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.
- Purchase American Judaism: A History (second edition) on Amazon
- Other books of Jonathan’s we discuss or mention in the episode include:
- Also see the 2003 essay, which we discuss, “Jews in the New Millennium“
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.
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.
JL: I think that what’s interesting here, as you’re talking about the relationship of your approach to the history of American Judaism to that of other scholars and also to the popular perceptions of it, is that—and I don’t want to focus too much just on the 2004 moment, but it seems to me of great interests that when we look at, for instance the tercentenary in 1954 and then again the 350th anniversary in 2004, this is a moment of increased public interest, Jewish public interest as well as more generally, in history of America’s Jews. I think on the one hand, part of what you’re doing in the book is to engage in a scholarly conversation with a whole bunch of figures who mostly go unnamed in the book, who have taken these kinds of perspectives, but also with the popular perceptions of American Judaism. Here, I think when you talk about the sense of decline, or the idea of a generational model, these are perennially popular perceptions. So as you were writing the book, as you were composing it and thinking about these issues, why do you think that it matters to disseminate these (new) ideas about American Judaism within a moment of people thinking about the past and also about the future?
JS: I think that if you view American Jewish life the way I do, it does provide a certain sense of hope to the community. It’s not foreordained that the community will assimilate out of existence. That doesn’t mean that the future has all been prefigured, and I go out of my way to emphasize in the book that people make history. I talk about people in the book precisely because I do believe that individuals shape history. It’s not just a bunch of unseen forces that shape us, without having any agency whatsoever. That, I think, is also an important message.
At the same time, I did not want this to be a homiletical volume. There are plenty of rabbis who have written those kinds of books, preaching American Jewish history. I, after all, wanted this book to inform students of American religion who didn’t know what to do with American Judaism. I wanted this book also to inform Israelis who had no knowledge of American Jewish life. I knew that the book would be translated into Hebrew. It was very important to me that there’d be a book that would explain this strange animal called American Judaism to, well, roughly half the Jewish world which lives in Israel, so that was another goal. I tried hard to write a book that would appeal to all of those audiences—Jewish, non-Jewish, Israeli—and to inform them and to provide a sufficient number of footnotes, so those who wanted to check up or to read a larger literature would be able to do that as well.
That’s what seemed to me important. There was no similar book. My own teacher, Sydney Ahlstrom, the great historian of American religion, knew and said to me that American Judaism is hard to understand. He considered it weak in his own religious history of the American people, and all I had in mind his injunction that we really need a history of American Judaism that would speak to larger audiences. That remained my goal, I have to say, in the second edition, where I brought in themes that seemed to me important American religion as a whole.
JL: You’ve talked about three distinct audiences, the Ameican Jewish audience, a non-Jewish American audience and also Israeli Jews. When you talk about the history of American Jews, why do you think that it matters to reach these different audiences? And why do you think that it’s important for each of these different groups to understand this history?
JS: I think that American Jews need to understand their history to appreciate how the current moment was shaped, that the past was different, that the future may be different, and how distinctive in many ways the American Jewish experience is. Folks in American religion for many years understood American in a very Protestant way. Sydney Ahlstrom actually was the person who began to break that down and broaden our understanding of American religion. I think it’s fair to say that folks in American religion knew that Judaism was an important component of American religion, and indeed it’s more significant than its small numbers would imply, in part because Judaism is the most important non-Christian religion in American history. They wanted to understand it and they wanted to understand it in terms that they were familiar with—so, revivals are things they understand, holidays are things that they understand, symbols, religious leaders and so forth.
In terms of the Israelis: There, I think we face the fact that Judaism in America is so very different than Judaism either in the Sephardic world or in the East European setting. Many of them didn’t understand it, didn’t know where it came from, had also some stereotypes about non-Orthodox Judaism. The most popular question that I still get when I teach in Israel is, how come we don’t have a chief rabbi in America? Well, once you begin to examine that question, it explains the difference between American religion and the situation in most other countries where Jews lived. I think today, when we appreciate the chasm between Israeli and North American Jewry more than ever, my book is even more important for those Israelis who truly and honestly want to understand why Judaism as it exists in the new world, as they see it when they visit North America, is so very different from what they know in Israel. There’s almost nothing in Hebrew that does that, and that’s why we’re so grateful to Mercaz Shazar for translating the book and for those who supported that translation.
