we wouldn’t we couldn’t find a local variation here or there in a mayoral election in Greenville, South Carolina, or a state legislative race in California—but for the most part, both parties wanted the votes the Jews had, and as white men able to naturalize and participate in the political process, they benefited from the fact that they could vote. And these non-ideological parties wanted what they had, which was their vote on Election Day. There was no party of the aristocracy. There was no party of the peasants. There was no party of the clergy. But rather, you had these entities that existed purely for the sake of getting the most votes, and Jews had it.
Finally, one other element that I think made America particularly attractive for Jews, and it’s one that we rarely think about, (is that) unlike nearly every other place that they went—and remember, the majority of Jews who emigrated in the great century of migration actually emigrated within the European continent— you know, the United States was never invaded by another country, the fantasies of a “plot against America” or that TV show, the Man in the High Castle, aside. And so there was a kind of stability of public life (that) made it possible for Jews to navigate their way into institutions, into places that were increasingly closer and closer to the center, and did so with relatively little social and political discord. And it’s very hard to point to other places where this happened. And I mean, I think even the Civil War is one where the majority of Jews were untouched by it, other than some of them who had husbands, sons, fathers in the military. But for the most part, it really didn’t touch them. And it was kind of far from their lives, and their lives continued apace, setting up businesses, integrating into the society, creating the kinds of communal institutions they wanted without any state interference. Not that they didn’t care, not that they weren’t loyal to the Union or the Confederacy, but it didn’t upend their lives as the Franco-Prussian War upended the lives of the Jews of Alsace, for example. So it just never happened.
American Jewish History and “American Exceptionalism”
JL: It’s interesting, you’re talking about economic factors, the fact that Jews were considered to be white, the lack of antisemitic political parties ow political rhetoric… One of the things that I hear when I hear these kinds of arguments—I mean, I’m not saying that this is what you’re saying here— but there’s always kind of the specter of the idea that America is distinctive or “exceptional.” I think that there are of course many ways in which American history is distinctive, but part of the argument here, that we can say “why America” as a destination for migrants, is (the question), is American Jewish history “exceptional” within the broad frameworks of Jewish history when we can say that in so many places Jews were the ultimate other, for instance—and I’m a little bit wary of these kinds of arguments. But it raises, I think, significant questions about the ways in which the rhetoric or the set of ideas of “American exceptionalism” really work in this case, and what it tells us about this whole debate.
HD: Yeah, I mean, I would just never use the phrase “exceptionalism.” Maybe I’m trying to avoid it and I’m hiding from it, running away from it. But rather, there was a kind of constellation of factors at work of this constantly expanding society with this economic dynamism that had constant need of people willing, ready, and able to come and do the work, at pretty shoddy pay but still, you know, actually better than they had back home. And it was this constant expansion. Now, obviously England goes through expansion and Germany (too), but not in the context of this vast movement across a land mass.
And that’s just something that didn’t happen there in England—and I certainly would never hold myself up as a British historian—what you have ispeople from the countryside in the face of vast changes in agriculture, moving to the cities, and becoming, as E.P. Thompson told us, the “making of the English working class,” and having to adjust their peasant schedules their peasant sensibilities for factory life. While that’s going on in the United States also, and there are rural people moving to the cities, the effect is that if you look at what does the United States physically look like 1820, and what it looked like in 1850, and what it look like in 1890, and even after there’s no more land to acquire, the expansion within the regions, the vast agricultural development of California for example.
Now again, maybe if I want to say it was “exceptional,” it was exceptional because it was based on the exploitation and destruction of the lives and cultures of the people who lived there, and we can’t disassociate the Jewish story from that, either. But that’s not what’s happening in England. That’s not what’s happening in Germany. And it while it is happening in parts of South America, in South Africa, in Australia, it is happening differently in terms of scale, the level of development. It’s just, from an empirical point view, different, in terms of the number of immigrants who are coming there.
And the issue of color in America… It’s more than the elephant in the room, in terms of a society that structured itself around a line of privilege, and the privilege went with being white. Not that all white people had the same economic outcomes, but the possibility of naturalization and citizenship and the belief, perhaps,–and I think rightly–that their voices would be heard in one way or another, in courtrooms, at the ballot box, it really mattered.
So my problem with saying that I’m sounding like an “exceptionalist” is that that word is so tainted by exceptionalist as patriotic or as jingoistic, and the thing is, again, the simple statistic that 85 to 90% of immigrating Jews did choose the United States, (that) made it exceptional in the realm of Jewish history. That is, there was no place else where that percentage of people went and where the size of the institutional richness, the institutional elaboration, the institutional options, they just really were unmatched elsewhere. And, you know, numbers mattered.
JL: I think one of these issues, when we talk about this whole issue of “exceptionalism,” is that there is, as you mentioned, this this cloud that looms over it in terms of the way in which the idea of American “exceptionalism” has been put to use and continues to be put to for political purposes. And I think it’s a big challenge for historians, across the board, as we try to understand the past: in what ways are all the cases that we look at exceptional? In what ways are they distinctive? That’s certainly why we’re interested in them, we want to look at things that are unique, we don’t want to look at things that are just the same as everything else. And so, I think that there are big questions to ask here. Do we just avoid them by not using the term? I’m not sure.
