Episode 11: American Judaism - Jonathan Sarna

Dan and Lex welcome pre-eminent American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna to the podcast for the first episode of a series entitled "Judaism in America: Evolutions, Revolutions, or Something Else?" Stay tuned for the remaining three episodes in the series, featuring interviews with author Anita Diamant and professor Shaul Magid, as well as Dan and Lex continuing to think out loud and put the pieces together.

Credit: Brandeis.edu

Credit: Brandeis.edu

(0:01 - 15:25): Professor Sarna talks about what he thinks American Jews don't know about American Jewish history but might think differently if they did. He explains that American Jewish history is not a story of "linear descent" from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform to "marrying out," but instead more of a cyclical narrative -- replete with periods of "religious recession" and "religious revival." He also pushes back on the widespread notion that American Jewish history begins with Eastern European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, showing how many developments from the 18th and early 19th centuries set the tone for what American Judaism would later become. [1]

(15:26 - 26:37): Professor Sarna describes historical instances of "discontinuities that promoted Jewish continuity," including Zionism, the Jewish Day School movement, and Jewish feminism. [2] He also outlines the three primary strategies for Jewish continuity that have been utilized throughout American Jewish history -- retaining tradition, adapting traditions to modern times, and focusing primarily on Jewish peoplehood.

(26:38 - 36:57): We discuss religiously radical figures in Jewish history, including David Einhorn, Mordecai Kaplan, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, along with the influence they had on the mainstream of American Judaism, often in ways that the mainstream does not realize. [3] We also explore the idea of "surrogate synagogues" -- organizations or communities that serve as stand-ins for synagogues, providing for the needs of Jews who aren't as interested in synagogues. [4]

(36:58 - 46:34): Professor Sarna looks at some hot-topic issues, including intermarriage and antisemitism, both historically and in contemporary American Judaism. He also discusses the relatively recent phenomenon that Jews are now a part of the mainstream of American society -- an idea that would have been unthinkable a few generations ago.

[1] Professor Sarna's landmark book, American Judaism, served as the basis for our conversation. You can purchase the hard copy of the book here. Podcast listers might be especially interested to know that American Judaism is one of the few scholarly books of Jewish history available in audiobook format; you can get the audiobook here.

Credit: www.BnaiBrith.org

Credit: www.BnaiBrith.org

[2] For more on the history of Jewish day schools (and Jewish schooling more generally) check out this article from MyJewishLearning.

[3] David Einhorn was a leader of the movement for radical Reform in the mid-19th century, perhaps best-known for his public opposition to slavery, based on his understanding of the "spirit" of the Bible. Check out his Wikipedia page here.

[4] B'nai B'rith (still in existence today) began as a network of Jewish fraternal lodges around the world. Its mission eventually broadened to include service work, fighting antisemitism, and Jewish identity building.