JL: So, I want to think about what has changed now, between the two editions of the book. Quite a lot has happened in the past fifteen years. When you look at the book, though, the second edition, you left for the most part the body of the text intact. You wrote a new introduction, and you expanded and updated the conclusion. When you look back on the past fifteen years of American Jewish history, as well as scholarship in American Jewish historical studies, what do you think has changed? How does that affect the way that you look at American Judaism? In what ways do you think that the developments in American society or among American Jews or within the scholarly realm either ratifies your perspective on American Judaism, or leads you to reconsider some aspects?
JS: What I tried to do in the second edition, and that was somewhat negotiated with the publisher—after all it is a second edition, not a new book entirely—I used the introduction to summarize fifteen years of historiography. What are the new themes? In some case, I summarized. In some cases, I either agree or in some cases disagree. But my hope is that people would get a sense of a vibrant field. There were very few places where I truly have changed my mind, and those are not deeply significant. To give one example, we now know that the Mikvah, the ritual bath, was much more important in early America and indeed in the whole new world, than I perhaps had earlier thought. Laura Leibman’s work has helped us understand that, and some of her other scholarship I think is very important.
In the new conclusion, I wanted to talk about important themes. And I have to say I myself was surprised at how much had changed. I barely touched on gay synagogues, on LGBTQ and so on, in the first edition. That is a movement that has advanced more quickly than any other social movement in America. It has a transformative fact on American Jewish life. All of the major movements now take gay (rabbinical) students, and most synagogues across the spectrum have members who self-identify that way. The story of the AIDS epidemic has not well been integrated into American religion. I thought it was a very important story, a moment to remember. I was glad to have an opportunity to integrate that into the second edition.
Other themes: Nobody could have predicted the decline of Conservative Judaism in numbers. Then it was important to try and understand that. And again, whereas others understand it purely within the context of Judaism, I point out here that if you look at American religion, all of the centrist movements, all of those mainline Protestant denominations that stood between liberal Protestantism and fundamentalism, they all declined. The amazing thing is they declined at approximately the same rate as Conservative Judaism. That suggests that you needed a broader cultural explanation: the decline of the center in America that impacted on Jewish life as well.
I wanted to say more about the rise of Chabad. Mine was actually the first history of American Judaism even to include Chabad. In the last fifteen years, since the passing of Lubavitcher Rebbe, Chabad—contrary what most people believed would happen—in fact grew enormously, and actually brought in many of the folks who left the Conservative movement, ironically. I thought that is important.
Obviously, Israel has to be dealt with differently, given the changing relationship in the twenty-first century. I have a section on that, and then the enormous impact of the Great Recession on Judaism and Jewish life, the Madoff scandal, the financial impact its effect on millennials, all of that have to be dealt with.
So I have to say it took me much longer than I thought to produce this updated chapter. I found myself thinking about many of these developments and how much Jewish religious life changes in just a decade and a half. I hope readers will think to themselves, this is a very dynamic religious movement. It’s not static at all. We haven’t paid attention to these changes, but they’re very dramatic and likely to be no less dramatic in the fifteen years to come.
JL: You mentioned a whole range of ways in which things have changed in the past fifteen years. You only briefly glossed over the scholarship aspect. I’m wondering if you maybe want to summarize what you think are the one or two most significant developments in terms of scholarship in American Jewish history over the past ten or fifteen years that you took into account as you were looking at the volume again. Why you think that those changes, those new developments, are particularly significant as we think about how we conceptualize American Judaism?
JS: Let me point to two. I spend many, many pages reviewing the scholarship. I was happy to talk about a major difference, really, between my work and the work of Professor Hasia Diner, who had similarly written a one-volume history. The difference, and there really are two schools now studying American Jewish life: I adhered to the more traditional chronology, which distinguishes between central Europe and central European immigrants and what they did, and the East European immigration and what it did. Professor Diner had argued that this was completely artificial and instead we should talk about a whole century of immigration, roughly from 1820 to 1920, to stop distinguishing eastern from central Europe. I think that is a misreading. It’s not the way people who lived through it experienced it. And I drew attention to some of the work of Tobias Brinkmann, who has really shown how central and east European Jews differed in important ways. I think those differences are reflected in the American setting. In many ways, I think that the way people understood it is the right way, and reject really the notion that the distinction between central and eastern Europe is an artificial one.
