Commentary Magazine


Telling the Story of America's Jews

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the American Jewish community: in September 1654, 23 Sephardi Jews arrived in New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil. The usual celebrations have been laid on, from reenactments to museum exhibits—the Library of Congress has mounted a lavish show—to concerts to books. Two of the year's history books stand out for ambitious breadth—American Judaism: A History,1 by the well-known historian Jonathan Sarna, and Hasia Diner's Jews of the United States, 1654-2000.2

Both of these (approximately competing) histories have something to offer: they are comprehensive and wide-ranging, and each author tries to say something definitive about the meaning of the American Jewish experience. Naturally, each has its faults, and those faults tend to reflect the faults of the American Jewish community at large.

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In some ways, Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism is a masterpiece, the product of decades of study and writing. It will be indispensable to anyone who cares about the topic. Sarna's approach is chronological, organized around the big events in American (not Jewish-American) history. There are chapters on the colonial Jewish community, the Revolutionary War period, and so on. The modern periods get far more pages than earlier ones, which is only natural: modern times are far more crowded and better documented.

Sarna's organization seems obvious but is in fact a small stroke of genius. Of the three parts of Hasia Diner's book, the first and third are chronological, but the second consists of three parallel retellings of the period 1820-1924—an era with no meaning in itself for American history. The year 1820, Diner explains, marked the beginning of larger-scale immigration to the United States and of Jewish expansion westward; 1924 was the year in which the National Origins Act drastically restricted immigration. There is nothing wrong with the scheme in principle, but pulling it off successfully would have required more writerly skill than Diner has. If Sarna's prose is sometimes colorless, Diner's tends to roam aimlessly, like a lost child or dismasted catboat.

The titles of these two books offer clues to the authors' different purposes: Sarna's is about Judaism, Diner's about Jews. So we expect Sarna to treat Judaism in America, Diner to say less about theology, ritual practice, or belief and more about people. Both books meet our negative expectations more successfully than our positive ones. Sarna does indeed leave out plenty of information about people, and Diner tells us relatively little about Judaism. But there are also gaps in Sarna's coverage of religion and in Diner's coverage of people.

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Sarna's discussions of religious issues are usually thorough and sometimes fascinating. He describes (for example) colonial and early-American Jews walking, riding, or paddling great distances to be with their fellow Jews on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and he impresses us with the real religious significance (even intense significance) those occasions could have for Jews with virtually no other contact with Judaism. To give us the full flavor of the big bash that Hebrew Union College threw in 1883 for its very first class of graduating Reform rabbis, he produces a photocopy of the evening's menu. It features clams, crab, shrimp, and frogs' legs, and the evening has been immortalized accordingly as the “treyfa [unkosher] banquet.” The menu's curvaceous and histrionic 19th-century fonts, copious use of French, and overall pomposity help us feel what the occasion must have been like. Sarna sticks (furthermore) with the subject of kashrut in America until the whole complex story has been unfolded from start to finish. Diner says much less about kashrut, and lets fly occasionally with confusing terms like “kosher milk” without explaining them. (“Kosher milk,” meaning—milk from cows but not pigs? Guess again.)

But sometimes Sarna lets us down. Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), for example, was a founding father of American Orthodoxy and the author of the Jewish world's first English version of the Hebrew Bible. Sarna tells us all about Leeser. He explains why Jews had religious objections to the King James translation, then standard among American Christians. But at this point a reader wants to hear Leeser's translation and compare it with the Christian version; and Sarna quotes not a single verse. Similarly at other points where we are told about path-breaking publications in American Judaism—the 1830 Sabbath Service and Miscellaneous Prayers, for example, published by proto-Reform Jews in Charleston, South Carolina. What was it like? What made it noteworthy? We need just a taste, and we don't get it.

