The American Jewish Historical Society is pleased to award the biennial Saul Viener Book Prize in American Jewish History to Hasia Diner’s We Remember with Reverence and Love. The book is a meticulously and indefatigably researched study using an exhaustive trove of resources in liturgy, public demonstrations, literature, songs, pamphlets, newspapers, handbills, speeches, sermons, and more. Diner’s book uses so broad a range of primary and contemporary material, and so much of it, that We Remember… makes the leap from a quantitative to a qualitative advance in Jewish Studies. Her study results in a seismic shift of the paradigm through which we analyze the social and intellectual history of American Jewry. It is an extraordinarily well-mounted, organized, relentless, and persuasive attack on the remarkably durable conventional wisdom that Jewish Americans were silent about the Holocaust in the post-war period. Though certain to elicit some demurrers, especially about what might have gone on in the private worlds of Jews in the U.S. during this era, no one will be able to say any longer that the subject of the Holocaust was “swept under the rug” in the public Jewish American dialogue of the 1940s and 1950s.
In her Guggenheim year she will be working on her newest project, “Peddlers: A New World Jewish History,” which will look at the role of on-the-road peddling as a force which stimulated Jewish migration to and integration in nearly every place in the “new world,” including the British Isles, North, South, and Central America, South Africa, and the Antipodes. How, she wants to know, did this utterly prosaic and familiar occupation serve as an engine which shaped modern Jewish history and the histories of all those places.
Jeri Zeder: How are people receiving your message that the “myth of silence” is just that, a myth?
Hasia Diner: It flies in the face of what they know… they often will say, “But I don’t remember it that way.” I think certain narratives about the past get planted in the public consciousness, and people in essence re-remember their own experiences in light of what seems to be the dominant motif.
J.Z.: As a historical matter, what do you think made scholars and other writers perpetuate the myth and actually believe it?
H.D.: The real answer is, that’s a subject that relates to American Jewish history following the period covered in my book; it requires further scholarship. But from my point of view, the myth of silence began in the late 1960s and was pioneered by young Jews involved in a thoroughgoing critique of American culture generally, and American Jewish culture in particular. Many of them went on to become academics, rabbis and community leaders, and repeated the same message in their public writings. What they said remained part of the historical record and was used as evidence by later historians.
The Jewish teenagers who spent the summer of 1956 at the Reform movement’s Camp Institute in Oconomowoc, Wis., edited a literary magazine, a repository of their fond memories of a summer well spent. They could not possibly have known as they cobbled together All Eyes Are on the … Literary Magazine that, a half-century later, their camp yearbook would be used to show how American Jews went about the process, text by text, artifact by artifact, and act by act, of creating a communal culture that hallowed the memory of the six million Jews who perished in Europe during the Holocaust.
Neither could they imagine that their deeds and words would play a role in undermining a widely accepted paradigm about post-World War II American Jews and the Holocaust, one which asserted that, on the whole, Jews remained silent about the catastrophe.
One camper, Sharon Feinman, said it most clearly as she focused on the summer’s theme, “Naaseh v’nishma” (“We will do and we will hear”), the words declaimed by the Israelites at Mount Sinai as they accepted the Ten Commandments. Her brief essay’s determined prose reflected the widespread concern of Jews of the United States with the Holocaust, their insistence that it be remembered, and their understanding that it affected their lives.
Hasia Diner is getting an extraordinary amount of pre-pub buzz for her forthcoming book, We Remember with Reverence and Love: , coming out in April from NYU Press
From Kirkus (starred review): Diner hurls a passionate, well-delineated attack on the conventional view that postwar Jews and survivors wanted to forget the Holocaust rather than memorialize the tragedy. . . . A work of towering research and conviction that will surely enliven academic debates for years to come.
From Library Journal: [R]efutes the conventional wisdom that the American Jewish community ignored, or actively resisted, discussing the Holocaust until the 1960s. [Diner] makes a convincing case that in the post-1945 era American Jews, through their communal and religious institutions, assiduously grappled with the question of how to understand and commemorate the Holocaust, speaking of the destruction of European Jewry in Yom Kippur liturgy, history books, and public ceremonies ,and mobilizing its memory to promote causes such as civil rights and support for Israel. An important contribution to American Jewish historiography, this book is recommended for all libraries.