HD: I mean, I think that the problem with terms, and I’ve probably used more than my share of them in my time with you, is that terms tend to flatten out the specificities. So when you say it’s “exceptiona” or it was unique, besides the fact that exceptional or unique says in fact that you have to know a lot about all the other places to be able to say “x was unique.” I’d like to think at this point my career, I do have not an insubstantial amount of that kind of knowledge under my belt, but still there’s way more than I need to learn. But, rather, to say that historic situations are contingent on circumstance and that you have to begin with the empirical data, and the empirical data was that a third of all European Jews did leave the country of their birth or the country in which they lived, and of that third, 85 to 90% came to the United States. And the fact that they came to the place which was the world’s largest receiver of immigrants–just an empirical statement–and it was the world’s receiver of the most diverse or heterogeneous populations of immigrants, and it was the place which was obsessed with color, and where color spelled the difference between privilege and and subordination. I guess on some level they’re unique, but these are empirical statements, and then what happens when you put these factors together? Okay, so, you know as Jewish enclaves in the United States began to develop and as news of America filters back to Central and Eastern Europe and, again, even parts of the Ottoman Empire, the idea of America becomes more than just a place that one could go. And one could go to Jamaica, one could go to Colombia, South America, one could go to South Africa. But absent family ties, it was America. That was the place that kind of transforms expectations and life back home.
I think, by the way, another factor to keep in mind is— I should have said it earlier— as the United States became this major economic dynamo of exporting, well, everything, timber, cotton, in terms of raw material, and then manufactured goods as it becomes the world’s chief exporter of those things, shipping lines jump in to create the modes of transportation to get all that stuff to Europe. And those ships carried people on the way back. So that if you were a Lithuanian Jew and you just read something about Jamaica and said, “Gee, I’d really love to go there.” Okay. Well, you know, the mode of transportation doesn’t take you from some Baltic port to Kingston in the same way that the port in the Baltic is going to get you to New York. And so that then feeds on itself, it becomes the easiest place to get to, there are most ships, they’re the fastest ships. So I mean in a sense that is distinctive or that is exceptional, because it’s harder to get to the other places than it is to get to the United States. But that’s a different kind of “exceptional” than as we began our conversation and you invoked the much-overused “goldene medina.” It’s a much more pragmatic, empirical kind of exceptionalism.
Pushing Back Against Myths and Mythologies
JL: Right. I think that one of the challenges, and also one of the tasks that that we face as historians, is perhaps peeling back some of these mythologized ideas about the past. When we talk about the “goldene medina,” this is easy to make fun of, but it’s an idea that many people have, this conception of America as the the quote-unquote land of opportunity. And even with this idea of American exceptionalism, which we can make fun of all day, they will still have a question in a Republican debate, for isntance, “do you believe in American exceptionalism?” I think this actually was a question that they posed at one point in one of the presidential debates a few years ago. So, one of the challenges that we have, I think, as historians, is trying to get people to think abou, what is going on here: how are these ideas, these notions, perhaps not accurate? Or they need to be sort of pulled apart?
And I guess in a certain way, this leads me towards another set of issues that I hoped we could talk about, which was to think about your work broadly speaking. Over the course of your career, you’ve dealt with such a wide range of issues–obviously, we’ve been talking about migration, but also things like food and foodways, the history of Holocaust memory, the Lower East Side of New York, now more recently your book about peddlers. In a lot of ways, I think that some of these topics that you’re dealing with are ones in which there are widely-held public myths about them, for instance the idea of the Jewish peddler is almost a caricature that one can think about. And so part of what I’m interested to think about here is, what are the driving issues and questions that bring all these together, the way in which you have been trying in your own work to peel back the layers of so many of these ideas about American Jewish history that people might believe but that there’s not a ton of truth to them in one way or another?
HD: Okay, so that’s a great question. So I say, on the most superficial level–and it’s a question that people often ask you, like, how come you veered, kind of, lurched from topic to topic? I do, perhaps with a certain tongue-in-cheek, like to say, I guess I must have some attention deficit disorder, and that once having done something I’m kind of just really intrigued to try my hand at something different. But I think there is a certain consistency, which is– you’ve kind of hit on that–which is, I tend to get slightly irritated as historian with assertions about the past, many of which exist or function at the heart of Jewish communal rhetoric, but not only, that are unsubstantiated by the empirical data. They’re said, you know, or they might be articulated orally in a sermon or in a learned paper or in a public speech that I would listen to and then I say, you know what? How is it that we know that? Is that really true? Does that statement actually stand up to the material at our disposal as American historians? Or do these assertions wither in the face of the stuff that historians, I think, are obliged to collect before they can actually say anything?
