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American Jewish History

Abstract and Keywords

American Jewish history as a field of scholarly inquiry takes as its subject-matter the experience of Jews in the United States and places it within the context of both modern Jewish history and the history of the United States. Its practitioners see their intellectual project as inextricably connected to both histories. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the enterprise of American Jewish history enjoys a condition of robust health. By the 1990s American immigration history had generally declined in favour within the ranks of American historians. That Jews, outsiders to American culture upon their arrival in the United States, were able to penetrate barriers and enter the mainstream clashes with the way historians want to see the American past. As a group who craved both economic security and respectability, their story lacks the dramatic punch of resisters and rebels to the American ethos.

Keywords: American Jewish history, United States, American ethos, immigration history

American Jewish history as a field of scholarly inquiry takes as its subject-matter the experience of Jews in the United States and places it within the context of both modern Jewish history and the history of the United States. Its practitioners see their intellectual project as inextricably connected to both histories. Therefore they see themselves as integral members of two scholarly communities, identifying with modern Jewish historians and with American historians.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the enterprise of American Jewish history—the scholars themselves, the journals, the books, courses, and conferences—enjoys a condition of robust health. Its health is not just a matter of access to resources, particularly teaching positions in American colleges and universities which have been earmarked for the study of the American Jewish experience, but it also concerns issues of scholarly quality and visibility.

Those who write and teach American Jewish history hold doctorates from American universities and are trained in the same way as their colleagues in other specialties. Of equal importance, they are asking sophisticated and subtle questions about cultural identity and social relationships. They pay mindful attention to the profound duality which runs through American Jewish history, manifested in the multiple ways in which their subjects—American Jews—defined for themselves modes of religious and communal behaviour which they hoped would fit the demands of both their Jewish and American communities. American Jewish historians write with deep understanding about the complexities of labels, such as (p. 472) 'American’ and ‘Jewish’, and communicate to their readers and students the many negotiations that American Jews engaged in as they functioned simultaneously as Jews and Americans at various points in the past.

They recognize the historical contingency of the phenomena they study. How Jews defined public places for themselves and their faith tradition in the eighteenth century, for example, differed dramatically from the ways Jews behaved in the middle of the twentieth century. American Jewish historians recognize that America changed and so did the Jews, and they therefore place a great deal of emphasis on the political, economic, and cultural shifts which took place in the larger and overlapping worlds occupied by American Jews. They participate fully in the intellectual developments that have taken place within American history and as such, by the start of the twenty-first century, like their Americanist colleagues, explore the fluidity of racial categories, the shifting boundaries of gender relationships, and intersections of class, age, and generational position as they seek to explore various aspects of Jewish life in the American past. At the same time that American historians have committed themselves to placing America in a global context, so too Jewish historians are looking—again—at American Jews’ connections to and relationships with their co-religionists around the world.

The intellectual and professional vigour evident at the end of the twentieth century represents a new stage in the development of the field. American Jewish history went through a lengthy and complicated process before achieving its current status. Well into the 1950s, American Jewish history was considered an intellectual backwater of Jewish historical scholarship, and within the world of American historians it barely existed at all.

The origins of this professionalized and energetic thrust in the scholarship on the history of American Jews owes its origins to two interrelated contexts, the traumatic events of the Second World War, and the changed nature of American society, particularly—although not exclusively—educational reforms, ushered in during the post-war era of the Cold War and through the 1950s. By the end of the Second World War the American Jewish community had become the largest concentration of Jews in the world. It was also the wealthiest, most powerful, and freest. It replaced in many significant ways the previous centre, eastern Europe, most of whose Jews had been physically destroyed in the war, while those who remained, lived under Stalinist rule, unable to engage in the open exchange of ideas and in the untrammelled search for information about the past which historical scholarship requires.

It was in the context of this tectonic shift in world Jewry that scholars of modern Jewish history turned to the United States to make up for the losses visited upon the Jewish people. Some of the most eloquent calls for the serious study of American Jewish history took as their starting-point the awesome responsibilities shouldered now by Americas Jews. Salo Baron, speaking before the Synagogue Council of America on 12 October, 1942 to mark the 450th anniversary of Columbus's ‘discovery of America’, took note of the moment: ‘The middle of the Second (p. 473) World War', he commented, ‘does not seem to be an appropriate time for celebrations…. The fate of the Jewish people is being decided now for generations to come.’ But he went on to link the patriotic moment with the need for the writing of American Jewish history: ‘If such celebrations … are to have any meaning at all they ought to give us pause to consider the great historic experiences of the past and to help us derive from them a lesson and perhaps comfort in our present perplexities' (Baron 1971: 15–16). Eight years later he gave the keynote address at the American Jewish Historical Society's annual meeting. Although the Society had been in existence since 1892, Baron's was the first strident and systematic assessment of the state of the field to be heard within its walls, as well as the most specific blueprint as to how American Jewish history could serve ‘a religious group which has a deep emotional stake in its very survival’ (ibid. 73).

This charge by Baron placed upon American Jews and the historians among them a responsibility towards their people as an ‘eternal’ and world-wide collectivity. He charged American Jews to write their history in order to serve the needs of the Jewish people.

