Sarna, Jonathan D. 1955–

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Sarna, Jonathan D. 1955–

(Jonathan Daniel Sarna)

PERSONAL: Born January 10, 1955, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Nahum Mattathias (a professor) and Helen Horowitz (a librarian) Sarna; married Ruth Langer (a professor), 1986; children: Aaron Yehuda, Leah Livia. Education: Hebrew College, Boston, MA, B.H.L., 1974; Brandeis University, B.A., 1975, M.A., 1975; Yale University, M.A., 1976, M.Phil., 1978, Ph.D., 1979. Attended Markas HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, Israel.

ADDRESSES: Home—1215 Commonwealth Ave., W. Newton, MA 02465; fax: 617-736-2070. Office—Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02254. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Writer, historian, and educator. American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, MA, archivist, 1973–75, acting assistant librarian, 1976; America-Holy Land Project of American Jewish Historical Society and Institute for Contemporary Jewry, Waltham, researcher, 1975–77; Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, OH, visiting lecturer, 1979–80, assistant professor, 1980–84, associate professor, 1984–88, professor of American Jewish history and director, 1988–90; Brandeis University, Waltham, Joseph A. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, 1990–, chair of department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, 1992–95 and 1998–2001, director of Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. Center for the Study of the American Jewish Experience, academic adviser, 1981–84, academic director, 1984–86, director, 1986–89. Visiting assistant professor at University of Cincinnati, 1983–84; American Jewish Archives, Jacob Rader Marcus Center, chair of academic advisory and editorial board; visiting associate professor at Hebrew University, 1986–87. Taught at Yale University. National Museum of American Jewish History, chief historian. Hebrew Free Loan Association, American Jewish Historical Society fellow, 1974–75; Loewenstein-Weiner Fellow, American Jewish Archives, 1977. Lecturer at universities and to organizations. Director of applied research for Survivors of Hitler's Germany in Cincinnati Oral History Project, sponsored by American Jewish Archives and National Council of Jewish Women, 1980. Member of leadership council and Jewish education committee of Cincinnati Jewish Federation; member of board of directors of American Jewish Committee, Cincinnati Chapter, 1981–90; codirector of Kehilla: A Jewish Community Think Tank.

MEMBER: American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, American Jewish Historical Society (archivist, 1973–75; librarian, 1976; director of academic council, 1992–), Immigration History Society, Association for Jewish Studies (director), Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, American Academy of Religion, Canadian Jewish Historical Society, Cincinnati Historical Society, Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS: Seltzer-Brodsky Essay Prize from YIVO Institute, 1977, for "The American Jewish Response to Nineteenth-Century Christian Missions"; National Foundation for Jewish Culture fellowship, 1977–79; Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture fellowship, 1977–79, 1982–83; Bernard and Audre Rapoport fellow at American Jewish Archives, 1979–80; National Jewish Book Award finalist, 1981, for Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah; American Council of Learned Societies fellow, 1982; Lilly Endowment grant, 1984–93; Lady Davis Endowment, 1986–87; Pew Endowment grant, 1991–94; National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellowship, 1994–95; Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, member of Board of Fellows, 1996–97; Choice Outstanding Book Academic Book Award, 1998, for Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience; Benjamin J. Shevach Memorial Award, Hebrew College, 2000–01; Lady Davis Fellowship, 2001; Bureau of Jewish Education Award, 2001; Marshall Sklare Award of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, 2002–03; co-winner of the Saul Viener Prize for Outstanding Book in American Jewish History, American Jewish Historical Society, 2003–04, Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award, Jewish Book Council, 2004, and Best Book in American Jewish Studies, Weinberg Judaic Studies Institute, 2005, all for American Judaism: A History; named one of America's "50 Most Influential Jews," Forward, 2004; Akiba Award, American Jewish Committee, 2005, for exceptional contributions to the enrichment of Jewish intellectual, cultural, and communal life.


(Editor) Jews in New Haven, Jewish Historical Society of New Haven (New Haven, CT), 1978.

Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah, Holmes & Meier (New York, NY), 1981.

