American Judaism: A History

By Weissbach, Lee Shai | Shofar, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

American Judaism: A History


Weissbach, Lee Shai, Shofar


American Judaism: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004. 490 pp. $35.00.

In American Judaism, Brandeis University scholar Jonathan Sarna has produced a marvelous survey that masterfully recounts the history of Jewish religious life in America and in the process provides much insight into other aspects of American Jewish history as well. Sarnas book opens with a consideration of the colonial era, when synagogue and community were more or less coterminous, and it follows the saga of American Judaism all the way to the beginning of the twenty-first century, touching in its final sections on such contemporary issues as the impact of feminism and the quest for spirituality among American Jews. The excellence of Sarna's volume has been recognized by the National Jewish Book Awards, which named American Judaism 2004's "Jewish Book of the Year."

Sarna's decision to concentrate on religion in exploring the Jewish experience in the United States differentiates his text from similar surveys and gives it a sense of cohesion. A major theme in the book is the creative responsiveness of American Judaism to changing circumstances, and Sarna demonstrates how periods of religious decline have, in the past, always been followed by periods of "awakening" or "renewal." Another of Sarna's themes is the internal diversity that has always characterized American Judaism, and he often turns his attention to arguments within the faith, which he describes as "not so much conclusive as defining" (p. 243).

As a study focused on religion, American Judaism highlights the role of rabbis and other religious leaders in American Jewish life. The volume includes many highly informative profiles of individuals, ranging from David Einhorn, an early advocate of radical Reform, to the Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and from Jane Evans, a leader of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, to Shlomo Carlebach, the charismatic "Jewish guru." So too, Sarna frequently compares developments in American Judaism to developments in other faiths. At one point, he describes Reform Judaism's turn toward social justice as "the Jewish equivalent of the Protestant Social Gospel" (p. 151), for instance, and at another point he compares post-World War II Hasidim to the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites.

Despite Sarna's focus on the Jewish religion, he takes many opportunities to connect religious matters to other aspects of American Jewish history that are not, strictly speaking, part of the story of Judaism as a faith. So, for example, in sections of the book with titles such as "Judaism and Yiddishkeit" or "Jewishness without Judaism," he examines Jewish identities that were alternatives to those grounded in religion. Moreover, Sarna often sets his discussions of religion matters in context by describing developments in American Jewish history more broadly. Before positing that during World War I "the central communal challenge posed by the thousands of Jews in uniform . . . was a religious one" (p. 212), for instance, he considers several aspects of American Jewry's involvement with the war that had little to do with religion per se. Similarly, even while observing that the characterization of group visits to Israel as missions or pilgrimages "underscores their deep religious significance" (p. 336), he writes about support for the State of Israel mainly as a substitute for religious engagement as a marker of Jewish commitment.

Sarna is well known as a master of the bibliography of American Jewish history, and he has put his vast knowledge of the literature in the field to very good use in preparing this volume. In one form or another, the book covers just about all the standard topics normally considered in surveys of American Jewish history, and it does so very well. …

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