History Lessons: Creation of American Jewish Heritage

Paul Harvey

A bit later today or early tomorrow Chris Beneke will be posting his thoughts on Kevin Schultz's new and very important book Tri-Faith America. Before we get there, I thought I would call your attention to this new work on American Jewish history from Beth Wenger, reviewed in this month's Choice: History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage. This book is about the creation of history and meaning in American Judaism, about how "memory" becomes "history" and "heritage" within this religious community, and about how history creates identity. I'll post a brief bit from the book's website first, and then the review from Choice.

From the book's website:

Most American Jews today will probably tell you that Judaism is inherently democratic and that Jewish and American cultures share the same core beliefs and values. But in fact, Jewish tradition and American culture did not converge seamlessly. Rather, it was American Jews themselves who consciously created this idea of an American Jewish heritage and cemented it in the popular imagination during the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. History Lessons is the first book to examine how Jews in the United States collectively wove themselves into the narratives of the nation, and came to view the American Jewish experience as a unique chapter in Jewish history.

Beth Wenger shows how American Jews celebrated civic holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July in synagogues and Jewish community organizations, and how they sought to commemorate Jewish cultural contributions and patriotism, often tracing their roots to the nation's founding. She looks at Jewish children's literature used to teach lessons about American Jewish heritage and values, which portrayed--and sometimes embellished--the accomplishments of heroic figures in American Jewish history. Wenger also traces how Jews often disagreed about how properly to represent these figures, focusing on the struggle over the legacy of the Jewish Revolutionary hero Haym Salomon.

History Lessons demonstrates how American Jews fashioned a collective heritage that fused their Jewish past with their American present and future

And now, the review from Choice:

Wenger, Beth S. History lessons: the creation of American Jewish heritage. Princeton, 2010. 282p bibl index afp ISBN0-691-14752-3, $35.00; ISBN 9780691147529, $35.00. Reviewed in 2011jun CHOICE.
American Jews created narratives about Jews in US history in order to establish a collective heritage. Wenger (Pennsylvania) demonstrates that these stories related a Jewish past to US histories in ways that were sometimes celebratory and sometimes critical, but they always sought to establish a place for Jews within US myths and thereby the US present. Wenger analyzes a "dual agenda" in which Jews both "wrote themselves into the narratives of American history" and narrated their own lives as hopeful endings to the "long history of the Jewish people." In exploring these narratives and counternarratives, Wenger provides fascinating primary sources, from didactic Yiddish poetry to letters hotly contesting the erection of a statue. The volume includes examinations of the particular political and cultural facets of US life that allowed Jews to "create" their own heritage and identity; the representation of US Jewish soldiers; children's literature; efforts at memorializing the Revolutionary financier Haym Solomon; and a standout chapter on Jews' relationships to US national holidays. Although Wenger's conclusions may not be surprising for those familiar with US Jewish history, her readings are subtle and compelling. Summing Up: Recommended. All academic levels/libraries. -- S. E. Imhoff, Indiana University / Bloomington


Chris Beneke said…
Wait, this is a blog? I thought I was writing a review for the AHR.

Popular Posts