Communalist history and beyond: what is the potential of American Jewish history?
Hollinger describes the dominant approach to American Jewish history as "communalist," by which he means, "an emphasis on the history of communal Jewry, including the organizations and institutions that proclaim Jewishness, and the activities of individuals who identify themselves as Jewish and/or are so identified by non-Jews with the implication it somehow matters." For historians working in a communalist mode, the concept of "the Jewish people" frames their research. They tend to focus more on the internal world of Jews than on their involvement in wider realms of American society, culture, and politics. In part, this reflects academic training, but one may identify a personal dimension, as well. The overwhelming majority of American Jewish historians are themselves Jews who were raised within one segment or another of the organized Jewish community, including, notably, Zionist organizations of a liberal-left political persuasion. (2) (By contrast, few, if any, red-diaper babies have gone into American Jewish history as a full-time, professional pursuit, though many have played leading roles in the fields of labor history, women's history, and African American history.) This is not to suggest too close a relationship between familial upbringing and historiographic viewpoint. American Jewish scholarship in recent decades has not, in the main, reflected Zionist ideologies, in keeping with the overall shift away from nationalist perspectives in modern Jewish historiography. (3) The field's scholarly thrust has been toward demonstrating the vibrancy and viability of the American Jewish community against critics, Zionists among them, who have predicted the gradual disappearance of Jews into American society. (4) Even so, formative influences and organizational affiliations help to explain the overall predisposition among American Jewish historians toward a communalist outlook.
Hollinger's designation strikes me as accurate in its general outlines, but I would add a qualification. While most American Jewish historians have written from a communalist viewpoint, few have articulated what could be called a communalist scholarly agenda. Certainly, nobody has attempted to impose or police boundaries. On the contrary, specialists have steadily expanded the contours of American Jewish history by exploring the elasticity of Jewish culture, the porousness of Jewish community, and the flexibility of Jewish identity. (5) Accordingly, few American Jewish historians have attempted to uncover "what is original and therefore autochthonous in Jewish culture, as against what is borrowed, assimilated, and alien," to quote the passage by Amos Funkenstein cited by Hollinger. And I doubt anybody would disagree with Funkenstein's insight that "even the self-assertion of Jewish culture as distinct and different is [inevitably] articulated in the language of the surrounding culture." American Jewish history, as a field, probably could not thrive without recognition of the historical contingency and cultural fluidity of the people it studies. With these comments in mind, one may distinguish between two streams within American Jewish historiography. One consists of outspoken communalists, who study the past with the stated purpose of bolstering Jewish identity and group continuity. (6) The other stream, which represents the majority, includes those who focus on questions, themes, and topics centered on the Jewish people and its historical development, but express no commitment to communalist history per se. Such "soft" communalists, who may very well reject the communalist label altogether, tend to construe the parameters of American Jewish history broadly.
Communalist history, however defined, contains important attributes. In addition to lending coherence (which is not to say uniformity) to the field, as Hollinger mentions, communalist history presupposes extensive knowledge of the culture and history of Jews across time and place. This entails training in foreign languages (German, Hebrew, and Yiddish, for instance), a wide geographic range (usually across Europe and the Mediterranean world), and a long chronological reach back to the Middle Ages, if not earlier. This degree of breadth and depth is intellectually beneficial, useful for conducting research (a point I will return to), and, in its own way, more expansive than the training received by most other Americanists, although moves toward global and transnational history have begun to change this.
