The first Jews to settle as a group in what is now the United States arrived at the frontier outpost of New Amsterdam in 1654, broke and unwanted, but unable to make a living back in Holland. A century and a half passed with relatively little change. A few prospered; most remained petty merchants or artisans. In 1812 New York contained about fifty Jewish families. Philadelphia, the largest American city, had about thirty. A conservative estimate puts the total Jewish population of the United States in 1820 at 2,700. Culturally, the Jews were as insignificant as they were in numbers and social importance. Religious indifference prevailed; intermarriage was common. A gloomy Jewish observer predicted that none of the existing synagogues was likely to survive for very long.
A century later, after World War I, the United States contained the largest Jewish population in the world, nearly half of whom lived in the city that began as New Amsterdam. Writers, scholars, artists, publishers, jurists, and philanthropists of peerless distinction were just emerging. By World War II Jews were becoming, in Arthur Hertzberg’s words, “the most educated, culturally creative element in America.” Within another twenty years they had built one of the most powerful and greatly feared lobbies in Washington.
It is a fabulous story—fabulous in every sense of the word—but difficult to tell. Histories of ethnic groups, like those of nations and churches, are written either by insiders or outsiders. The insider draws on a special empathy, an inward familiarity that the outsider may never attain. The outsider, however, takes less for granted, and may therefore bring to bear a more critical attitude, a more demanding standard of judgment, and a wider range of reference. Readers, of course, want both empathy and critical detachment, not just the illusion of one and the authority of the other. But when a book, such as the one under review, addresses both insiders and outsiders, the writer crosses a mine field of rival sensibilities and his own particular vulnerabilities become glaringly apparent.
The celebratory mode that is characteristic of insider history understandably prevails in the general histories of American Jews. How could it not, in view of the astounding contrast between the fate of this people in Europe and their accomplishments and esteem in America? Arthur Hertzberg, a lifelong student of Jewish culture, for years the rabbi of a New Jersey congregation, and a leader in Jewish affairs, is almost the ultimate insider; and his book, which is a product of lived experience as well as wide reading, springs from dedication rather than detachment. It is certainly an affectionate narrative of achievements and of the notable Jews identified with them. On another level, however, Hertzberg’s concern rises above the familiar record of ethnic progress. He wants to know at every turn how faithful the Jews have been to their own traditions. The question gives a critical edge to some of his findings.
Where American Jewry has conspicuously failed over most …