Transnational Traditions: New Perspectives on American Jewish History, edited by Ava F. Kahn and Adam D. Mendelsohn. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014. 309 pp.
Historians have not infrequently treated American Jews as a tabula rasa, a blank slate possessing few enduring Old World cultural legacies and economic ties. The reasons for this insular approach range from exceptionalism, the belief that the American Jewish experience is entirely (and positively) unique, to exaggerated fears of essentialism, as if positing any cultural carryovers by Jewish immigrants implies a belief in inherent or inveterate characteristics. This volume seeks to counteract such pitfalls by demonstrating how the study of American Jewry can be enriched by adopting more global and comparative frameworks.
Transitional Traditions effectively applies transnational models to Jewish economic and commercial life, showing how various international Jewish commercial networks aligned migration routes with the circulation of commodities. Such commodities could range from supplies for prospectors during both the Californian and Australian gold rushes to the expanding mid-nineteenth-century "market" for educated Anglophone Jewish preachers. The latter case is entertainingly limned in Adam Mendelsohn's study of the London-born Isaacs brothers, Samuel, David, and Jacob. Their combination of religious observance and English fluency proved alluring not just to communities in Britain but also to overseas colonies and former colonies bidding for the services of new-style "Jewish ministers" who specialized in eloquent sermonizing. By comparing the fortunes of Samuel in New York, David in Liverpool, and Jacob in Sydney, Mendelsohn shows how this new international market for ministers functioned. As he notes, because of the circulation of information within the English-speaking Jewish world, even Jews living in the Australian backwater now expected their synagogue functionaries to be models of eloquence and decorum.
Chapters by Ava F. Kahn and Suzanne Rutland hone in on the nexus between Jewish migration, settlement and international commerce, here too focusing on the Anglophone world. Kahn contends that California Jewry was shaped as much by contacts with the Antipodes as by the impact of Jews migrating more directly from Central or Eastern Europe. Both Kahn and Rutland tell remarkable rags to riches (or, as the case may be, shackles to shekels) stories of Anglo-Jewish convicts...