Behind Baron's call for the writing of American Jewish history lay another project. Baron was the first scholar in the United States with a position in an American university—Columbia—to identify Jewish history as a field of academic inquiry. He argued, both in speeches and articles and directly in the vast compendium of books which he wrote, that all of Jewish historical writing needed to be seen as much more than an endless series of studies of persecutions, what he labelled the ‘lachrymose’ view of the Jewish past. Similarly, he argued rhetorically and in his scholarly writing that Jewish life itself was a fit subject for scholarship. How Jews functioned politically, economically, and socially was as worthy a subject of scholarly inquiry, according to Baron, as was the production of religious texts by rabbis in the past, the other main thrust of Jewish historical writing.

In his call for American Jewish history Baron recognized that it provided the perfect laboratory for his ideal vision of Jewish history. He understood how different American Jewish history had been from European Jewish history, and that it was the setting in which to study the Jews in their full lived context. America had, after all, produced few, if any, Judaic scholars, at least in terms of individuals whose writings added to the corpus of authoritative Judaic texts. The United States had produced no martyrs either. Therefore if he wanted Jewish history as a whole to move away from tears and exegesis to studies of family life, material culture, trade patterns, occupations, and involvement with political parties, then America, not Germany, Poland, Russia, and all the other diaspora settings, where an abundance of suffering and histories of rabbinical scholarship complicated the search for Jewish social history, offered a place to study the Jewish past in its fullest social context.

America might have been the best setting for conducting Jewish history research, but Baron seriously doubted if those who were already studying the American Jewish past were actually up to the task. What he surveyed, during the 1940s and (p. 474) 1950s when he was most involved in calling for American Jewish history, was basically a handful of dedicated amateurs committed to uncovering documents and placing them in archives. The works in American Jewish history which Baron found wanting and which made him wonder if a solid corpus of scholarship would ever come into being tended to be highly defensive, and indeed the defence of the Jews at home and abroad had been the basic motivation for the founding of the American Jewish Historical Society in 1892. The two functions were linked. By finding documents which demonstrated the early history of the Jews in the United States, their presence on American shores before national independence, and their role in the creation of the nation, American Jewish communal leaders felt that they could buttress Jewish claims to a place in America at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth.1

The articles which appeared in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society and the books which were published tended to follow this twinned purpose. Such pieces as Herbert Friedenwald, ‘Some Newspaper Advertisements of the Eighteenth Century', or Simon Wolf, ‘The American Jew as Soldier and Patriot’, were cut from the same cloth. Jews had been in America since its earliest days. They had contributed to the growth of its economy and had participated in creating its democratic infrastructure. All charges of the Jews’ foreignness, parasitism, and lack of loyalty, these defender-historians asserted, should be discounted in the face of the documents being collected and the articles and books being written. All the writers of these articles were Jewish communal activists who laboured for Jewish causes in numerous settings, and the writing of this kind of history provided them, they hoped, with one more weapon in their arsenal of defence.2

This kind of historical writing Baron found unsatisfying. He wanted to see fulltime, university-trained scholars, equipped not just with a zeal for the Jewish people, but with the tools of the academy as well, to define the history of American Jews.

A formidable barrier to the actualizing of Baron's vision was the fact that history as a profession remained remarkably closed to Jews. It functioned very much as a Gentile, indeed Protestant, preserve. Like English literature, another academic stronghold of an older elite, the field of American history considered itself responsible for preserving the legacy of the nation's founders. Those best equipped to act as gate-keepers were, naturally, scholars who shared the values and outlook (as well as religion, ethnicity, gender, and race) of those who had written America's key documents and who had built its institutions. Until the end of the Second World (p. 475) War it had been possible for those who guarded the gates to effectively keep out those whose ancestors had not been present at the nation's birth and who subscribed to religious traditions quite far removed from America's white Protestant founders. Historian Peter Novick has ably shown how calls for ‘objectivity’ by the luminaries in the field masked mighty efforts to keep out Jews and others of ‘foreign’ background who did not conform to the historians’ ideal of those most likely to effectively protect the American legacy (Novick 1988).

But the tide turned by the end of the Second World War. Anti-discrimination legislation in many northern and western states (and finally, by 1964, on the federal level), the passage of the GI Bill, and a growing American revulsion for the cruder forms of exclusion worked to open doors to the masses of American Jews, the young women and men whose parents had been immigrants, and who came of age during and after the Second World War. Carl Bridenbaugh, a president of the American Historical Association and a scholar of the colonial era, saw this new trend and he lamented. In his 1962 presidential address to the AHA he mourned that, ‘today we must face the discouraging prospect that we all, teachers and pupils alike, have lost much of what … earlier generations possessed, the priceless asset of a shared heritage’. If Bridenbaugh thought that his reference to ‘shared heritage’ might be too subtle to fully convey his point, he went on. He complained, ‘many of the younger practitioners of our craft, and those who are still apprentices, are products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions’ (Levine 1993:15).