(Editor and translator) "People Walk on Their Heads:" Moses Weinberger's Jews and Judaism in New York, Holmes & Meier (New York, NY), 1982.

(Coeditor) Jews and the Founding of the Republic, Markus Wiener (New York, NY), 1985.

(Editor) The American Jewish Experience: A Reader, Holmes & Meier (New York, NY), 1986, 2nd edition, 1997.

(With Alexandra Shecket Korros) American Synagogue History: A Bibliography and State-of-the-Field Summary, Markus Wiener (New York, NY), 1988.

(With Nancy H. Klein) The Jews of Cincinnati, Center for the Study of the American Jewish Experience (Cincinnati, OH), 1989.

JPS: The Americanization of Jewish Culture: A History of the Jewish Publication Society, 1888–1988, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1989.

American Jews and Church-State Relations: The Search for "Equal Footing," American Jewish Committee, Institute of Human Relations (New York, NY), 1989.

(With Janet Liss) Yahadut Amerika/American Jewry: An Annotated Bibliography of Publications in Hebrew, Hebrew University (Jerusalem, Israel), 1991.

(Editor, with Henry D. Shapiro) Ethnic Diversity and Civic Identity: Patterns of Conflict and Cohesion in Cincinnati since 1820, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1992.

(Editor, with Daniel J. Elazar and Rela G. Monson) A Double Bond: The Constitutional Documents of American Jewry, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1992.

(Editor, with Lloyd Gartner) Yehude Artsot Ha-Berit, Merkaz Shazar (Jerusalem, Israel), 1992.

(Editor and author of foreword) Marshall Sklare, Observing America's Jews, Brandeis University Press (Waltham, MA), 1993.

(Consulting editor) Sondra Leiman, America: The Jewish Experience, Union of American Hebrew Congregations (New York, NY), 1994.

(Editor, with Ellen Smith) The Jews of Boston: Essays on the Occasion of the Centenary (1895–1995) of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (Boston, MA), 1995.

A Great Awakening: The Transformation That Shaped Twentieth-Century American Judaism and Its Implications for Today, Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education (New York, NY), 1995.

The American Jewish Community's Crisis of Confidence, Institute of World Jewish Congress (Jerusalem, Israel), 1996.

(Editor, with David G. Dalin) Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience: A Documentary History, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN), 1997.

(Editor, with Mark A. Raider and Ronald W. Zweig) Abba Hillel Silver and American Zionism, Frank Cass (Portland, OR), 1997.

Minority Faiths and the American Protestant Mainstream, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1998.

(Editor, with Pamela S. Nadell) Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 2001.

(Editor, with Eli Lederhandler) America and Zion: Essays and Papers in Memory of Moshe Davis, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI), 2002.

(Editor, with Alan Mittleman and Robert Licht) Jews and the American Public Square: Debating Religion and Republic, Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD), 2002.

(Editor, with Alan Mittleman and Robert Licht) Jewish Polity and American Civil Society: Communal Agencies and Religious Movements in the American Public Square, Rowman & Littlefield (Lanham, MD), 2002.

American Judaism: A History, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2004.

(With Jonathan B. Krasner) The History of the Jewish People: A Story of Tradition and Change, Behrman House Publishers (Springfield, NJ), 2006.

Editor of North American Judaism section, Religious Studies Review, 1984–89; member of editorial committee, Queen City Heritage, 1985–, and Jewish Social Studies, 1993–; member of editorial board, American Jewish History, 1988–, Religion and American Culture, 1989–, Contemporary Jewry, 1992–, and Patterns of Prejudice, 1994–; editor, "Brandeis Studies in American Jewish History"; coeditor, "American Jewish Civilization" series, Wayne State University Press (Detroit, MI).

Contributor to books, including Guide to America-Holy Land Studies, Volume I, edited by Nathan W. Kaganoff, Arno (New York, NY), 1980, Volume II, Praeger (New York, NY), 1982; The Encounter of Jew and Gentile in America: New Historical Perspectives, edited by David Gerber, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1984; Toward an American Jewish Culture: New Perspectives on Jewish Community, National Foundation for Jewish Culture (New York, NY), 1993; and Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York, edited by David L. Barquist, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2001.

