History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage

By Ashton, Dianne | American Jewish History, December 2009 | Go to article overview

History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage


Ashton, Dianne, American Jewish History


History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage. By Beth Wenger. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. xiv +282 pp.

For anyone thinking that nothing more could be said about the blending of Jewish and American cultures, Beth Wenger's important book will provide an instructive and enriching surprise. She recenters the Americanization analysis from its long-standing focus upon Jewish religion, institutions, and politics to an American Jewish body of lore. In this middle ground, she locates a heritage distinctive to Jews in America. She finds it in the everyday creations encountered by most Jews--newspapers, children's books, public monuments, pageants, and parades. While intellectual and religious leaders contributed to those items and events, by and large these popular creations produced a taken-for-granted certainty about their assertions and implications that was foreign to most scholarly and even rabbinic work. They became accepted truth, especially among the generations who grew up encountering them.

As with similar creations by other ethnic groups, the heritage produced by Jews served a dual purpose. It both "w[ove Jews] into the fabric of American life" and also "foster[ed] group cohesion" by "celebrating Jewish accomplishments"(9). We should not be surprised that something that served divergent purposes grew out of disputes about how Jews should be presented and what Jews ought to remember. Those debates had their own roots in conflicting experiences of America. In the period Wenger covers, the late nineteenth century through the post-World War II era, Jews viewed America as an arena in which they could be reborn as stronger people. Yet "new immigrants ... often expressed doubts about their future in the United States" and an "undercurrent of inferiority consistently haunted American Jewish life" (45). Jews looked for occasions to display their "fit" with America to assure others as well as themselves.

America's calendar of civic holidays proved ideal for this purpose. Historians Ellen Litwicki and Mathew Dennis have examined the ways myriad other ethnic groups created their own distinct celebrations, and Wenger provides an especially deft discussion of Jews' similar creations. Thanksgiving proved an especially fortuitous holiday for Jews, who saw its similarity to Sukkot and "proved" that connection by pointing out that the "Pilgrim Fathers were greatly influenced by Jewish teachings in the Bible" (67). Through Thanksgiving, Jews could contrast the long centuries of Christian-Jewish hostility that marked their European experience with a vision of shared values and sacred texts, a harmony that was fundamental to optimism for their future in America.

By talking about and honoring the generations of Jewish soldiers who defended America in its many wars, Jews refuted the common accusation that "they shirked military service" (97). …

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