This same reluctance to get inside manifests itself in Sarna's discussions of today's observant Jews. Do American Jews believe in God? As far as I can tell, Sarna raises the question only once, back-handedly. (A Reform synagogue that has expunged God from its liturgy is refused recognition by the Reform movement.) We do learn that, nowadays, “selected” home rituals engage many American Jews “far more than hoary theological beliefs.” Which beliefs are we talking about? Which beliefs do Orthodox American Jews accept but Reform Jews do not? And what exactly is wrong with a belief's being “hoary”? Sarna doesn't say. Elsewhere, we are told that Jewish feminists wanted a “more personal” God than they could find in the “traditional Jewish liturgy.” Yet the traditional Jewish liturgy is based on an intensely personal God, known to the prayer-book as “our Father in heaven.” Sarna's readers are apt to take away a strange picture of traditional Judaism.

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If sarna can be disappointing on Judaism, Diner can be likewise on Jews. Not always: it is a pleasure to read her brief but useful discussion of Haym Salomon, the Jew who helped finance the American Revolution, and not be sternly informed that chauvinistic Jews have exaggerated his importance. It is useful to find mid-19th-century Judaism defined as the “age of Wise,” a reference to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise; a writer goes out on a limb to label an era in this handy way, but it is a service most readers will appreciate. And it is satisfying to come across the Yiddish term kochalein—a word familiar to my father's generation for the cut-rate Catskill bungalows where working-class Jews on vacation did their own cooking. The word captures a scene and an era worth remembering.

But elsewhere, Diner fails to deliver. One of the very first incidents in both books is the 1655 argument between the newly arrived Jew Asser Levy and Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of the Dutch colony in North America. Levy demanded the right to stand “watch and ward like other Burghers.” Stuyvesant refused. Two years later—speedy service in the 17th century—Stuyvesant was countermanded by his bosses back in Amsterdam, where rich Jews had pull. Sarna's discussion of this important story is brief but good—he does what he can with the meager historical record. Diner's is perfunctory.

Asser Levy's confrontation with Stuyvesant underlines a point too often overlooked: since ancient times, Jews have been natural soldiers. (If you doubt it, read the Bible.) Jews in the U.S. military form, accordingly, a significant and intriguing strand in American Jewish history. Jews fought in disproportionately large numbers in most of America's wars, including the Civil War and the world wars. But Jews have also faced anti-Semitism in the military, particularly in the service academies and officer corps—which has sometimes been countermanded by civilian bosses sensitive to Jewish political pressure. The Asser Levy story, over and over.

Many of these themes are interwoven in the 19th-century career of Uriah Levy, captain in the U.S. Navy. At ten he ran away to sea; at twenty he was a naval sailing master. He encountered anti-Semitism but rose through the ranks to become captain of the Vandalia and eventually, in 1859, to serve briefly as commodore of the U.S. Mediterranean fleet. He figures in U.S. military history insofar as he led a successful campaign to outlaw flogging in the Navy. He touches American history at another point, too: he acquired, preserved, and at great personal expense refurbished Jefferson's Monticello. (Eventually it was acquired for the public from Levy's heirs.)

In modern times, Jews have been heavily responsible for such cataclysmic military advances as the A-bomb (J. Robert Oppenheimer), H-bomb (Edward Teller), and nuclear submarine (Admiral Hyman Rickover). Sarna, who says nothing about Uriah Levy, has nothing to say about any of these three, either. Diner, who often gives the impression of speed-writing her way through great lists of facts, likewise tells us nothing about Levy, Rickover, Teller, or Oppenheimer. (But she does find room for Clara Lemlich Shavelson, who “organized consumer protests” among the Jewish housewives of Brooklyn in the 1930's.)

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Any book about Jews, Judaism, and America should discuss the influence of Jews and Judaism on America in the large. Both Diner and Sarna seem to agree with this proposition, but neither takes the assignment seriously. Consider one small example and one large one.

Judah Benjamin is the rare pre-20th-century Jew who changed American history and has a mandatory walk-on in all serious U.S. history texts. The best is The Growth of the American Republic by Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager, and William E. Leuchtenberg (7th edition, 1980). Look up Benjamin there and you will discover that he was “easily the ablest member” of the Confederate cabinet, the member who was “closest” to president Jefferson Davis and a man whose “perpetual smile and imperturbable suavity masked a brilliant mind and sound judgment.” But you will not be told that he was a Jew. Stupendously typical: Jewishness and Jewish influence have been written out of nearly all the standard history books.

