If those who try to predict the fate of American Jewry can be divided into pessimists and optimists, count Jonathan Sarna emphatically among the optimists. In this succinctly written and cogently argued history of American Judaism, the well-known Brandeis University historian makes a strong case that Jews on these shores have a promising future as well as a storied past.
This book is particularly appealing because Sarna, unlike many academics, has a clear prose style that occasionally even displays a bit of flair. "Since the demand for first-rate rabbis greatly outstripped the supply, the marketplace soon restored substantial power to the rabbinate," he writes, discussing America in the 1840s. Or take a look at this comment on American Judaism in the 1880s: "East European Jews looked to Reform Jews: sometimes they quietly emulated them, sometimes they explicitly rejected them, but never could they totally ignore them."
To clarify what Sarna's book is not: It is not an account of all aspects of American Jewish history. That would be well nigh impossible in only 375 pages of text. Rather, it is a history of the Jewish religion in America-what American Jews have believed about God and about their traditions, which religious rituals they have practiced (or stayed away from), and how they have organized themselves religiously. The reader wishing to learn about anti-Semitism in corporate America, or the rise and fall of the Yiddish theater, or Jews in electoral politics, will have to delve into those important topics in other places. Sarna's concern here is belief and practice.
On the question of belief and practice, of course, we have been hearing for a long time about the "disappearing American Jew," the decline in religious observance in an ever-modernizing community, and the rapid onset of "assimilation," a term that Sarna generally shuns in this book as "virtually meaningless." Sarna reminds us that the predictors of gloom and doom have been predicting that gloom and doom for generations and that the community has somehow survived the predictions. Sarna tells us, for example, that in 1924, it was reported that only 17 percent of Jewish children in New York City were studying in any kind of Jewish school, and that a decade later, a distinguished American journal of social science foresaw "the total eclipse of the Jewish church in America."
Looking back at centuries of Jewish life in America, Sarna shows how Judaism has grown, changed, and become revitalized here. Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionist theories about Jewish peoplehood, the growth of Zionism as an American Jewish "religion," the upsurge of Jewish spirituality among students and intellectuals that began in the 1970s, the contemporary rise of a newly confident Orthodoxy--he sees all of these developments as helping to meet the challenges to Jewish continuity posed by America's open, pluralistic, and democratic society.
Very much to his credit, Sarna tells the story of Judaism in America against the backdrop of American religion in general. Sarna has at his fingertips not only the vast literature about Judaism in America but also the vast literature about Christianity in America. He is able to explain periods of awakening in Jewish life, or periods of decline in religious faith, as reflecting what is going on the nation as a whole. The perspective is important: Jews sometimes forget that non-Jewish religious movements also face assimilation, and non-Jewish ethnic groups also encounter high rates of intermarriage.
In addition to Sarna's sprightly style and his ability to cover pretty much every important development in a book of reasonable size, American Judaism is notable for its conclusion: "With the help of visionary leaders, committed followers, and generous philanthropists, it may still be possible for the current `vanishing' generation of American Jews to be succeeded by another `vanishing' generation, and then still another." Well, that's guarded optimism, but optimism it is.