A History of the Jews in America Summary

Summary

Finally, amid a plethora of publications dealing with specific aspects of the American Jewish experience, Howard M. Sachar’s monumental A History of the Jews in America has filled the need for a solid, comprehensive text reviewing the entire sweep of the Jewish experience in the United States since the Spanish first reached the New World, five hundred years ago. Written for a general audience, it stands as the finest effort to date to present a one-volume history of American Jewry.

There have been other efforts to record the Jewish experience in America, all of them troubled by fundamental weaknesses. Many of the first efforts, including Peter Wiernik’s History of the Jews in America (1912) and Oscar Handlin’s Adventure in Freedom: Three Hundred Years of Jewish Life in America (1954), use old scholarship and rely on limited sources. Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present (1974), by Henry Feingold, represents excellent research, but it is outdated and devotes a scant twenty pages to the twenty-five years following World War II, while Sachar’s book devotes roughly four hundred pages to the same period.

Perhaps the most important previous history, published only three years earlier and an obvious source for comparison, is Arthur Hertzberg’s The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter, a History (1989). Hertzberg’s book does not act entirely as a history, however, because it presents his vision of the Jewish American experience through supportive descriptions of select historical events. Thus, Hertzberg omits any mention of trade unions, perhaps the most powerful institutions created by Jews in America, because they contradict one of his central theses, that Jewish immigrants came to the United States as the poorest, least educated, least cultured, and least ideological Jews in Europe. By omitting such significant contributions to American society as the trade unions, and by ignoring such leaders as the anarchist Emma Goldman and the socialist Morris Hillquit, Hertzberg reveals the distortion- effect of his thesis.

In the midst of this impoverished historiography emerges another major work by Sachar, a talented chronicler of events in the history of world Jewry. In 1976, Sachar’s A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time filled a similar void by detailing the Jewish nationalist movement and the emergence of Israel. It is still possibly the most widely used text for courses on the history of Israel. Sachar’s ability to organize diverse themes into dense yet fascinating chapters has allowed him to write numerous comprehensive texts for college courses.

A History of the Jews in America, unlike Hertzberg’s book, attempts to trace the experiences of American Jewry without a predetermined thesis. The details of history speak for themselves. While Hertzberg juxtaposes anti-Semitism with assimilation as the central issues of Jewish identity, Sachar views both of them as simply a part of the American Jewish experience, which continues to evolve. Such a presentation gives Sachar intellectual honesty and the freedom to present details that either would be ignored by Hertzberg or that he would think contradicted his arguments.

In fact, Sachar records both positive and negative elements of the Jewish American experience, choosing to mention the nearly antiabolitionist stance of Isaac Mayer Wise along with the social activism of Stephen S. Wise, the prominence of such political leaders as Louis Brandeis and Henry Kissinger along with the case history of Abraham Ruef’s political graft. By devoting many pages to the prostitution, arson, and even murder in New York’s immigrant communities, to the organized crime of Meyer Lansky in the 1940’s, to the insider trading of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, and even to “a kind of Soviet-Jewish Mafia,” Sachar shows that he has presented an impartial portrait of Jewish life in the United States.

All fundamental elements of the Jewish American experience can be found within this masterful volume. Anti-Semitism, Zionism, and assimilation have shaped the course of Jewish history in America, and Sachar combines elements of economic, intellectual, political, and social history to describe the arrival, absorption, and expressions of culture of the many waves of immigrants that coalesced to form today’s Jewish community. Each group experienced different hardships. Sachar does not hesitate to describe the intragroup tensions that led the established Central European leadership, for example, to express its superiority over the impoverished, supposedly backward East Europeans of the Lower East Side in New York City. He also notes that, for example, the son of David Sarnoff (a very successful East European immigrant) married the granddaughter of Jacob Schiff (a prominent German immigrant) at Temple Emanu-El, the largest Reform Congregation founded...

(The entire section is 2026 words.)