Academic journal article American Jewish History

A Survey of Jewish History: An Early Representation of Orthodox Historiography on American Soil

Academic journal article American Jewish History

A Survey of Jewish History: An Early Representation of Orthodox Historiography on American Soil

Article excerpt

As the era of mass immigration came to a close during the early twentieth century, a cadre of English-speaking American Orthodox rabbis emerged. Mostly younger than their East European immigrant Orthodox colleagues, these rabbis shared the understanding that in order to secure the future and relevance of Orthodoxy in the "New World" it was essential to provide Orthodox religious and cultural content that could be consumed in English, rather than continue the dominant Yiddish-based immigrant religious culture. This manifested in synagogue life and ritual, for example, in sermons delivered in English, in the cultural and educational agenda adopted by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary after its reorganization in 1915, and in the founding of the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago in 1921. (2)

Another manifestation of this development was the publication of the Orthodox-oriented "Jewish Library" series. The first set of booklets in this series appeared toward the mid-i920s, (3) and in 1928, the Macmillan Company published twelve of them together in book form. (4) Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung (1892-1987), who immigrated to America in 1920 and two years later was appointed as the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Jewish Center congregation in Manhattan, initiated the series and served as editor of the project. (5)

A considerable number of the booklets in this series addressed topics relating to religious beliefs, norms, and practice from an Orthodox point of view. Jung presumably perceived these topics as relevant to the challenges facing contemporary American Orthodox Jewry with a view towards providing adequate educational tools to deal with noticeable religious laxity during the interwar period. (6) Examples of the publications targeted toward waning religiosity include David de Sola Pool's (1885-1970) Jehuda Halevy's Defense of His Faith, Isaac Unna's (1872-1948) Marriage in Judaism, Isidore Epstein's (1894-1962) The Ceremonies, and Herbert S. Goldstein's (1890-1970) The Dietary Laws.

Other publications addressed issues that were at the center of American and American Jewish public discourse. Oskar Wolfsberg's (1893-1957) The Theory of Evolution and Jacob Hoschander's (1874-1933) The Bible and Its Critics offered responses to contemporary debates. It was no accident that the former appeared after the 1925-1926 Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee. The latter reflected heated discussion about biblical criticism among American fundamentalists during this period. (7)

A few other booklets in this series were devoted to the Bible, (8) and two were devoted to Jewish History: Abraham Cohen's (1887-1957) Judaism in Jewish History and, important for this essay, Moses Auerbach's (1881-1976) Survey of Jewish History. (9)

This article offers a preliminary contextualization of Auerbach's book, points to its main characteristics, places it in historical context, and explains its relationship with the genre of Orthodox historiography. Through this analysis of Auerbach's work, I will offer some initial observations on the development of Orthodox historiography in America and on its intended audience. This audience was perceived as being in need of assistance to successfully overcome the challenges of American Jewish society and culture in the years following mass immigration. Furthermore, examining Auerbach's Survey of Jewish History and American Orthodox historiography from the perspective of those involved in its publication provides us with unique insights into American Orthodoxy and its dilemmas, challenges, and worldview.

As this issue is devoted to Jeffrey Gurock, the leading historian of American Orthodoxy, it is worth noting that that he does not utilize, address, or analyze this literary sub-genre in his work. No relevant entries exist in the indexes of his books. In rare cases, such as his writing on the Ramaz School in New York, Gurock addresses Orthodox historical consciousness, (10) but he does not analyze how text such as these aimed to construct an ideologically and educationally "useful past," nor does he consider how such works offer insight into contemporary Orthodoxy in a specific period. …

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