Now, in other ways, there’s been a lot of work in the last fifteen years on post-World War II Jewish history. I also think that there is an emerging new understanding of America and the Holocaust. We don’t have a new synthesis yet, but I was very eager to alert readers to that. Because I’ve long felt that the traditional view, that American Jews didn’t know (about the Holocaust), didn’t do (anything about it), were guilty of manifold crimes, is a historical misreading. We began to have a literature on the clandestine efforts of American Jews to spy on Nazis in their midst, to find out what’s going on in the Holocaust, to bring in as many Jews (to America) as they could. Of course, all of these had to be done secretly—and that’s why historians haven’t picked it up. They assume just because it was in secret it didn’t exist. That, I think, is a very important new theme in the literature. I would say that the Israeli scholarship continues heavily to berate American Jews for what they did not do. Stephen Wise and the leadership of the Jewish community are a punching bag. And I wanted to begin to point in that chapter to a different interpretation.
JL: I think that when we think about what has happened over the past fifteen years, in terms of scholarship in American Jewish history, one of the things that is particularly exciting is to see its continuing flourishing. If you look, however, at the introduction to the first edition of the book, you start out by reflecting a bit on how things have changed over the course of your career more broadly, and where you reflect on your anecdotal experience—where you were told not to study American Jewish history, that it wasn’t that interesting, that what you should do is, I believe what you said is that you were told to “go and study Talmud.” What do you see having taking place over the course of your career? How do you see your scholarship, and this particular book in both of these editions, fitting into this trajectory and this development?
JS: It’s a wonderful question. Indeed, one of the things that readers might do is to see the quality of publishers publishing in the field of American Jewish history. Today it’s common to see the Ivy league publishers, Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Oxford, Cambridge, publishing in this field. That almost didn’t happen in the earlier era. It was hard to publish, and only third-rate publishers published in those fields. Of course, today major universities have chairs in American Jewish history. The transformation, as one looks from let’s say 1975, when I entered graduate school—I think I am the very first person who went to Yale’s History department with the intent of studying American Jewish history—when you move from 1975 to today, Yale has produced several very notable American Jewish historians, and others have come out of major universities and occupy major positions.
So in many ways, the field I think has come into its own, just as American Jewry has come into its own. There are today two great centers of Jewish life, one in Israel and one in the United States. That’s roughly 80% of world Jewry. And that’s very significant, to try and understand those two centers. I’m also very happy to see, increasingly, American-trained scholars who work in European Jewish history who nevertheless are paying attention to the American Jewish experience, asking questions about the relationship between American Jewry, European Jewry, and that increasingly barriers between what used to be called “modern Jewish history” and “American Jewish history”—as if America wasn’t part of modern Jewish history—that barrier is a thing of the past. There are plenty of European Jewish historians now who teach American Jewish history, and who are exploring the continuities, discontinuities, linkages that crisscrossed the modern Jewish experience, and that I think is very much where the best work in the field is going.
JL: Especially, I think that when we think about your book and Hasia Diner’s book also published in 2004, this is also a reflection of the maturation of American Jewish history. Even if you look in 1954, when Oscar Handlin and other people were writing about American Jewish history and also trying to publish around the Tercentenary, that year, there was an effort to make American Jewish history, so to speak, a “proper” scholarly endeavor. But even Handlin’s book was quite apologetic. Even the title of his book, Adventure in Freedom, had a very particular kind of patriotic and ideological angle to it. I think that the more recent scholarship certainly does not. Amnd this is also a very interesting trajectory, as we think about the role of American Jewish historical scholarship as it has changed. Especially when you think about your work, for instance, with the National Museum of American Jewish History (in Philadelphia) and the publication of your book and the work of other scholars around commemoration and public history, public memory: In what way do you think that the developments in American Jewish history as a field relate to changes in the way in which American Jews see and understand themselves?
