Considering American Jewish History

In the new Organization of American Historians newsletter, an article by Hasia Diner and Tony Michels, "Considering American Jewish History," reflects on the historiography of Judaism in America. Click above for the full short piece; a brief excerpt:

In exploring the theme of synthesis, American Jewish historians have utilized many of the insights and methods of the post-1960s "new social history." Their focus on local communities, everyday women and men, family structures, work, consumption, and material culture reflected the ways in which scholarly innovations in the U.S. field profoundly affected American Jewish historiography as it came of age. More recently American Jewish historians have turned their attention to the changing meanings that American Jews, or some subset of them, invested in their own history, communities, and place in American society. This cultural turn in their works reflects the interest in historical memory ascendant in the discipline as a whole (9).

Much of this work has, however, for the most part, not garnered the attention and interest of their Americanist colleagues. A large gap divides the scholarly works of American Jewish historians and the wider world of American history scholarship, with the latter having made little room for the former. . . .

Even so, American Jewish historiography poses a quiet challenge to scholars working within the areas of race, class, and gender, who have been largely unable or unwilling to account for Jews, as a group, in their writings. As the scholarly literature reveals, the experiences of Jews in the U.S. confounds categories of oppression and resistance. They have, over the decades, experienced poverty and affluence, discrimination and acceptance, distinctiveness and assimilation, often at the same time. American Jewish historians have shown how an immigrant group, and its descendants who adhered to a distinctive religious and cultural outlook, went to great lengths to accommodate to America, yet sought to reform it substantially, even transform it entirely, which the radicals among them hoped to do. American Jewish liberalism, the position of the majority, persisted as these acculturating women and men articulated a set of beliefs that deviated from American norms. This played itself out in a number of key areas, such as race relations, in which the major Jewish organizations promoted civil and political equality for African Americans. It also manifested itself as American Jewish communal bodies, including religious ones, worked to secularize the larger society, in addition to supporting internationalism in foreign affairs, the growth of the welfare state and the legitimization of labor unions. Jews pursued liberal and social democratic agendas, which placed them on the left end of the American political spectrum, even as they sought integration into the mainstream.


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