“Heritage,” warns Beth S. Wenger in “History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage” (Princeton University Press, $35), “is always a partisan effort.”
According to Wenger, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Jewish studies program, the heritage embraced by American Jews is invented if not entirely imaginary. She insists that the way American Jews see themselves can be “self-congratulatory, often embellished, and sometimes a blend of fact and fiction.” She argues that “American Jews gradually manufactured a collective Jewish history in the United States,” and the end result has been “[t]he creation of a shared, usable Jewish past” but not necessarily a wholly factual one.
Viewed from the stance of a professional historian, the whole enterprise of heritage-making strikes her as a “messy blend of truth and myth … often self-aggrandizing and self-congratulatory, and almost always self-serving.” The purpose of Jewish myth-making in America has been to “[foster] a sense of Jewish belonging” in a place where we are a tiny minority, and she concludes that “Jews wrote America into Jewish history, and Jews into American history.”
A revolution in Jewish consciousness was at work among the Jews who managed to reach the New World. “The Zionist typology of the ‘new Jew’… had an American corollary,” Wenger writes. “American Jews created a myth of America as the new Zion, an alternate form of the Promised Land.” So it was that the Yiddish poet Avraham Liessin, writing in 1897, saw the Statue of Liberty as a symbol with special meaning for Jewish immigrants: “Man/freed from tyranny/grows free and proud/with a spirit that knows no bound/and a will forged of steel.”
Of course, Jews were always mindful that they represented a small fraction of the population, even if they refused to concede that America was essentially a Christian nation. Thus, for example, when Christian patriots depicted America as “the divine successor to biblical Israel,” Jews tried “to subvert the Christian nature of that claim by reinserting Jews into the story and allotting them a primary share of the founding myth.” Thus, for example, one prominent Reform rabbi celebrated the American centennial in 1876 by declaring that “Moses, the son of Amram, and George Washington are the two poles of the axis about which the history of mankind revolves.”
Here Wenger sees “one of the most common practices of Jews in America,” that is, the use of civic holidays “from Thanksgiving to Columbus Day to the Fourth of July” as occasions on which Jewish Americans “conjured and performed myriad versions of American history and sketched a Jewish place within it.” And she points out that it was not only a matter of making speeches and putting on pageants — the now-discredited notion that Columbus was Jewish came to be “codified as part of the collective heritage of American Jews.”
Some of the most compelling passages in Wenger’s books address the less familiar moments in Jewish history. She recalls that the Jewish War Veterans sold its own brand of shaving razor during the Depression as a fund-raising effort (“Use the J.W.V. Blade!”), and some radical Yiddish schools “openly ridiculed Judaism (and all religion) as corrupt,” as in a poem that appeared in one school primer: “The Rabbi and the Cantor —/Their income’s no pittance!/Of course. They tell us,/That the boss is always right.”
More familiar is her account of how Haym Salomon, an obscure participant in the American Revolution, was transformed into “the first and perhaps most enduring heroic figure of American Jewry.” Although he played a “key role in securing financial support for the American cause,” Wenger insists, “everything else said about him … can be characterized as either hopeful speculation or blatant distortion.” So it was that the Jewish community of Los Angeles gathered on Jan. 7, 1944, to unveil a monument in his honor — “a statue of ‘heroic size’ that depicted Salomon in a seated posture, closely resembling the image of Abraham Lincoln sitting solemnly at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.” After several moves, that same statue now stands at the Third Street entrance to Pan Pacific Park.
The self-invention that Wenger describes so expertly in “History Lessons” is not over yet. When Robert Rifkin wrote a letter 2004 addressed to the Jewish community of 2054, he asserted that American Jewry “had come of age.” But Wenger warns us that “he likely overstated the finality of its evolution,” and her own conclusion is that “American Jewry remains constantly in the process of ‘becoming.’ ”
“History Lessons” is a work of scholarship, but it is an especially lucid and accessible one, and the book has a unique appeal for a nonacademic Jewish readership. Indeed, we are the subject of Wenger’s impressive study, and it is fascinating to read about ourselves in its pages.
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