Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America.
Writing a one-volume historical survey may be the most daunting challenge for any historian. In the last twenty years, there have been several one-volume treatments of American Jewish history and most have been deeply flawed. In Tradition Transformed, Gerald Sorin offers a new survey of American Jewish history that will likely become a standard in college courses. Sorin's book incorporates some of the most recent trends in American Jewish historiography and provides a comprehensive overview of American Jewish experience from the colonial period to the present.
Sorin has already authored a study of American Jewry from 1880 through 1920, as part of the recent five-volume series in American Jewish history; anyone who has read that work will be familiar with the central arguments about Jewish acculturation that Sorin puts forth in Tradition Transformed.(1) Following the direction of contemporary Jewish scholarship, Sorin stresses the distinction between assimilation and acculturation and argues that American Jews have generally pursued the latter path. He makes a strong case for Jewish ethnic persistence, but insists that "persistence was neither total nor linear." (p. 6) This theme frames the book and provides an organizing principle for Sorin's discussion of American Jewish history.
Sorin begins his survey in 1654, the date when the first group of Jews arrived in the United States. He treats the colonial period and early Republic in a brief chapter, followed by one chapter covering the Central European Jewish migration from 1820 to 1880. In allotting only twenty pages to this discussion, Sorin has sided with those American Jewish historians who advocate beginning the survey with the mid-nineteenth century and focusing primarily on late-nineteenth and twentieth century developments.(2) There is some merit in making this choice but Sorin might have been more explicit in indicating his position within the debate about periodization in American Jewish history. Perhaps, because his book is intended as a general survey, Sorin may have chosen to eschew such historiographical discussions.
The heart of Sorin's book remains the period from 1880 to 1920, an era marked by the arrival of millions of East European immigrants. According to Sorin (and many other American Jewish historians), it was this wave of immigrants that made the decisive imprint on American Jewish life, reshaping the contours of Jewish community and culture. "It is at least arguable," Sorin contends, "that without the East Europeans a viable, visible, distinctively Jewish culture would have become increasingly unlikely in America and might have disappeared." (p. 33) In the course of several chapters, Sorin elaborates the politics, culture, neighborhoods, and religious life created by East European immigrants. Following the blueprint that he used in his earlier volume, Sorin attempts to extend his analysis to communities and issues sometimes overlooked in other surveys of American Jewish history. Particularly noteworthy is his decision to include a chapter on smaller cities and towns - an effort to balance the usual concentration on New York and other urban centers. Sorin also folds his discussion of Zionism into a chapter entitled, "Varieties of Jewish Belief and Behavior," choosing to explore the Zionist movement in the context of other Jewish religious and political ideologies. Sorin's consideration of gender issues throughout the book greatly enriches the study, adding an important scholarly dimension seldom addressed seriously in other American Jewish history texts.
Tradition Transformed also succeeds in carefully examining Jewish life in the second half of the twentieth century. In the final chapters of the book, Sorin discusses Jewish responses to the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel, major religious innovations, postwar Jewish politics, and popular culture. He offers a balanced assessment of American Jewish reactions to the Holocaust, exploring the context and diversity of American Jewish life in the 1930s and 1940s. Sorin provides a particularly detailed analysis of the relationship between African Americans and Jews and considers their cooperation and clashes in the civil rights era.
Sorin's final chapter, "The Ever-Disappearing People," tackles thorny issues about intermarriage, continuity, and assimilation in the contemporary American Jewish community. Consistent with his approach throughout the book, Sorin emphasizes aspects of continuity and ethnic persistence. In a useful discussion, he places his analysis of American Jews within the context of other ethnic communities in the United States. Sorin concludes by noting that patterns of Jewish coherence and distinctive identity persist, even as many traditional forms of Jewish life have been altered in American society.
Sorin's book is best used as an overview for students and educated readers. The text is intended for a general audience and presents some problems for scholars. For example, there are no footnotes or endnotes, but only a bibliographical essay that includes sources for each chapter. In Tradition Transformed, Gerald Sorin has created a highly readable survey of American Jewish history that will be especially useful in classrooms and will provide the non-specialist with a thorough analysis of American Jewish experience.
Beth S. Wenger University of Pennsylvania
1. Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920 (Baltimore, 1992). This is the third of a five-volume series, edited by Henry Feingold, entitled The Jewish People in America.
2. See, for example, Deborah Dash Moore, "Beyond Haym Solomon (and Hank Greenberg): Teaching American Jewish History to 20th (and 21st) Century Jews," in Moving Beyond Haym Solomon: The Teaching of American Jewish History to 20th Century Jews, pamphlet (Philadelphia, ca. 1995).
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|Author:||Wenger Beth S.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1998|
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