JS: I’d like to think that my work and the work of colleagues has helped to see American Jewish history also as part and parcel of America itself. I write as an American historian and as a scholar of American religion, and interact with people who are interested in Mormon history and Catholic history and so on. My hope is, scholars of American Jewish history can speak to that audience. Now, the truth is a whole group of American historians not interested in religion have questioned whether there is such a thing as a separate American Jewish history. They themselves are deeply secular, in many cases. They are uncomfortable with the idea that somehow there is something distinctive and different about American Jewish history. We don’t write about redheads, why do we write about Jews? I actually reject that view, but I think there’s no such problem in writing about American Judaism. Clearly, Judaism plays a part in American religion, and one of the reasons I did this book and have been part of the American Academy of Religion is it seems to me that in an era when ethnic history declined and Jews were told they’re just part of the white race, the distinctiveness of Judaism in America and its interaction on a religious basis was much easier, in a sense, to put forth to gain traction. Then, those who wanted to write about Jews as a people, where they ran into all sorts of difficulties because of the prevailing cultural moments, are very different than with the rise of ethnic history in the ’60s. So those are some of the changes, but I do think that American Jewish history, although not a field that’s growing at quite the same level or speed as it once did, has secured a place much as German Jewish history and Russian Jewish history. I’m quite confident that a new generation of scholars, well-trained and alert to both American history and Jewish history, really have to know both in order to understand the American Jewish experience, that that new generation of scholars will indeed move off in new directions, ask new questions, and I think we’re already seeing some of that work.
JL: I want to go back to something that you mentioned earlier, because it relates very closely to what you’re just talking about. You started to speak before about some of the differences between your book, American Judaism, and Hasia Diner’s book, which is The Jews of the United States. One of the things that is interesting there is that it reflects a very different perspective, even just in the title: One focuses on religion, the other one in a certain way, you could say, focuses on people, even just within the title. Then of course, there’s also Eli Lederhendler’s books (Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 2009; and more recently American Jewry: A New History, 2016) that were published a few years later. It wasn’t really publicized and promoted around the 350th anniversary but it’s also, as you’ve mentioned, one of a number of these syntheses. There are two issues that relate to this, as we try to situate and understand your work and how it relates to other approaches to American Jewish history. In addition to the chronology, in what ways do you see these approaches and yours and Hasia Diner and Eli Lederhendler’s as being distinctive from one another? Why do think that those distinctions are important? You talked about the chronological component, but what difference does it make, in a certain way, when we say that there is one periodization, 1820 to 1924—that’s Hasia Diner’s perspective—versus yours, which is a more traditional division based on which group of Jews were the primary immigrant group. So, when we think about these distinctions, in what ways do you see differences between these perspectives? Why is it that they matter? In what ways do they reflect the diversity and the dynamism of American Judaism and of American Jewish history as a field?
JS: Well, so I think there are some profound differences. First of all, both Lederhendler and Diner sought more traditionally than me to synthesize social, political, cultural, economic and religious history, whereas I argued that religion was the engine driving the train. Even though I obviously dealt with those other developments—social, political, and so on—which shape religion, there definitely was an engine. I make the point here, that I think there are other engines. Yes, I hope someone writes an economically-based history of Jews in America. It’s really very surprising how little attention has been paid to economic and political history of Jews in America. But I do think you get a better narrative. My book is not a textbook. It’s a real narrative. There are people, and there’s a storyline. I could do that because religion is the engine that drives the train. So that’s one difference.
There is another very important difference that should be highlighted. I spend three full chapters on the early period in American Jewish life. Diner calls her (book) Jews of the United States. The colonial period gets almost no attention. And the truth is very, very quickly that book moves to the 19th century. Lederhendler similarly devotes very little attention to the early period. Now, of course, there weren’t many Jews in America in the early period. But just as when you study people, childhood often reveals a lot about the shaping of a person, so it seems to me that the early period, and most importantly the American revolution and its impact, had an absolutely shaping influence on what makes American Jewish life distinctive. Without the revolution, you can’t understand American Jewish history, in my view. Those early Jews, who are small in number, they set down patterns that were endlessly replicated by later Jews. So I did, and unapologetically—I wouldn’t change a word of it—I did spend a lot of time on the early period because that, in my view, is when American Jewish life was shaped.