In this historical context American Jewish history began to coalesce in both the context of American and modern Jewish history. One of Baron's strategies to redress the paucity of scholarly work in the field was to begin training a generation of graduate students who would conduct the kinds of research that he thought necessary. Hyman B. Grinstein was Baron's first doctoral student at Columbia. Grinstein's dissertation on early New York Jewry was published as The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York in 1945. It not only brought together a vast amount of empirical data on social, political, religious, and economic activities of New York Jews for two centuries following 1654, and showed how they changed over time, but he demonstrated the impact of the American environment on New York Jews up to the beginning of the Civil War (Grinstein 1945).

Grinstein's book was definitely encyclopedic in its scope, but fitted well into an clearly defined and academically acceptable genre within American historical scholarship, the urban biography. Other than the fact that he studied Jews, little differentiated Grinstein's work from other contemporary works like Bessie Louise Pierce's history of Chicago, Bayard Still's history of Milwaukee, Blake McKelvey's four-volume history of Rochester, or Constance McLaughlin Green's history of Washington, DC, in two volumes. Like Grinstein's book, the historians adopted a decidedly positivist tone. Life in these cities basically got better over time as institutions became more democratic and government more responsive. To prove their (p. 476) point, they unearthed massive amounts of empirical data on the history of their chosen cities (Pierce 1937; Still 1948; McKelvey 1945, 1949, 1956, 1961; McLaughlin Green 1962–3).

In the wake of Grinstein's history of New York a whole spate of American Jewish urban biographies followed, although not necessarily because of his work. Studies of the Jews of Chicago, Charleston, South Carolina, and Philadelphia were published by Jewish publishing houses, the first by Bloch and the other two by the Jewish Publication Society of America, which had also brought out Grinstein's book (Gutstein 1953; Reznikoff and Engelman 1950; Wolf II and Whiteman 1957). Similarly, in 1953 the Jewish Theological Seminary established its American Jewish History Center which went on, with the financial support of the various communities themselves, to commission even more studies of this kind. Out of this effort came books on the Jews of Buffalo, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. These books also bore the imprimatur of the Jewish Publication Society (with the exception of the Cleveland and Los Angeles books, which came out well after the Center had folded and the enterprise had been shelved).

By coincidence, less than a decade after the war's end and the revelation of its tragic dimensions, American Jews marked the tercentenary of the Jewish presence in that territory which in 1776 became the United States. In 1954, deep into the Cold War, they celebrated in a variety of venues and in a number of public ways the experience of the small group of Jews who landed in New Amsterdam in September 1654. The twenty-three Jews who disembarked in the Dutch colony, which soon changed hands and became a British colony, had come from Brazil. In the main Sephardim, they carried family and community memories which disposed them to fear the Portuguese who had just wrested Recife from the relatively tolerant Dutch. Dreading the persecutions of the past and the introduction of the office of the Inquisition, they set sail and ended up in the Netherlands’ chief North American colony. Despite the objections of the governor-general of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, the Jews remained on Manhattan island. They adjusted well when the city and colony changed names and became New York, and the refugee Jews planted there the seeds for what would become American Jewry.

Coming as it did immediately after the Second World War and during the Cold War, this tale of the first Jews of North America took on a mythic cast. It had all the elements of an epic, almost biblical, tale of a Jewish flight from destruction and ultimate redemption in a land of promise. The details highlighted during the festivities focused on both the Jews’ perseverance in the face of hostility and on the benign atmosphere of America which ultimately prevailed.3 It allowed the American Jewish past to be understood as an ‘adventure in freedom’ (Handlin 1954a). It made it possible for Jews to think about their history in the (p. 477) context of American exceptionalism and to be able to proclaim that ‘America is different’.4

The tercentenary, like the war so shortly before it, stimulated communal thinking about history. It was indeed upon the occasion of this tercentenary that Moses Rischin, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, compiled An Inventory of American Jewish History, a compendium of observations as to what had already been written, what resources existed to make it possible to write more, and which topics ought to engage the attention of scholars. Rischin's answer to the first question was simply: not very much of a worthwhile quality. Succinctly he stated, ‘very little that is useful has been done’. American Jewish history as it stood at the moment of the tercentenary had been ‘left to the amateur, the antiquarian, the necrologist and the undaunted sentimentalist’. The slim volume went on to make a powerful case for the existence of vast amount of primary material that existed in great profusion for any scholar who would ask the ‘proper questions’. That primary material could then be used to analyse the social, political, cultural, and economic history of American Jews. Rischin sketched out a research agenda which anticipated the turn of the American historical profession to the study of social and cultural phenomenon in nearly prophetic terms (Rischin 1954:1).

The Inventory was graced with an introduction by Rischin's mentor, Oscar Handlin, who played a pivotal role in this transitional moment in American Jewish historiography, despite the fact that it was not that work at all which gained him prestige in the profession. Handlin was the author of Boston's Immigrants, a path-breaking study of Irish immigrants. It was upon this work and its analysis of the economic and social barriers to Irish integration that Handlin launched his scholarly career, and with it he secured his position at Harvard. His magnum opus, The Uprooted, won him not only a Pulitzer Prize but a key place in American historiography, in that generations of scholars have dedicated themselves since its publication to chipping away at its basic premise. The Uprooted was Handlin's statement about the immigrant experience which he posited as the American experience. Notably, it had nothing to say about Jews as immigrants, and its basic premise was that the paradigmatic immigrant was a peasant. The contours of the great migrations which he portrayed conformed not one bit to the experiences of Jews as immigrants or as new Americans seeking to cope with a new home (Handlin 1951).

