REVIEW: Sarna’s American Jewish History

Zev Eleff Tradition Online | February 14, 2022

Jonathan D. Sarna, Coming to Terms with America: Essays on Jewish History, Religion, and Culture (JPS), 430 pp.

New Perspectives in American Jewish History: A Documentary Tribute to Jonathan D. Sarna, edited by Mark A. Raider and Gary Phillip Zola (Brandeis University Press), 504 pp.

In 1967, on the occasion of this journal’s tenth anniversary, the Rabbinical Council of America published an anthology of Tradition’s “greatest hits.” The editors presented A Treasury of Tradition, arranged two dozen articles into thematic sections. The first two indicated very lofty expectations: “Religious Experience and the Halakhah” and “Judaism Confronts the World.” The remaining parts reflected the disciplines that generally attracted writers and readers of the journal: “Theological Perspectives,” “Halakhah and Contemporary Society,” “Biblical Studies,” and “Criticism.” Owing to trends in the field of Jewish Studies and the lukewarm reception of critical historical research within American Orthodox circles, “Jewish History” did not make the cut.

Much has changed, including the Orthodox community’s interest in Jewish history—both broadly sketched and particularistically focused. Jewish history now looms large in books, podcasts, and popular magazines produced for Orthodox audiences. Happily, American Jewish history, it seems to me, receives a generous supply of the attention. 

Jonathan D. Sarna

Owing to this, two new books ought to enrich the conversation. The first is Jonathan Sarna’s Coming to Terms with America. The second is a new documentary history entitled, New Perspectives in American Jewish History, which was recently produced as a tribute to Sarna by his many doctoral students. 

Sarna has long served as the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. Through his teaching, writing, and research he has expanded the scope of the field. His scholarly lens is fixed on American religious history, committed to the idea, popularized by Sydney Ahlstrom, that religions tend to move in cyclical trends (waves) with plenty of recurring highs and lows. To best gain a foothold on these ever-changing trends, Sarna likes to remind his students of a piece of wisdom suggested by Max Müller, that it is essential to know two religions to fully understand just one. The idea was later made better-known by Diana Eck: “If you know one religion you don’t know any.”

For purpose of disclosure, Sarna was my doctoral advisor, mentor, and sometimes co-author. I also contributed a selection to the documentary history cited above. His bona fides as the “dean” among American Jewish historians is proffered by others and does not require my “somewhat” compromised opinion.

Coming to Terms with America is the latest in Jewish Publication Society’s “Scholar of Distinction” series. Unlike most of the preceding authors selected for that platform which anthologizes a writer’s collected essays, Sarna did not select his most influential chapters, although he was careful to showcase a historical reach that spans almost three centuries of Jewish life in the United States. [Read the volume’s front matter and opening chapter.] Instead, Sarna chose chapters that fit into three related sections. The first six essays focus on the “Cult of Synthesis” of American Jewish life, how Judaism, not unlike other groups, has grappled and adapted to American sensibilities. The second portion addresses the production of American Jewish culture and the priorities of various stakeholders in cultivating this aspect of Jewish life. The chapters under the third heading, “When Faiths Collide,” tackle Jewish leaders’ reaction to missionizing, “Church-State Dilemmas,” and the struggle of Judaism to combat antisemitism and obtain a foothold in a nation dominated by a Christian political and social ethos. 

The third part is most timely for Orthodox readers. Recent demographic studies indicate a realignment of the Jewish political ecosystem. Certain segments of the Orthodox community tend to share more in common, at least from a balloting perspective, with the Christian Right than with their Jewish coreligionists. In one instance, this has led to an alliance with a faith leader who advocates missionizing Jews and supports Zionism because it helps, he believes, achieve a (Evangelical) messianic vision. A fuller historical perspective on Judaism’s relationship to other American faiths should stimulate deeper discussion. 

The second volume is a welcome resource for educators in search of materials to teach American Jewish history. Edited by Mark Raider and Gary Zola, New Perspectives in American Jewish History offers a breathtaking selection of fifty-five texts with attendant introductions and annotations. The editors invited three-dozen women and men who trained under Sarna to furnish the collection. 

The result is a tome that is scaffolded by, to borrow from the rabbinic lexicon, a masora. Like the many never-before-published sources in this book, Jonathan Sarna’s students have, to some extent or another, anchored themselves in his scholarly lens and refracted that work to produce new and creative research. The volume offers insight into a wide array of areas, including sources on American Judaism’s interaction with Buddhism and various incarnations of Civil Rights. The book features the ebbs and flows of Jewish holidays, religious reforms and American Jews’ changing attitudes toward Israel.

The volume, then, is a multidimensional presentation of the scholarly impact of a master historian. Rabbis and teachers will no doubt welcome this as a fresh resource to explore American Jewish history, a topic much in vogue in all sectors of contemporary Jewish life. 

Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff is president of Gratz College.

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