So we need either Diner or Sarna to help us out. Diner says nothing about Benjamin. Sarna allows him one brief paragraph, plus a fleeting mention in an earlier chapter (and his defective index cites only the fleeting mention). Yet Benjamin was almost certainly the most important Jewish American politician of the 19th century, and his story bears on one of the strange conundrums of American Jewish history: Jews and the American South. The bloodiest outrage in the history of American anti-Semitism was a typically Southern affair—the 1915 lynch-murder of Leo Frank in Atlanta on a phony charge. Yet Jewish communities have flourished in many Southern and near-Southern cities. These are important topics, and Benjamin's career is a perfect chance to introduce them; both authors decline to use it.

Turn now to the larger question of influence, the influence of Jewish ideas. The role of classical Israel in the development of the American mind is a hugely significant story. Where does the modern liberal-democratic state come from? In part from Britain, especially from the 17th-century civil war that set Parliament and the Puritans against the crown, its privileges, and the established church. But that war was itself greatly influenced (via Puritanism) by classical Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. Puritanism can plausibly be read as an effort by modern Christians to transform themselves back into “Jewish Christians” of the New Testament age—and then to reach back even farther to become God's new “chosen people.”

If the British civil war was one main engine of modern liberal democracy, America was the other. Here again Puritanism, the Hebrew Bible, and classical Israel played crucial roles. In briefest outline, Puritanism moved the earliest English settlers to seek religious freedom in America; Puritanism and the Hebrew Bible then prepared the way for rebellion and freedom. “The Exodus story came to be seen as predictive of post-biblical national identities,” writes the literary scholar David Lyle Jeffrey. “In New England, Samuel Mather's Figures and Types of the Old Testament (1673), Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) [Mather's history of 17th-century New England], and Jeremiah Romayne's The American Israel (1795) all illustrate the power of the Exodus story in the formation of American national identity.” And as Conrad Cherry notes in God's New Israel, “More colonists were prepared for armed resistance by the clergy's Sunday and election sermons and weekly lectures than by the books and pamphlets of a Locke or a Paine.” In 1776, three-quarters of American citizens were Puritan.

Next, the Hebrew Bible furnished a template for democracy. In 1780, for example, while the fighting was still under way, Pastor Simeon Howard of Boston was already pondering the new nation's government. He decided—on the basis of the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Jewish historian Josephus—that it must be a democratic republic. Howard's advice was as radical as it was straightforward, as avant-garde as it was Bible-centered and godly. “In compliance with the advice of Jethro,” he preached in May 1780, “Moses chose able men, and made them rulers [over the Israelites in the desert]; but it is generally supposed that they were chosen by the people. This is asserted by Josephus, and plainly intimated by Moses in his recapitulary discourse, recorded in the first chapter of Deuteronomy” (emphasis added). William Lecky, the eminent 19th-century Irish historian (and no Judeophile), knew well what today's historians have largely forgotten: “Hebraic mortar cemented the foundations of American democracy.” Freedom and democracy are basic to America. The connection between freedom and the Exodus is obvious; to the mind of America, infatuated with the Bible (“the best book in the world,” John Adams called it), democracy, too, was rooted in ancient Israel.

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Neither Sarna nor Diner deals adequately with these big issues. Sarna does mention the existence of “Protestant depictions of the country as ‘God's New Israel,’ ” but never discusses the topic in depth. He points out elsewhere that in George Washington's famous letter of reassurance to the Jews of Newport, the first President hinted that America might itself “prove something of a Promised Land for Jews.” This is a telling detail, but we cannot understand how telling unless we know how consistently 17th- and 18th-century American Christians spoke of America as their own promised land.

If Sarna says far too little about this topic, Diner says even less. “All the names and deeds of Jewish patriots of the revolutionary era,” she writes, “need to be measured against the fact that no Jews signed the Declaration of Independence. None sat through the deliberations in Philadelphia in 1787 that produced the Constitution, and none helped to persuade the voters of the newly independent states to ratify it.” Clearly, Diner has not pondered the implications of this statement by Sidney Ahlstrom, the great historian of American religion: “The Federalist Papers, . . . as well as John Adams's defenses of the American Constitution, can be read as Puritan contributions to Enlightenment political theory.”