Contributor to encyclopedias and dictionaries, including American National Biography, Harper's Dictionary of Religion, Encyclopedia of Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust, Judaica Americana, and The Encyclopedia of Religion.

General editor of "Masterworks of Modern Jewish Writing," eleven volumes, Markus Wiener (New York, NY), and of "Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life," seven volumes, Brandeis University Press (Waltham, MA); editor, with Moses Rischin, of "American Jewish Life" series, five volumes, Wayne State University Press.

Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals and newspapers, including Journal of American History, Library Journal, Hadassah Magazine, Gesher, American Jewish History, Moment, Sh'ma, Brandeis Review, Cincinnati Judaism Review, Spectator, Commentary, Midstream, Nation, Jewish Digest, Ethnicity, and Tradition.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Letters to a Young Jew, Children of the Stock of Abraham: An Atlas of American Jewish History, and Louis Brandeis: A Short Biography.

SIDELIGHTS: A prominent scholar of the Jewish experience in America, Jonathan D. Sarna has written and edited a number of works detailing the history of Jewish communities in the United States. In such books as Jews in New Haven, The Jews of Cincinnati, and The Jews of Boston: Essays on the Occasion of the Centenary (1895–1995) of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, Sarna has examined the history of specific communities where Jewish immigrants to America have settled and prospered.

The Jews of Boston, edited by Sarna and Ellen Smith, is "the first comprehensive history of Boston's Jewish community," as J. Fischel described it in Choice. The book covers some 350 years of Jewish presence in Boston, beginning with the arrival of the first Sephardic scholar from Holland in 1649. The foundation and development of local Jewish cultural and religious institutions is described, as well as the history of the community as a whole and the contributions made by that community to the cultural life of Boston. The book was published by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, the first such charitable organization to be founded by Jews in America.

Carol R. Glatt in the Library Journal called The Jews of Boston "engaging and lucid…. While numerous community histories have been published, this volume is in a class by itself—and will set the standard for all future works of this kind." Fischel concluded that The Jews of Boston provides "a wonderfully written historical perspective."

Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience: A Documentary History, edited by Sarna and David G. Dalin, offers "a fresh view on how American Jews have situated themselves on the emotional issues surrounding church-state relations in the United States," noted reviewer Hasia R. Diner in the Journal of Church and State. The book consists of an extensive collection of primary source documents and other materials selected to "support a different reading of the American Jewish past and to provide a guide to contemporary policy" issues, stated Robert D. Cross in the Journal of American Ethnic History. A number of documents, for example, support the notion that many early American Jews were not always in favor of sepa-rationism—the absolute separation of church and state, particularly as it applied to Judaism. Using a variety of materials, including autobiographies, court petitions, reports of Jewish communal organizations, selections from letters and correspondence, articles and reports from Jewish newspapers, and legal briefs filed in state and federal courts, Sarna and Dalin assemble a wealth of background information that explores how important the ideas of separationism were to American Jews, both historically and within the last part of the twentieth century. The editors conclude that many American Jews did not support secularization of religion and instead were in favor of public displays of religion, of state support for religion, and of doing whatever was necessary to discourage religious indifference. In his review, Cross pointed out that Sarna and Dalin cited "too small parts of too few documents," and Diner pointed out that American Jews did not formulate one opinion on separationism in the days of the American Revolution and stick to it, unchanged, for more than two hundred years thereafter. However, Diner noted that much of the material assembled by Sarna and Dalin has not been published previously, and as such, "the documents collected here will be very helpful to researchers."

