American Jewish History 91.2 (2003) 325-328
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The history of American Jewish education has long been neglected by scholars of the American Jewish experience. With a few important exceptions, the existing literature tends to skirt serious analysis. This lacuna makes little sense from the vantage point of the cultural historian. As Jonathan Sarna observes, "schools serve as a primary setting, along with the home, where American Jews confront the most fundamental question of American Jewish life: how to live in two worlds at once, how to be both American and Jewish, part of the larger society and apart from it."1 Textbooks and other teaching materials are particularly valuable given their prescriptive function. They elucidate the values and ideals that one generation seeks to impart to the next. This is certainly true of American Jewish textbooks in the early twentieth century. The authors of those volumes were intent upon constructing a distinctively Americanized Jewish identity for their readers. None of this is lost on Penny Schine Gold, whose new volume, Making the Bible Modern, uses the lens of children's Bible stories to shed light on how Eastern European Jewish immigrants reconciled themselves to modernity and to American culture and values.
Bible adaptations for Protestant children date back to as early as the sixteenth century, but Gold asserts that Jews only began producing their own collections in the 1820 s. The adoption of the genre itself was emblematic of an assimilationist impulse, as it signaled a rejection of traditional pedagogic strategies. Gold devotes her first two chapters to a discussion of the evolving place of the Bible in Ashkenazic culture, from pre-Enlightenment times through the nineteenth century. She traces the causes for the desacralization of the Talmud, which had been the traditional focus of study for Jewish men and male youths, and the recentering of Jewish education around Bible study. Shifting to the American scene in Chapter Three, Gold recognizes the centrality of Bible study to Jewish education from the outset, which she correctly attributes [End Page 325] to influences from the general American culture. While interesting, the material in these early chapters is not new and could have been condensed into an introductory chapter without rendering the book inaccessible to the non-specialist. Gold's original research, consisting primarily of analyses of various pedagogic approaches to the teaching of Bible and the Bible story textbooks themselves, only covers about half of the volume.
The core of Gold's book focuses on the years between 1910 and the onset of the Second World War. She argues that the most sustained and far-reaching effort to refashion the Bible by Jewish educators in the United States occurred at this time. The spirit and texture of immigrant life had sufficiently evolved by the turn of the century for the focus of attention to shift to planning for the long-term future, to establishing institutions and structures that would mold and sustain an Americanized Jewry. Moreover, as Gold discusses, American attitudes towards the immigrants hardened during this period. Placed on the defensive, immigrant communities felt compelled to demonstrate their willingness and ability to Americanize. Constructing a distinctively American Jewish identity became the overarching project of a cadre of American Jewish educators mentored by New York Bureau of Jewish Education director Samson Benderly and educated at the Jewish Theological Seminary's Teachers Institute and at Columbia University Teachers College, where they imbibed the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan and John Dewey. The "Benderly Boys" created a network of central education agencies, teachers colleges, and community schools and produced educational philosophy, curricula, and teaching materials. Among their concerns was reforming the curriculum so that socialization rather than information transmission became the central goal.
The concern with relevance presented formidable challenges to Bible educators. They were charged at once with "building identification with Judaism and harmonizing Jews with their modern American context" (97 ). Yet...