The Jews of the Unit­ed States: 1654 to 2000

  • Review
By – August 27, 2012

Cap­tur­ing near­ly 350 years of the his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in one vol­ume is a con­sid­er­able chal­lenge. Hasia Din­er, a dis­tin­guished his­to­ri­an, does a remark­able job of describ­ing well-known events and devel­op­ments and also presents some details about Amer­i­can Jew­ish life that are not often discussed. 

The book is arranged into three parts cov­er­ing the first cen­tu­ry and a half, the cen­tu­ry after 1820 and the last 80 years. Din­er points to the ways that Amer­i­can soci­ety shaped the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty but, at the same time, Amer­i­can Jews active­ly fash­ioned their com­mu­ni­ties, both local­ly and nation­al­ly, accord­ing to their under­stand­ing of what their Jew­ish and Amer­i­can iden­ti­ties demand­ed of them…Negotiating between Amer­i­can and Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, they oper­at­ed with a sense of empow­er­ment.” Per­haps the clear­est exam­ple of this com­plex dynam­ic was the struc­ture of the syn­a­gogue in New­port, Rhode Island. From the out­side, it was an ele­gant pub­lic build­ing that looked like most of the oth­er pub­lic build­ings in this bustling sea­port.” But inside, it was an exact copy, although small­er, of the inte­ri­or of the great Span­ish-Por­tuguese Syn­a­gogue in Ams­ter­dam.…” So too, Amer­i­can Jews as a group con­form exter­nal­ly but are distinctive. 

The book cap­tures superbly the com­plex process of nego­ti­at­ing between tra­di­tion and the eco­nom­ic, cul­tur­al and social oppor­tu­ni­ties and con­straints of Amer­i­can soci­ety and cul­ture. It has, how­ev­er, one sig­nif­i­cant flaw: a num­ber of errors. In sev­er­al instances, incor­rect names, affil­i­a­tions or loca­tions are giv­en: Rab­bi Joseph, not Joshua, Look­stein was a well-known rab­bi on Manhattan’s East Side; Rab­bi Leo Jung was the rab­bi of the Jew­ish Cen­ter, not Kehillat Jeshu­run; Cleve­land Heights and Uni­ver­si­ty Heights, not Shak­er Heights, were the major Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in Cleve­land in the 1950’s; Hatza­la is an Ortho­dox, not a Lubav­itch, res­cue orga­ni­za­tion; and Mon­te­fiore ceme­tery is in Queens, not Brooklyn. 

Despite these errors, the book pro­vides an excel­lent overview of the evo­lu­tion of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Amer­i­ca, draw­ing on recent pri­ma­ry schol­ar­ship and the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tives on immi­gra­tion and eth­nic­i­ty. Din­er is to be com­mend­ed for giv­ing the stu­dent, the novice schol­ar and the lay read­er an excel­lent dis­cus­sion of the evo­lu­tion of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty: its polit­i­cal, social and reli­gious devel­op­ment and many of the chal­lenges it faces at the present time.

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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