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The normalization of American Jewish history.

When I was a student some thirty-five years ago in one of the premier Ph.D. programs in Jewish history, at Columbia University, it was clear that American Jewish history fell outside the parameters of the field. True, one could study Jews as part of American history, but the American Jewish experience was in no way integral to the study of Jewish history. For one thing, opting for residence in America meant abandoning Jewish languages; American .Jews had demonstrated loyalty neither to Yiddish nor to Hebrew. For another, Jews in America, it was argued, had produced no great thinkers contributing to the enrichment of what was deemed to be an unbroken tradition of Jewish culture. The American Jewish community was also too new to assert a claim to lasting historical significance. Moreover, its historical scholarship was dominated by filio-pietistic writings that were designed to make American Jews feel good about themselves.

All that has changed, particularly in the past twenty-five years or so. What I am calling the "normalization of American Jewish history" has been shaped by broad historical forces, by developments in the understanding of the Jewish experience, and by the production of a considerable body of first-rate scholarship in the field of American Jewish history.

The recognition of American Jewry as the most powerful Jewish community in the world and a worthy counterpoint to Israeli Jewry undercut the claim that its history carried little weight. After all, beginning at the latest during World War I, American Jewish institutions and individuals were responsible for worldwide Jewish philanthropy and for the design and implementation of Diaspora Jewish political strategy. Moreover, because of the Holocaust and the disruption caused by Soviet communism, there was no Jewish community that could compete with American Jewry in terms of the chronological span and continuity of its history.

The emergence of American Jewish history as a recognized subfield of modern Jewish history also coincided with the broadening of Jewish historical scholarship, and of historical scholarship more generally, with the flourishing of social and cultural history. Scholars in modern Jewish history increasingly focused not only on texts or other intellectual products but also on the processes of modernization, and the involvement of Jewish institutions as well as individuals in those processes. "Emancipation and assimilation" became the central trope of modern Jewish history. American Jews had acquired political rights with comparative ease and had never been totally non-emancipated, but the paradigm of "emancipation and assimilation" worked in the American as well as the European context. Indeed, the American experience contributed to a recent trend to interrogate the meanings attached to the two terms of the paradigm and to contextualize them, as well. (1)

The American Jewish experience also offered an opportunity for comparative historical investigation of many important aspects of Jewish modernity. First among them are migration and its impact. America was not unique in building its Jewish community through immigration, but immigration was recognized as central to American Jewish history well before it featured in the historiography of other Jewish communities. Moreover, the scale and chronological sweep of Jewish migration to the United States provided scholars with a rich documentation that has facilitated comparison, both with other immigrant groups in the U.S. and with Jewish migrants elsewhere. The historiography of American Jewish immigrants raised questions that historians have applied in other contexts, including the Yishuv and Palestine. They include the economic and cultural adaptation of immigrants to their new surroundings, the relationship between culture of origin and the construction of new identities and institutions, and intra-communal ,Jewish conflicts and cooperation. The recognition that American Jews have a substantial history has legitimated the historical investigation of Jewish political attitudes and activities over time, rather than leaving the subject to social scientists and pundits of the contemporary scene. The variety of political expressions of American Jewry, from the colonial period and especially in the past half-century, has also invigorated the study of the involvement of Jews in their respective polities. (2) Finally, the contemporary study of women in Jewish history began about thirty years ago with research on American Jewish women carried out by American-trained scholars. Paradoxically, the strength of feminism within the American academy combined initially with the marginality of American Jewish history within the fields of Judaic Studies and American history to provide space for this new scholarly venture.

The field of American Jewish history has been shaped primarily by its fruitful interaction with new trends in American scholarship. The incorporation of immigrants in American historiography now is hardly new; it has been a given for two generations. It's worth remembering, however, that it was not until after World War II that immigration achieved its iconic status. The recognition of the centrality of immigration to American history, which was signaled by the publication and reception in 1951 of The Uprooted, Oscar Handlin's pioneering study, provided an opportunity to mainstream the American Jewish historical experience. (3) Jews were not marginal to American history; as one of America's most successful immigrant groups, they were integral to the making of America. Their strategies and paths of acculturation have been imaginatively analyzed rather than simply taken for granted. The urban experiences of Italian and Jewish immigrants, the two largest components of the pre-World War I immigration, have also provided fodder for comparative studies by a variety of social historians. (4) American Jewish historians, taking advantage of the interest in social as well as immigrant history, have explored the distinctions among groups of immigrant Jews in America from the colonial period to our own time. Indeed, it is no surprise that the first three books of the five-volume history of American Jewry published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1992, The Jewish People in America, were organized according to waves of immigration, (5) American Jewish historians have also creatively explored the urban dimension of American Jewish activity and self-expression. (6)

