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The passing of pioneering historian Moses Rischin marks the end of an era

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.

Moses was sent to study in the then recently-opened Yeshiva of Flatbush, one of New York’s first Jewish day schools, known for its Hebrew focus. It provided him with a foundation in Hebrew and Judaica that later served him well. Subsequently, he attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College, where his interest in history was sparked by another Jewish academic pioneer, the European historian Solomon F. Bloom.

In 1947, Rischin entered the graduate program at Harvard, where he met Handlin. He would become one of his professor’s most influential disciples, persuaded as his mentor was that American Jewish history could “contribute substantially to an understanding of America.” Like Handlin (and unlike Baron), Rischin viewed American Jewish history through the prism of American history. He considered himself first and foremost an American historian in the Handlin mold – unlike Jacob Rader Marcus, Rischin once explained to me, “for whom American Jewish History was everything.”

In advance of 1954, celebrated as the 300th anniversary of American Jewish life, Rischin worked on the first great analytic bibliography of American Jewish history, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. It was published as a pamphlet by Harvard University Press under the title “An Inventory of American Jewish History.” The volume defined the contours of the emerging field and alerted students to the breadth and depth of its literature, with valuable insights that helped shape future scholarly directions.

Rischin, then still a graduate student, described his pamphlet as “a beginning, tentative and provisional, that may stimulate other scholars and students to fruitful labors in a field that can contribute substantially to an understanding of America.” He was much too modest. 66 years later, scholars still look back at the work. In a Facebook post, Professor Pamela S. Nadell, the award-winning American Jewish historian at American University who wrote the definitive history of America’s Jewish women, explained why. “I remain astounded by its prescience,” she acknowledged, “how sentences he wrote sparked ideas in the books that we wrote.”

While toiling away at his bibliography, Rischin also pioneered the teaching of American Jewish history at the university level, introducing one of the first-ever courses in the field at Brandeis University (1953-54), where he served as an instructor in American Civilization. He described his as a “very original course,” and it inspired at least one promising senior to consider an honors thesis in American Jewish history based upon five little-known Yiddish volumes that Rischin scurried to obtain for her to read.

In 1957, Rischin received his doctorate from Harvard under Handlin’s tutelage; it was the most important Harvard doctorate in American Jewish history to that time. From its publication in 1962 by Harvard University Press under the memorable title “The Promised City: New York’s Jews 1870-1914,” it defined the highest standards of scholarship in the field. It remained in print for decades and influenced all subsequent scholarship both on East European Jews in America and on the Jews of New York. Upon the book’s 25th anniversary, the journal American Jewish History dubbed it “a classic work,” and five major scholars examined its enduring legacy.

Rischin taught for two years at UCLA after his book appeared and then found a permanent academic home in 1964 at San Francisco State University, where he taught for decades until he retired. He brought to San Francisco the new study of immigration and ethnicity, which Handlin had done so much to pioneer, and he also advanced new fields like the study of the American West (and of its Jews).

Rischin wrote, edited or co-edited numerous books including “Our Own Kind: Voting by Race, Creed, or National Origin” (1960); “The American Gospel of Success” (1965); “Immigration and the American Tradition” (1976); and “Jewish Legacy and the German Conscience” (with R. Asher, 1991). He also edited Hutchins Hapgood’s “Spirit of the Ghetto” (1967); Abraham Cahan’s “Grandma Never Lived in America” (1985); “The Jews of North America” (1987); and Jews of the American West (with J. Livingston, 1991). He was deeply generous in his support of students and younger scholars. Of special importance was his deep involvement in the scholarly work of the Judah L. Magnes Museum (he directed its Western Jewish History Center) now part of the University of California at Berkeley.

For decades, Rischin set as his scholarly goal to produce a full-scale biography of Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), novelist, leader of the East European Jewish community in New York, and the founding longtime editor of the Yiddish-language Forward. Cahan, he explained, was “the most seminal, visible and complex figure of an era that witnessed the greatest transformation, tragedy and fulfillment in Jewish life in the past two millennia.” Through Cahan’s life, he hoped to produce a sequel to “The Promised City,” a volume that would place the Forward’s editor at the center of a “great epic in American and in Jewish life.”

Rischin mastered everything ever written about Cahan and his times, not just in Yiddish and English, but in four other languages as well. He also read through all of Cahan’s voluminous writings, including long-forgotten articles in the New York Commercial Advertiser and other American journals, which Rischin (before computer technology was available) uncovered and then brought together in a luminous 1985 volume on “the new journalism of Abraham Cahan.” Rischin occasionally told me about the biography he was writing. However, he was a perfectionist (Cahan, he thought, deserved no less), so every chapter required “just a little bit more work.” Sadly, the biography remained unfinished when his health declined.

Both Professor Rischin and his wife Ruth battled the coronavirus this summer, and both seemed to recover. They celebrated 61 years of marriage together. The following night, August 17th, Moses Rischin passed away peacefully in his sleep. His death rings down the curtain on the founding generation of American Jewish historians.

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.

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