Diner is a literal-minded historian for whom “Jewish influence” equals the influence of Jews only, not of Jewish ideas. Both she and Sarna ignore all the evidence showing that classical Israel was distinctly more important than classical Greece or Rome, and arguably more important than even the rationalist philosophers of 17th- and 18th-century Britain and France, to the development of America and of modern liberal democracy. Not for nothing did John Milton, greatest of all Puritan poets, describe Israel's prophets in Paradise Regained as “men divinely taught, and better teaching/The solid rules of Civil Government/In their majestic unaffected stile/Than all the Oratory of Greece and Rome./In them is plainest taught, and easiest learnt,/What makes a Nation happy, and keeps it so.”

If historians of American Judaism will not tell this story, who will? Not the mainstream American historians; not Shalom Goldman either, although his new book, God's Sacred Tongue,3 is a fascinating sidelight on America's obsession with Israel. It tells the story of American Gentiles who, for one reason or another, made the study of Hebrew a part of their intellectual lives.

They were a varied lot. Some studied Hebrew to understand the Jews, some to convert them; some were cosmopolitan scholars, others were pious Christians, others merely colossal bores. But Goldman tells us plenty of interesting facts. The only books that outsold Uncle Tom's Cabin in pre-Civil War America were travelogues about Palestine by such authors as the scholar and archeologist Edward Robinson. One of the star attractions at the 1904 Saint Louis World's Fair was “a massive model of Jerusalem's Old City,” complete with several hundred Jews, Christians, and Muslims imported from Jerusalem to live in the 10-acre model and help entertain the customers. An ancestral George Bush was professor of Hebrew at New York University in the 19th century.

Goldman reminds us how important the Bible was to President Harry Truman, and what a central role it played in his epochal decision to recognize the brand-new state of Israel in 1948. After he left office, the Jewish Theological Seminary gave Truman an honorary degree. Introduced as “the man who helped create the state of Israel,” the former President began his response by saying “Yes, I am Cyrus”—the Persian king who restored the exiled Jews to their homeland in the 6th century B.C.E. (By his own report, Truman read through the Bible seven times during his presidency.) “It was not just American Jews who were stirred by the prospect of a new nation for the Jewish people,” Goldman writes, “it was most of America.” Well worth pondering.

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Adefinitive book on American Jews ought to explain the decisive influence of Jewish ideas on the invention of America. It should also give a clear account of the meaning to the Jewish community of its own recent history—the history many people remember but most have not analyzed or fully assimilated, the history that explains why they are here, and why they are Jews. Once again, neither Sarna nor Diner is wholly satisfactory.

If you wanted to understand modern American Judaism, what events would you choose to watch? Where would you choose to have been a fly on the wall, if someone had offered you an (all-expenses-paid) Fly-on-the-Wallship? I would have chosen one of the public lectures by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University in the 1950's and 1960's—two hours of legal analysis followed by two hours of homiletical discussion, the atmosphere electric, the intellectual and rhetorical depth extraordinary. Or a talk by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin on some big occasion—the Sabbath before Passover, for example—at his synagogue in Manhattan, which became, in the 1970's, a center-point of modern Orthodoxy. Outside the Orthodox realm, I might suggest a lecture on Midrash by the late Judah Goldin of Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and other institutions, an important scholar and teacher whose learning covered not only rabbinics but also, it seemed, all of literature.

Sarna tells us about Soloveitchik, even quotes from several of his books, but without explaining what they are all about; Riskin and Goldin never come up. Diner's discussion of Soloveitchik does not even achieve superficiality; she never mentions Goldin; and she makes it seem as though Riskin were mainly noteworthy for his contributions to Jewish feminism.

What else would I want to understand about the recent history of American Jews? The culture of City College in the 1930's. The Jewish community's richly symptomatic reaction to Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint in the late 1960's. (Sarna expounds neither. Diner's comment on City College is that Jews were allowed to enroll there; her discussion of Roth is shallow but better than nothing.) I would want to understand the sociology of yarmulkes (or kippot) and their role as a Jew-to-Jew signaling system; the rise of the vibrant crocheted kippah as a symbol of modern Orthodoxy and its “life cycle” function—if someone knitted you one, she was probably your girlfriend. And I would want to know something about “black hat” yeshivas, and the nature of their dissent from modern Orthodoxy. (Sarna does not touch the topic; once again Diner's discussion is shallow but better than nothing.)

