Friday, December 10, 2004

350 Years

It doesn't take much to get Jews to celebrate. We have plenty of holidays on our religious calendar and also religious life-cycle events. Then we have the other stuff, including dinners, conventions, conferences and much else in our robust communal life. Some of us are in a near state of exhaustion as we attempt to accommodate the many demands on our time and gastronomical capacity.

Because in September 1654 twenty-three Jews arrived by boat in New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil, we are now commemorating the 350th anniversary of what is said to be Jewish life in North America. Thankfully, the celebrating is mostly cerebral, with scholarship and good talk being the main entrees. Yet, even with intellectual fare, there is an obligation to see that what is being provided is of good quality.

Jonathan Sarna, the distinguished historian of American Jewish life, has written an important book, American Judaism, which is essentially a history of our religious life on these shores. The work has already been anointed as great and magisterial. For sure, much of the praise is deserved. Sarna is a terrific writer who tells a fascinating story with much empathy for nearly all who make it into his narrative. Since American Jews have been blessed (or saddled) with more machers than can be fit into nearly 400 crammed pages, inevitably there will be objections about some who have been excluded.

More critically, Sarna adheres to the scholarly model employed in the study of American Protestantism, an approach that probably is appropriate for the history of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, etc. for whom congregational life was and continues to be the primary expression of religious activity. But the model is not sufficient for a history of Judaism, because there is a good deal more to our religious life - notably schools - than synagogues. It is true, of course, that in the American Jewish experience synagogues were far more important than religious educational institutions. This is a development that tells us much about the course of American Jewish history. Sarna needs to tell us why religious Jewish education was neglected for so long and what were the consequences of this neglect.

Consistent with Sarna's determination not to be judgmental, a religious history of American Jewry still needs to grapple with the decisive question of why we have lost so many. 1830 marks the halfway point in the 350-year history of American Jews. According to Sarna's estimate, there were then between 4,000-6,000 Jews in the United States. It is a good bet that no more than a handful of their descendents who are now living continue to identify as Jews. What happened to these Jews and why should be the subject of historical inquiry.

One-hundred years later, in 1930, there were nearly 4.5 million Jews. Another three-quarters of a century has gone by and the number of Americans who identify as Jews is about the same as it had been in 1930, this despite a fairly high Jewish fertility rate for much of this period, the continued influx of European Jews in the 1930's and after the Holocaust, and later on the substantial Israeli and Russian immigration to the U.S. I believe that Sarna and other historians of American Jewish life should reflect on where have all the Jews gone.

The important questions that he ignores were asked nearly a century ago in 1907 by Israel Friedlaender in a notable address that is the centerpiece of a special issue of Conservative Judaism commemorating the 350th Anniversary. Friedlaender, a major figure at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was murdered in 1920 in Ukraine while on a mercy mission. Amazingly, he does not make it into Sarna's book. After noting that "the expansion of American Judaism is not an organic growth from within, but a mechanic addition from without," Friedlaender asserts that this "is the gain of one who puts his earnings into a bag with holes." He then asks: "What will our second and third generation be a quarter of a century hence? American? Yes. Jewish? Perhaps."

He continues, "wherever our gaze turns, we witness the same spectacle - the decomposition of Judaism, of Jewish living and Jewish thinking under the influence of freedom…Judaism, which stood out like a rock amidst the billows of hatred and storms of persecution, is melting away like wax under the mild rays of freedom." In short, "the dawn of the Jews is the dusk of Judaism."

Friedlaender's subsequent analysis of the American Jewish prospect was evasive, but as Arnold Eisen notes, "his evasions are the ones to which we too resort." Eisen is also right that "it is positively eerie to read Israel Friedlaender's essay of a century ago, and consider how utterly contemporary his formulations remain."

Unfortunately, for all that is truly outstanding in Sarna's book, he writes as if he is oblivious to the loss of our religious identity, of our spiritual existence and heritage. That an historian of the first rank could approach this subject as Sarna does is a mystery.