The main challenge I faced when preparing a biography of Louis Marshall stemmed from the gap between the perceptual confidence that characterizes American Jewish life in the 21st century and the tensions and insecurities of Jewish life in the United States during the first decades of the 20th century. The trick, I believed, was to create an intelligible dialogue between these differing modes of thought and feeling. To recreate historical events uncritically, exactly as Marshall and his peers saw them, would draw contemporary readers into a morass of inhibition about being “too Jewish” that is foreign to them, whereas to overlook realities and attitudes that were indisputably part of Marshall’s American Jewish milieu would be condescending and, worse, injurious to empirical rules of historical scholarship.
American Jewish history is happily devoid of the angst that characterizes Jewish life on other continents and in other contexts. It is perfectly reasonable for contemporary readers to assess critically the self-defense labors of previous generations of American Jews, and conclude, in some instances, that past Jewish leaderships were overly defensive and inhibited, even in ways that could be paranoiac or self-defeating.
Yet this critical license to look at the past heroes of American Jewish life as high-strung, occasionally histrionic, figures can be taken much too far; and to my mind, at least, much of the finest recently published scholarship on American Jewish life in periods and context applicable to Marshall’s life, such as the Roaring Twenties, is flawed to some extent by researchers’ anachronistic projection of Jewish life in America in the late 20th century or early 21st century onto the American Jewish past. Scholars who focus on how Jews came to feel “at home” in America in a period like the 1920s tend to under-emphasize the extent to which anti-Semitism was a constant presence in the minds and real life circumstances of both well-established Jews, and struggling immigrant Jews. Continue reading