American Judaism with Jonathan Sarna

We’re pleased to welcome Jonathan Sarna to the podcast to discuss American Judaism: A History, which recently was published in a second, revised edition. Listen in for a wide ranging conversation about American Jewish history in big terms, about Jonathan’s work at large and the book American Judaism in particular. As we discuss in the episode, American Judaism is one of a series of books which have been published in recent years that has tried to synthesize American Jewish history, so we will look closely at how the landscape of American Jewish historical studies has developed, how we tell the history of America’s Jews, and why it matters.

Jonathan Sarna is University Professor and the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University’s Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and he also serves as the Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies there.
He is one of the leading scholars of American Jewish history and we are very excited to share this conversation with him.

An edited transcript of our conversation follows:

Jason Lustig: I’m really excited to talk with you about this new edition of American Judaism, and about how we can situate it within the broader development of American Jewish history and your own work as well. One thing I thought we might start with is trying to situate the book itself within its historical context. It’s I think really significant to keep in mind that you published American Judaism, initially, in 2004, when there was a whole lot of historical activity surrounding the 350th anniversary of the settlement of the first Jews in New York City. I was wondering if you wanted to start off by commenting on the significance of writing a landmark history as it were at a moment of public commemoration and memory. How did that play a role in your thinking about American Jewish history, and also the broad range of activities, as well as other books—some of which we’ll talk about a little bit later—that also were published around the same time.

Jonathan Sarna: Actually, when I began the book in the middle of the 1990s, it never occurred to me that it should be published for the 350th. I had a deadline with Yale University Press to deliver the book in 2000. Unfortunately, I had cancer, and I missed that deadline. And then suddenly I had a great idea: I’ll mollify the press by saying, “Let’s bring it out for the 350th anniversary of American Jewish life.” They loved the idea, and it was only then—and by then, I was well into the book—that I knew that it was going to be an anniversary production. I would say that only the very beginning of the book and the very end of the book related to the 350th. The rest was simply coincidental, and certainly not planned from the start.

Subscribe to Jewish History Matters

Subscribe so you can listen to Jewish History Matters episodes on the go, and get updates whenever a new episode is available.

JL: Clearly, you didn’t necessarily plan that it would come out in 2004. But what interests me here is, as you came to realize that you will be publishing this book at this commemorative moment, in what ways did that affect the way that you approached looking at American Jewish history as a whole then—as well as when you were working on the new edition of the book, which is clearly not within this particular historical context being now, what, 15 years or so later. How do you approach the same material again, in a different historical context?

JS: It’s a really wonderful question. I think that for the 350th, my goal was really to help American Jews situate themselves historically, understand themselves historically. Too much of the writing in the field is simply sociological, without any historical context. My hope was to provide that. I also wanted to put forth a more cyclical view, with ups and downs, of American Judaism. Much like American religion, there are awakenings, there are declines. To put that narrative and model forward as an alternative to other models: One is the regnant model of linear decline—every generation is less religious, Jews started off Orthodox and end up marching down the aisle of a church. That’s one model, the declension model. And the other model, which is very prominent in the social sciences, is a linear model, meaning: I look at where I am now, I project that into the future, and I assume nothing will change. Well, I knew that everything had changed. There’s not a single moment in American Jewish history where a linear model would accurately tell you how the community would look in 50 years.

So I rejected both the linear model and the declension model, and argued instead for what some have called the cyclical model: that there are revivals, there are declensions, that that’s been going on for long time, that every generation has really worried about whether Jews would survive, and that indeed that fear that Jews would not survive has helped to ensure that they did. In other words, the fear about the future has itself been the prime motivator for change. That was really the central thesis of the book, which is very different than the way the story had previously been told.

I also wanted to move away from some of the generational determinism, a notion that, well, you had immigrants and children of immigrants and grandchildren of immigrants. I think Jews are much more influenced in America by the context of their times, looking at what’s going on around them, what’s going on in Christianity, what’s going on in the polity that’s infinitely more influential on the Jewish community than whether they happen to be second, third, fourth generation American Jews. So in a sense, the volume also was in effort to disprove the generational determinism model, which was very common in the late twentieth century.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: