Conversations with Colleagues: On Becoming an American Jewish Historian.
This is a most unusual book, for which I am a most unusual reviewer. The sixteen essays that make up Conversations with Colleagues are scholarly autobiographies, as much personal as intellectual in content. "The personal always fuels and impacts what drives our work," as Shuly Rubin Schwartz explains in the course of her contribution (196). As for me, I am a historian of American Catholicism, only partly familiar with the work of the scholars who are featured in this thoughtful volume. What could possibly justify my reviewer's role? Only this, perhaps: that the trajectory of American Jewish history over the past century has been strikingly similar to that of American Catholic history. Scholars in these two seemingly disparate fields also face a similar dilemma as they look to the future. Practitioners in both fields of study would presumably benefit from mutual exchange.
Like the field of American Jewish history, American Catholic history prior to the mid-twentieth century was largely the province of wellintentioned amateurs. The overriding concern in both cases was to shore up the bonds of community--a multi-ethnic community, in both instances --and to establish the American bona fides of the group in question. The question of how to be simultaneously both American and Jewish is the fundamental question, as Jonathan D. Sarna notes in his essay; the same could be said of Catholics. The late 1940s saw the advent in both fields of study of a new generation of professional historians--small in number, to be sure, but often distinguished in their output. They frequently served as mentors to a rising generation of graduate students who ultimately transformed both fields in the 1970s and after, due both to their numbers and generous sense of who mattered as historical actors. Women appeared on the social-historical stage, along with ethnic and racial and, more tentatively, sexual minorities. A new emphasis on quantification opened up important insights into the demographic past.
The explosion of creative scholarship in both fields did not attract much attention from the larger American historical enterprise. As late as 1995, Deborah Dash Moore could deliver a conference paper decrying the continued marginality of American Jewish history to the American historical profession and indeed to Judaic studies, as well. I had published an article just two years earlier called "On the Margins: The State of American Catholic History." The accumulation of solid historical work and growing numbers of graduate student acolytes did eventually make a difference. Both fields now enjoy what might be called prosperity, although that state is more robust for historians of American Judaism. Catholic and Jewish studies programs and endowed chairs in both fields have proliferated over the past two decades, even at secular universities. "I struggled to win recognition from Vassar's history department as an American Jewish historian," Moore remembers of her early days in that college's Department of Religion, back in the 1970s (123). She now holds a named chair of Jewish history at the University of Michigan.
The frustrations engendered by the years of marginality linger in some of the essays, perhaps especially those by women, who fought for acceptance on two fronts. Historians of women, who struggled for recognition in the profession at large, have often been reluctant to incorporate Jewish women into their liberationist narrative, from which Catholic women have also been excluded. But the essays mainly speak of success--success both in personal terms and in terms of the field these scholars have done so much to transform. Many practitioners in my own field of study could tell a similar story. But therein lurks a certain danger. Both Catholics and Jews, after all, are part of a larger American narrative and even a transnational one, given the global connections of both communities. Making those connections is not easy, even for historians who are broadly trained. Might it not be the case that the more our respective fields flourish, the less likely we are to explore the ways in which our subjects are part of something larger? Hasia R. Diner, the only contributor to the volume who consistently studies non-Jewish as well as Jewish communities, seems to think this might be so. Her scholarship on Irish and Italian immigrants, she writes, has helped her to "shake the foundations" of American Jewish history, "which in some ways asserts Jewish distinctiveness." Catholic immigrants, she reminds us, "arrived, metaphorically, as partners in steerage with the Jews" (73-74).
One need not romanticize those "partners in steerage," whose histories in the United States were quite disparate and who often regarded one another as aliens. But they were indisputably part of a larger story--one central to the meaning of the American experiment. We need to keep this truth in mind as we write the histories of the particular groups to whom we have devoted our scholarly lives. A broadened perspective need not dilute the richness and depth of our scholarship. Studying the history of Irish America, Diner notes, "made me a much better American Jewish historian" (74). All of us can benefit from her counsel.
In the meantime, let us celebrate the achievements of scholars like those represented in this volume, who have given the American historical enterprise new breadth and liveliness. During her graduate studies, as Diner remembers, Jews were seldom included as actors in the American past--"and frankly, at that point, it did not dawn on me that they ought to have been there. I basically had no exposure to the existence of a scholarly community which attended to the history of the Jews" (69). Diner is now a leader in precisely such a scholarly community, whose existence almost guarantees that today's graduate students both expect and receive from their mentors a much fuller view of the national past.
Leslie Woodcock Tentler
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|Author:||Tentler, Leslie Woodcock|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2019|
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