But Handlin also developed a kind of side career as an American Jewish historian. He wrote an important article for the American Jewish Yearbook, an annual (p. 478) publication of the American Jewish Committee, on the history of Jewish immigration to the United States in 1948, as well as an article for Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society in 1951, which had been his address to the Society. In 1948 Commentary, a magazine also sponsored by the AJC, convened a two-day conference for twenty-eight scholars, which took as its point of departure the widely assumed low state of American Jewish history as a field, and as its mission, how to upgrade it. Three months before the conference Handlin had written an article for Commentary on ‘Our Unknown American Jewish Ancestors’. Reflecting the rhetoric which prevailed at the conference, Handlin's article charged that American Jews ‘lived in abysmal ignorance of the real history of American Jewry. What passes now for history is an accumulation of details of little consequence, only slightly related either to the real problems of the present or to the real people of the past’ (Gurock 1993–4: 202). One of the conference's charges was to sponsor a ‘systematic survey of the needs and opportunities for research in American Jewish history’. Not surprisingly, then, Handlin in writing the Foreword to Rischin's Inventory—which was that survey—accentuated the ‘widespread neglect’ of the American Jewish past, the ‘disregard … of valuable material’, and deplored a body of writings which ‘were usually overlaid with an apologetic tone, with filiopietism, and with excessive zeal to demonstrate the contributions of particular groups of ancestors to American history’ (Handlin 1954b: p. vii).

Handlin and Rischin, unlike Baron, basically pushed the small number of practitioners of American Jewish history to think of themselves as part of the world of professional American historians. Handlin and the others who attended the Commentary meeting believed that the most important function of an energized and professionalized cadre of American Jewish historians would be to ‘bring the specialists in Jewish history working in close enough contact with other American historians to be aware of the main developments in the larger field’ (Handlin 1949).

It is noteworthy, although not surprising, that those who worked most assiduously to bring American Jewish history into line with American history thought of the latter as synonymous with the national, or indeed the universal, within the American context. It would have been impossible for Handlin or Rischin to see, let alone assert, that American historians were in the main writing the equally filiopietistic history of a small, thin strata of the elite, and claiming for their subjects the entirety of the American experience. From the point of view of those historians like Handlin and Rischin, who were the children of immigrants and were among a vanguard of Jews who had embarked upon careers teaching American history within the academy, American historical scholarship represented the apogee of objective analysis. They never took note of the fact that American history was, in the 1950s and before, the history of well-off white men, overwhelmingly Protestant and of British derivation. New England, more than any other region, was defined as the heartland of American democracy and the seedbed of its political institutions. The overwhelming tendency of American historians had, in fact, been to write (p. 479) ‘ethnic history’, although they would have never admitted that was what it was. The historians whose work Rischin and Handlin hoped that rising American Jewish scholars would emulate were in fact studying their own group and were searching for their own, parochial roots in America.

The historical writing against which Handlin and his student measured the pre-1950s corpus of American Jewish historical scholarship not only had taken one small swathe of American life and generalized from it about all that was worthy of study in the American past, but it was also overwhelmingly political in focus. American historians concerned themselves with the origins and inner workings of governmental institutions. Treaties, legislatures, and political parties counted in American history. Ironically, Rischin in his Inventory called for a new and more sophisticated American Jewish historical scholarship of the future that was actually vastly broader and strikingly more innovative than anything that American historians were writing in 1954. By suggesting that the field would be enriched if historians studied ‘Mass Leisure and Mass Sports’, ‘the evolution of the family, the role of women, reading habits, eating habits, sources of social prestige and emulation’, he actually anticipated not only the social-history revolution of the 1960s and 1970s—always attributed to E. P. Thompson's 1963 The Making of the English Working Class—but also the paradigm of cultural history which arose by the late 1980s as a frame of analysis which explored meaning and the historic complexities of identity (Thompson 1966).

Despite the subtle difference in focus between Baron, who addressed the deficiencies of American Jewish history vis-à-vis European and modern Jewish history, and Handlin, who fretted over it in relationship to American history, the two came together in September 1954—the exact month of the tercentenary—in Peekskill, New York, at a symposium organized by the American Jewish Historical Society. Jointly they envisioned an end to ‘parochialism and fragmentation’, and the beginning of an era in which American Jewish history would be ‘part of the larger scheme of American history as well as world Jewish history’ (Davis and Meyer 1957:141–2).

The event that most dramatically marked the turning-point in the field and the beginning of a serious professionalized American Jewish history was the 1962 publication of Moses Rischin's The Promised City, derived from his dissertation. It was not just that it took as its subject-matter the east European Jewish enclave in New York, its work patterns, its union organizing, its theatre, and its journalism, that made it notable. It was the fact that The Promised City defined an analytic problem and turned to archival and other primary sources to answer it. Its purpose was not to uncover everything about New York Jews or everything about the immigrants from Russia and Poland who flocked there in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Rather, the book posed a conceptual problem—how did a group of immigrants ‘torn from the villages of Eastern Europe’ go about the process of ‘becoming modern Americans’—and then organized the data to provide an answer (Rischin 1962).

