Reflecting on American Jewish history.

Author:Ruderman, David B.
Position:Part One: Reflections Upon American Jewish History

I must confess that, in some thirty years of writing and teaching Jewish history, I have not thought seriously about the American Jewish experience, with the notable exception of some basic reading to prepare me to introduce the subject in my broad survey courses on modern Jewish history and thought. 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. Moreover, I was acutely aware of the relative indifference of my Israeli teachers to American culture, all of them students of Baer, Dinur, and Scholem, card-carrying members of the so-called "Jerusalem school." (1)

Our academic world has changed in these thirty years in North America, in Israel, and now in Europe. American Jewish history is taken seriously in Israel because American Jewish historians are more numerous and more prominent in the field, better trained both in American and Jewish history, and because the more traditional and ideologically driven historiography to which I was still exposed has given way to more nuanced and variegated approaches to the study of the Jewish past throughout the world. With the amazingly steady and sustained growth of Jewish Studies on American campuses, American Jewish history is gradually finding its place of prominence among the vast range of Jewish Studies courses. Particularly in history departments in this country which give priority to American history, American Jewish history represents an accessible and desirable link between Judaic studies and history as larger numbers of students in the mainstream of the humanities naturally discover the place of Jews in American and global culture.

My own entry points into American Jewish history are of recent origin. When my father, a rabbi who served several small congregations, died several years ago, he left me a diary and a box of sermons spanning a period of over sixty years. I have recently attempted to reconstruct four years of his career in the deep South and his unsuccessful struggle for civil rights. (2) Reading widely on American Jewish culture in small towns in the South of the 1960s in order to contextualize my father's experiences has proven to be as energizing and as serious as any of my previous research projects on the Jews in Renaissance Italy or early modern Europe. If any residues of my previously ingrained biases remained from my graduate education, they were quickly brushed aside in this personal quest to make sense of part of my own historical origins. I have finally come to realize that the Jewish experience in Greenville, Mississippi is no less significant a historical subject than one in Troyes, Worms, or Padua.

Even more substantial in pointing me in the direction of American Jewish history was my work on a recent book on Anglo-Jewry during the period of the Enlightenment. (3) It is this encounter with England which leads me directly to try and answer the question at hand: What is the ultimate meaning of 350 years of American Jewish life in the context of the longue duree of the Jewish historical experience?

One of the main arguments of my book is that the process of translation into the English language uniquely marks the intellectual life of Anglo-Jewry in the modern era. Anglo-Jews, like their American counterparts, enjoyed a relatively higher degree of social integration than anywhere else in Europe. Many professional, educational, and social barriers had practically disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century, despite the failure of the Jew Bill of 1753 and despite a residue of public hostility to both the Jewish upper and lower classes. In this relatively open society, English Jews, increasingly native-born, felt the acute need to approach the literary sources of their culture in the only language the overwhelming majority of them could understand, English. With the relatively rapid decline of Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, and Portuguese as languages spoken and written by Jews, to a degree unprecedented anywhere else in Europe, they became almost exclusively monolingual. (4)

The handful of Jewish educators attempting to offer their students an essential textual knowledge of Judaism eventually succumbed for the most part to the weight of this pervasive diminution of Hebraic literacy. Their only recourse was to undertake a massive project of translating the primary sources of their tradition into the language Anglo-Jews could...

To continue reading