I would want to hear about the tumultuous faculty meeting at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, training ground for Conservative rabbis, where the eminent scholar David Weiss Halivni was just barely allowed to speak against the ordination-of-women juggernaut. Here is Sarna's discussion of Halivni: “One distinguished faculty member left the institution for Columbia University.” Diner, whose book sometimes reads like an extended bumper sticker for feminism, mentions Halivni but gives him less space than Amy Eilberg, “the first woman to become ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.”

I would want to hear about the philosopher Eliezer Berkovits (who rates not a word in either book) and the great talmudist Saul Lieberman (who gets a sentence in passing from Sarna). I would want to hear about the preeminent historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz. (Not a word from Sarna. Diner is even worse: her reference to Dawidowicz is brief and misleading.) I would want to read about Ruth R. Wisse, the pioneering critic of Yiddish literature (not a word in either book), and the writer Hillel Halkin (who gets a couple of grudging paragraphs from Sarna), and the novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick (a name on a list in Sarna), and the charismatic Bible scholar and educator David Silber (nothing in either book). But Sarna does go on for pages about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his “poetic” prose. (“To search in the wilderness for wellsprings of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for man. . . . What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another. . . .”)

I would want to know about the developing relationship between Judaism and American political conservatism or neoconservatism. I would want to know the significance of major political thinkers like Norman Podhoretz and Elliott Abrams writing books on explicitly Jewish themes. (Not a word from either author.) Naturally I would want to know about the central role that Jews have played in modern feminism (both Sarna and Diner have plenty to say about that), but I would also be curious about their no less significant role in anti-feminism (not a word).

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Above all, I would want to know where today's American Jews can look for spiritual leadership. What is Judaism? Why should anyone bother being a Jew? When people ask me those questions, I tell them that Judaism is the most important intellectual development in history; the deepest, most passionate, and most beautiful of the great family of Judeo-Christian religions it fathered. I tell them that Christianity itself is an allegorical retelling of Jewish history, that Jews are the senior nation of the Western world, that Jewish ideas were decisive to the creation of modern democracy. I mention the Jewish belief that the House of Israel is God's own presence on earth, and that if (God forbid) the Jews should vanish from this world, God would too.

If these statements happen to catch their attention, the follow-up questions are obvious. Can I point to a book that explains these topics? A synagogue where they are discussed? A school or college where they are taught? An American think-tank where they are under investigation? No, no, no, and no.

Today's American Jewish community resembles Victorian Britain as the philosopher-historian Thomas Carlyle saw it: a community contemplating with narrow indifference the long-ago heroism of its ancestor, the Puritan Britain of the 17th century. Carlyle was unimpressed with Victorian books about Britain's Puritan heritage. “The sound of them,” he wrote, “is not a voice, conveying knowledge or memorial of any earthly or heavenly thing; it is a wide-spread inarticulate slumberous mumblement.” The same description applies all too often to modern books about Jewish history.

Carlyle was an anti-Semite and a nasty piece of work, but he had interesting ideas. Nowadays we tend to dismiss his doctrine of “hero worship” as meretricious and silly. Yet he wished, above all, for modern Britons to rejoice in their heroic past, not just catalog it. Their history should move and inspire and enlighten them. “It is with Heroes and god-inspired men that I for my part would far rather converse,” Carlyle wrote. And regarding the Puritan past: “At bottom, perhaps no nobler Heroism ever transacted itself on this Earth.”

American Jews ought to have the courage to say the same thing about their own history. They ought to see Carlyle's bet and double it (at least). Enough slumberous mumblement. When will it be time for inspiration?

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Footnotes

1 Yale, 512 pp., $35.00.

2 California, 437 pp., $29.95.

3 North Carolina, 352 pp., $34.95.

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About the Author

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.




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