The Magazine

Synagogue and State

The Jews in America--then and now.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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AMERICAN JUDAISM is the most ambitious treatment of the subject since Nathan Glazer's 1957 book of the same title, considered a classic of the genre. But if Sarna's is richer in its smooth synthesis of wide-ranging empirical and scholarly data, it is poorer in interpretive power. Sarna's writing style tends toward the textbookish. When he lays out the sides of a historical controversy (for example, could American Jews have done more to rescue their brethren under Nazi rule?), he consistently declines to render a judgment. And Sarna's method, which takes many of its cues from the great American Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus and from Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People, cannot be called highly original.

Sarna's focus on institutions, moreover, prevents him from developing the keen sensitivity Glazer displayed to definitional problems such as whether "Judaism remains an ethnic commitment more than a transcendent faith"; to political concerns such as the relation of Jews to liberalism; and to cultural questions such as how the Jews (as Irving Howe once observed) managed to export elements of their culture to America, just as they were losing it themselves.

Perhaps most tellingly, it has been decades since American Jewry could be usefully comprehended by means of "waves of immigration." The differences between the children of the Sephardic, German, and East European immigrants has long since disappeared--and Sarna, for all his admirable thoroughness, hasn't replaced the immigration model with a fresh analysis. If the best historical works afford us a map of the current terrain, American Judaism provides a detailed but not especially useful cartography.

Benjamin Balint is assistant editor of Commentary magazine.