Jew­ish Renais­sance and Revival in Amer­i­ca: Essays in Mem­o­ry of Leah Levitz Fish­bane, ז״ ל

Eitan P. Fish­bane and Jonathan D. Sar­na, eds.

  • Review
By – October 31, 2012

This book, described as a labor of love,” is a memo­r­i­al of the life and work of Leah Levitz Fish­bane, a doc­tor­al stu­dent and young moth­er who met an untime­ly death in her ear­ly thir­ties. The edi­tors are her late hus­band and her men­tor. Two chap­ters of her dis­ser­ta­tion are includ­ed in this vol­ume. The oth­er selec­tions were pre­sent­ed at a con­fer­ence in her mem­o­ry; they focus on themes that would have been more ful­ly devel­oped in a final dis­ser­ta­tion includ­ing lat­er, sim­i­lar revival move­ments, the cre­ation of the Jew­ish Ency­clo­pe­dia, and the impor­tance of lit­er­ary soci­eties as engines of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. The book is not a van­i­ty piece, how­ev­er; it great­ly con­tributes to schol­ar­ship on the for­ma­tion of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and institutions.

Build­ing on Pro­fes­sor Jonathan Sarna’s work, Fishbane’s plan was to write a dis­ser­ta­tion that focused on a for­ma­tive peri­od in Amer­i­can Jew­ish life when a small crit­i­cal mass of young lead­ers in Philadel­phia and New York were instru­men­tal in estab­lish­ing a num­ber of major Jew­ish insti­tu­tions, includ­ing the Young Men’s Hebrew Asso­ci­a­tion and the Amer­i­can Hebrew, a news­pa­per with a glob­al cir­cu­la­tion. This group was cen­tered in three tra­di­tion­al syn­a­gogues, Mikveh Israel in Philade­phia, and Sheareth Israel and Adereth El in Man­hat­tan. Sarna’s intro­duc­tion notes that this was a crit­i­cal time, when anti-Semi­tism was becom­ing more appar­ent and sev­er­al chil­dren of influ­en­tial rab­bis were leav­ing the fold, such as Felix Adler, the son of Tem­ple Emanuel’s Rab­bi Samuel Adler, who estab­lished the Soci­ety of Eth­i­cal Cul­ture, and Rab­bi Isaac May­er Wise’s daugh­ter, who eloped with a gentile.

This time peri­od is cru­cial for two rea­sons. First, many of the orga­ni­za­tions cre­at­ed dur­ing this time still exist and serve as impor­tant ele­ments in the insti­tu­tion­al infra­struc­ture of Jew­ish life. Sec­ond, many of the chal­lenges which the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty con­tin­ues to face were becom­ing appar­ent. It was a peri­od when the broad­er soci­ety was expe­ri­enc­ing the Third Great Awak­en­ing, when reli­gious­ly based social move­ments were cre­at­ing a new syn­the­sis between reli­gious com­mit­ment, moder­ni­ty, and social jus­tice. In the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, whose mem­bers were some­times approached by mis­sion­ar­ies inspired by this reli­gious revival, the issue of what we today call Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity” was becom­ing appar­ent. Learn­ing about how a small and com­mit­ted group of young peo­ple fash­ioned orga­ni­za­tions out­side of syn­a­gogues that would appeal to their peers has con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance. Trans­lat­ing reli­gious texts and infus­ing new mean­ing into ancient tra­di­tions were chal­lenges that the gen­er­a­tion who came of age in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry met in inno­v­a­tive ways. The small cir­cle of friends Fish­bane was study­ing and the broad­er net­works to which they were linked were an impor­tant force, both in terms of their strate­gies for syn­the­siz­ing Jew­ish tra­di­tion, moder­ni­ty, and Amer­i­can cul­ture and in the orga­ni­za­tions they established.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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