Academic journal article American Jewish History

We Are All Post-Jewish Historians Now: What American Jewish History Brings to the Table

Academic journal article American Jewish History

We Are All Post-Jewish Historians Now: What American Jewish History Brings to the Table

Article excerpt

David Hollinger has had an enormous influence on the ways scholars of American Jewish history think about their field and teach their courses. Like many others, I have reconfigured my syllabi to include the sectors of American culture that Hollinger has so brilliantly illuminated, those that look different because of the roles Jews played in them. I must admit that, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, I was delighted that a non-Jew was presenting these arguments because, as a Jew, I was sensitive--perhaps too sensitive--to the possibility that a Jewish author making the same case would be charged with special pleading. (1) In the past decade, Hollinger has explicitly raised theoretical questions about American Jews and their intersection with American culture that his earlier articles dealt with only implicitly. (2) His essay in this issue of American Jewish History continues his reflections on how American Jewish history can, and should, be integrated into the general field of American history.

From my vantage point as a scholar who comes to American Jewish history as a specialist in modern Jewish history, the distinction that Hollinger draws between "communalists" and "dispersionists" is far less apparent than he suggests. Such a distinction was readily apparent in the 1970s, when celebratory studies and grand syntheses of the histories of various local Jewish communities, focusing largely on communal institutions, were both readily available and still dominating the field. This is no longer the case, however, in the academic environment of the twenty-first century. Even those historians who place the Jewish experience at the center of their concerns, who find the various efforts of Jews to wrestle with their definition as American Jews and pursue strategies that allowed them to construct hybrid identities, do not limit themselves to self-identified Jews and their religious, communal, cultural, and political institutions. To be sure, studies of those institutions are still published, but their authors are now much more eager to situate them in a broad American context, even if that context sometimes remains largely background, rather than foreground. Secular Jews and those indifferent to their Jewish descent--those whom Isaac Deutscher famously called "non-Jewish Jews"--are components, along with the religiously affiliated and the institutionally engaged, of the group now defined by scholars in the field as "American Jewry." (3)

When Deborah Dash Moore and I edited the encyclopedia Jewish Women in America, which won the American Library Association's Dartmouth Medal as the best American reference book of the year in 1998, we utilized an extremely flexible definition of "Jewish" in selecting our subjects, including not only those who defined themselves as Jews but also those who were seen by others as Jews or whose Jewish background or associations could be said to have had some influence on their lives and careers, including converts to and from Judaism. In other words, we did not ask "who was Jewish?" but rather "in whose lives, regardless of their origins, did Jewishness play some meaningful role?" (4) In the years since we published Jewish Women in America, it has become clear that the definitional approach we took is now the one in general use among our colleagues. It is therefore safe to say that those who conduct historical research on American Jews (Jews and non-Jews, communalists and dispersionists alike) are all post-Jewish historians now. They presume that for their historical subjects, Jewishness is one shaping factor among many, that its valence may be different for different people and in different situations, and that it is therefore a matter of historical and cultural context, rather than one of essence or fate. That fact, of course, reflects a reality that is only a bit more than a generation old. Even some contemporary American Jews would not assent to the statement that their Jewishness is not an essential or fated identity (or that perception and self-perception merit study). …

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