- American Jewish Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective
In American Jewish Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective, Jeffrey Gurock, a professor at Yeshiva University, makes an important contribution to the study of American Judaism and Jewry. The key to the book’s significance lies in the title: The fifteen essays in the collection concern themselves with the development of a distinctly American Orthodoxy. In doing so, the studies help to fill in lacunae created by much of the pre-existing American Jewish historiography. If unfortunate, these gaps are nonetheless understandable in light of the foundation myths of American Jewry. Jews, as the old story goes, recreated themselves in America, tossing their tefilin and shaitlen into New York Harbor so that they could start their new lives in the New World. Jewish historians have tended to accept this version of things, and to either ignore Orthodoxy—or perhaps more properly, “traditional” Judaism—or to present it as hopelessly retrograde. When more comprehensive studies have been done, they have viewed Orthodoxy as an immigrant phenomenon, one which either was rejected by the immigrants’ native-born children, or maintained by groups like the Hasidim who consider themselves to be in America, but not of America. Gurock’s work, however, like Jenna Joselit’s, recognizes that far from fighting a desperate last-stand against the forces of Americanization, Orthodox leaders were harnessing those very powers for their own purposes.
The essays cover a broad array of themes, often relating to conflicts between Orthodox Jews, and Christians, non-Orthodox Jews, and other Orthodox Jews. Most deal with very specific issues or personalities. The figure of Albert Lucas, an early leader of the Orthodox Union, appears in essay after essay, raging against missionaries, working to establish a pre-Kaplan network of “Jewish Centres,” or fighting against the influence of uptown Reform-minded philanthropists. Particularly interesting are several essays in which Gurock questions how “ultra” early “ultra-Orthodox” Jews really were (or, as he phrases it in the title of one, “How ‘Frum’ was Rabbi Jacob Joseph’s Court.”). Finally, Gurock never forgets that the immigration from Eastern Europe took place over the course of half-a-century, and that an “Eastern European” Jew living on the Lower East Side in 1910 could have been a second or third generation [End Page 183] American. Keeping these generational distinctions in mind is crucial to understanding American Orthodoxy as it developed in those early years.
Of course, the book is not without its flaws. Gurock’s analysis of the dispute over Jacob Riis’ alleged conversionary motives would have benefited from reference to the similar controversy which erupted in nineteenth-century Russia over Uvorov’s intentions for his own Jewish wards. The essays are also heavily slanted geographically (towards New York City), and chronologically (towards the turn of the century). As the book is a collection of essays, however, and does not pretend to be a comprehensive history, Gurock can hardly be faulted for this. If the reader is left unsatisfied, this is not due to any defect in the essays themselves, which are generally excellent. Rather, it is a reflection of how little has been written on the topic, and how much more work remains to be done.