Nonetheless, communalist history, even in broadminded form, contains limitations of the kind specified by Hollinger. The communalist mode has circumscribed the field by neglecting or ignoring Jews who felt alienated, indifferent, or ambivalent toward Jewishness or were simply uninvolved in Jewish communal life. (7) The New York Intellectuals, referred to by Hollinger, provide an apt example. Jewish historians have paid minimal attention to these celebrated figures, despite the fact that most were Jews either by birth or, as Irving Howe once wrote, by "osmosis." (8) Gerald Sorin's biography of Howe, who dealt with Jewish subjects extensively, is the primary exception. (9) True, intellectuals of whatever kind have never enjoyed pride of place in American Jewish historiography (in contrast to, say, the German Jewish field), where social history has held sway since the 1960s. Even so, the more salient reason is, arguably, that the likes of Sidney Hook, Harold Rosenberg, and Lionel Trilling (not to mention their gentile contemporaries) seem irrelevant to Jewish history and culture. Consider Carole Kessner's collection, The "Other" New York Jewish Intellectuals (1994). In her introduction to this important and valuable book, Kessner chides the New York Intellectuals for their alienation from Jewish communal life, ambivalence toward their Jewish identities, and lack of interest in Jewish issues, particularly during the fateful decades of the 1930s and 1940s. In response, the essays in Kessner's volume focuses on thinkers who were "proudly affirmative Jews," nearly all of them Zionists, such as Haim Greenberg, Ben Halpern, and Marie Syrkin, who were less famous than the New York Intellectuals, but more instructive from a Jewish communalist standpoint. "The volume's effort," Kessner writes, "is a very Jewish one: commitment to the preservation of the worthy past and its incorporation into the present for the sake of the future." (10) Jewish historians, according to this view, should direct their attention to those who offer positive models for present and future generations. The impulse to uncover a useable past in the lives of "proudly affirmative" Jews, although not always expressed explicitly, has prevented American Jewish historians from paying due attention to any number of subjects--political radicals, Hollywood moguls, Christian converts, and so on--who may have felt little pride in their Jewish backgrounds or sought to affirm other identities. (11)
Hollinger makes a compelling argument for "dispersionist" history as an alternative to communalist history. He recommends "a more expanded compass that takes fuller account of the lives in any and all domains of persons with an ancestry in the Jewish diaspora, regardless of their degree of involvement with communal Jewry and no matter what their extent of declared or ascribed Jewishness." To his ideal dispersionist historian, he writes, "the concept of 'the Jewish people' means little." By freely traversing communal lines, dispersionist history can account for the widest range of Jewish experiences.
One of the objectives of dispersionist history as conceived by Hollinger would be "the energetic exploration of Jewish demographic overrepresentation in the American worlds of finance, film, science, philanthropy, political radicalism, and other domains of modernity." This phenomenon of Jewish overrepresentation demands serious consideration for precisely the reason Hollinger suggests: it is important for understanding American modernity. Hollinger, more consistently and persuasively than any other American historian, has pursued this point in his own scholarly work. His essays and books on the role of Jews as agents of secularism and cosmpolitanism in American intellectual life investigate with remarkable erudition and nuance the meaning of Jewish demographic overrepresentation, a theme crowded historically by those who either decry "Jewish domination" or celebrate "Jewish genius." (12) Historians in any number of other fields would do well to follow Hollinger's lead, even though they may wish to question whether the dispersionist label is most fitting. Does demographic overrepresentation really suggest dispersion or, rather, new forms of concentration beyond the Jewish communal sphere? Regardless, the approach laid out by Hollinger offers great promise.
Dispersionist history need not negate communalist history, and Hollinger affirms the legitimacy of both. One might argue further that dispersionist history builds upon communalist history, drawing from it in order to explain how a person's Jewish background matters even when it appears at first glance to be insignificant. Furthermore, knowledge of Jewish languages, the hallmark of Jewish studies training, might prove surprisingly useful to dispersionist history. Historians of anticommunism, for instance, would surely benefit from reading David Shub's Fun di amolike yorn (From years past), a detailed Yiddish memoir of intellectual and political life in New York. Shub, the author of a widely read biography of Vladimir Lenin (based on a previously published Yiddish version) and an analyst of Soviet politics for the influential weekly, The New Leader, and the Yiddish daily, Forverts, was one of many Jews who moved between English- and Yiddish-speaking intellectual circles. (13) Similarly, anybody researching organized labor's role in foreign affairs would learn much from the English and Yiddish writings of Raphael Abramovitch. A former Menshevik and Bundist leader, Abramovitch chaired the AFL's American Labor Conference on International Affairs after World War II, edited its journal, The Modern Review (assisted by the young sociologist Daniel Bell, a self-described alienated Jew), contributed frequently to The New Leader and Forverts, and authored a two-volume Yiddish memoir of the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions. (14) Dispersionist and communalist histories, in other words, may be viewed as not only equally legitimate, but also mutually enriching, depending on how one practices them.