And so I probably think that maybe every book has, at its core, a kind of discomfort with the standard narrative that just is taken to be so true as to need no documentation. Those are the kind of moments in in my reading, or in my participation in conferences, or in whatever other kind of form that scholars kick back their ideas, that makes me want to stop and say: “Really. Is that true? What happens if you look at it from the point of view of the evidence?”
I think the one (project) to me that exemplifies this most dramatically is my book which came out in 2009, We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust.I read in one or two places this assertion–and I’m talking about the writings of serious, excellent, solid historians–that American Jews in the post-war period just were unable, unwilling to talk about the Holocaust and to make the memory of it an element in either their communal culture or in their political actions as they faced the larger American public. And I’m thinking of a book that came out in the 1992 series “The Jewish People in America.” I did the second volume, on the period 1820 to 1880, which itself was attempt to revise the standing scholarship. But the final book in that series, by Ed Shapiro, just says it. And I thought, wow. I mean, I remember as we were, you know, we met as a group a number of times. And it wasn’t my place to question him, it was his book. But I just sort of filed that in my my mind as a really weird thing to say. And then there was an article by Leon Jick, and he too made the comment that it just was not present in the American Jewish project of the post-war period. And again, I thought, well again there it is.
And finally, in the late ’90s, the editor from Houghton Mifflin which was publishing Peter Novak’s The Holocaust in American Life, had come to me and asked me if I would write the blurb for the book. And so on the one hand, I was incredibly honored, because I thought that Novak’s book That Noble Dreamwas just such a spectacular piece of scholarship, that I thought, well, I can’t believe they’re asking me to blurb Novack. And so I read it, and I was just appalled by these vast assertions like the Holocaust never went beyond the dining room table, and that American Jews may have talked about it privately in their homes, but never made it part of their public communal culture and never engaged with it or held it up as they engaged with the larger American society.
He has one footnote in there, where he said, it was never incorporated into the liturgy. You know, he’s looking at the period up through the mid-1960s. So his footnote refers to a Passover reading which was called the Seder of remembrance. And it begins with those lines, “we remember with reverence and with love, the six million…” And he said, it was written in the early ’50s but it was “very controversial and not used.” Well, you know, as a child, not only did we use that in my home but every year my home town, which was Milwaukee, had a war memorial program. And I was the child orator who had to read that in Hebrew and English, and every year the mayor was on the dais and the two congressmen. None of them were Jewish. And I had to do this for years, until I put my foot down as a teenager and found it just too awkward and embarrassing. But I thought, wait a minute, that wasn’t at the dining room table. And somebody from this committee that organized the program had to contact the mayor’s office and the congressman’s offices and ask them to participate, and they had to decide this was worth it for them politically, and they sat there for these programs where I did my little thing and there was always a survivor who spoke, and there was the Hebrew school chorus and yada yada yada.
And I thought, you know what, maybe I’m misremembering, or maybe it was only in Milwaukee that this was done. Which I doubted. So I didn’t write the blurb for Novack, but (thought), you know, it’s actually worth trying to excavate the landscape of American Jewish life in the post-war period and see what was done, said, written, created, where, by whom, how, and for whom. And because Novack– besides the fact that he was totally wrong about the reading being controversial, because I went into the boxes and the archives of that committee, and rather than being controversial, people wrote to the committee. I heard, this was done at an Interfaith seder at Andrews Air Force Base, and the minister wrote that this was one of the most the most moving experience I’ve ever had, listening to this.
So, at first, I thought, well, okay, I’ll write an article about it. And, you know, I ended up after a summer with four drawers of stuff–and the same program as the one in Milwaukee was held in Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Boston, etc, etc,–that historians have no right to make such statements without evidence. And you as the historian certainly are free to analyze: why did they write what they did and what were the constraints that shaped their decisions? But you’re not free to make it up. And you are obliged to follow the evidence where it leads you and so this, I think, has been kind of a hallmark of my career. If everybody says X, I want to know, why are they saying that? And what happens if we take whatever that statement is, and actually subject it to the kind of data gathering and accumulation of evidenc? I feel as historians of the modern period we probably have the problem of too much evidence, too many sources, rather than too few.
JL: I know that, from personal experience. I mean, I think that what you’re saying here is really important. But it’s also really fascinating from a historical perspective. Because when you’re talking about the myths of American Jewish history, well this is something that people have talked about for quite a long time, in as much as when we talk about the history of the field of American Jewish historical studies, this was a common complaint of many of the people who argued in the years after the Second World War for a more scholarly approach to American Jewish history.
If you look at Oscar Handlin, he has this essay in Commentary in, I want to say, ’47 or ’48, where he talks about how basically everything we know about American Jewish history is made up, or is basically a myth that needs to be replaced by the actual historical reality. And in a way, I see some echoes here of a long-standing tradition of scholars saying that there are many commonly-held ideas about American Jewish history or about the American Jewish experience that are in need of revising.