Minority Faiths and the American Protestant Mainstream, edited by Sarna, examines an approximately sixty-year span of American history, from the Civil War to 1940, in which "white Protestants established national institutions to exert their hegemony over an increasingly diverse minority population," remarked Dianne Ashton, writing in the Journal of American Ethnic History. With the Protestant religion in the majority, Ashton noted, other religions often became the outsider in America, and therefore struggled for their own identity against the vastness of Protestant religion and its different denominations. For example, historian Benny Kraut contributed an essay that explores how Jews sought to "acculturate and survive in America," Ashton stated. Other chapters in the book also examine survival strategies employed by minority religions and their followers. In the book's second half, contributors write about specific instances in which Protestant domination of American religion was challenged. These instances include struggles over religion in public education and the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions regarding conflict between Protestants and other forms of religion. Asthon called the book a "pathbreaking volume," and concluded that "Sarna's rich, scholarly, and important volume helps us understand why religious diversity has meant religious vigor in American life."

Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, edited by Sarna and Pamela S. Nadell, offers a collection of twelve essays that explore the lives and ideas of Jewish women from American colonial times to the present. The essays include five detailed biographical sketches, plus in-depth studies of particular Jewish communities and specialized topics, including Jewish women's relationships with gentiles during the Civil War; the religious and philanthropical activities of Jewish women in Cincinnati, Ohio; the popularization of the bat mitzvah ceremony, the female Jewish coming-of-age ceremony and counterpart to the better publicized bar mitzvah; and the lives of Jewish women in the American West. "The introduction by the editors helps to place the various studies into a wider perspective, but does not seek to impose an overall conceptual thesis," commented Eli Lederhen-dler in Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues. The essays on the whole "examine the interrelatedness of gender, acculturation, religion, and identity," observed Robin Judd in the Journal of Women's History. For example, contributor Dianne Ashton asserts in her essay that during the Civil War, there was no distinct Jewish subculture in existence. The war brought Jewish and non-Jewish women together despite their differing religious identities. "In other words, what mattered was one's female identity and not one's Jewish community," Judd noted. Contributor Beth Wenger examines the role of the ritual bath in American Jewish history in an essay that is "fascinating, well written, and powerfully argued," Judd commented. In the end, "the editors of this collection are to be congratulated for making these studies available to students and scholars, providing a rich vein of new material in Jewish gender research," stated Lederhendler.

Jewish Polity and American Civil Society: Communal Agencies and Religious Movements in the American Public Square, edited by Sarna, Alan Mittleman, and Robert Licht, is "an extraordinary anthology," commented reviewer Armand Lauffer, writing in American Jewish History. The contributors provide works that deeply explore the American Jewish community, its behavior, its organization, and its deep connection to its religious history. In the first part of the book, the essayists look at Jewish communal agencies and related organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Congress. The background of each organization is outlined, particularly their origins in response to incidents of anti-Semitism, as is their role in promoting Jewish community, safety, civil rights, economic opportunity, and religious tolerance. The second half of the book concentrates on a variety of religious movements within Judaism, including the Conservative movement, mainstream Orthodoxy, Reconstructionism, and the Jewish Renewal Movement, and how those movements have affected the American Jewish community through the years. In these essays, the "authors demonstrate exceptional ability to address complex issues clearly and succinctly," Lauffer noted. Lauffer concluded that "on balance, this volume is a significant achievement. The editors and authors are owed a debt of gratitude by community leaders, scholars, and students."

American Judaism: A History, a book which World and I reviewer Edward Shapiro called Sarna's "magnum opus," looks at how the ancient religion of Judaism came to America and "survived, transformed, adapted, and thrived in the New World far from the land of its spiritual and ethnic origins," commented Oliver Pollak in History: Review of New Books. Sarna concentrates largely on the survival of the faith and on topics such as how the Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements developed and affected American Judaism; how Judaism came to be represented in higher education; and how Judaism was represented during the American Civil War. The book is "more than merely a comprehensive and scholarly history of the American synagogue. It is also a trenchant and lively discussion of Jewish schools, seminaries, teachers colleges, and newspapers, and of institutions such as the Jewish Publication Society which sought to revitalize Judaism and help it adapt to American conditions," Shapiro commented. Sarna's historical "probing is thoughtful, sensitive, informative, and optimistic," Pollak concluded.

Sarna once told CA: "My interest in American Jewish history dates back to high school. Before then, I had already become fascinated by America's past (not surprising, considering that I am the first in my family to be born here), and I had been introduced to Jewish history which I learned from my father beginning when I was old enough to listen to stories.