A dispersionist turn might improve the marginal standing of Jewish history in the U.S. field by promoting "stronger and more sustained mutual engagements with other specialists in U.S. history" than have taken place until now. Jewish historians, of course, have not isolated themselves from broad historiographic trends, yet they have rarely intervened in the major debates of the U.S. field. Jewish history's communalist orientation may be held partially accountable, for reasons already mentioned, but that alone cannot be the reason. Comparison with other branches of ethnic history, particularly those within the multiculturalist provenance, may be helpful on this point. Historians of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, to name three cases, have exerted major influences on U.S. history, but does this mean that they have shown greater affinity for dispersionist over communalist approaches than have Jewish historians? I would argue not. Practitioners of the aforementioned fields have paid close attention to the inner lives of their respective communities of study and, conversely, little attention to individuals who distanced themselves from those communities. Asssimilation has not been the preferred analytic concept or theme in ethnic histories, quite understandably given the harsh racial barriers of earlier times and places. Much more attention has been paid to processes of racial exclusion and construction of racial boundaries, often described as stubbornly persistent yet constantly contested. Furthermore, many historians of race and ethnicity identify personally with the people they study and express hope that their scholarship and teaching will serve to benefit them, directly or indirectly, by advancing the cause of racial (not to mention class and gender) equality. (15) If much scholarship on race and ethnicity may fairly be classified as communalist, then it stands to reason that American Jewish history's marginality is due to factors other than its communalist orientation.
I would suggest that the root of the problem lies in the manner in which American Jewish history, and Jewish studies more broadly, became institutionalized in the academy starting in the 1960s. Unlike, say, African American studies, Jewish studies did not grow out of a protest movement either on campuses or off. The push for Jewish studies occurred independently of the various racial protest movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, but flourished in their wake as universities instituted curricula geared toward multiculturalism. In this new, favorable climate, Jewish studies grew relatively smoothly, perhaps facing bias or indifference here or there, but generally developing without confrontation. (16) (If American Jewish history suffered prejudice, it came from within Jewish studies itself, where Europeanists, until recently, tended to view the field as "uninstructive or irrelevant or unchallenging." (17)) Generous donations from private individuals and Jewish communal organizations have fueled this growth. (18) Such outside funding (not unique to Jewish studies, of course) has enabled Jewish studies to advance over the long term and, in times of economic retrenchment, persist on firm ground. Professors in Jewish studies cannot help but feel relief in knowing that many of their positions are secured by endowments.
Yet while external funding has been a boon, it has also entailed a drawback. Rarely having to demand resources from administrators (indeed, Jewish studies programs often function as cash cows for their home institutions), Jewish studies faculty and students have generally stood on the sidelines of debates over budgets, hiring, and curricula. By contrast, other ethnic studies scholars have pressed not only for resources, but also fundamental changes in the historical profession in terms of methodology and epistemology. None of the ethnic studies fields are monolithic, but its leading scholars have insisted over the years on changing the way U.S. history is understood and practiced. (19) American Jewish historians, on the other hand, have never played the role of academic insurgents nor have they felt the need to do so. Due to the fact that funding for their positions has come mostly from private Jewish sources, Jewish historians have found a place in the academy without having to demonstrate the essential importance of their field. They have sought and succeeded in gaining inclusion (that is, securing jobs) within the history profession, a demand that would have been quite radical in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, when antisemitism pervaded the humanities, but ceased being so since at least the 1960s.
The economics of Jewish studies provides only a partial explanation for why Jewish specialists have not vigorously engaged debates in U.S. history. Another reason has to do with priorities. Because the funding for their positions has been generated by Jewish studies programs, American Jewish historians have often identified primarily with the field of Jewish studies, and have therefore sought legitimacy primarily from other modern Jewish historians. Thanks to these efforts, American Jewish history has become an increasingly respected part of Jewish studies. Yet how to achieve a similar level of regard in the U.S. field remains an open question.
We must ask: how, if at all, are Jews important, indeed crucial, for understanding America? How might the broad sweep of U.S. history, not just one or another aspect of it, change after Jews are taken into account? Until now we have treated Jews as additive, to paraphrase Joan Scott's famous essay on women's history. (20) Can they be transformative? These questions require consideration if Jewish historians wish to make a greater impact on the U.S. field. One might well doubt whether Jews, as a group, are important enough to encourage the kind of reevaluation of U.S. history that other ethnic studies historians have undertaken. After all, Jews have never comprised more than a tiny fraction of the U.S. population and have become proportionally smaller in recent decades. Furthermore, unlike African Americans, Asian Americans, or Latinos, (or, for that matter, Jews in Germany or Russia), American Jews have not, with certain specific exceptions, been the subjects of state policy, let alone the focus of a bloody civil war. Many of our Americanist colleagues probably have such thoughts in mind when they convey to us--somehow or another, subtly or bluntly, intentionally or unconsciously--that American Jewish history is perhaps interesting, and certainly legitimate, but not especially significant. Are they wrong?
