- Presentation of the Lee Max Friedman Medal to Gerald Sorin *
The following remarks by Deborah Dash Moore, Chair of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society, were made on June 5, 2006, at the Biennial Scholars' Conference on American Jewish History in Charleston, South Carolina:
It is a pleasure to present the Lee Max Friedman medal to Gerald Sorin for distinguished service in the field of American Jewish history.
Gerald Sorin's long and distinguished career predates the first time we met, but his prominence as an historian of American Jews in some ways starts with our initial encounter, so I hope you will forgive me for beginning on a personal note. I met Gerry at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research's Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies in 1978. I was teaching a course on Jewish immigration to the United States. He was a professor at SUNY New Paltz and the author of two books on abolitionism, including one, Abolitionism: A New Perspective (1972), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Despite these accolades so early in his career, Gerry had decided to retrain as an historian of American Jews.
The moment was ripe. Irving Howe's book on immigrant Jewish history, World of Our Fathers, had appeared two years before and had won a National Book Award. But possibilities for graduate study of American Jews, a relatively new academic field of endeavor, were few. Fortunately for me, a newly minted Ph.D., my course at YIVO didn't have much competition. Gerry enrolled as a student.
It was a great class. As you might imagine, I was lucky to have Gerald Sorin as my student. Obviously, he already knew American history very well. What he sought was a thorough immersion in the relevant historiography and sources of Jewish history.
Out of that course came his first book in American Jewish history, The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880–1920 (1985). Gerry brought to this study some of the same intellectual questions [End Page 239] and methodologies he had used fifteen years earlier in his first book on The New York Abolitionists: A Case Study of Political Radicalism (1970). He sought to uncover the source of moral vision behind immigrant radicalism and the reasons for their turn to socialism. What motivates people to change society? To find his answers Gerry looked at a substantial cohort of immigrant Jewish radicals, examining their early upbringing in relation to their politics. He argued for a significant measure of continuity between old world education in Jewish values and new world activism. Thus he entered the debate on whether or not Jewish culture contributed to Jewish radical politics with a resounding affirmative.
Then Gerry's scholarship took a more personal and intimate turn, almost by accident, though others might say it was bashert. I had published At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews in 1981 and was approached five years later by Irving Levine, who worked at the American Jewish Committee, about doing a book on the Brownsville Boys Club, a group of Jewish men who had stayed friends from their youth in Brooklyn. I couldn't take the project but recommended Gerald Sorin. Unbeknownst to me, Gerry knew a lot about Brownsville through his family, who had lived in the neighborhood. He himself had grown up in Brooklyn. The research, especially the many long interviews with Brownsville Boys Club members, became a labor of love. The book Gerry wrote, The Nurturing Neighborhood: The Brownsville Boys Club and Jewish Community in Urban America, 1940–1990 (1990), extended beyond the club. One critic described it as "a model account of neighborhood life, adolescent culture, generational change, and American ethnicity."2 One might add that it offered a sensitive portrait of working class Jewish youth, their idealism and the challenges of urban politics.
By this time, Gerald Sorin was chair of the History Department at SUNY New Paltz, a widely recognized historian of American Jews, and the founder in 1989 of the Louis and Mildred Resnick Institute for the Study of Modern Jewish Life. The Institute represents an initiative to "extend to the entire community...