HD: Right, and yet they keep getting perpetuated and kept getting keep getting recycled. And again, I’ll give you just a couple of other examples: the idea that, well, let’s take one that I haven’t worked on in terms of actually gathering fresh data, but it’s certainly material that I’ve looked through, the idea of East European Jewish immigrants leaving for the United States because of “the pogroms.” And I mean, this cannot be more deeply planted in the larger consciousness of American Jews. It’s something that’s used for political purposes, even political purposes that I happen to share or views that I agree with, but still misusing the history.
And my fellow American Jewish historians just keep restating “the pogroms, that pogroms, the pogroms”–and yet from every piece of evidence we have, the pogroms did not stimulate the migration. Not that they didn’t happen. Not that they weren’t terrible and inexcusable and so on. But they were not the force that propelled migrations outward. And we even can look at something as simple and again empirical, that from the 1870s on, for the East European Jewish migration the pretty typical migration pattern was that a that a married man and his older children came to the United States first and worked for whatever period of time it took to save money to pay for the steamship tickets for wives and younger children and, in some cases, parents. Well, if they were fleeing the pogroms, would they really have left their wives and little kids and babies behind? “Okay, you can fight them.” I mean, that just you know flies in the face of the empirical data on how that migration took place. But this story, it has such resilience. I would say that whenever I give the talk about this, particularly to a public audience, but even when I hear other historians speak, people get really incensed when I say, well it wasn’t the pogroms, and that the Jewish migration like all migrations to the United States, and probably all historic migrations, were calculated movements from places of low productivity and dwindling opportunity for a particular class of people to places where opportunities abounded for these individuals. And they say, “no, that can’t be, how can you say that.”
And so, too, and here, I think in my book on the period from 1820 to 1880, I think it important though I can’t really say that it had much traction, is the idea that there was this clear thing called “the German migration” followed by this clear thing called “the East European migration” or the “Russian migration,” which is sometimes even more erroneously used, and that these were absolutely different phenomenon, that they have to be thought of as completely separate categories, and that the subsequent history of thf Jews in the United States is the hostile, uneasy confrontation between the haughty, very wealthy, very well-placed Germans and the impoverished Russians fleeing pogroms. And, well, again, we know that that’s just not the way the migration took place. The so-called “Germans,” most of them weren’t German–besides the fact that there was no such place called “Germany” for most of that migration. And a substantial percentage came from the eastern part of the German-speaking lands, that is, they came from place was like Posen, which was actually Polish, but it had been Incorporated by Russia and parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where the ordinary Jews were Yiddish speakers not German speakers; German was the aspirational language for the elite. And that the migration from what we might call Eastern Europe, which is a sort of a mythic place because, where is that, actually begins way earlier, and that the first Russian Jewish congregation in New York is in 1852. Rather than wanting t, sit back and think and say, gee, the way we’ve talked about this history is off, i t’s served a set of political, cultural purposes, but that’s not how historians should be functioning. They should be the, I mean–I almost am afraid to say this, because I could be pilloried for it–but I think they have to be the truth-tellers.
Why American Jewish History Matters
JL: So you’re talking about the ways in which an important job of historians is to debunk commonly-held myths, to bring nuance to ideas that that might be widely-held, both among the public and also among many scholars, whether you’re talking about ideas about Holocaust remembrance, or about migration and the pogroms, or any number of other issues. But I think that what you’ve been doing is much more than just debunking some of these ideas, I think there’s more to it than that. And it raises, I think, an important set of questions about why all of this matters. What is it about this series of issues that you’ve engaged with that really drives you? I’m saying this, also, knowing that you originally were not a historian of American Jewry but of America at large. What is it that brought you to this field, these driving issues and driving questions, and why does it matter in your view?
HD: Look, at the most simple level, and this is probably not the answer you want, but I think any scholarly endeavor matters. And I think the world is better off for (there to be) some number of human beings who spend their lives and create new knowledge about subjects that aren’t going get us to the moon or increase our gross national product or build a better widget or a new computer, but rather sit back and luxuriate in the idea of learning about how people in the past lived, what moved them, and how are they so different than us and also how similar they are to us.
I happen to be a great reader of historical novels, and these are incredibly popular. People like reading these books. Actually, now this is an admission to presumably a big public that I’m an addict to mystery novels. And so many of these mystery novels are set and in Victorian England or medieval France or whatever. And it’s that engagement with the sounds and images of these places that is just really intriguing. And these books sell way more than what we write. So I think in general there is a dramatic story about how people the past lived and how they gave meaning to the activity their everyday lives, and I think it’s really good that that we have institutions like universities and archives and historical societies that validate and valorize thinking about the past, because of their impracticality. Again, they’re not going to build a new, I don’t know, digital computer…
That’s, in a way, the baseline of what moves me. So, again, that’s a general defense of scholarship and the humanities, which I think this is part of. But I’d say the kinds of projects that move me and that have moved me and that matter– you’re right. They’re not just to debunk what other historians have said, although I do gain a slightly perverse pleasure from that, I have to admit. But rather, I think as an American and, you know, I am the child of immigrants and, yes, America was not exceptional, but I’m very glad that my parents left Ukraine in the 1920s, (if not) likely or not they would have been killed in the Holocaust. It is a fascinating society made up of people who are so vastly different from each other, and yet who have some very important elements of the common American culture that they tap into. And as Americans, it’s kind of good for us to know about the historical experiences o, our neighbors writ large. I think that as Americans, I think it behooves us to understand, as Mr. Rogers used to say, these are the people in your neighborhood. And unfortunately most of us now live in places where the only people our neighborhood are just like us. And that is actually a a great decline of American society.
