Jonathan Sarna: Taking It Upon Himself to Tell the Story of American Jews

Historians in the News

Jen Stone, in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle (Nov. 14, 200):

Jonathan Sarna, a history professor at Brandeis University, took it upon himself to create an in-depth look at American Jewish history and published it in book form just in time for the 350th anniversary of American Judaism.

"There actually hasn't been a comprehensive history written on Judaism since Nathan Glazer," he said, referring to Glazer's 1972 book, "American Judaism (The Chicago History of American Civilization)." Sarna said that there have been plenty of histories of Jews, but not of Judaism as an entity. After consulting with friends who specialize in American religions, he discovered that there really hadn't been anything new in the category of Judaism, and that "people really had no idea how Judaism came into the larger story of American history."

Sarna said that as a historian, he was eager to do a book that wasn't a chapter-by-chapter description of each individual Jewish sect, but rather a book that showed how they all related to each other.
"I started work on the book in the mid-1990s, while I was on sabbatical," Sarna said. "I stopped for a long time because I had cancer, but I picked it up again when it finally looked like I was going to survive." He wrote quite a bit of the book in Israel during 2001 and 2002, and the book was published in March.

One of the points Sarna makes in the book is that American Judaism was influenced by American Protestantism. "It seems to me that Judaism has always been influenced by the surrounding cultures," he said. He noted that you could hardly write about Judaism in England without looking at the goings-on of the Anglican church. "One example," said Sarna, "is that American Protestantism is very denominational, and that helps explain why Judaism developed so many different strains." He said that in America, people are used to having many different ways of being a Christian, and now it's the same thing with being a Jew. "In other countries, it seems like there's only one way to, say, be a Catholic and one way to be a Jew," he said.

Sarna believes that one can only study religion in a comparative manner. He quipped: "They say in religion that if you only know one, you don't know any!"

Sarna spends some time in the beginning of the book delineating the decentralization of American Judaism, citing a movement from a synagogue-community (a community that revolves around a central synagogue) to a community of synagogues.

"In America," Sarna said, "where religion is so decentralized, (forming new sects) was inevitable. In many ways, I think it's good that it has been decentralized." He believes that the movement toward a community of synagogues meant that religion became answerable to its members, rather than to a governmental body. "It meant that the religion had to remain relevant to the members, and not another body."
He also mentioned how little American Jews know about their own history. "Very few Jews have roots going back to the American revolution," Sarna said. "There are so many who came over from elsewhere. But I really think they can learn from American Jewish history, and that we can learn from them as well." He discusses in the book more recent immigrants who are interested in learning more about their community, saying that the history being built by American Jews today has been influenced by the history built during the American Revolution.

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