• Polymath Weekly

History of Jews of the United States: An Interview with Hasia R. Diner

Updated: Dec 27, 2021

After their very first arrival to the continent in 1654, Jews settled in the United States as an alien ethnic group. As of today, there are millions of Jews - both ethnic and religious - residing in the United States.


Last week, we interviewed Hasia R. Diner, American historian and professor of American Jewish history at New York University (NYU). The discussion below features her reflection on her research field, published works, and more.


(The interview was edited for journalistic clarity and neatness.)


PW: You have published over a dozen books exploring the history of Jews around the world. Why did you start the extensive research into the history of Jews in the United States specifically?


DINER: When I was in graduate school for the US history working to get my doctorate, I recognized that studying Jews was an interesting way of studying American history.


Having grown up in a Yiddish-speaking home gave me a head start: I came into graduate school with an extremely solid foundation in Jewish history acquired independent of my graduate training. I was also interested in questions about race, immigration and labour as an American historian and thought of it as a way to gain some insight into some of the issues in American history that I conventionally haven't thought of; It seemed to me like a perfect vehicle to do two things: one was to study US history and second was to use the skills and knowledge I had beforehand.


PW: Did you ever expect to come this far with your studies?


DINER: No, I didn't. After I got my doctorate, I entered into the profession at a time when there were actually very few jobs for historians (which hasn't gotten a lot better since then), so to this day I feel very lucky and don't take it for granted.


There were many people who I went to graduate school with who decided to give up and do something else, like going to law school. One part of not giving up for me was telling myself that I'm just going to keep writing, keep working, and keep developing new areas to expand my chances of getting a job (which was very practical), but I still did not expect to do that well.


PW: What are the biggest misconceptions about Jews in the US in the period between 1654 to 2000?


DINER: On the one hand, scholars of American history just don't think about Jews - it is not in their consciousness; They don't think that it [history of Jews] was a distinctive experience within the American context, and so one misconception is that they kind of weren't there! On the contrary, Jews had to make their way into the American society with a particular consciousness and so were often faced with the decisions about how to be Jewish and American at the same time. On the other hand, I think that most American Jewish historians don't take that internal conflict seriously, which points at a misconception that Jews were tremendously privileged in the United States.


PW: In one of your books, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000, you frequently used the term “American Judaism.” How far did Jews’ migration to the United States four centuries ago “Americanize” the religion and/or their practices?


DINER: Because there were no state authorities who had a role in how Judaism was practiced and Jewish religious leaders (like rabbis) had no power to convince people to do something, ordinary people (with very little knowledge of what Judaism required) played a tremendously powerful role in shaping Jewish practice, and this idea of freedom, is indeed a very American thing. Secondly, when Jews - and more importantly, their children - began experiencing the integration into the American society, the latter no longer understood German or Yiddish so Jews started hiring people to give sermons in English. Lastly, women's attendance of synagogue (previously attended by men only) was unheard of in Europe, but in the 18th century, women had already outnumbered men as people who came to synagogue. Then, they gained the right to elect rabbis and then, slowly, they began asking to become rabbis themselves, which is another example of how American conditions shaped Judaism.


PW: What advice do you have for a student interested in politics, history and classics? What advice you would have given yourself as a teenager?


DINER: The first advice is just read, read and read - the knowledge you acquire on anything helps create insights into the things you are really interested in. Secondly, don't box yourself - be open to new ideas and new possibilities. I would certainly say to learn other languages: it will make one a worse historian by not being able to access other languages, so I kind of wish I also studied some other languages, which maybe would have made my work richer. Lastly, when studying history, try to avoid judging people in the past according to the standards of how you think you might have behaved had you been there - because you weren't there! People face a lot of circumstances out of their control, and our job as historians is not to judge them; Try to have empathy for them, even if you think the things they did were terrible, try to still see the world through their eyes, stand in their shoes and understand why they did what they did.


[Cover Image: a cartoon displaying immigrant Jews in the United States, New York City, 17th century. Credit: Fordham News]

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