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American Judaism: A History
Jonathan D. Sarna
Yale University Press, 2004
512 pp., $40.00
By Ronald Wells
Americanizing Jews—Judaizing America
Jonathan Sarna is among the leading historians of Judaism in America, and perhaps the most able in placing the Jewish experience into the larger American experience. This book was ten years in the making. Half way through, the author had to battle cancer, so it is some kind of miracle that the book exists at all. We should be grateful for Sarna's recovery, because this book—issued on the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews to come to America—belongs on the small shelf of outstanding books on American religion that have appeared over the past 15 years.
When the Jewish community of greater Boston wanted to honor Sarna (who teaches at Brandeis) and his book, they gathered a star-studded panel at Temple Keihillath Israel in Brookline, located at the top of the road where one finds the John F. Kennedy birthplace. I warmed to the thought of that event because Keihillath Israel was "my" synagogue growing up. Not that I was a member—my family was Christian—but everyday on the way to my school across the street I passed "Temple KI," as we called it. I was in and out of KI all the time as a kid. I often walked with my neighborhood friends to shul after our baseball games when they had their biweekly Hebrew lessons in preparation for their Bar Mitzvah. I attended several Bar Mitzvahs at KI. The rabbi called me "the good gentile friend" of his students. Around the Jewish Thanksgiving (Succoth) the rabbi sometimes saw to it that I received some nice candy. So it was with great personal warmth of recollection that I imagined the celebration at Keihillath Israel of Sarna's achievement.
And an achievement it is. The breadth of scholarship displayed here is immense, yet the prose is accessible. The sources used, both literary and quantitative, are extensive, and a lesser writer might have gotten bogged down in them. There is a further achievement worth mentioning. Early on the author says he writes as both an insider and as a scholar: "I have endeavored to balance my passionate ...