Commentary Magazine

Jews in America: A Short History, by Ruth Gay

Surveying the Jews

Jews in America: A Short History.
by Ruth Gay.
Basic Books. 198 pp. $4.95.

This book is one of a series of octavo-sized volumes of less than two-hundred pages on various topics in the humanities and social sciences; it is addressed to young adults and other readers with only a minimum of specialized knowledge. It is not easy to write a short history of the Jews in America for such a series, for it would require a sizable volume to give a systematic account and analysis of their arrival, settlement, and geographical dispersion over a period of three-hundred years; their relations among themselves and with other immigrants; their institutions; and their adjustment to American society. Moreover, a reasonably complete chronicle would relate the experience of the Jews in the New World both to their situation in the “Old World” and to American history as a whole.

In view of these difficulties, Mrs. Gay has wisely chosen to pay little attention to her publisher's subtitle. Instead of serving up short-order history, she has made use of the work of historians and sociologists in order to produce an eminently readable survey of some of the more important events concerning the Jews in America.

Mrs. Gay devotes the first three chapters of her book to group portraits of the Sephardic, German, and Russian Jews, the well-known three “waves” of Jewish immigration to these shores. She describes the characteristic traits of each group, the European conditions which accounted for its emigration, its reception by Jews already settled here, and the newcomers' manner of adapting to life in America. Her account is superior to many other one-volume histories of ethnic and religious minorities in that it manages to avoid the long and tedious lists of “famous” men, “important” dates, and “illustrious” congregations. Moreover, Mrs. Gay does not content herself with a bland objectivity, but makes it clear that her sympathies are with those immigrants who “had the good fortune not to be troubled by the nostalgia that muddled so much Jewish thinking [in the 19th century] and is still causing trouble today.” At the same time, she preserves fairness throughout her narrative, allowing the opponents as well as the advocates of most major ideological movements in the history of American Judaism to present their necessarily brief depositions.

In dealing with the first three “waves,” Mrs. Gay inevitably goes over familiar ground, but she adds an original and poignant account of the German, Czech, and Austrian refugees of the Hitler era, and the “displaced persons” who arrived after the end of World War II. Anti-Semitism in the United States and the Jews' organized response to prejudice and discrimination are examined in another chapter. The author concludes by summarizing the recent patterns of employment, social life, culture, voting habits, political behavior, religious activity, and philanthropic enterprises among American Jews.


The book as a whole is marked by a guarded yet unmistakable optimism. Mrs. Gay does not, to be sure, overlook the tensions of immigrant life and the continuation, even today, of some patterns of discrimination against Jews in the United States. But from the brief prologue, which notes that Jewish history, like all American history, “begins in the Old World and sadly,” to the last pages, with its concluding observation that in America “all things are possible,” she draws a sharp contrast between the Jews' European past and their American life style, seen as combining active participation in the general society with a rich and specifically Jewish existence.

Few are likely to quarrel with Mrs. Gay's estimate of the United States as a country in which the various restrictions hampering Jews in the past have been almost completely overcome. But since the selection of some historical events at the expense of others is necessary in all historical writing, and absolutely essential for the creation of a short survey, one is justified in wondering about the extent to which the omitted materials have modified the narrative, and permitted generalizations which would be difficult to support in a more scholarly work. For example, except for two paragraphs about the socialist Bund, the reader of this book is told nothing of the existence of strong Jewish labor unions during the first decades of the 20th century. This omission—like that of other schismatic tendencies in American Judaism—minimizes the class conflicts between Jewish entrepreneurs and workers and thus leads to a picture of the American-Jewish subcommunity that understates the social tensions present in it.

Nor is the reader fully informed of the extent of American manifestations of anti-Semitism. To be sure, Mrs. Gay does make it clear that Jews have encountered prejudice in this country since colonial times, but she tends to see the rise of serious widespread anti-Semitism in the United States as a product of the xenophobia and status fears of native-born Protestants in the 1890's. Since historians still debate the origins of American anti-Jewishness, and particularly the role of Populism in its genesis as a turn-of-the-century manifestation of nativist phobias, the author of a basic survey may be excused for declining to settle a problem that continues to provoke heated debate and ad hominem arguments in professional journals. But she might have given some consideration to such phenomena as the anti-Jewish actions and utterances during the Civil War, including an army order expelling Jews as a class from territory administered by the United States army. And rather unaccountably, she omits any reference to the Leo Frank trial and lynching of 1915, an event that gave impetus to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai-B'rith.

Yet, if Mrs. Gay now and then minimizes conflict and tensions between Jew and Jew, and between Jew and Gentile, blandness—or “consensus” as it is called nowadays—is by no means her book's most pervasive quality. For instance, she is forthright in reviewing the abominable record of all governments, including that of the United States, at a time when thousands of Hitler's desperate victims needed asylum in the late 1930's; and she emphasizes the recency of much that is taken for granted by the young American-born Jews who today are finding employment in certain industries and entering vocations (like college teaching and engineering) still largely closed to Jews only twenty years ago.

Furthermore, in order to deal briefly with subjects like the Jewish Centers, Conservatism, Reform, Orthodoxy, and Reconstructionism, Mrs. Gay has often succeeded in reducing masses of data to neat capsule summaries that reveal essential features of typical American-Jewish institutions and movements.


Her discussion of the Reconstructionist formula of “Judaism as a civilization,” for example, illustrates both the effectiveness and inevitable shortcomings of these thumbnail sketches. Thus, she observes that Mordecai M. Kaplan's idea “removed the necessity of a logical connection between belief and practice” by redefining Judaism as a “historical phenomenon.” This made it possible for some Jews to give up belief and yet to retain rituals that, without a faith to sustain them, had become illogical. She concludes that although Rabbi Kaplan's ideas won many followers among his students, created much discussion and led to the adoption of the Reconstructionist Sabbath Prayer Book by five congregations, they had no “permanent effect on the Jewish community as a whole.”

This may be fair enough as a generalization in a brief survey for the beginning student. However, it seems to me that as a weathervane to the theological currents in American Judaism since the turn of the century, Reconstructionism cannot be dismissed so lightly. For does it not indicate that religion, at least the old-time revealed Jewish religion, is not exactly “safe” even among the rabbis to whom the laymen have entrusted it for preservation? If Reform today has its Rabbi Sherwin Wine, who has the courage to say publicly what many of his rabbinic colleagues believe privately—that God is a kind of shorthand for man's moral quest for improvement—Reconstructionism proved that even for Conservative rabbis, history itself can replace the God of history.

Mrs. Gay's brief look into the future is most noncommittal, even for a writer engaged in analysis rather than in the prediction of things to come. In a book such as this, an enumeration of some emerging trends—the rising rate of intermarriage among native-born, college-trained Jews; the frequency of conversions to Judaism of the partners to such marriages; the ambivalent place of all supernaturally based faiths in a secular age; the increasing numbers of Jews on college and university faculties and the concomitant estrangement between “town” and “gown” Jews—would perhaps have been more meaningful than the posing of the oft-heard query concerning Jewish “survival” in a modern egalitarian setting.

Finally, the publisher's decision to omit annotations from the list of “suggestions for further reading” seems ill advised. Surely, for example, subsequent printings—and the book fully deserves them—should help readers to distinguish clearly between the first, now dated, edition of Lee J. Levinger's A History of the Jews in the United States, and Nathan Glazer's first-rate American Judaism.

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