Book Review: American Judaism

American Judaism:  A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna

As someone who has read the author’s work before [1], I had a good idea of what to expect from the work and I was not either particularly surprised nor disappointed with the material here.  Sadly, none of my own family was notable enough to make the pages of this book, at least no relatives I am aware of, but the book was a compelling and poignant history nonetheless despite that lack of personal relevance.  Admittedly, this is a book that is going to appeal to a particular demographic, namely those who are either of Jewish background who want to better understand the history of Jews in America from a reputable and competent scholar or those who have various interests in the history of Judaism of their own.  This is not the sort of work that will ever be a mainstream success, not least because at almost 400 pages of text is by no means a quick or easy read, but if you are looking for this sort of material, it presents a wide-ranging and very thoughtful examination of Jewish history with some commentary about contemporary trends and issues faced by the American Jewish community, and that is definitely a worthwhile achievement.

In terms of its structure, this sizable work is divided into only six chapters with a few other bits of supplementary information.  The book begins with acknowledgments and an introduction that seeks to place American Judaism in the same sort of broad context by which other religious belief systems have been viewed by other religious historians.  The author then looks at colonial beginnings with the contrast between the political influence of Sephardic Jews and the early (and increasing) numbers of Ashkenazi Jews who came to the United States (1).  The author looks at the American Revolution and its aftermath and its role on legitimizing American Judaism in a way not present in European society as a whole (2).  The author moves to the period of union and disunion both within the Jewish community as reform and Orthodox elements clashed and how this interacted with the union and disunion in the United States as a whole during the first two thirds of the nineteenth century (3).  The two worlds of American Judaism between its interactions with larger American civil society and culture on the one hand and its own deeply divisive internal struggles next comes under the author’s scrutiny (4) before Sarna discusses American Judaism in the first half of the twentieth century as a deeply anxious subculture struggling with anti-Semitism and internal fears and concerns (5).  The author then concludes with a complex look at renewal in the postwar United States and Judaism’s contemporary place within American society (6).  After this there is a conclusion about the contemporary crossroads Judaism is at and some estimates of Jewish population from 1660-2000.

This is the book that manages an impressive balance while also providing the reader with a high degree of poignant feelings about the struggles of Jewish people for freedom and legitimacy and unity and survival in the face of constant anxieties and concerns.  The author represents the history of American Judaism as one that has constantly involved struggle–the struggle for unity in the face of hostility with others, the struggle for survival given fears of assimilation, and the many different and complex ways in which Jews have responded to the opportunities and lures of American culture throughout history.  Whether one looks at the place of women within Judaism, within the question of whether preserving community or seeking well-being was more important, the multiplication of synagogues and secular organizations, the role of Zionism, and the complex relationship between Judaism and the larger American culture, there is much to appreciate here even if it is likely American Jews that are most interested in these subjects.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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