For Lederhendler, really, it’s the east European Jewish experience that shapes American Jewish life. The other is prologue. It’s very much the way the story is taught in Israel, allowing for the two Jewries to be shaped, so to speak. At the same time east European Jews come to America, others go to the land of Israel, and setting up a sort of parallel situation. And, as I say in Hasia Diner’s case, I think she believes that it’s this century of immigration that is central to the shaping of American Jewish life, whereas I in many ways argue that the patterns were set before then, that they were set in the revolution itself. Some of them were set in the colonial period, and that you need to understand that earlier period in order to understand what happened later. That’s a very important difference of opinion.
One of the things that Lederhendler does, which I hope more will be done with, he talks about a special relationship with Spain, with Germany, and with Russia, and argues that American Jewish life really maintained for a long time that special relationship with those three countries. I think it’s a very interesting idea. There’s much to be learned from it. I hope one day he develops it into a full-scale book. While I think there are echos of that in other works, he articulates it most clearly.
What is interesting, I think, is that you have these synthesis. There was a long time in the writing of Jewish history, when we were allergic to synthesis, when there was a sense, oh, that’s what a previous generation did, and historians write monographs. It’s nice to see a return to synthesis, whether it’s my work in American Jewish history or Hasidism or Russia and Poland, we have seen new syntheses in recent years. I think they provide a baseline on which a new generation of scholars will be able to build.
JL: I think that when we look at these different approaches in synthesizing American Jewish history, they’re not just intellectual distinctions. One person has this perspective, somebody else has another perspective. In a certain way—the way that I look at it, anyway—each of these ways of looking American Jewish history or American Judaism have very significant ramifications. I think it’s a question of what is put at the center of American Jewish history, what is, as you said, the driving engine. As you talk about religion as the driving engine, what do you see as the significance of this? Is this just a question of your own disciplinary background? Coming as a scholar of religion, in what ways does this reflect your perspective on American Jews that it allows you to tell a different kind of story about American Judaism? Then, as a kind of a followup to this, you talked about American Judaism and religion as its engine. What does it say about that engine as we look towards an era with a rising number of so to speak “religious nones,” people who say they are Jews of no religion? How do we understand the importance of religion in American Judaism in the past, as well as in the present and the future, as we think about the transformation of American Judaism?
JS: I think if you look at the earlier generation of people who wrote American Jewish history, they either were trained in Jewish history or they were trained in American studies, and that influenced the way they wrote, their approach, and so forth. I believe then and still now that religion is very important and that it was crucial to understand Judaism within the world of American religion, meaning in order to understand what Jews do, you have to be familiar with what Protestants are doing, what Catholics are doing, now perhaps with what Muslims are doing. That is a very significant and overlooked context.
So, for example, the rise of nones really parallels what’s going on in American life generally. I wrote American Judaism at the very end of a period of revival, when we were excited about all these born-again Jews, ba’ale teshuvah. We saw the impact of the Jewish Catalog and the Chavurah movement and all sorts of people who had grown up rather secular and suddenly went back to Judaism. Well, the great evangelist Finney knew that every revival is followed by period of backsliding. And so it has been in American life. We’re now in a period of religious recession. That’s true not only of Jews but throughout American religion. Anyone who reads my book will be unsurprised to learn that I think the seeds of the next revival are being sown now, meaning, yes, there is a decline, and in another bunch of years newspapers will write about the surprising return of religion on the part of young people and, well, it will be different in some respect, there’ll be a religious revival and Judaism will participate in that just as the 1950s revival surprised everyone following the enormous religious decline in the ’30s.
Obviously, much of the sociological literature today assumes secularization, that religion is not only declining but will continue to decline, they say. They argue that America is finally catching up, in their words, to Europe in this respect, and they see a very different trajectory. One can, in a sense, see the different visions of the past, shape different understandings of the present and different visions of the future. And we’ll see which turns out to be accurate, but I’m glad that there are multiple visions so that policymakers cannot believe that that everybody has a one mind.
