The Passing of Pioneering Historian Moses Rischin Marks the End of an Era

tags: obituaries, Jewish history, immigration history, ethnic history

Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. His many books include American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press), recently published in a second edition.

Moses Rischin, the last survivor among the bold group of scholars who created the field of American Jewish history following World War II, died last week in San Francisco at the age of 94. His passing marks the end of an era.

Prior to World War II, most of those who wrote American Jewish history were amateurs. Historian Jeffrey Gurock characterized them as “either filiopietists intent on telling the world about the achievements of their ancestors, or apologists committed to enlightening the world about Jewish contributions to American society and culture.” Scholars viewed the field with disdain.

Once the Holocaust thrust American Jewry into a central role in Jewish life, calls rang out for a more professional approach to the field. The pioneering historian of American immigration, Harvard’s Oscar Handlin, as well as two senior scholars in the field of Jewish history, Salo Baron of Columbia University and Jacob Rader Marcus of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, led the charge. “At a time when the meanings of Judaism and of its cultural orientation are everywhere being re-examined,” Handlin wrote in 1948, “the absence of the raw material for a comprehension of the Jewish past in America is a most dangerous handicap.”

Handlin, one of Harvard’s first Jewish faculty members in the field of American history, moved to remedy this handicap. He called for “a fresh approach to the history of the Jews as the history of an immigrant group, one of many participating in the development of the United States.” He encouraged his graduate student, Moses Rischin, to take up this challenge.

Rischin, like so many of the pioneering generation of American Jewish historians (including Handlin and Jacob Rader Marcus), was himself a child of Jewish immigrants to the United States. He was born in 1925, just as mass Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe was cut off by restrictive legislation. His parents hailed from White Russia (present-day Belarus). Prior to immigrating to New York, his father had studied medicine in Bern, Switzerland where, as a Hebraist and Zionist, he befriended the future Jewish historian Ben Zion Dinur. Young Moses grew up in a cultured home where Yiddish and Hebrew publications were part of life.

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