Jonathan Sarna Leading American-Jewish historian

As the Fourth of July nears, Prof. Jonathan Sarna uses this jumping off point to inform us what he feels American Jewish history is.

Prof. Jonathan Sarna (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prof. Jonathan Sarna
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘The history of American Judaism is in many ways a response to the haunting fear that Judaism in the New World will wither away.”
As the Fourth of July nears, Prof. Jonathan Sarna uses this jumping off point to inform us what he feels American Jewish history is.
“The challenges, both internal and external, that American Jews have faced were met by transforming their faith, making it more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.”
A leading American Jewish historian for almost a half a century, Sarna has dramatically helped his students, his fellow Jews and his colleagues “to understand the dynamic story of a people struggling to be Americans and Jews. The tale told is a story of revitalization.”
Many of these thoughts are expressed in his book American Judaism, which has been a bestseller and award winner since it appeared in 2004. He has published 22 books besides that one.
In a lecture here in Jerusalem, Sarna described how he and others worked diligently so that George Washington’s original letter to the congregation in Newport Rhode Island would be brought out of hiding so that it could be seen openly as it should be. In his talk, he pointed out how the United States was the first country to grant the Jews full freedom. He quoted that part of the letter in which the first president offered his own guarantee that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
While American Jews have been free, they have also been faced with dilemmas. Sarna asks, “Should we focus on quality or quantity trying to increase the number of Jews? Should we build bridges to fortify religion? Should we strengthen religious authority or promote religious autonomy?” His questions have helped him through the years to focus on the history of many critical issues with which American Jews have contended.
Last year Sarna was named to a key academic post at Brandeis University, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History. Also last year, the American Jewish Historical Society awarded him its highest honor – the Lee Max Friedman Award.
Professor Sarna has spent the past 12 months at the Israel Institute of Advanced Studies devoted to Women and Gender Studies, participating in a yearlong seminar for scholars held at the Hebrew University. Sarna has been working for several years on a biography of a little-known American Jewish woman who wrote under the pseudonym of Cora Wellburn. He found her diary a few years ago and he has been collecting chapters of a book that she wrote and published in different 19th century journals about her circumstances in Philadelphia, after arriving there in 1850 from Venezuela.
She first worked in a clothing factory doing needlework.
When Cora left her work, she began writing a novel about the terrible experiences of women and how they were exploited. A master of prose and poetry, her work appeared in Jewish journals and noted American ones as well. Sarna hopes to weave the pieces of the book into one coherent work to highlight the role she played in the history of American Jewry. He has labeled her “the finest American Jewish woman writer of the 19th century.”
Several years ago Sarna’s Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, which he wrote with Ben Shappel, was considered a real eye-opener. No one had realized how strong the ties were between Lincoln and the Jewish community.
A tabletop book with wonderful reproductions of Lincoln’s letters to Jews, it has now been translated into Hebrew by the Dvir press.
I have been fortunate to know Professor Sarna personally for almost 30 years. Whenever I direct questions to him, he answers immediately and incisively – and he deals with his students and colleagues in the same way.
“American Jewry is the largest community outside of Israel, but little effort is made here to study American Jewish history,” he lamented in a recent conversation.
“There is now the fine program at Haifa University directed by Gur Aloey that provides students with a sense of the history of the Jews in the New World, but other major universities have not followed suit.”
Several of Sarna’s Israeli students who studied for their doctorates with him are back here and teaching. The academic community has not made the effort to offer American Jewish history as a major course of study. Interestingly, the English newspapers here, particularly The Jerusalem Post, regularly carry well-researched stories about American Jewish history, and the Segula journal publishes stories in this field in its English and Hebrew versions.
Professor Sarna has contributed significantly to the study of American Jewish History, and we hope that we can continue to benefit from his intellectual inspiration for years to come.