- American Jewry: A New History by Eli Lederhendler
It has been over a decade since American Jews have had a new history. In the years since 2004, there have been a number of shifts of intellectual interest in United States historical scholarship. Some of these developments extend back into the twentieth century, such as a focus on gender and sexuality, or visual and material culture. Others, such as an expanding and deepening exploration of race and racism in its structural, political, and cultural dimensions, continue to provoke fresh and compelling reinterpretations of the American past. Still other trends, including a renewed interest in economic and transnational history, have flourished largely in this century. American Jewry participates in the latter. Its bold self-designation as "a new history" particularly invites consideration of where this volume departs from previous syntheses.
The table of contents reveals a significantly revised historical trajectory. The first fifty pages take the reader up to the Civil War, using that traumatic event to mark American Jewish history. The second chapter, however, shifts to emphasize the twin themes of migration and Americanization. Its title, "Changing Places," signifies the importance of European origins as much as American residence. Then comes a chapter that connects the interwar years with the postwar years, an important gesture stressing continuities across the disruption of World War II and the Holocaust. But before one reaches the final chapter, which covers more than sixty years and brings the account into the twenty-first century, a startling new chapter appears. Titled "The European Nexus: Spain, Germany, and Russia," it conveys Lederhendler's contention that unlike other American immigrant groups or religious communities, Jews have been engaged with multiple connections abroad. "Jews have related equally as much to countries and communities where they personally remembered languages, people, and places," he writes, "as to those places where they had no direct family ties or memories" (191). Here, as with his tables of marriages across group boundaries in New York City from 1908–12 and of Jewish refugee immigrants to Canada, Britain, Palestine/ Israel and United States during the years 1933–1954, Lederhendler firmly contextualizes American Jewish history within distinctively comparative and transnational Jewish contexts.
The three areas that Lederhendler explores in his fourth chapter emphasize the varied character of Jewish involvement with European Jews and their culture. Spain refers to Iberian influence, indirectly felt through [End Page 451] the presence of Sephardic Jews arriving in North America not only in the colonial era but also in the late nineteenth century. It also references Spanish-speaking trans-migrants from Latin America, Jews of largely Ashkenazi descent, who arrived in the twentieth century. Lederhendler connects a Jewish concern with Spain to politics that range from anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth century to anti-fascism in the twentieth. The German example similarly includes both the lived experiences of immigrants and refugees, as well as the impact of Central European rabbis on the emergence of American Reform Judaism. Lederhendler brings the discussion up through the Holocaust.
The Russian example is perhaps most familiar. However, its placement as part of a chapter on the international entanglements of American Jews and the ways these ties situated American Jews as part of and apart from other comparable American groups amplifies his account. His conclusion, that these three European countries "limned the political and cultural imagination of American Jews and provided a foreign dimension that anchored their collective consciousness," presents a persuasive argument for where Jews differed from American national myths of identity (246).
While this chapter is clearly the newest dimension of this volume, there are many other emphases that differentiate it from its predecessors. Lederhendler deliberately writes a history that does not hover over the east coast, and especially New York City. He draws examples repeatedly from the Midwest to make his points. He pays attention to enduring Jewish poverty even in the context of upward social mobility. Although religious change registers throughout the volume, it rarely occupies primacy of place. Near the end of Chapter One, which emphasizes economic patterns, Lederhendler specifically...