And also, since my parents were not terribly clued into American life, so much of what I learned in studying American history, really from elementary school on, was absolutely new. Because I never heard of these things. It’s almost like being an anthropologist, despite the fact that I lived in America, studying this. And so I think I was kind of drawn to American history because it was both so familiar–I mean, obviously I knew it, I knew all this stuff, though we did have to, my sister and I, (we) had to convince our parents to celebrate Thanksgiving. My mother said, “why would you make a turkey on Thursday? I could make it on Friday.” Why would you make a Thursday big meal? Thursday was always the most simple meal, as she was cooking like a demon for shabbes. So why would you know make this on on Thursday? (So she said,) “so I could make a Thanksgiving on Friday.” (And we said,) no, you have to have it on Thursday. You have to have a pie, you have to have cranberry sauce. And so it was both this incredibly familiar element, you know, because I lived in America, but on the other hand they were kind of mystifying, because we were sort of not really part of it. And so, I think that’s probably what drew me into it.
And when I went to graduate school, I definitely was very much taken with the social history bug of the ’70s, history from the so-called bottom up, I definitely wanted to study something about black history. That was really very important to me. I’d been very involved as a teenager in the Civil Rights movement in Milwaukee, and it was very important to me. And in one of the first graduate seminars I was in, the professor said, sort of offhand. if anybody knows an immigrant language you could probably do a research paper using sources in that language. And then, halfway around the table, I think as it was coming closer and closer to me. I thought, wait a minute, I do know any immigrant language, as I’d grown up in a home of Yiddish speakers. And so, my dissertation and my first book grew out of out of that in that I was intrigued by what the Yiddish press–although it expanded beyond that–what it had to say about race in America in the early twentieth century, and how did these immigrant Jews and their what I called “organs of public opinion” (though) I’m sure I wouldn’t use that phrase now, (what did they) write about this? Again,iIf I could collect all the copies of that book and have an opportunity to rewrite it, I would, but it was not bad as a dissertation. But it was that kind of chance remark that caused me to start um to do that paper and then, I kind of slid into American Jewish history through that aegis. So in a way of saying it that way, if I said what attracted me about American history and why I think American history matters is that we are Americans, or many of us are, and it is important that an accurate version of that history be told and shared and that it not be left to the reactionary right wing jingoists.
But again, I think it’s a fascinating, amazing story, not necessarily a unique story but certainly a fascinating one. And on on the other hand, I think as somebody who, when I wrote this book, so let’s say when I did my dissertation on Jews and race in the early part of the twentieth century, I was responding to much of the scholarship in African American history that talked about two groups, blacks and whites. And I remember hearing a paper by a really very good historian, William Tuttle, who wrote about the Chicago race riots of 1919. Well, I saw tremendous coverage of the Chicago race riots in the Yiddish press as they were unfolding, and I feel pretty confident that Yiddish press writing about the race wriots were not writing like all other white Americans. They were writing it in Jewish idioms, the rioters were called program-makers and Cossacks, (they) were taking this issue that they were living through in their own backyard and transposing it into the tropes that they understood. And so it seemed to me a way of complicating the idea of white and black. And it’s not that they were better, not that they deserved credit, that they should be patted on the back, but rather their understanding of these issues was shaped by their distinctive experiences, just as the way Italians would have understood it and Tom Guglielmo in his book White Upon Arrivaltalks about that. And he looks specifically at Italians in Chicago and their engagement with the issue of race.
My book was like thirty years earlier than him. And his is much more sophisticated, in as much as he had thirty years of scholarship to build on, but how immigrants who European immigrants, who were white, I’ve said that now like eighty times in our conversation–and we can’t underestimate the importance of their whiteness–however (they) still didn’t respond to the various issues specifically as something called “white people.” They responded, yes, as white people, but also through the lens and through the medium of the issues that they brought from wherever they had come from, and the kinds of struggles they were involved with at the moment both in America and in kind of defense or in solidarity with their homelands. So I think that therefore from the point of view of American History, American Jewish history matters.
JL: I think a lot of what you’ve been talking about over the course of our conversation is the way in which looking at the history of American Jews tells us a lot about the history of migration to the U.S. And I think one of the ways in which American Jewish history matters is that especially in 2018 we need to keep this history of migration front and center in terms of understanding both why people come to the U.S. and also the fact that everybody who is here came here from somewhere else, whether willingly or unwillingly. And I think that there’s a lot to be said here about the current climate of xenophobia, where this history is incredibly important.
