Jewish Journal


October 28, 2004

Jewish America’s Trials and Triumphs


Although the first Jews to establish a community in North America arrived in New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil, in September 1654, the first Torah scroll was brought over a year later in 1655, borrowed from a synagogue in Amsterdam. That Torah, cloaked in green and dark purple, was returned to Amsterdam in 1663, as the community scattered. But in the 1680s, several Torah scrolls were transported to the city, then a British colony, and group worship resumed.

The people and the Torah both play key roles in Jonathan D. Sarna's outstanding work, "American Judaism" (Yale). Sarna probes the history of the Jewish religion in America, from the 1654 arrival of the 23 Recife refugees to the present; illuminating how community and faith were shaped, shifting from a unified "synagogue community" to a more pluralistic "community of synagogues." Rich in details and insights, the book makes for lively, interesting reading.

Sarna, 49, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, who is speaking this week in Los Angeles, is the author of more than 20 books on American Jewish history and life and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History and of the 350th commemoration of Jewish life in America.

"American Jewish history is a great exception," he said, to the notion that Jewish history is a history of persecution, destruction and terror. For Sarna, the history of Jews in America is more a story of Jews accommodating to freedom, reacting creatively to challenges, struggling to be both Jewish and American. While he doesn't deny the existence of anti-Semitism, he does not see the narrative of American Jewish history suffused with it. Nor does he see the key story as one in which Jews have become less religious over generations.

His major chapter titled "Renewal" on postwar Judaism opens in 1945, with a pair of events in the same month: Bess Myerson being crowned as "Miss America" and baseball great Hank Greenberg hitting a ninth inning grand-slam homerun that led his team to the World Series and then onto victory. Myerson and Greenberg were looked up to as "secular saints" within the Jewish community, signs of affirmation following the greatest tragedy in Jewish history.

It was after the war that Judaism "gained widespread recognition as America's 'third faith' alongside Protestantism and Catholicism," he writes. At a time of postwar prosperity, the building of Jewish institutions increased, as did rates of affiliation.

Commenting on his research, Sarna said he had "not appreciated how significant a role Holocaust survivors or people who came as refugees from Europe had on Jewish life. We would be a different community but for that group. Many were people with a mission, who felt that they survived for a reason, to strengthen American Jewish life."

Another theme he grew to understand more fully through his research for this book is the impact of suburbanization -- when Jews were no longer living in close proximity to one another and no longer simply able to absorb feelings of Judaism from their surroundings. "All the movements learned to tame the suburbs," he said, "which is significant to me."

With a historian's thorough sensibility, he studies the chavurah movement and its impact on "late 20th century American Jewish awakening." Sarna closes the book by looking at themes of Israel, the Holocaust, feminism and spirituality, the first two reorienting American Judaism, the latter two transforming its character.

As the 350th anniversary approaches, Sarna sees two contradictory trends operating in the community: revitalization and assimilation. While asking tough questions, he takes the more positive view, quoting Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz who once observed, "A nation dying for thousands of years means a living nation. Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew." Ravidowicz called on Jews to prepare the ground for the next generation of "last Jews."

Sarna stays away from the word denomination, other than when referring to Protestant denominations; he points out Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist forms of Judaism always refer to themselves as movements. As for his own affiliation, Sarna thinks of himself as an observant Jew having "the good fortune of a foot in all the movements." He was raised at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where his father was a professor, so he considers himself something of an insider in the Conservative movement. He studied an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, and today belongs to a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton, Mass. For 11 years, he taught at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and "came to understand the world of Reform as he hadn't before." Through his colleagues at Brandeis, he has gotten to know the Reconstructionist world, although he acknowledges that he's not an insider to the extent he is in the other movements. His own family ties stretch across the spectrum from ultra-Orthodox to the most liberal elements of Reform.

"Because I feel that I know the spectrum of Jews, I thought I was able to write this book, to help explain them to one another," he said.

Jonathan Sarna will speak on "American Judaism: The 350-Year History of an Old Faith in the New World" at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus, 11661 Olympic Blvd., on Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (213) 740-3405 or visit www.usc.edu/casdeninstitute. He will also visit Sinai Temple on Dec. 12 for its 10th annual People of the Book breakfast. For reservations or more information, call (310) 481-3217.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

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