Rabbi Joshua Sarna’s pioneering work on 20th century US Jewry

Written by Staff Writer, CNN A mind wandering back in 1986, at the age of 18, aged only 169, Rabbi Joshua Sarna sat down to write a paper about 20th century American Jewry. The…

Rabbi Joshua Sarna's pioneering work on 20th century US Jewry

Written by Staff Writer, CNN

A mind wandering back in 1986, at the age of 18, aged only 169, Rabbi Joshua Sarna sat down to write a paper about 20th century American Jewry.

The semi-sparse copy of “Jews in the United States, 1910-1960: An Episodic Study” seems rather a waste of time now. Just give us some more details, Sarna tells the audience at the Graduate School of Management’s inaugural Sol Neustadt lecture . But so thorough is his description of postwar America that we feel compelled to hop back in time even further.

1 / 8 – Washington University to Cleveland State University

Some 15 years later, the die was cast. On August 29, 1988, Rabbi Sarna’s grandparents died, the age of entitlement about to pass. Next time you visit a cemetery, take some time to remember them. Courtesy Sol Neustadt.

The rabbi was born in 1933, and grew up in 1960s upstate New York. As a young boy, he visited Yom Kippur celebrations at his grandparents’ synagogue, where all of the city’s young was invited for a Seder dinner after the morning service. His grandfather was an accomplished baker and showed Sarna his 5-pound pound cake one year.

His father worked as a rabbi and hoped to be sent to college. He joined the Israeli army but by the time he finished it was 1938 and the holocaust was still raging. Both of his brothers served in that war and were killed. After the war, the family moved to Cleveland.

By all accounts, the young Sarna was one of the luckiest among his contemporaries. Despite the Jewish refugees pushed to the edges of society, the young Sarna attended the private all-boys New Hebrew Academy and chose a career in a field that would make him a famous scholar of American Jewry: writing.

He attended the University of Pennsylvania and now teaches at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, where he is known for crafting a special essay for graduating students. It’s been featured by The New York Times and been cited in acclaimed works including “The Encyclopedia of American Jews” and “Imagining Israel.”

Releasing his book in 1988, he hoped to publish at least his notes and file notes, hoping to show how young people explore and teach about Jewish life at the time they lived it. It caught on, and the history books got it right.

The timing was apt: The late Rabbi Herbert Kushner, the founder of New York’s Conservative movement and himself a famous rabbi, was also about to publish his critical look at the late 20th century Jewish experience.

Sarna’s path has not been smooth. He broke with the Conservative movement in 1984 after living in Israel for a while, and returned to a life of study. He stayed in New York, where his third book was published in 2004 and was republished two years later.

The Shabbat worship and Torah study of yesteryear ended up being more limited in scope than in the Sarna family. But Sarna says the emphasis on traditional community at the time, reinforced in his scholarship, was ultimately the right choice. The development of the youth organizations “Teen Israel” and “Nathan’s World” didn’t take off.

These days, he still teaches. The past year has been challenging in many ways, but, when Sarna tells his “Saturday service” session at the Brandeis hall about 20 years ago and just how far Jews have come from his grandparents’ generation, he knows he has been proven right.

“I feel that with every piece of writing I do, I learn a little more,” he says.

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