Beth Wenger: ‘Heritage’ positions American Jews in Jewish America

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Source: Jewish Journal, 1-5-11

“Heritage,” warns Beth S. Wenger in “History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage” (Princeton University Press, $35), “is always a partisan effort.”

According to Wenger, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Jewish studies program, the heritage embraced by American Jews is invented if not entirely imaginary. She insists that the way American Jews see themselves can be “self-congratulatory, often embellished, and sometimes a blend of fact and fiction.”  She argues that “American Jews gradually manufactured a collective Jewish history in the United States,” and the end result has been “[t]he creation of a shared, usable Jewish past” but not necessarily a wholly factual one.

Viewed from the stance of a professional historian, the whole enterprise of heritage-making strikes her as a “messy blend of truth and myth … often self-aggrandizing and self-congratulatory, and almost always self-serving.” The purpose of Jewish myth-making in America has been to “[foster] a sense of Jewish belonging” in a place where we are a tiny minority, and she concludes that “Jews wrote America into Jewish history, and Jews into American history.”

A revolution in Jewish consciousness was at work among the Jews who managed to reach the New World. “The Zionist typology of the ‘new Jew’… had an American corollary,” Wenger writes. “American Jews created a myth of America as the new Zion, an alternate form of the Promised Land.” So it was that the Yiddish poet Avraham Liessin, writing in 1897, saw the Statue of Liberty as a symbol with special meaning for Jewish immigrants: “Man/freed from tyranny/grows free and proud/with a spirit that knows no bound/and a will forged of steel.”…READ MORE

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