(p. 480)

Rischin's innovative book planted the seeds which began to bear fruit in the 1970s. In less than ten years after the publication of The Promised City, Leonard Dinnerstein, with a doctorate from Columbia University, published The Leo Frank Case (Dinnerstein 1968), while his classmate Arthur Goren's New York Jews and the Quest for Community appeared in 1970 (Goren 1970). That same year Henry Feingold, with a doctorate from New York University, saw to completion the release of The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938–1945 (Feingold 1970). Taken as a group, these three books, all published by prestigious university presses, challenged both the patriotic tone of the tercentenary and the consensus school of American historical scholarship. All three presumed a basic dissonance between American expectations and Jewish interests, and saw conflicts within the Jewish community as a key factor in shaping behaviour.

The next decade saw even more in the way of American Jewish historical writing which firmly planted it into the soil of social history, and which asked challenging questions about Jews, their relationship to American society, and their relationships with other Americans. In 1977 Thomas Kessner brought American Jewish history into the world of comparative mobility studies by looking at Jews and Italians in New York City during the peak immigration decades and, using quantitative methods, asked questions about differences, similarities, and their causations (Kessner 1977). That same year Hasia Diner asked, in In the Almost Promised Land (Diner 1977), how American Jews in the early twentieth century made sense of issues of race, racism, and the plight of African Americans. Both books clearly articulated the position that one cannot understand American Jewish history without understanding the nature of American diversity. The next few years witnessed the publication of Jeffrey Gurock's, When Harlem Was Jewish (Gurock 1979), and Deborah Dash Moore's At Home in America (Moore 1981), both of which situated American—New York City—Jewish history into urban history, a burgeoning sub-field of the decade. Jonathan Sarna's biography of Mordecai Noah, published in 1980 situated the diplomat-playwright-Jewish communal activist-newspaper publisher in the evolving structures of Jacksonian America and in the world-wide Jewish politics of the early nineteenth century (Sarna 1980).

From that point on it is pointless to mention all of the books published in the very fertile field of American Jewish history, books which not only fit the dominant paradigms in American history, but which in fact pioneered in them. Indeed, so fertile were the decades of the 1970s and 1980s that by the late 1980s the American Jewish Historical Society decided that the time had come to commission a kind of ‘state-of-the-art’ set of books which would, in five volumes, synthesize American Jewish history as it was reflected in the vast outpouring of books and articles of the past forty years.

In 1992, exactly 100 years after the founding of the American Jewish Historical Society, the series The Jewish People in America was published by Johns Hopkins University Press, under the general editorship of Henry Feingold. While each book (p. 481) was different and reflected the particular interests and proclivities of its author, as a totality they demonstrated the strength of the social-history paradigm upon American Jewish history. Each volume paid a great deal of attention to work and business, to family patterns and the impact of migration on social formation. Each book attempted to situate Jews in a complex web of relationships with both their non-Jewish American neighbours and with the Jewish people around the world. Each treated the religious lives of American Jews as a reflection of their negotiation with American conditions, and each took seriously leisure, popular culture, and social life as indicators of identity (Faber 1992; Diner 1992; Sorin 1992; Feingold 1992; Shapiro 1992).

It is obviously impossible to list, let alone discuss, all of the significant books in American Jewish history that have been produced in the four decades since Rischin's Promised City. In the intervening years American Jewish historians have opened up the systematic study of immigration from Europe and the internal Jewish migration within America (see e.g. Soyer 1997 and Moore 1994). They explore patterns of work, the Jewish labour movement, and other forms of economic support within Jewish communities (Markowitz 1993 and Wenger 1996). They have taken Jewish community life as a major focus of their attention, and have looked at the impact of local conditions upon those communities. They have explored the idea of the Jewish community as a living political organism, whose structure took its form from both Jewish concerns and American realities (Svonkin 1997 and Dollinger 2000). Since the late 1970s no subject has been as transformative of the field than women's history, and many works have examined the changing roles of women and men within American Jewry and the ways in which they have constructed each other. Jews as industrial workers and schoolteachers, as rabbis—both male and female—and as students, criminals, civil-rights activists, and architects of American liberalism represent just some of the issues which have engaged—and continue to engage—American Jewish historians (Ashton 1997; Antler 1997; Wenger 1988; Nadell 1998; additionally, for an anthology of original articles that span the field of American Jewish women's history, see Nadell and Sarna 2001).

Historians of the American Jewish history, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, have moved, in step with their colleagues in American history, towards an embrace of cultural studies. Riv-Ellen Prell, a trained anthropologist, produced an important book, Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation, in 1999. In this book she took image and self-image seriously as causative factors in the internal history of American Jews. Like many cultural historians of this era, she argued from the present, and read back into the past a series of concerns as salient forces in Jewish adaptation to America (Prell 1999). Likewise, Hasia Diner's Hungering For America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (2002) not only joined a growing number of works on the history of food as a serious element in social and cultural history, but made it clear that American Jewish history needed a comparative context.

