- Clinging to Borders and Boundaries?The (Sorry) State of Transnational American Jewish Studies
The idea of “transnationalism” has influenced the research agendas of the humanities and social sciences for some two decades now, providing new perspectives and maybe even a paradigm shift on many issues.1 Surprisingly, American Jewish Studies appears to have been slow in following this turn in modeling this perspective on the American Jewish experience. While the experience of Jewish transnationalism is, of course, well accounted for, the idea and theory of transnationalism are less so. Therefore, recent books that take an explicitly transnational approach to the subject have been hailed as early adopters.2 In a review of one of these works, Riv-Ellen Prell stated still in 2015, “Jewish history is transnational at its core, but its American branch has been somewhat slow to embrace it.”3 At least, it seems, historians and other scholars of the American Jewish experience have not been at the forefront of [End Page 519] theorizing about transnationalism, even though their subject would call for such reflections. Medieval historian Micha J. Perry and early modern historian Rebekka Voß are certainly right in their assessment from 2016 that “Jewish historians are already writing transnational history in principle, though often without explicit reference to theoretical foundations.”4 In other words, the transnational dimensions of many Jews’ lived experiences have been explored in many ways, whereas the study of the mutual, entangled, multidirectional relations has not fully developed as a systematic approach in theory and scholarly practice. And even though the fact and idea of (American) Jewish transnationalism are closely related, there are deeper reasons that have kept many scholars of American Jewish history from addressing this meta-issue.5
What is it that has kept scholars of the American Jewish experience, those both inside and outside North American disciplinary and institutional contexts, from exploring more fully how their subject’s entanglements with other Jewries, in processes that are more reciprocal and less defined by state and national frameworks, can place American Jewry in a new perspective? These questions seem particularly relevant with regard to the transnational entanglements between American and European Jewries over time, which have been curiously underexplored on both sides of the Atlantic. They can also provide explanations for the puzzling lack of interest in the American Jewish experience on the part of many European scholars of Jewish studies.
The lacuna in theoretical reflection on transnational American Jewish history stands in sharp contrast to the many ways in which transnationalism has been defined as a central approach in historiography in the recent two decades. The confusing multitude of reflections on “transnational history/histories,” however, has resulted in parallel and sometimes competing understandings of transnationalism itself and its relations to other recent historiographical phenomena, such as post-colonialism, global history, diasporic history, connected histories, histoire croisée (entangled histories), and the history of transfers. Their differences notwithstanding, they all share a perspective that aims to transcend national and merely inter-national histories as well as comparative histories and those focusing on the “influence” of specific actors on others.6 For the [End Page 520] purposes of this article, transnationalism is understood as an approach that transcends the focus on (nation-) states as the major actors in historical processes, and understands the latter as mutual entanglements rather than (unidirectional) relations of influence. It thereby preserves or reconstructs the multidirectional dynamic of cultural, social, economic, and other transfers that have been shaping Jewries over time in their various contexts.
Works that reflect on transnationalism as a method applied to American Jewish topics include studies by Tobias Brinkmann, Lois Dubin, Jonathan Frankel, David Gerber, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Rebecca Kobrin, Eli Lederhendler, Ewa Morawska, Moshe Rosman, David Sorkin, Daniel Soyer, Christian Wiese, and Cornelia Wilhelm, among others.7 They wrote [End Page 521] on early modern port Jewries, modern Jewish political movements, the diasporic experience, and old world relations of Jewish immigrants to the United States. This leaves still plenty of room to cast transnational perspectives on the immense breadth of American Jewish history over time and on a wide range of topics. The existing transnationally oriented works can serve as models...