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American Judaism: A History Hardcover – February, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Such scholars as Howard M. Sachar, Henry L. Feingold and Jacob R. Marcus, among others, have produced complete histories of American Jewry. Sarna, a Brandeis University professor who has published on various aspects of American Jewish history, now joins the ranks of his distinguished predecessors. Marking the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in New Amsterdam (now New York), this outstanding survey emphasizes the religious history of Jews in America. Since it is difficult to disentangle religious history from the entire story of how Jews fared generally in the United States, the book provides a sweeping overview of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of American Jews from 1654 to the present. Sarna writes in sprightly prose, usefully presenting anecdotes about some unfamiliar people and events: for example, he introduces Rachel "Ray" Frank, an obscure late-19th-century "charismatic woman Jewish revivalist." Full attention is also paid to the great rabbinical leaders, the movements they led and the problems they encountered. Sarna's fact-filled presentation demonstrates that American Jews have always worried about intermarriage, assimilation and continuity. At various times, they have found answers in regeneration, revitalization and renewal. Concluding with a consideration of contemporary dilemmas, Sarna draws from history the possibility that "American Jews will find creative ways to maintain and revitalize American Judaism."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Sarna's detailed history of Jewish life in the U.S. spans 350 years, from its colonial beginnings in 1654 to the present. Sarna points out that already in the late colonial period American Judaism had begun to diverge from religious patterns that existed in Europe and the Caribbean. The American Revolution, the ratification of the Constitution, the passage of the Bill of Rights, and the nationwide democratization of religion further transformed Jewish religious life. Fear for American Judaism's future underlies many aspects of its history, but Sarna believes that the many creative responses to this fear, the innovations and revivals promoted by those determined to ensure that American Jewish life continues and thrives, seem of far greater historical significance. This comprehensive and insightful study of the American Jewish experience is much more than just a record of events. It is an account of how people shaped events: establishing and maintaining communities, responding to challenges, and working for change. It is compelling reading for Jews and non-Jews alike. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edition (February 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030010197X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300101973
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #487,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan D. Sarna (1955- ) is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and Chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, as well as Chief Historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Dubbed by the Forward newspaper in 2004 as one of America's fifty most influential American Jews, he was Chief Historian for the 350th commemoration of the American Jewish community, and is recognized as a leading commentator on American Jewish history, religion and life. He is the only American Jewish historian ever elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Born in Philadelphia, and raised in New York and Boston, Dr. Sarna attended Brandeis University, the Boston Hebrew College, Merkaz HaRav Kook in Jerusalem, and Yale University, where he obtained his doctorate.

He has taught and lectured on four continents, has appeared in half-a-dozen documentary films, and is regularly quoted in newspapers across the world.

Sarna is perhaps the field's most prolific scholar. He has published hundreds of scholarly articles, writes a column in the Forward entitled "Now and Then" (because, he says, he produces it "now and then") and has written, edited or coedited more than thirty books, including, most recently, When General Grant Expelled the Jews..

He is probably best known for his acclaimed American Judaism: A History, winner of the Jewish Book Council's "Jewish Book of the Year Award." It has been praised as being "the single best description of American Judaism during its 350 years on American soil."

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By James Schuyler on November 11, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Professor Jonathan Sarna, pre-eminent scholar of the American Jewish experience, has written the book of the year for 2004, the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in America. Sarna's book is a brilliant chronicle of the 350 year history of the Jewish religion in America. Yes, his focus is on American Judaism and not another history of Jews in America. He asks all of the right questions: How has Judaism developed in America? How has it changed? What is its relationship to American religion? Where does it stand today? How have Jews been affected by the great turning points--the various awakenings, the Civil War, the women's movement, etc. He concludes that American Judaism is distinctive and different from Judaism in Israel or in Europe.

While the book is very readable and lively, I found his sense of optimism and his analysis of the challenges facing American Judaism in the future to be the greatest contributions of this monumental work. Sarna observes that the age-old fear that Judaism would not survive here provided an important stimulus for creative innovations. Time and again, concern for the future of Judaism inspired religious renewal. And he is equally surprised by the quickening pace of change.

Sarna has already won the National Jewish Book Award's 2004 Book of the Year and has traveled the country speaking to large and enthusiastic audiences. I think this is a book that will stand the test of time, and one that you will be coming back to as a reference for many, many years. What an excellent choice for gift-giving at this holiday time.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Groner VINE VOICE on June 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
If those who try to predict the fate of American Jewry can be divided into pessimists and optimists, count Jonathan Sarna emphatically among the optimists. In this succinctly written and cogently argued history of American Judaism, the Brandeis University historian makes a strong case that Jews on these shores have a promising future as well as a storied past.

This book is particularly appealing because Sarna, unlike many academics, has a clear prose style that occasionally even displays a bit of flair.

"Since the demand for first-rate rabbis greatly outstripped the supply, the marketplace soon restored substantial power to the rabbinate," he writes, discussing America in the 1840s.

Or: "East European Jews looked to Reform Jews: sometimes they quietly emulated them, sometimes they explicitly rejected them, but never could they totally ignore them."

Sarna's book is not a full account of all aspects of American Jewish history. That would be well nigh impossible in only 375 pages. Rather, it is a history of the Jewish religion in America-what American Jews have believed about God and about their traditions, which religious rituals they have practiced (or stayed away from), and how they have organized themselves religiously.

There has been much discussion in the past decades about the "disappearing American Jew," the decline in religious observance in an ever-modernizing community, and the rapid onset of "assimilation," a term that Sarna generally shuns in this book as "virtually meaningless." Sarna reminds us that the predictors of gloom and doom have been predicting gloom and doom for generations and that the community has somehow survived the predictions.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By + on May 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jonathan Sarna's book is the first American Jewish History that I could not put down. Should be required reading for all American Jews. I have read Jewish history and studied in college under Arthur Hertzberg, Arnie Eisen, Michael Stanislawski, so that little here was actually new to me. The book, however, put everything into proper perspective and traced trends in a logical readable way -- beautiful analysis of the origins, history and current status of the major movements of Judaism.

In case Dr. Sarna reads this -- here are my gripes: Personalities, such as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi merit too much of Sarna's attention. Similarly, Rebbetzin Jungreis is interesting but not far reaching in impact. Hadassah, and the extent to which it went hand in hand with Sisterhood's domination of suburban women's lives, barely gets passing mention. So too with the Soviet Jewry movement.

While Sarna does a beautiful job tracing the origins and sequelae of Orthodoxy's shift "to the right," he makes a few important omissions in describing other movements, such as Conservative Judaism. For example, he neglects to point out that the Movement's Law Committee had already approved Women's ordination before the Rabbinical Assembly voted to include women or the JTS faculty put it to a vote. Sarna suggests that the JTS faculty decision was purely expedient and not based on halachic considerations, which at least institutionally if not to the lay people, remains crucial. Similarly, at one point, Sarna notes that there is little distance today between left-wing Conservative and right-wing Reform. Quite true. But also worthy of note is the little distance between left-wing Orthodox "Modern orthodox" and right -wing Conservative, both of those last groups a vanishing breed.

Note too, Dr. Sarna, that Joe Leiberman carefully avoided describing himself as "Orthodox," preferring the word "observant."

All in all, an absolutely magnificent work.
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