The major developments of American Jewish history grew out of both a Jewish and an American context. The chronology of American Jewish life, the structure of its communal network, and the inner dynamism that propelled it demand explanations from both American and Jewish sources and cannot be divorced from either of these histories. Yet by itself neither one can explain how American Jews lived and what the patterns of their lives meant to them.
A constant process of negotiation shaped the history of Jews in America. Many—probably most—ordinary Jews wanted both to be good Jews and to be full Americans. They looked inward to Jewish tradition to shape the patterns of their lives, while looking outward to their American neighbors as they decided how to live and how to present themselves. They thought about the Jewish past and the American present, trying to determine what each demanded of them.
But American Jews did not just react to the actions of non-Jews, the dictates of communal leaders, the sanctity of authoritative texts, or the tumultuous political events at home and beyond their borders. Rather, they actively fashioned their communities, both locally and nationally, according to their understanding of what their Jewish and American identities demanded of them. At times the process of negotiation set them apart from other diaspora Jewish communities, while at other times putting them at odds with the behaviors and attitudes of other Americans.
Negotiating between American and Jewish identities, they operated with a sense of empowerment. They did not believe that they had to ac-