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History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage, by Beth S. Wenger. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. 282 pp. $35.00.
During the 1910s, as Louis Brandeis emerged as American Zionism’s leading voice, he often combated accusations of dual loyalty by claiming that cornerstone American values such as democracy and social justice were based on Jewish tradition. Brandeis’s evidence for the claim may have been scant, but that was not the point. What mattered more was the narrative he constructed about modern American democracy’s foundation resting on long-existing Jewish values.
Brandeis, of course, was not alone. His efforts fit well into a history of narratives constructed by American Jews that link Judaism and democracy. In her new book, History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage, historian Beth S. Wenger examines versions of the stories that American Jews have told about Judaism and democracy. Wenger’s book covers the late-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, with an epilogue on postwar history. Her motivation to write History Lessons emerged from classroom discussions during which a student typically claims that: “Judaism teaches democracy” (p. 1). Other students tend to nod their heads in agreement, Wenger reports, and she usually finds herself the “sole detractor” in the room. Judaism and democracy are not synonymous, Wenger argues in class and in this book, except in the narratives that American Jews have formulated. These narratives are important, Wenger writes, because they have “both eased Jewish adjustment to American life and created a distinct ethnic history compatible with American ideals” (p. 2).
Wenger makes important distinctions between “history” and “heritage.” Unlike history, “heritage is always a partisan effort,” she writes (p. 6). This is not to say that heritage narratives deliberately promote misinformation or outright untruths. Rather, Wenger shows how American Jews have sought to tell stories that emphasize Jews’ belonging in and contributions to the nation. Wenger takes heritage seriously, as historians of ethnicity and public historians have for many years. In this regard, the book makes an important contribution to American Jewish history, and should be useful to American ethnic historians and public historians as well.
Wenger’s argument may be familiar to many readers of American Jewish history, most likely from Jonathan D. Sarna’s 1998 article “The Cult of Synthesis in American Jewish Culture.” Yet here Wenger delves more deeply into specific topics than others have to demonstrate how American Jews claim synthesis between American and Jewish culture. For example, she examines how Jews have written themselves into the stories told about American heroes including Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. These men have been particularly malleable subjects for many American ethnic groups. Jews, like other ethnics, recast stories about Washington and Lincoln for their own purposes, usually claiming that these presidents “fulfilled Judaism’s ancient struggle toward freedom” (p. 84). In asserting a common, uncontroversial shared purpose—freedom—these narratives sought to integrate Jews more fully into an American past as well as chart a common path for the future. The payoffs to Wenger’s approach include the way that she uses Columbus to ask how American Jewish heritage narratives influence periodization: American Jews most commonly date their presence in North America to 1654, yet Wenger notes that early twentieth-century textbooks in American Jewish history often begin with 1492, connecting Jews to Columbus’s voyage and thereby asserting Jews’ presence at the point of Europeans’ first contact. Wenger also mentions the ways that other white ethnics—Norwegians, Italians, and Irish, among others—similarly used Columbus, Washington, and Lincoln to tell their own heritage stories. Though it is not her aim to write a comparative ethnic history, these moments of cross-cultural comparison are vitally important.
Most of Wenger’s chapters are dedicated to specific topical examinations of how Jews created heritage narratives. She focuses on performances; anniversary and holiday celebrations; Jewish military service; textbooks for school children; and the effort to memorialize Haym Salomon, remembered as the financer of the American Revolution.
Performances and holidays provided Jews with the chance both to express their patriotism and to tell stories that emphasized Jewish contributions to American history. American Jews documented and commemorated their military service both to express ethnic pride and to defend themselves against claims of disloyalty as well as against the common antisemitic trope of Jewish males’ physical weakness. As Wenger writes, lauding military service created a “new American Jewish man” who “was not only physically strong and capable, unlike his European forebears, but also fiercely loyal to his adopted homeland and willing to defend it” (p. 106).
The lessons about Jewish contributions to American history were often transmitted from generation to generation in the classroom. Wenger devotes a chapter to education, with a particular focus on Lee Levinger’s often-reprinted textbook A History of the Jews in the United States. Wenger closely reads multiple editions of Levinger’s text, but never provides a clear enough sense of its audience. Which Jewish children specifically read Levinger, and which never would have seen it? Wenger briefly points to some competing educational narratives, especially those in radical secular schools in the 1920s and 1930s, but otherwise suggests that Levinger’s book dominated the cultural landscape. One therefore wonders if there are any meaningful patterns in how readers received Levinger’s text and whether it successfully shaped readers in the ways it sought.
The chapter on Haym Salomon is the most tightly focused case study in History Lessons. Tensions about memorializing Salomon emerged in a handful of U.S. cities during the early twentieth century. Some details of Salomon’s biography are known, but the unknowns of his life—especially the details of financial resources he provided during the Revolution as well as whether he was ever reimbursed—make Salomon’s legend particularly malleable. Wenger relies heavily in this chapter, and throughout the book, on the idea of “myth” in crafting narratives about American Jewish history. Yet, she never clearly spells out how myth operates in the creation of American Jewish heritage. Wenger convincingly writes: “separating fact from fiction in the legend is, in the final analysis, a less compelling project than recognizing the meaning of the myth itself as a crucial element with American Jewish heritage” (p. 209). The point would have been even more insightful had “myth” been clearly defined.
Nonetheless, History Lessons is the most detailed recent monograph on a critically important trope in American Jewish history. As Wenger argues, the narratives that American Jews have crafted about the intersections of Judaism and democracy have “remained a remarkably durable component of American Jewish self-definition” (p. 222). Hopefully, her book will promote more rigorous thinking, in the classroom and outside of it, about the ways Jews have sought to integrate themselves into national narratives.