JL: I want to jump back, for a second, to something that you said earlier, the interest in synthesis. In the course of your career, you’ve written many monographs, many articles, leading up to the publication of American Judaism. I was wondering if you maybe wanted to comment on your effort to synthesize American Jewish history and how that relates to your own intellectual development, in terms of how you think about American Judaism. In particular, I think that it is interesting, but some of the perspectives that you are putting forward in the way that you synthesize are also closely related to Jacob Rader Marcus. I know that you didn’t study with him but that you worked closely with him during your time in Cincinnati. Marcus, as you know, and listeners might not know this, he’s a very important figure in terms of my own research, in terms of thinking about American Jewish history. So I’m curious if you maybe wanted to say a few words about how you understand this book within your own scholarly development and new relationship with these other people within the fields who have also tried to synthesize American Jewish history, often in very different ways.
JS: It’s a big and wonderful question. I was very fortunate I think to study both with general scholars like David Brion Davis, Sydney Ahlstrom, and also to have been influenced by Jacob Rader Marcus. So when I talked about drawing from different perspectives, I’m really taking my own studies where I have a degree in American history and American religion and Jewish history. And I’m saying, that’s what you need in order to properly understand this field, all those different perspectives.
I think I was trying to synthesize all of them, to bring them together, not simply to carry forward Professor Marcus. Professor Marcus gave us the facts of history. He once said to me, as I think almost no other historian would had done, that he would “trade in all of his theories for one new fact.” I think it’s fair to say people read Marcus for the data much more than for the theoretical, conceptual insights. And that also, I think reflects, on the difference in approach between, say, Salo Baron—who was full of theories—and Jacob Rader Marcus. I think that I have great respect for Marcus’ emphasis on getting the facts right, and on the need for new data, and I’m very proud of the basic research that I have done, not just collecting what others did and putting it in new paragraphs. At the same time, I do think that a book needs to have certain themes and conceptualizations. It seemed to me that while Professor Marcus’ seven large books on American Jewish history are a great gift, there needed to be a one-volume that could appeal beyond just the academy and inform a larger Jewish community.
One of the things that I tried to do in this book, and I’ve tried to do I would say in much of my recent work—Lincoln, Grant, and so on—is to make the case that historians can write and should write for a larger audience, and that we can simultaneously inform that audience, give them a way of thinking about the past, even as we likewise add new data to the field and write at the highest level. So that’s really what I was trying to do.
But you’re perfectly correct that my interest in the early period dovetails, and was in some ways influenced by, Marcus’ interests. He had written on the Colonial American Jew. My doctoral dissertation was on the next period, writing on Mordecai Noah. I called that book Jacksonian Jew, to make the point even then that you needed both worlds, the Jacksonian and the Jewish. I maintained that perspective, really, throughout the rest of my work.
JL: I do want to move on to a final set of issues, which deals with thinking about the future of American Judaism. I know that we’re both historians, so we’re better at talking about the past than the future. This is something that you also have written about extensively, both when we look at the conclusion to the book as well as in a handful of other publications. For instance, in 2003 you published a really interesting essay, I think a really important one, titled “American Jews in the New Millennium,” where you talked about a series of transformations and challenges that you saw facing American Jews in the future: demographic changes, what you said would be potentially the shrinking of American Jews in terms of their national importance, the changes in the Jewish diaspora more generally, as well as the challenges like, for instance, would the twenty-first century be an era of assimilation or revitalization? Or if there would be a mission for Jews to be passionate about. So this, to me, is really fascinating because here you have, at basically the same moment that you were finishing up the American Judaism book, you are also looking towards the future and thinking about what that would bring. You do that, again, in a certain way, within the conclusion (of the second edition) where you, on the one hand, look to what has happened in the past fifteen years—you mentioned the growth of Chabad just to give one instance. So, in a certain way, it feels like the new conclusion of the book is, in a certain way, an updated version of this 2003 essay. Looking back, in what ways do you think that the trends that you talked about fifteen or sixteen years ago reflect what is actually happening now that we’re already essentially two decades into the twenty-first century?
JS: Well, I think some of the issues like boundaries—when do you drop out of the community?—certainly are very much on people’s minds. We may talk about it in terms of intermarriage or assimilation, but those are internal Jewish words. Boundaries help us to understand that every group has boundaries, and at a certain point you’re no longer part of the group. There are always those who want to police those boundaries strictly, and those who would like to be as inclusive as possible. I hope that by using value-free language, I could help people understand that. At the same time, there are things that I don’t think I could have foreseen. Notwithstanding all the fears about numbers, the Jewish community in American has actually been growing.