"American Jewish history, which I discovered on my own as a teenager, synthesized these two interests and promised to explain something of the world which I was struggling to understand. Later, I realized that the field was still in its formative stages of development: filled with searching questions waiting to be asked and answered. Here was a frontier worth conquering, and I plunged in head first. As a high school senior I tried to write the history of American anti-Semitism.

"Being at Brandeis University as an undergraduate permitted me to work at the American Jewish Historical Society, located on the Brandeis campus. There I discovered the endless joys of grappling with primary sources, the raw materials of history, and I began to get a grasp of the history field as a whole. By the time I entered Yale, I had learned enough to know that I wanted to explore what seemed to me to be a central theme in American Jewish history: the effort to be American and Jewish at the same time. My study of Mordecai Noah, one of the first American Jews to be prominent in both the secular and Jewish communities, followed naturally, and the title summarizes the thesis: 'Jacksonian Jew' shows attempted synthesis; 'the two worlds of Mordecai Noah' demonstrates that tensions remained.

"My work on Mordecai Noah brought me into contact with early nineteenth-century sources of American Jewish history (by contrast, most recent work in the field dates to the post-1881 period), and this remains one important focus of my research. But I also discovered, while working on Noah, that no serious study of the interactions between Jews and non-Jews in this country had ever been written. This seemed to me to be a great challenge, and I have consequently been gathering material and formulating a conceptual scheme, which I hope one day will result in my writing a full-scale historical analysis of Jewish-Christian relations in the United States. In the meantime, I am focusing more narrowly on three issues: the relationship between Christian missionaries and American Jews, the nature of American anti-Semitism, and the culture of American Jews in its non-Jewish context.

"My approach to American Jewish history generally and to Jewish-Christian relations in particular has been heavily influenced by contemporary writings in history, religion, and social science, particularly those dealing with structural tensions, ambivalences, and historical complexity. American Jewish history must, in my opinion, be informed by the latest findings in American history and Jewish history. At the same time, the field must also be making creative strides of its own, from which others should be able to learn. Too often, American Jews have viewed themselves—and been viewed—only narrowly and in the present. One of my challenges as an American Jewish historian is to change this: to forge a field that speaks to current concerns while putting them in broader historical perspective, thereby shedding light on past and present at once."

Sarna more recently told CA: "American Judaism: A History is by far my favorite book. It is the synthetic history that I first conceived of writing back when I was in college and it represents the fruits of more than 25 years of research. My goal was to write a book that would appeal at once to scholars and lay readers as well as a book that both Jewish and non-Jewish readers of different religious persuasions could enjoy. The book's success indicates that these lofty goals were achieved. For a time, while I battled esophageal cancer, it seemed very unlikely that I would ever finish the book. So the book's publication represented something of a personal miracle for me, as well as a great milestone for my scholarship."



American Jewish History, December, 2002, Armand Lauffer, review of Jewish Polity and American Civil Society: Communal Agencies and Religious Movements in the American Public Square, p. 477.

Choice, October, 1995, J. Fischel, review of The Jews of Boston: Essays on the Occasion of the Centenary (1895–1995) of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, p. 356.

History: Review of New Books, summer, 2004, Oliver Pollak, review of American Judaism: A History, p. 140.

Journal of American Ethnic History, fall, 1999, Dianne Ashton, review of Minority Faiths and the American Protestant Mainstream, p. 126; winter, 2000, Robert D. Cross, review of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience: A Documentary History, p. 104.

Journal of Church and State, winter, 1999, Hasia R. Diner, review of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience, p. 154.

Journal of Women's History, spring, 2003, Robin Judd, review of Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, p. 227.

Library Journal, June 15, 1995, Carol R. Glatt, review of The Jews of Boston, p. 81.

Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues, spring, 2004, Eli Lederhendler, review of Women and American Judaism, p. 247.

World and I, August, 2004, Edward S. Shapiro, "A Choosing People," review of American Judaism.


Brandeis University Web site, (April 8, 2006), biography of Jonathan D. Sarna.