Cultural studies, which focuses on the meanings that people attach to their behavior and their pronouncements, has provided theoretical tools for interpreting both action and discourse in the context of the Jewish community, and has facilitated the study of identity formation. (7) Jews have received due attention in the scholarly literature on race and ethnicity in the American academy, incorporating the Jewish experience in larger studies. The literature on "whiteness," for example, has placed the issue of the changing status of Jews in American society within a comparative perspective. (8) It has also stimulated younger American Jewish historians to explore how Jews themselves viewed their own relationship to the subject. (9) Similarly, the ways that Jews have represented themselves is an integral part of the larger subject of the strategies that different groups in America have used to establish their position as part of the American polity. (10) Jews have benefited from their accommodation into the ongoing exploration by American historians not only of the subject of immigration but also of the category of ethnicity, its construction, and its reconstruction. Because Jews have spawned a host of newspapers and journals, have written and published memoirs since their arrival in America, and have displayed a strong sense of historical consciousness, American Jewish historians have an extraordinary variety of texts to mine in the current academic fascination with the subjects of memory and self-presentation. (11)

Interrogating the participation and representation of Jews in such cultural spaces as theater, film, television, and journalism has been an integral component of the growing interest in American popular culture. (12) Scholars of various disciplines continue to explore the disproportionate representation of Jews among the creators of film and television productions and to raise the question of the relation, if any, between the Jewish origins of writers, directors, and entertainment business executives and the content of their work. In other words, the question of whether Jews have made a difference in American popular culture continues to engage both academic and popular writers, who, needless to say, have achieved no consensus.

Concern with the role of gender in the shaping of Jewish discourse on identity, in the roles of women in public life and in the development of American Judaism, has been nourished by the American academy's recognition of the centrality of gender in understanding issues of power and human behavior. Indeed, the burgeoning of women's history in America has had a major impact on American Jewish historiography. Works such as Karla Goldman's Beyond the Synagogue Gallery and Riv-Ellen Prell's Fighting to Become Americans are in dialogue with American scholarship on women and religion and the cultural uses of gender representations, respectively. (13) Our depiction of the immigrant Jewish experience has been enriched by studies that have focused on women. (14) My own article on the 1902 kosher meat boycott, which was organized and led by women, enabled me to challenge conventional depictions of both the immigrant Jewish community and immigrant Jewish politics. (15) Scholars have also explored the roles of Jewish women's organizations in the philanthropy and the organized politics of the American Jewish community. (16)

The renewed interest in American religious history has also provided a place for the study of Judaism within American history and has influenced American Jewish historians to take religious thought and expression seriously. The graduate program in American religious history in Yale's Religious Studies department, for example, trains students who integrate Judaism into their study of historical expressions of religion in America, (17) or focus solely on Judaism within the context of developments within American religion. (18) Jonathan Sarna's recent book, American Judaism: A History, testifies to the recognition that the religious experience of American Jews and the type of religion they have shaped and practiced are central to our understanding of American Jewish history. (19) And as Jon Butler, a prominent historian of American religion, has noted of the book, it fulfills two functions for students of religion. It points to "Judaism's importance to American religion, as well as American Judaism's critically important role for Judaism throughout the world." (20)

The expansion of interest in mass politics outside the partisan political system, particularly in the formative years of the labor movement and in the civil rights movement, has inevitably led to examination of Jewish participation in both. American and American Jewish historians have explored the Jewish labor movement built by immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe and its impact on the American labor movement more generally. The disproportionate participation of Jews in liberal politics has particularly intrigued them. Members of the younger generation of specialists in the field have also interrogated the rationale for a liberal political stance and the relations of Jews and African Americans in the struggle for equal rights in the twentieth century. (21)

Ironically, then, American Jews, who have often been seen as doubly marginal--a small minority in American history and an immature, rather ignorant branch, of world Jewry--have emerged within American historiography as a group that raises important questions for the nature of American cultural and historical development. Insofar as historians struggle to interpret the nature of diversity in America and America's commitment to the legitimacy of difference, Jews provide the example of the white minority with the longest history on American shores. Insofar as historians plumb the shifting construction of ethnicity in America, Jews provide a particularly complex case study, blending religion with ethnicity. Moreover, Jewish intellectuals and social scientists have played a key role in debates about the very definition of ethnicity. Insofar as immigration and immigrant patterns of acculturation remain of continuing interest both to scholars and lay Americans, Jews demonstrate the importance of exploring the questions of the role of immigrants in American society, with due attention to historical, cultural, political, and class contexts. Furthermore, the study of how immigrants and others have transformed the debate about Americanization from the late nineteenth century until the present requires an inquiry into the role of Jewish intellectuals.

