Alexander the new face of American Jewish history at Temple
It’s one of the biggest paradoxes in the field of Jewish studies: Although more Jews live in the United States than any other country in the world, the history of America’s Jews has been largely trivialized or ignored. Historian Michael Alexander has come to Temple to change that.
Alexander, an accomplished young historian recruited from the University of Oklahoma, is the new director of the Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and the first Murray Friedman Professor of American Jewish History. His mission: to continue the progress made by the late Murray Friedman, who passed away last year at 78.
Friedman founded the Feinstein Center in 1990, a time when there wasn’t a single major program of its type.
“Murray Friedman put Temple on the map and made us a player in the field of American Jewish history,” said Alexander, Temple’s first major faculty hire in any branch of Jewish studies in more than a decade. “The field is finally beginning to mature; now it’s time to reap the fruit and get leading scholars to come to Temple to speak and publish, and to help create top American Jewish history scholars for the next generation.”
Although Alexander calls the field of American Jewish history “up and coming,” he shares Friedman’s belief that it still doesn’t get the scholarly attention it deserves.
“For a long time, the American Jewish community only considered biblical or medieval history to be ‘real history’ — the here and now was dismissed as insignificant,” Alexander said. “But now, American Jewish history is ascending. After all, Jews have been here since 1654 and in big numbers since the 1900s, and we’ve participated in American society in deep and meaningful ways. People are starting to realize that the American Jewish experience isn’t just significant, it’s vitalizing — life-giving.”
In addition to running an ambitious lecture and publication series, Alexander hopes to spur the continued growth of the field by expanding the Feinstein Center’s support for promising graduate students. He expects the center to expand the summer fellowships it currently offers into one-year scholarships so that doctoral students can conclude their dissertation work in any area of the American Jewish experience.
Alexander was turned on to the joys of American Jewish history as a doctoral candidate. He hopes to re-create the same scholarly epiphany for students who come to Temple.
“As a graduate student at Yale, I wrote a paper on Al Jolson, a Jew who grew up on a dirt road in Lithuania and became the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest entertainer’ in Hollywood by smearing burnt cork on his face and pretending he was black,” Alexander said. “That was such a strange moment to me that — as interesting as I found the ancient Jewish texts — I realized that we had here in America such fascinating phenomena that I was crazy to be studying anything else.”
That paper grew into Alexander’s 2000 book, Jazz Age Jews, an examination of three influential Jews of the 1920s who made their mark by associating themselves with social outsiders: Felix Frankfurter, the lawyer who defended the terrorists Sacco and Vanzetti; Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series; and Jolson. History department chair Andrew Isenberg called Jazz Age Jews “an original and innovative study that challenges a lot of received wisdom about American Jews.”
Alexander’s latest book project will explore a more recent phenomenon: Jews wielding state power. The book, tentatively titled Golda and Henry, will examine the careers of Golda Meir and Henry Kissinger as they developed and then converged in the days after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Alexander is one of 14 new tenured or tenure-track faculty members recruited from the world’s leading universities to Temple’s history department in the past two years.
“We are delighted that Michael has joined the department of history at Temple,” said Isenberg, who came to Temple from Princeton in 2004. “He adds to our strengths in modern American history and the history of religion. Michael is also invigorating the Feinstein Center with new programs that will bring younger scholars of Jewish history to Philadelphia. These programs and Michael’s presence will help secure the Feinstein Center’s future in leading the study of American Jewish history.”
- By Hillel J. Hoffmann