- Editor’s Introduction
Over the last several years, the Bienniel Scholars’ Conference on American Jewish History, organized by the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) and sponsored by the AJHS and a number of partner and host institutions, has become one of the leading forums for intense and fruitful examination of crucial historiographical issues in the study of American Jewish life and culture. As the official scholarly organ of the AJHS, American Jewish History has been pleased to bring some of the best papers presented at these bienniel conferences to its readers through special issues, including our June 2007 issue on regionalism and American Jewish history (based on the Charleston conference of 2006) and the March 2009 issue on “communalist” and “dispersionist” approaches to American Jewish history (a scholarly forum inspired by the keynote lecture of David A. Hollinger at the Los Angeles conference of 2008). In the current issue, we are pleased to again publish a selection of articles addressing the theme of a recent Scholar’s Conference, this time drawing on the 2010 New York conference’s theme of “American Jewish exceptionalism,” a question that has increasingly animated writers in our field in recent years and has begun to define the contours of debate among American Jewish historians, whatever their specialization.
David Sorkin, a distinguished historian of German Jewry and of the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe more broadly, contributes the fresh perspective of a non-Americanist in his article comparing Jewish emancipation in Europe and America during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Drawing on the paradigm of European “port Jews”—Jews who were in the vanguard of Jewish modernization in the early modern period in Amsterdam, Bordeaux, London, and other locations known for their religious tolerance and vibrant economic life—Sorkin demonstrates that the Jews in colonial British North America and the early republic were not as unique in their attainment of political, religious, and economic freedoms, nor as unfamiliar with state restrictions on their rights, as scholars of the American Jewish experience have generally assumed. Sorkin’s essay is an eye-opening example of how common myths regarding American Jewish history can collapse when we push beyond the limits of scholarship defined by national borders and subject our assumptions to rigorous analysis within the broader framework of the modern Jewish experience. [End Page v]
The second article in this issue is a wide-ranging historiographical essay by Tony Michels, the organizer of the 2010 conference. Michels approaches the question of American Jewish exceptionalism as a specialist in American Jewish history and an important revisionist voice in the field but, like Sorkin, also brings a comparative perspective to the discussion. Since Michels was not only trained broadly as a modern Jewish historian but has continually engaged transnational themes in his scholarship—particularly exploring the interlocking political and cultural worlds of eastern European and American Jews—he, too, argues compellingly that neither the challenges nor the opportunities that typified the experience of American Jews set them off completely from their counterparts across the Atlantic. Bringing the discussion into a more contemporary period, Michels argues that American Jews, particularly during the twentieth century, struggled with antisemitism far more than American Jewish historians have recognized, while European Jews—even those in eastern countries usually associated with anti-Jewish violence—were not constant victims of repression, as they have been characterized in much of the literature.
While both Sorkin and Michels strongly agree that Jews in every geographical setting have demonstrated certain social and cultural particularities and have been shaped in meaningful ways by their distinct environments, their work powerfully challenges our tendency to overstate the singularity of the American Jewish experience. These essays also provide an excellent road map for scholars as the field of American Jewish history begins to receive more attention within the broader field of modern Jewish history and as more American Jewish historians begin to widen their perspectives to explore the origins of American Jews in, and connections of American Jews to, other parts of the world, trends that will undoubtedly broaden our understanding and further challenge our assumptions regarding American Jewish distinctiveness.
The excitement with which I have completed...