The strength and breadth of American Jewish historiography rebuts the earlier dismissal of the field. As I can testify, modern Jewish historians of other geographical areas know that they must keep up-to-date in American Jewish historiography if their own work is to reflect the regnant trends in historical scholarship as a whole. Moreover, as I suggested above, the scholarship on such issues in modern Jewish history as immigration, identity formation, and the role of gender, to name but three, is enriched by including the American experience and comparing it with other cultural contexts. My own experience as a teacher and researcher in European and American Jewish history has convinced me of the benefits of the comparative approach. Far from lagging behind scholars of the modern Jewish experience in Europe, specialists in American Jewish history have become full and equal participants in the field.

(1.) For a nuanced example of the paradigm of emancipation and assimilation, see Naomi Cohen, Encounter With Emancipation: The German Jews in the United States, 1830-1914 (Philadelphia, 1984.) For an example of the recent contextualization of the terms, see Paths of Emancipation: Jews, States, and Citizenship, eds. Pierre Birnbaum and Ira Katznelson (Princeton, 1995).

(2.) On the colonial and early republican periods, see the many articles by Jonathan Sarna, and his book, Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (New York, 1980).

(3.) Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People (New York, 1951). Handlin had placed the subject on the map with his earlier book, Boston's Immigrants, 1790-1865: A Study in Acculturation (Cambridge, MA, 1941).

(4.) These include Thomas Kessner, The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City, 1880-1915 (New York, 1977); Judith Smith, Family Connections: A History of Italian and Jewish Immigrant Lives in Providence, Rhode Island, 1900-1940 (Albany, 1985); and Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925 (New York, 1985).

(5.) Edited by Henry Feingold, the first three volumes were Eli Faber, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820; Hasia Diner, A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820-1880; and Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920. Deborah Dash Moore has highlighted the impact of internal migration in To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Dream in Miami and L. A. (New York, 1994).

(6.) For examples, see Deborah Dash Moore, At Home In America: Second-Generation New York Jews (New York, 1981), and Beth Wenger, New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise (New Haven, 1996).

(7.) See, for example, Andrew Heize, Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity (New York, 1990); Daniel Soyer, Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 (Cambridge, MA, 1997); and Michael Alexander, Jazz Age Jews (Princeton, 2001).

(8.) The best example of this literature is Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA, 1998).

(9.) See, for example, Eric Goldstein, "'Different Blood Flows in Our Veins': Race and Jewish Self-Definition in Late Nineteenth-Century America," American Jewish History 85, no. 1 (1997): 29-55.

(10). See Matthew Frye Jacobson, Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States (Cambridge, MA, 1995), and Alexander, Jazz Age Jews.

(11.) For one example, see Remembering the Lower East Side: American Jewish Reflections, eds. Hasia R. Diner, Jeffrey Shandler, and Beth S. Wenger (Bloomington, 2000).

(12.) See Harley Erdman, Staging the Jew: Performance of an American Ethnicity, 1920-1960 (New Brunswick, NJ, 1997); Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting, eds. J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler (New York, 2003); Stephen J. Whitfield, American Space, Jewish Time (Hamden, CT, 1988); and Paul Buhle, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture (London and New York, 2004).

(13). Karla Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Cambridge, MA, 2000); Riv-Ellen Prell, Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation (Boston, 1999).

(14.). Susan Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (Ithaca, 1990); Sydney Stahl Weinberg, The World of Our Mothers: The Lives of Jewish Immigrant Women (Chapel Hill, 1989).

(15.) Paula E. Hyman, "Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902," American Jewish History 70 (1980): 91-105.

(16.) Faith Rogow, Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893-1993 (Tuscaloosa, 1993); Mary McCune, "Social Workers in the Muskkeljudentum: 'Hadassah Ladies,' 'Manly Men' and the Significance of Gender in the American Zionist Movement, 1912-1928," American Jewish History 86 (1998): 135-65.

(17.) See Marc Oppenheimer, Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture (New Haven, 2003).

(18.) See Lila Corwin Berman, "Presenting Jews: Jewishness and America, 1920-1960" (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2004).

(19.) Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven, 2004).

(20.) Blurb on the book jacket.

(21.) See, for example, Marc Dollinger, Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (Princeton, 2000); Jonathan Kaufman, Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America (New York, 1988); Michael E. Staub, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America (New, York, 2002); and Stuart Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (New York, 1997).
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Title Annotation:Part One: Reflections Upon American Jewish History
Author:Hyman, Paula E.
Publication:American Jewish History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
Words:2871
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