(p. 482)

Latin American Jewish history and Canadian Jewish history have paralleled the developments in American Jewish history, although their size, by definition, does not approach that of the United States ‘behemoth’. For a long time Latin American Jewish history functioned primarily as community history, and the studies of individual Jewish communities—in Cuba, Argentina, and Brazil, for example—existed somewhat independent of the histories of the countries in which they lived. The only exception to this somewhat disembodied history of Jews in these places involved the various histories of anti-Semitism. To understand the history of anti-Semitism had to involve studies of the larger society. Since historians asked questions about the sources of anti-Jewish behaviour and rhetoric, they were forced to look at the various elements within the social structure, the nature of the press, religion, politics, and the like, in these countries (Elkin 1998). Canadian Jewish history fits this model as well. It focused on the Jewish community, the growth of its institutions and its formative events, and considered the larger Canadian context only in as much as that context helped situate anti-Semitism (Abella and Troper 1998; Speisman 1982).

The trends which characterize the contemporary scene in American Jewish historical studies can be seen in the related fields of Canadian and Latin American Jewish history as well, and in recent years Latin Americanists and Canadianists have begun to think in more complicated categories about Jewish history. They have begun to ask questions about Jews as just one element in a number of complex and complicated societies. They have indeed begun to move away from asking how Jews differed from other Argentines, Cubans, or Canadians, and rather to probe how Jews functioned in countries which had numerous minority groups within their borders. Jeffrey Lesser's Negotiating National Identity posited the Jewish experience in the heart of Brazil's many ethnic groups, all involved in negotiating identities. Gerald Tulchinsky has done the same for Canada (Lesser 1999; Tulchinsky 1992).

It is noteworthy that the field of American Jewish history which has evolved has been the locus of very little controversy. No great historiographical debates have torn it apart into rival camps. The study of Zionism and the Left have led to few disputes, despite the possibilities for argumentation raised by those controversial subjects. While some American Jewish historians have been more interested, for example, in making women's history an integral part of the whole than others, none have objected to the imperative to study gender in order to provide a full and accurate picture of how Jews have lived in America. Some of the younger scholars of the 1990s have pushed for a more nuanced readings of ‘classic’ American Jewish texts, but most in the field, including the more established and traditional-minded of their colleagues, themselves work on the assumption that different groups within a community will see a phenomenon differently and according to their own concerns, thus making room for the deconstructionist mode of analysis.

If American Jewish historians have lagged behind at all in terms of being willing to think in fresh ways, it maybe in their continued adherence to the master narrative (p. 483) inherited from the past. In the worn and relatively uninterrogated retelling of Jewish and American Jewish history, the immigration to America was rigidly divided into ‘German’ and ‘Eastern European’ (almost always capitalized and therefore understood as a reified entity) eras. The two immigrant streams, the conventional thinking runs, differed dramatically from each other in terms of the nature of the migration, patterns of settlement in America, and attitudes the immigrants had towards their Jewishness and vis-à-vis the degree to which they embraced the modern, western world. Because of those vast differences, the two groups met each other in America as enemies. American Jewish historians have strayed little from the pogrom narrative as the explanation for the exodus from eastern Europe and from the romance of the pre-modern ‘shtetl’ as the place the immigrants left.

Despite this continued reliance by most American Jewish historians on a core interpretation which is being chipped away at by some, the field continues to grow and develop in new and innovative ways5. As a field, it has been remarkable open to the contribution and participation of scholars who do not actually define themselves as American Jewish historians. The reception of two books in particular can demonstrate this openness. Susan Glenn came out of labour history and women's history. She had never participated in the conferences or other activities of American Jewish history, and she had in fact no training in Jewish history at all. But her 1990 book, Daughters of the Shtetl, now occupies a canonical position in the field. It is cited by all scholars who work in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American Jewish history. It appears on the required reading lists for graduate students in American Jewish history as a key text. Anyone who studies the history of Jewish women knows and takes seriously Glenn's book, despite the author's distance from the field as an organized scholarly entity (Glenn 1991). Likewise, historical sociologist Ewa Morawaska wrote her first book on patterns of life among Slavic immigrants to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. After completing that study Morawska turned her attention to the east European Jews who also lived in that steel and coal-mining town. Her book, Insecure Prosperity, won the coveted Saul Viener Prize of the American Jewish Historical Society, recognized as such by American Jewish historians as the outstanding book of the year. Morawska was unknown to almost all of the scholars in the field until the book came out, but they recognized the importance of her contribution despite her outsider status (Morawska 1996).

Because of its openness, richness, and quality, books in the field are now sought after by some of the most prestigious presses in the United States, including such highly selective university publishers as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, California, and Johns Hopkins, which in the past had not looked to this area for their lists. American Jewish historians are now teaching in private and public institutions (p. 484) around the country, some occupying positions at major American institutions of higher learning.

