Dr. Sarna Speaks


Jonathan Sarna, author of the thick and thoughtful new work American Judaism, was seemingly born into the Jewish-studies business. In a recent phone interview from Miami, where the Massachusetts-based Sarna was visiting his father, Nahum, he reported to JBooks that his dad is a "significant Jewish Bible scholar." This prompted Sarna to joke: "Some people have argued that I went into the only Jewish field that my father didn't know much about."

Soon Sarna turned serious and explained that the first steps on his professional journey occurred when he was a rather young man: "Even in high school I realized that not much had been done in the field."

Years of tilling our historical soil has paid of in a bumper crop of insight for Sarna, and his labor has left the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University feeling hopeful. Cautiously hopeful. "I think it's not good for Jews to be either too pessimistic or too optimistic," he said. "If they are so optimistic that they grow complacent, that's bad." Despite all the various historical nay-sayers who insist that Judaism is wobbling its way to extinction, Sarna sees Jewish history as a cyclical vehicle. It's a history, he said, "of people who lose their faith but also who regain their faith."

And about those people whose Judaism is largely secular?

His response: "Jewish secularists have a kind of natural propensity to disappear into the mainstream." Our worldly brethren, said Sarna, face two specific challenges. First, they are, in some parts of the country, seen as suspicious. Sarna pointed out that in our nation—in which more than 90 percent of the population are Believers and a very high number are church-goers—the non-religious Jew is looked on as an oddity. Issue No. 2? It's difficult for secular Jews to convince their children to marry within the faith. Both of these issues make it hard for Jews to pass on their heritage. "I would say that American generally has been a difficult place for small minority faiths in that it is such a liberal country." He added that the difficulty applies not just to Jews: "Small minority faiths become endangered species.”

Of course, our enormous nation, with its much vaunted freedom of religion, can also be a terrific place for these same religions. One of the reasons for this is bigots don't necessarily focus all their energy on a single religious group. "America is very pluralist in its hatred," he said, noting that anti-Semites have to share the stage with anti-Catholics, anti-Mormons, and others. Sarna also mentioned that our national psychology is unique and, compared to other cultures, quite tolerant. "In much of the world anti-Semitism is part of the noble history of the country," he said. "Conservatives [in these countries] look back to an era when Jews knew their place. This sort of thing is alien to much of American thought."

Our historian suggests that a large measure of American open-mindedness is built into our political processes. Consider, for instance, the way our national elections are organized. "The nature of the two-party systems is that both parties know that elections are close and they need to strive for every vote," he said. "They have discovered that you win far more votes by appealing to different groups than by hatred."

And while Sarna is cheered by the idea that America is, on the whole, an excellent place to be Jewish, he sings once again his cautious chorus: "It's always bad for Jews to be complacent."