Jewish life in the United States has always existed between multiple dualities: the same country that provided many Jewish Americans with freedom and economic success also has the largest Protestant population in the world. While religious freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, cultural and societal elements reflect the reality of this Christian majority. Coming To Terms with America: Essays on Jewish History, Religion, and Culture by Jonathan D. Sarna attempts to understand the reality of Jewish life in the early United States through a series of essays concerning history, religion, and culture.
In Chapter 3, Sarna discusses the histories of “Jewish Prayers for the United States Government.” I appreciated the breakdown of not just what prayers were said, but the justifications given by congregation leaders as to why they were being said and how that changed over time. These prayers changed as the conditions and environment around these Jewish congregations changed. As Jewish Americans became more assimilated into American society, the prayers for the United States government adopted the congregants’ optimism and belief in America as well.
Jewish contributions to early life in the United States are also touched upon in Chapter 6, “Subversive Jews and Early American Culture”. In this chapter, the lives and works of famous Jewish artists, scientists, critics, and more are discussed. Despite making up less than one tenth of one percent of Americans in 1840, countless Jewish Americans contributed enormously to the cultural fabric of the early United States. By providing a select few biographies, the book gives us a glimpse of the successes and tribulations of the Jewish community as a whole at their time.
The most interesting chapter to me was Chapter 10: “The American Jewish Response to Nineteenth Century Christian Missions”. At first, the Jewish position was to ignore them, as the community expected well-educated Jews to reject their conversion offers. However, it soon became apparent that this was not enough and that caused the Jewish community to adjust its response based on where and how the missionaries were finding success. This directly led to many Jewish charity institutions being created in order to counter the threat of missionaries using charity as a tool to preach.
Overall, Coming To Terms with America provides a fascinating window into viewing early Jewish American life. The larger themes discussed in each essay tie neatly in with each other and the extensive source list provides plenty of additional material for those interested in delving deeper into the subject.
Coming to Terms with America: Essays on Jewish History, Religion, and Culture by Jonathan D. Sarna is published by the Jewish Publications Society and is available from several local bookstores (Kramer’s, Loyalty Bookstores, Politics and Prose, Reiters).
About the Author: Brett Boren is a Conservative Jewish guy who loves his mother’s challah, but could do without her latkes. Originally from Miami, he appreciates arroz con pollo as much as double-chocolate babka, though preferably not together. When he’s not experimenting in the kitchen, he can be found with his cat, Youpi, or sampling shawarma at Max’s.
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