Perhaps more importantly, the books published by American Jewish historians are now being read and discussed in great detail by their colleagues who study modern Jewish history in both the United States and Israel. America is no longer a Jewish history backwater. Indeed, scholars who focus on the histories of the older communities, Russia, Poland, France, and Germany, are increasingly now familiarizing themselves with American Jewish history as a crucial component of the world Jewish experience. Some Jewish historians with graduate training, scholarly reputations, and previous publications in European Jewish history have actually shifted over to do research on American Jewish history as well.6 This in part reflects the recently acknowledged but long present global dimension to Jewish history.7 It also demonstrates the depth of the research and the complexity of the questions being asked by American Jewish historians.

They no doubt also recognize that the apparatus for the study and discussion of American Jewish history is extremely solid. First, the presence of the American Jewish Historical Society in the Center for Jewish History which opened in New York in 2000 testifies to the Centrality of the field in the world of Jewish studies scholarship. The American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati on the campus of Hebrew Union College continues to collect and made available to scholars rich collections, including the papers of individual, and often quite ordinary, American Jews, communal records, and newspapers. Secondly, the biannual scholars’ conferences sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society since the mid-1980s, and dedicated to presenting new research in American Jewish history, are seen as important venues for exchanging ideas. Graduate students and emerging young scholars in history, American studies, and cultural studies see these conferences as significant occasions for showcasing their work.

American Jewish history scholarship is sustained by journals as well as books and conferences. Two journals, American Jewish History, in continuous publication since 1892, and the more recent addition, American Jewish Archives, founded in 1948, present article-length studies of various aspects of American Jewish history, while the more general Jewish history journals such as YIVO Annual, Jewish Social Studies, Jewish History, AJS Review, and Studies in Contemporary Jewry, are likely in any issue to include essays on the American Jewish past. Clearly Jewish historians have come to define both what happened in America in the past and what is being produced now from within the field of American Jewish history as of significance. Within the (p. 485) profession of Jewish history, at least as practised within the United States, it is reasonable to conclude that no specialty or sub-field could claim such intense activity and vitality.

Yet American Jewish history, despite its intellectual excellence and the recognition it has achieved in the realm of modern Jewish history, continues to be something of a stepchild within American history. With some very important exceptions, particularly among those historians who study either immigration or religion, most Americanists evince little interest in the field or respect for what it has produced8. Numerous Americanists write books which cry out for contextualization into American Jewish history, but ignore those calls. They indeed write books about Jews, with Jews as major and minor players, but make no effort to know the literature in American Jewish history and to see where their efforts would be enriched by that exposure.

James Goodman's Stories ofScottsboro offers an illustrative case of this blindness to the field of American Jewish history. In a deeply researched, complex book, Goodman set out to lay before his readers the many versions of ‘what happened’, starting in March 1931, when two white women accused a group of African American boys of having raped them aboard a freight train moving through northern Alabama. The ensuing Scottsboro case became a cause célèbre in America. Trials, including two in front of the US Supreme Court, grew out of this accusation, and the plight of the accused garnered headlines around the world. Goodman described his project as an attempt to depict a ‘conflict between people with different ideas about what happened and different ideas about the causes and meaning of what happened—a story about the conflict between people with different stories of Scottsboro’ (Goodman 1994: p. xii).

Why should Goodman have taken note of the scholarship in American Jewish history? In what way would cognizance of American Jewish history have made this a better and richer book? For one, the lawyer who defended the Scottsboro boys, Samuel Leibowitz, was Jewish. The Alabama prosecutor and the Alabama press made a big point that the defence was in the hands of‘the Jews’ and that ‘Jew money’ was subverting real justice. While Goodman dealt with the anti-Jewish rhetoric which swirled around Leibowitz, he made no references whatsoever to the large body of literature on Jews in the South, and to American—particularly southern—anti-Semitism. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the Jewish press around the country in the 1930s, written in English and Yiddish, defined the Scottsboro case as a Jewish matter. It reported on it extensively. The Jewish publications provided extensive documentation of exactly what Goodman was looking for, that is, they too had a ‘story of Scottsboro’. Opinion, a Jewish magazine of the 1930s, for example, went so far as to opine that it, and all American Jews (in whose name it felt it could (p. 486) speak), took ‘an especial pride in the fact that the chief counsel … was a Jew. Both as a member of such a group and as an inheritor of his own tradition, it is inevitable that the Jew should take active and leading parts in all such struggles as that at present being waged around the Scottsboro injustice’ (Diner 1977: 114). In Goodman's widely praised book, the wealth of material available on this subjects from the field of Jewish history is utterly absent.

So too Ellen Carol DuBois and Vicki L. Ruiz's heavily used anthology, Unequal Sisters: A Multi-Cultural Reader, found nothing from the field of American Jewish history to include when trying to document the impact of race and ethnicity on women's history. In the 1990 edition of the book they include a personal ‘think piece’ by the novelist Meredith Tax, who made reference to her own personal feelings of Jewishness, while the second (1994) edition included an article by Tax on the ‘Uprising of the Thirty Thousand’, the shirtwaist strike of 1909. The DuBois and Ruiz book, as an exemplar of multicultural historical scholarship, basically asserts that Jews did not have a culture which made them different than other Americans, and that if there was anything worth thinking about at all in this context, it was the labour organizing of the early part of the century, and even that did not deserve the attention of a historian. For all the scholarship on Jewish women by Paula Hyman, Joyce Antler, Deborah Dash Moore, Sidney Weinberg, even Susan Glenn, nothing from the field made its way into this book, which is assigned in college courses around the country (DuBois and Ruiz 1990, 1994).

