Sarna, Jonathan Daniel
SARNA, JONATHAN DANIEL
SARNA, JONATHAN DANIEL (1955– ), university professor, author, and scholar of American Jewish history. Born in Philadelphia and raised in New York and Boston, Sarna was the son of the renowned Bible scholar Nahum M. *Sarna and Helen Horowitz, a librarian. Sarna earned degrees from Boston Hebrew College and Brandeis University before matriculating to Yale University where he pursued graduate studies in American history, modern Jewish history, and American religious history. Upon receiving his Ph.D. in 1979, Sarna was awarded a postgraduate fellowship at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (huc-jir) in Cincinnati, Ohio, by the pioneering American Jewish historian Jacob Rader *Marcus. The following year, he joined huc-jir's faculty, and he quickly rose to the rank of professor. In 1990, Sarna became the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
Sarna's keen interest in American Jewish history first emerged during his teenage years. He later theorized that his strong interest in the field may have come from the fact that he was the first member of his family born in the United States. He became convinced that by synthesizing American and Jewish history, he could gain a deeper understanding of his own world.
At Yale, Sarna's historical philosophy took shape. He was influenced by many members of the university's history faculty, including Sidney Ahlstrom, the distinguished scholar of American religion. Noting that many historians tended to categorize Jews in America as an ethnic group with little reference to their religious life, Sarna set out to place American Judaism within the larger historical context of religious life in America. His doctoral dissertation was a biographical study of Mordecai Manuel *Noah, one of the first American Jews to gain prominence in both the Jewish and the general community. Sarna used Noah's life to exemplify a central theme in American Jewish history: the ongoing effort to be American and Jewish at the same time. The nature of this tension is summarized in the title of his first book, which grew out of his dissertation: Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (1981).
In his second major volume, jps, A Cultural History of the Jewish Publication Society (1989), Sarna similarly examined the ways in which Jews have interacted with American culture. In his magnum opus, American Judaism (2004), a full-scale interpretive history of Jewish religious life in America, Sarna broadly demonstrated how evolving trends in American religion as a whole have repeatedly influenced the historical development of Jewish religious life in America.
A prolific author, Sarna wrote, edited, or co-edited dozens of historical publications that have influenced the field of American Jewish history. His volume People Walk on Their Heads (1982) illuminates the complicated and difficult nature of Jewish immigrant life in New York. Sarna's interest in the history of Jewish communities impelled him to publish several articles and books on this subject, including The Jews of Cincinnati (1989) and The Jews of Boston (1995). Many of Sarna's monographs, such as his essay on the development of mixed seating in the American synagogue and his article on the role of great awakenings in American Judaism, have spurred American Jewish historians to explore new avenues of research.
Many of Sarna's historical readers have become useful tools for the teaching of American Jewish history, such as The American Jewish Experience (1986, rev. ed. 1997); Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience (1997); Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives (2001); and Jews and the American Public Square (2002).
By the dawn of the 21st century, Sarna had become a senior scholar in the field. He served as chair of the Academic Advisory and Editorial Board of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, where he also served as consulting scholar. He also became a consulting historian to the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. In 2004–2005, Sarna was named chief historian for Celebrate 350, the Jewish community's national organizing committee for commemorating the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. He was also a consulting scholar to the congressionally recognized Commission for Commemorating 350 Years of American Jewish History.
Sarna's deep knowledge of the field attracted many scholars and researchers to consult with him and, as a faculty advisor at both huc-jir and Brandeis University, he influenced a significant number of graduate students who went on to fill important research and teaching positions in the field.
Sarna is married to Rabbi Ruth Langer, a professor of Jewish Studies at Boston College.
[Gary P. Zola (2nd ed.)]