Jenna Weissman Joselit's The Wonders of America is significant because it effectively accomplishes two important goals. First, it depicts in rich detail the nature and evolution of the Jewish culture and religion in the United States from the 1800s through the first half of the twentieth century. Second, it shows how that culture maintained its historical roots and heritage despite the fact that much cultural mixing and assimilation were taking place in those seventy dynamic years of change for the nation and for the Jewish culture as a unique part of that culture.
Joselit summarizes her book in the conclusion when she notes that the conservative members of the Jewish community, "The community's cultural custodians," have regularly tried to rein in the tendency of the Jewish culture to create an original mix with the dominant culture. Those custodians feel that the Jewish culture in the United States, and especially the Jewish home, should remain pure and conservative, unmixed with American elements.
The author, however, argues effectively that the Jewish culture is in no danger of being diluted by American culture. Instead, she argues that it is the Jewish flexibility and strength which allow it to survive in the dominant culture in the twentieth century, just as it survived in other cultures in earlier centuries.
These conservative "campaigns" generally fail, says Joselit, because "calls for inserting traditional Jewish values and behaviors into the present obscured the extent to which Jewishness had become a malleable and protean social construct." The Jewish-American population itself was "little troubled by inconsistencies or contradictions or the burdens of the past" and "fashioned a home-grown American Jewishness." It is true that the modern Jewish-American approach to religion was "heavy on sentiment and light on ritual" but it "came closest to a singularly modern understanding of American religions culture" (Jose...