HD: Absolutely. And in fact, while I try very hard as a historian to keep my politics to the side–I probably don’t do it very well, but I try–that much of what’s being said about immigration is just wrong, and the immigrants today are absolutely no different from the immigrants in the past. You know, one of these um politicians, and I try not to even focus on their names because I find them so hideous and horrible, was attacking something called “chain migration.” Well, my God, that is how all immigrations, including from East Anglia in the 1730’s to Massachusetts, it was done by “chain migration.” A family member comes over first, prepares the way, saves resources, facilitates the migration of more and more people from their family, from their town in East Anglia. There’s just nothing different about it, and the motivations for migration are the same, the selectivity of migrations are the same–that is, it’s never entire people’s moving lock stock and barrel, but certain age groups or demographics, gender, married, not married. How those demographics play out tend to differ from historical periods, and the only thing that changes, frankly, is the law. But migrations resemble each other way more than than they differ.
And the ugly words used against immigrants are so familiar. So as a historian of immigration reading, again, any of this stuff that you can see in the newspapers, I’ve heard this before, and it wasn’t true then. You know, Italians did learn English. And they did become citizens, and so on. Although, they were always condemned, that “they were never going to learn English, it would be impossible, they had no love for America and would never become citizens.” Okay. Well, you know, tell that to the Cuomo family. I think that we have an obligation, without putting on our political hats and saying, We should do that or I feel I should do that away from my desk. What I write has to be based on evidence, but I think the evidence is so clear as to the immigration story. I think it’s clear toward the religion story and the notion that the framers were men of God who wanted to see religion enshrined in American life… Yeah, then how come they wrote a constitution that makes no reference to God? They imbued the power to create the nation to We the People, not we in the name of the almighty. They could have written that. And there was nobody to stop them. But they didn’t do that. They had a vision very different than the one we have, but still that sovereignty lay with the people and not witm some divine being. And yet, you listen to these Evangelical mouthpieces, and I don’t know if they’re convinced but they at least claim that what they’re doing is just the same work as the founding fathers who “always wanted religion to be at the core of civic life.”
So I think that’s our job as historians, to choose projects that, again, tell dramatic stories that help us understand people in the past just as on some perhaps silly level we would want to be understood by those who come after us, we want to give our subjects a kind of dignity about what was motivating them and how they navigated difficult circumstances and how they felt empowered to build institutions, archives, and synagogues and churches, and fraternal orders and so on and what this meant to them. But we have to do it with absolute overkill, as it were, of evidence.
JL: One thing that we can talk about here is the way in which this history and these histories that we engage with as scholars and as teachers, why they matter to a wide range of people. I think one of the reasons why there are so many misconceptions about the past when we talk about American Jewish history or about American history is just that the past is constantly being invoked. So I think there’s a lot to think about there in terms of why it matters. Well, clearly it does, because so many people are utilizing the past for all sorts of cross-purposes.
HD: And in a sense, we can’t know how many read what we say or hear what we say and sit back and say, you know, that’s really interesting, I’ve never thought of it that way. I hope many do. But I think we have to try. I really do think of being a scholar and being a historian in particular as kind of sacred calling that I think has put obligations on us. What is the Hippocratic Oath, it’s “Do no harm.” I think ours is, tell no untruth.
American Jewish Historical Scholarship Today
JL: We don’t have a ton of time left, but there was something that I was hoping that we could delve into a little bit which is that we’ve been talking about some of the big issues that that you’ve been engaging with in terms of American Jewish history. One thing I know that you’ve dealt with to some extent, and which also is a topic that’s of deep interest to myself, is the history of American Jewish history as a field. Because one of the things that’s interesting, when we talk about the way in which American Jewish history has been utilized among the public is that, historically speaking, the scholarly study of American Jewish history is relatively recent. And it’s a field that faces particular types of challenges, some of which we’ve talked about, whether that’s popular misconceptions or the way in which the past was perhaps used for kind of filiopietistic or apologetic purposes, so to speak. If you look at many of the people who founded the modern study of American Jewish history, people in the 1950s like Salo Baron, Oscar Handlin, Jacob Rader Marcus, these people all threw these kinds of terms at American Jewish history. One of the big questions is, how has American Jewish history changed over the decades? I think there are still some people who consider it to be sort of a stepchild, so to speak, of both American history or even of Jewish history as a whole.