Hollinger has provided an answer. American Jewry, Hollinger has written elsewhere, is "the single demographic group that has proved to [be] the most responsive to the global modernization processes entailing science, capitalism, socialism, and modernist movements in the arts." (21) Jews, in other words, have often played the role of innovators and, in the process, served to open the American mind in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In terms of ideas, politics, culture, and business, Jews--not all Jews and not Jews alone, but Jews prominently and disproportionately--have challenged Anglo-Protestant hegemony, secularized the country's institutions, expanded the boundaries of social inclusion, questioned conventional thought, subverted established notions of respectability, and undermined social and cultural hierarchies. In doing so, Jews have, in various capacities, acted as intermediaries between elites and masses, high and popular cultures, blacks and whites, and continental Europe and the United States. (22) I may have overstated this point, stretching it further than Hollinger would, but the core idea seems to me worth entertaining. In any case, if Jewish historians wish to rewrite U.S. history, we will need to consider noncommunalist approaches, explore patterns of Jewish overrepresentation, and ponder its meaning for American Jewry and the country as a whole.
(1.) Indeed, the field of American Jewish history has been characterized by a relative lack of historiographic debate. See Hasia Diner, "American Jewish History," in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, ed. Martin Goodman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 482. For a discussion of the scope and margins of Jewish history in the European context, see Ezra Mendelsohn, "Should We Take Notice of Bertha Weill? Reflections on the Domain of Jewish History," Jewish Social Studies I (new series) (Fall 1994): 22-39; and the essays in Marc Lee Raphael, ed., The Margins of Jewish History (Williamsburg, VA: Department of Religion, College of William and Mary, 2000).
(2.) For instance, Hasia Diner, Arthur Goren, the late Leon Jick, David Kaufman, Mark Raider, and Lee Shai Weissbach were all members of the Labor-Zionist youth group Habonim. Henry Feingold, to cite another example, was formerly editor of the Labor- Zionist magazine, Jewish Frontier. On the intersection between Zionism and American Jewish historiography in the work of one pioneering scholar, see Jonathan D. Sarna, "Achava and History: Reflections on the Historical Emphases of Moshe Davis," in America and Zion: Essays and Papers in Memory of Moshe Davis, ed. Eli Lederhendler and Jonathan D. Sarna (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 23-32.
(3.) On the interplay between Zionist historiography and the writing of Jewish history in the diaspora, see Jonathan Frankel, "Assimilation and the Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Toward a New Historiography?" in Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 1-37.
(4.) Again, this approach in the writing of American Jewish history is part of a larger "triumphalist" trend in modern Jewish historiography more broadly. For a fuller discussion, see Todd M. Endelman, "The Legitimization of the Diaspora Experience in Recent Jewish Historiography," Modern Judaism 11 (May 1991): 195-209. Endelman ponders the tendency among modern Jewish historians of the last several decades to emphasize the continuity of Jewish identity and the success Jews had in forging new diaspora identities. Endelman's own work points in the opposite direction, examining radical assimilation and conversion among Jews in England and other modern settings. See, for example, Radical Assimilation in English Jewish History (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990). On the development of American Jewish historiography more specifically, see Diner, "American Jewish History," 471-90; Ben Zion Dinur, "American Jewish Historiography in the Light of Modern Jewish History," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 46 (Mar. 1957): 196; Jonathan D. Sarna, "American Jewish History," Modern Judaism 10 (May 1990): 343-65; William Toll, "The 'New Social History' and Recent Jewish Historical Writing," American Jewish History 69 (Mar. 1980): 342-54.
(5.) See, for instance, Hasia R. Diner, A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Deborah Dash Moore, At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981); Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950 (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1994); Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
(6.) Henry L. Feingold, "American Jewish History and American Jewish Survival," American Jewish History (Jun. 1982): 421-31. Feingold writes, "The connection between history and survival remains today but rather than amelioration its role has become to furnish American Jewry with a knowledge of where it came from so that it might know what it is and where it is going. Ultimately its group identity must be sought in history" (430).
(7.) Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, zoos), 18-21.
(8.) Irving Howe, "The New York Intellectuals: A Chronicle and a Critique," Commentary 46 (Oct. 1968): 29.
(9.) Gerald Sorin, Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent (New York: New York University Press, 2002). American Jewish History published a forum on the New York Intellectuals, however, none of the main contributors were scholars of Jewish history. See American Jewish History 80 (Spring 1991). For a forum on Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers, see American Jewish History 88 (Dec. 2000).
(10.) Carole S. Kessner, ed., The "Other" New York Jewish Intellectuals (New York: New York University Press, 1994), 2.