Now, part of the reason for that is Russian-speaking Jews, but part of the reason is that many far more than 50% of the children of intermarriage continue to identify with the Jewish community. Obviously, you only need 50% in order to maintain the same numbers, and the fact that more than 50% continue to identify in some way as Jewish was not foreseen and is significant. Of course, it will depend on us, really, whether their children and their children will still talk about themselves as Jews or not. That’s a good example of a trend that, on the one hand, was predicted, but on the other hand developed somewhat differently than anybody foresaw.
One of the things I’m very proud of in the new volume is making the point that in one generation the idea that there is a kind of “Jewish look”—that you look around and oh, yeah, he is Jewish, she is Jewish, because of curly hair and a certain kind of nose—that’s totally disappeared. The very notion that there is such a “Jewish appearance” seems bizarre to most of my students, and that is, again, because partly of intermarriage, partly adoption, partly immigrants from Israel. Nobody would have predicted such great change in one generation. So I think, in some ways, we do see that there were themes that one foresaw in 2004, and there are in fact still with us or even more with us than we would had predicted.
There are also developments that surprised us, both positively and negatively. It’s always been that way and that suggests both the potential of the historian in pointing in new directions, but also the humility that we have to have in predicting the future. Almost all of the great predictions about the future of American Jewish life, if you study them from the eighteenth century onwards, have proven totally wrong. So it seems to me that where the historian is at his best, in my case, is showing new developments that perhaps have not been on people’s radar screen. They will suddenly recognize, oh, this is very significant, it does mark an important change. Then we can think about what does it mean, that there is no such thing as “looking Jewish” anymore, how does that affect ideas about Jewish peoplehood. I hope that some of those discussions will in fact take place.
JL: I think that you raised a number of significant issues when we talk about the role of history and the role of the historian. The podcast, and a lot of what I think about in terms of my research as well, but especially on the podcast, is just thinking about why history matters, Jewish history in particular but also much more broadly. I think that one of the things that is interesting that I think has come through in our conversation is that there are significant ways in which American Jewish history matters. I guess, as we come towards the conclusion of our conversation, looking at your book and as you think about again the various audiences that you want to reach with it, your attempt to synthesize American Jewish history and focus on a number of major themes, in what ways have you tried to communicate the ways in which American Jewish history matters when we want to understand America as a whole, when we want to understand American religion or the history of religion more broadly? When we want to understand the relationship of American Jews with other Jews around the world, what do you want readers to take away from this book and also from the study of American Jewish history more broadly?
JS: I definitely think that American Jewish history matters. I hope they’ll take away ideas about how people shaped history, and I hope some of them will be inspired to shape history themselves. In terms of American religion, it’s enormously important that there was a non-Christian religion in American from the very early date. The whole discussion of the “Christian character” of American would be different had Jews not been in the country. I think in many ways the constitution might have looked different had the founders not known—and they did know—that there were Jews in the country. Over and over again, one can see that the presence of Jews in America, with their distinctive history, has made a difference. I also think other groups, most profoundly Muslims, when they look at the history of Jews in America, it gives them enormous hope. First of all, they see a group that has maintained its identity for much more than three centuries. Second of all, it shows that a minority religion can do so. They can see how Jews have made impact on America. Indeed, it’s perfectly clear that in many ways Muslims in America want to emulate the success of the American Jewish community. I’ve actually heard from Muslims that they read my book, and it gave them a sense of what could be. One of them said, “I hope one day, there will be a book on American Islam that will be able to do parallel chronicle to what you did in American Judaism.” That was a very high compliment. So in many ways, it seems to me my book can both inform and inspire and give a sense of history, a sense of change, a sense that the future is not predetermined in a linear fashion but it’s really ours to shape. They sense that some of the problems that American Jews worry about today, they’ve been worrying about since the seventeenth century. They’re not new problems. And that, at least, gives you a sense that if we’re not likely to solve the problem, maybe we can muddle through for another generation and another generation, just as we have in the past.