Little of what has been produced in the field of American Jewish history has been highlighted in the most prestigious journals in American history, particularly the Journal of American History. While the JAH faithfully reviews most of the books published on the history of the Jews of the United States, it has rarely included articles on the subject. Of the four articles that appeared in the decade of the 1980s, only one was written by an active practitioner of American Jewish history, Jonathan Sarna. Another was written by David Gerber, a historian with only a tangential interest in the Jewish past, definitely secondary to his larger interest in American immigration and ethnic history. The other two, fine and informative articles though they were, were contributed by individuals, David Levering Lewis and Nancy McLean, who had scholarly agendas far removed from that of contributing to the store of knowledge and interpretation about the history of the Jews of the United States (Sarna 1981; Gerber 1982; Lewis 1984; McLean 1991). In the 1990s the only article to have any connection to the history of the Jews of the United States took as its subject the notorious Leopold and Loeb case and its multiple readings. But, as in the case of the Goodman book, the author made no reference to any of the published works on the history of Chicago Jewry, nor did she explore the ways in which Jews, as reflected in their publications—including Chicago Jewish newspapers and magazines—constructed the case (Fass 1993).

How can we reconcile the vigour of the field and the generally high regard which it enjoys within the ranks of Jewish historians on the one hand, with its near (p. 487) invisibility in American historical scholarship? By the 1990s American immigration history had generally declined in favour within the ranks of American historians, and the study of European-derived ethnicity in particular generated little excitement, except among its practitioners, who believed that there was still much more to be learned about the women and men who came to America from Italy, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Poland, and the like. Likewise, religious history had long occupied a peripheral zone in the interests of most scholars of American history, and American Jewish historians were—ironically—becoming much more concerned with the religious dimension by the 1990s and beyond.

But, perhaps at the most fundamental level, the experience of American Jews as relatively poor immigrants who achieved, with a remarkable degree of ease and speed, middle-class status does not fit the prevailing interpretive mood of American history, which focuses on the entrenched nature of privilege. That Jews, outsiders to American culture upon their arrival in the United States, were able to penetrate barriers and enter the mainstream clashes with the way historians want to see the American past. As a group who craved both economic security and respectability, their story lacks the dramatic punch of resisters and rebels to the American ethos. In an intellectual climate which validates certain kind of differences, particularly those associated with certain phenotypical characteristics, Jews seem to historians to have been too white, too affluent, too European, and too accommodating to American culture to be included in the multicultural histories being written at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

However much American Jewish historians would like to be part of the larger profession, they are in fact undeterred by the relatively cold shoulder given their work by the Americanists around them. Historians committed to researching, writing, and teaching about the American Jewish past continue to define new areas of scholarship that they deem intellectually valid. If others are less than receptive, that has been—and will continue to be—no real hindrance to the continued growth of the field.

Suggested Reading

The series The Jewish People in America offers the best in-depth overview of American Jewish history as of the early 1990s: Diner (1992); Faber (1992); Feingold (1992); Shapiro (1992); Sorin (1992).

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                                                                                                                                                        Notes:

                                                                                                                                                        (1) Gurock (1993–4: 155–270) is the single best analysis of the history of the journal American Jewish History, the American Jewish Historical Society as an academic body, and the field of American Jewish History. See also Gurock (1983) for a thorough history of the field and a rich bibliography as of the early 1980s.

                                                                                                                                                        (2) For two examples of this genre, so typical of the first half of the twentieth century, see Friedenwald (1897) and Wolf (1895).

                                                                                                                                                        (3) For an analysis of the tercentenary and its cultural and political underpinnings, see Goren (1999: 195–203).

                                                                                                                                                        (4) In the 1950s in particular the theme of ‘American exceptionalism’ commanded a great deal of scholarly interest. In the context of the concept of the ‘national character’, scholars interested in a variety of aspects of American history and culture focused on the idea that the United States possessed a singular and exceptional way of life. For example, Hartz (1955) attributed the essence of America to the absence of a feudal past, while Pierson and others focused on Americans’ high levels of physical mobility which allowed them the chance to always ‘start over'. See Pierson (1973). See also in the context of American Jews, Rosenberg (1964).

                                                                                                                                                        (5) On the challenges to the standard narrative which American Jewish historians have been slow to incorporate, see Kuznets (1975), Stanislawski (1983), Diner (1992).

                                                                                                                                                        (6) See e.g. the amount of attention given to American Jewish history in Zipperstein (1999). The careers of Eli Lederhendler, Paula Hyman, and Jack Wertheimer also bear out the growing significance of American Jewish history. Trained in Russian, French, and German Jewish history, they are now active contributors to the enterprise of American Jewish history.

                                                                                                                                                        (7) Frankel (1997) is just one recent example of the absolutely necessary transnational dimension of Jewish history.

                                                                                                                                                        (8) For an example, see Gabaccia (1994), which is a fairly recent and important exception to the absence of interest in the experience of American Jews in the context of American history generally.