(11.) A partial exception is Keren McGinity's study of intermarriage, a subject hitherto largely ignored by American Jewish historians. Still, McGinty's interpretation, which stresses the persistence of Jewish identity among intermarried couples, adheres to the general continuity-oriented thrust of American Jewish historiography. See Keren R. McGinity, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1-18.
(12.) David A. Hollinger, Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity: Studies in Ethnoracial, Religious, and Professional Affiliation in the United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006); Hollinger, Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Hollinger, Morris R. Cohen and the Scientific Ideal (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1975).
(13.) David Shub, Vladimir Lenin: A Biography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1948).
(14.) On Abramovitch's career, see Andre Liebich, "Mensheviks Wage the Cold War," Journal of Contemporary History 30 (Apr. 1995): 247-50. On Bell, see his personal essay, "A Parable of Alienation," Jewish Frontier 13 (Nov. 1946): 12-19, republished in Jewish Frontier Anthology, 1945-1967 (New York: Jewish Frontier Association, 1967), 41-62.
(15.) Thus, one scholar of Asian American history writes: "As the construction of Asian American identity has been a political project, one cannot genuinely teach the experience of diverse Asian ethnicities as a collective history without having some investment in it." The author goes on to add: "What I hope that all [students] take away is a sense of responsibility to pass along the knowledge they have acquired and produced, thereby transforming public discourse in large and small ways." See Scott Kurashige, "Exposing the Price of Ignorance: Teaching Asian American History in Michigan," Journal of American History 93 (Mar. 2007): 1179, 1185.
(16.) Lou H. Silberman, "The University and Jewish Studies," in Leon A. Jick, ed., The Teaching of Judaica in American Unversities: The Proceedings of a Colloquium (Waltham: Association for Jewish Studies/KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1970), 15.
(17.) Todd M. Endelman, "Response," in The State of Jewish Studies, ed. Shaye J. D. Cohen and Edward L. Greenstein (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1990), 162. As another prominent European Jewish historian writes, "I was trained as a Jewish historian at Columbia University and the Hebrew University at a time when a clear bias existed, perpetuating the primary status of European Jewish history over American because of its grounding in Hebraic and rabbinic texts." See David B. Ruderman, "Reflections on American Jewish History," American Jewish History 91 (Sep./Dec. 2003): 371. In the same volume, the historian of Russian Jewry, Steven Zipperstein, writes: "'Nothing terribly interesting call ever happen again' could readily serve as the subtitle a good many European Jewish historians would consign to an imagined book of theirs on the history and prospects of American Jews." See Zipperstein, "American Jews and the European Gaze," American Jewish History 91 (Sep./Dec. 2003): 385.
(18.) Harvie Branscomb, "A Note on Establishing Chairs of Jewish Studies," in Jick, The Teaching of Judaica, 95-99; Gerson D. Cohen, "An Embarassment of Riches: On the Condition of American Jewish Scholarship in 1969," in Jick, The Teaching of Judaica, 148; Paul Ritterband and Harold S. Wechsler, Jewish Learning in American Universities: The First Century (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1994), 98-121, 150-171.
(19.) Ned Blackhawk, "Recasting the Narrative of America: The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching American Indian History," Journal of American History 93 (Mar. 2007): 1165-1170; Sucheng Chan, "Asian American Historiography," Pacific Historical Review 65 (Aug. 1996): 369-71; Jonathan Scott Holloway, "The Black Scholar and the Politics of Racial Knowledge," in The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II, ed. David Hollinger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 227-34; Linda K. Kerber, "Diversity and the Transformation of American Sudies," American Quarterly 41 (Sep. 1989): 415-31; Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 469-521; Vicki L. Ruiz, "Nuestra America: Latino History as United States History," Journal of American History 93 (Dec. 2006): 655-72..
(20.) See Joan Wallach Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," in Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, revised ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 28-52.
(21.) Hollinger, Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity, xxiii.
(22.) Just a sampling of works that establish this point--some with greater or lesser focus on Jewishness as a salient category--include: Ron Chernow, The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance (New York: Grove Press, 1990); Hasia Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977); Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1988); Eric L. Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Nancy Green, Ready-to-Work and Ready-to-Wear: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Eli Lederhendler, New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001), 13-24; Kirsten Fermaglich, American Dreams and Nazi Nightmares: Early Holocaust Consciousness in Liberal America, 1957-1965 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England / Brandeis University Press, 2007); Moses Rischin, The Promised City: New York's Jews, 1870-1914 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962); Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), 11-61
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2009|
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