And this is not to call out anybody in particular, but I recently got a copy of a new volume where you have an essay, edited by Jeffrey Gurock. It was a kind of a reflection on American Jewish history and what it meant to be an American Jewish historian. And Jeffrey’s introduction suggests that american Jewish history is perhaps confined in terms of where people are publishing. Most people are writing about American Jewish history in two main journals, in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society, American Jewish History, and in the American Jewish Archives Journal. I’m not sure if it’s actually true, if you look at the data, but he (Jeffrey) suggests that sometimes people write about American Jewish history in the Journal of the Organization of American Historians or in the journal of the AHA, of the American Historical Association. He laments that every once in a while an Americanist, not in American Jewish history but somebody who studies American history, joins the the conference of the American Jewish Historical Society. And part of what I’m trying to draw out here, I think, is this idea that American Jewish history has only gained a certain kind of “respectability” within the last generation. And I’m curious if you agree with this assessment, especially as we try to think about why American Jewish history matters. In what ways do you think that the study of American Jewish history has changed over the course of your career? And what do you think is the place of of American Jewish history within the discourse of the American Jewish community and within our broader understanding of American history?
HD: Okay, so that’s a huge question. On some level, I can’t answer as to what it has to do with the American Jewish community, because besides the fact that I’m not sure there is such a thing. I’m kind of not part of that, which doesn’t mean I’m kind of uninterested or uninvolved. But that in whatever way I’m in it, it’s not as a historian. But in the field of American history there is a certain blindness to what we do, and not a hostility but a “Gee, does that really matter?” And it is our job to actually show it matters. Now look, there’s nothing wrong with American Jewish historians only talking to each other. That’s fine. But that’s not what I want to do. It’s been very important to me in my career to in fact write about subjects that aren’t specifically “Jewish,” but in which my knowledge of American Jewish history is helpful and has some way of enriching what I’m doing. And I’m thinking there about my food book. The editor at Harvard wanted me to only write about Jews. There’s a bigger market for that. But that’s not what I want to write. And I thought, to me writing about these three immigrant populations which had different encounters with hunger before migration tell very different stories about how they took advantage of the fact that food in America was cheap and abundant, and how they used it differently to create ethnicity in America. So I didn’t write that as an American Jewish historian. But obviously, the two chapters on Jews were very much influenced by the fact that I know that history.
But I think that if it’s something American Jewish historians care about, then why aren’t they going to the meeting of the OAH? And so I go every year, and I’m very involved with the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and I can tell you, almost nobody from American Jewish history shows up at the OAH. Every once in a while there have been there have been people from our field who participate in the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. So in a way, I don’t think we should be complaining, if we’re not there. I don’t think we are rebuffed at all. The Immigration and Ethnic History Society two years ago named Adam Mendelssohn’s book the winner of the Saloutis prize, and this year thm runner-up for first book award went to Rachel Kranson who wrote on American Jewish discontent in the post-war period. And I actually was on the committee and I tried to recuse myself because I said she was my student and the other two who work in completely unrelated subjects, they know it was a great book, do not recuse yourself. So there’s no hostility towards the field. It’s just that I don’t think we’re really there. And that’s, I think, a challenge to those of us who care to plunge in. And there may be people who say, well, I’d rather put my energy into being part of the modern Jewish history field, and I don’t sit in judgment of other people. But if you’re going complain, be there.
I also think the fact that there are American historians who find opportunity to write about the Jews is only good. And I’m thinking of Shana Bernstein’s, Bridges of Reform,about Los Angeles and on Jews Mexicans, Japanese, African-Americans and the creation of the Civil Rights alliance in LA. It was phenomenal, and I think we learned a great deal about American history from that, although that’s not her field. And again, I’m not going to tell a story out of school, but our journal American Jewish Historydid not want to review that book. She called me and said, they’ve never reviewed it. Is there a reason? And when I inquired, it wasn’t “Jewish enough.” Well, I mean, so yes, maybe we will be lambasted for being small-minded and parochial, because to not review her book was to close off an incredibly rich conversation about how Jews, who are a tiny percentage of the population of the United States and of Los Angeles, however large it may seem, and living in a place where people of color, in that case African Americans, Japanese, Mexicans were increasingly the majority and how Jews navigated that, tells us much more about American Jewish history, I think, than a book that only looks at Jews. Now, which doesn’t mean somebody shouldn’t write it, and there is still a history of the Jews of Los Angeles and the post-war period to write. And I would be happy to have it. But, again, we should not complain of being marginalized if we act like marginal people or marginal scholars.
JL: I agree with you entirely. I think one of the big questions here, and this is part of what I was thinking about when I thought about this particular topic, was that it’s not just a question of how individual historians participate in the broader network of conferences and meetings and journals and so forth, but what it says about the importance of American Jewish history. Is the field of American Jewish history something that is speaking primarily to the American Jewish community, or is it something that is engaging with the wider constellation of the American landscape? And I think it raises an important question, going back to what we started started with, about why American Jewish history matters both within the context of Jewish history and also within the frame of America at large. And I think one of the important tasks that lies ahead is making this case that when someone is talking about America, in order to understand American history they should look at the Jews as well, as part of this diverse landscape of peoples and minorities that make up this country, that make up this history of migration, that make up the history of American religion. And I think that there’s a lot to delve into and to think about, about why the Jews are a helpful case to look, at and ways in which the utility of the Jews as a case has changed perhaps in the past 30, 40 years as the position of Jews in the U.S. Has also changed.
