American Judaism (cover)

American Judaism

This is a review of American Judaism by Jonathan D. Sarna.

This is an excellent book of history. That is to say, it is highly detailed and quite dry. This happened; that happened. So-and-so said such-and-such about whatever. This is neither a memoir nor an autobiography, so there is very little expression of the author in this work. Much of the book reads like a constant back and forth bickering between the conservative and liberal aspects of Judaism.

It is not until you reach the conclusion, however, that you catch a glimpse of the author. Here, Sarna asks the question, “Is American culture somehow opposed to Jewish culture and customs?”

Maybe the nature of the United States and its mixed peoples exposed Judaism to these difficulties earlier than in its secluded eastern European homelands. The balance between the past and the present is a constant struggle, regardless of religion. This is a personhood problem, not a Jewish problem.

Let me relate one of my own tales. My stepson, Jackson, is in the fourth grade. When I was his age, video games were not yet common place. I would have been getting my very first Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas at his age. This new device would be in addition to an already established life. When I received that gift, it would have been hooked up to the one TV that we owned. This was a time back when parents watched the evening news. Also, since this was the 1980s, there were shows that were routinely watched by various members of the family. Nintendo time had to be budgeted and bargained for.

On the other hand, Jackson has had his own TV in his room since the start of the third grade. He has owned his own iPad for two years. Before that, he had an XBox 360 and a Nintendo DS. Video games have always been there. For this upcoming Christmas, he has asked for video games and video game gift cards.

Jackson doesn’t play with toys. He doesn’t read nearly as much as I’d like, nor anywhere near as much both his mother and I did as children. However, if I were in Jackson’s shoes today, I do not think that I would be so different. Once I got access to video games, those were the thing. I mostly stopped playing with G.I. Joes and Legos. Later would come the Super Nintendo and the Sony Playstation. I still like video games, although between work, caring for kids, my extensive reading list, and taking care of the house, there is not much time for playing video games.

I want the same things for my stepson and daughter as what I had. I want them to be able to get lost in books and not begrudge reading time. I want them to play outside and climb trees and don’t come back until you’ve broken something.

But my ways are not their ways. They are going to grow up in a world where everything is a touch screen. My daughter will never know what car keys are, and my stepson will only have stories about “you used to need a key to start a car engine.” (All of the cars in their lives are now push button start.)

The world moves too quickly to get lost looking backwards. Jackson and Nora will face different challenges than what we ever faced. The best we can do is to prepare them for the world to come.

Any philosophy — religious or otherwise — that states, “We absolutely refuse to change,” is going to have their work cut out for them. If change is resisted, there must be justifications that go beyond, “That is the way we have always done it,” or even, “Because God wants us to.” Such responses are barely relevant in this 21st century. Our role as Jews is to find new meaning from old stories.


Sarna, Jonathan D. American Judaism: A History. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.

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