HD: Right. So let me say that while it’s not about the actions of this individual of that individual going to this conference or that conference or that journal or this journal, it is cumulative. In other words, in the end it’s only what we do, and nobody’s going to do this without us. We are the captains of our fate in this context. So I think that is actually important. I can’t really speak to how we should engage with the Jewish community because as I said before, it’s something that I don’t see as my responsibility. Although I do speak at synagogues and so on, but in terms of engaging with American historians, with the writing of American history, we have to find a way to tell this story that makes it both dramatic in its own terms but m manifestation of the larger trends at work in American life. And that to understand the issue of the importance of color, then here’s an example of a group that had been stigmatized in so many other places but comes with this one piece of privilege or this one element of privilege and it mattered incredibly that that that was the case. And so too in terms of how do we understand American religion and the importance of the evolution of a religiously neutral society, something that’s very much in jeopardy right now. Well, here is a group of people who every place else they lived had some level of state control over their religious lives. Even if it was totally benign, like let’s say in France with the creation of the consistoire and the government-sponsored seminary. Well, what happens in a society where there aren’t those government supports? What you have is tremendous creativity, institution building, some would call it chaos, others would call it people voting with their feet by creating all kinds of religious forms that are meaningful to them. So if you want to understand what is the nature and the impact of American religious behaviors or the structure of religion in American life, Jews provide a very interesting case because of the obstacles and handicaps that they experienced elsewhere. Maybe handicaps is the wrong word, but the way in which their religious lives were shaped by state interference. And That doesn’t happen here. And so they it provides a very dramatic example to show what the meaning of that kind of hands-off policy on the part of the state towards religion. There are very different experiences elsewhere under very different circumstances, and here I’m now being the American exceptionalist. We could understand America by understanding their experiences.
JL: I think one of the big questions when we think about the future of American Jewish history, if we can use such a term, or maybe in the same way that we can talk about the future of Jewish history, I think this really gets at the heart of what this whole podcast is about, thinking about the ways in which Jewish history or American Jewish history matters in very broad terms.
HD: I think that’s very well put and I think it’s going to be a constant struggle. But so long as our colleagues, repeat banal phrases and focus still to this day on contributions and essentialize Jewishness, then I don’t think it’s going to move anyplace.
JL: I think that what you’re saying here is going back to some of these older critiques that we’ve talked about. I mentioned how Oscar Handlin and others critiqued in the 1950s this idea that American Jewish history as a field was too focused on identifying and publicizing the contributions that Jews made, like if you think about the mythology surrounding figurse like Haym Salomon for instance. There’s a lot to say here in terms of the way in which American Jewish history has always played a role in terms of a Jews in America trying to advocate for themselves and part of the question that has, I think, been a burning one for the past seventy years, this question of what is the role of American Jewish history when it is not directed at those aims. Then in what ways does American Jewish history matter beyond those kinds of internal Jewish questions, Jewish communal questions.
HD: Right. So, again, it’s a huge topic and I don’t know if we have the time for more than a sentence or two. But I’m not channeling the critiques of the ’50s. And I think that when we try to understand those communal rabbi’s and the people who wrote those defensive histories, it’s not to say it was bad history. But rather to try to, again I’m interested in history as drama and history as the story of people struggling to make a place for themselves, I think we have to be incredibly sensitive and accept them on their own terms, but that’s just not what we should be writing. But, yeah, I think that we kind of have to honor those people because they created the field and they operated under a set of constraints and with a set of opportunities that are so different than what we live with.
I think we should take advantage of the opportunities we have, and those opportunities involve being able to think of American Jewish history not in its parochial, small-minded, I’m-only-looking-at-Jewish-sources, I’m not interested in other people going through the same ordeal or the same circumstances at the same time, I’m-only-looking-at-the-Jews. And I think we still have a lot of that.
JL: I want to be clear, I wasn’t saying that you are parroting what people said three generations ago. I guess part of the thing to think about here is, in what ways American Jewish history has changed.
HD: I think it’s both changed and there’s certain consistencies. I think it’s changed because we are all trained very differently. And I think we’re the product of a very different world, where we’re not really so concerned with proving the place of Jews in America. Although I think there may be some of us some who see that American Jewish history can be marshaled to support a political project involving the state of Israel, but that’s not what I want to talk about. So we are different, we have different opportunities. On the other hand, I think–and I’m taking my cues here from David Hollinger when he gave his talk about ten years ago about American Jewish history–that we still tend to focus on the communal. And we talk about theJewish community and we’re interested in the insiders. I mean, I don’t think I am, and not that they’re not worth studying, but I don’t think we put them in the context of their peers who weren’t communal insiders, who weren’t insiders and who functioned in American society not self-marked by their Jewishness. And I certainly hear people in our field talking about so-and-so, thinking of some historical figure, did it “as a Jew.” I don’t know what that means, “as a Jew.” And I think that there’s still a communalist rhetoric at the heart of what’s going on. If that’s what people want to do, that’s fine, but I don’t think it will move us a whole lot forward.